15th Festival Internacional de Cinema de Bueu 2022
Fruit of Thy Womb
Sept 19, 2022
A son discovers the old 8mm tapes of his father. And for the first time sees footage previous to his birth, childhood and adolescence. While watching it the son returns to the house where he once grew and starts an investigation about his parents, in order to understand the trauma that he lived his whole life.
Congratulations Fábio on having Fruit of Thy Womb part of FICBUEU, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing line up of films?
It is an honour for me to be selected for a festival with such a wide and different set of films. FICBUEU includes cinema from Nigeria and Pakistan, and I think that's amazing.
You have already has an amazing festival run with your previous films Hip to da HOP and The Death of Isaac, coming from a literature background what pulled you towards cinema?
When I was a child, I dreamed of being a writer. I read many novels, and at the same time, I grew up watching American blockbusters, westerns, Indian musicals, and Chinese action films with my father. But cinema, initially, was entertainment. I never thought about being a director at that time. For me, it was as tangible a reality as being an astronaut.
At age 18, when I entered college, I realised I was wrong. And I began to discover a new world. I saw everything at that time: Truffaut, Hitchcock, Manoel de Oliveira, Pedro Costa, I saw everything. I absorbed a lot, and I also started to study some subjects like filmology and bought books on cinematography. Later, I took a camera operator course, and then I did a Masters in Cinema.
I always went after what I liked to do. Cinema is, of all the arts, the one that captivates and challenges me the most, which is why I chose to make films and not write books. But it was important to have started with the study of literature, it allows me to look for other inspirations and references.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Fruit of Thy Womb came about, what inspired you to making this very personal documentary?
People laugh whenever I tell them how the film was found, because it started out as a short fiction about a slave by Luís Vaz de Camões. In my script, he would run away to a vacant field and get lost. In searching for a place where I could film this escape, I discovered a part of Setúbal that was appropriated by a Cape Verdean community where every day men and women go to plant sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, sugar cane, among so many other things. It fascinated me so much that I forgot about fiction, and I decided I wanted to make a documentary about that community.
I was in that space for months without knowing what film to make, because I was fascinated by many things in that place. But I had to focus on something, I couldn't film everything. At a certain point (and already at a stage when I was starting to despair because I had the pressure of the deadline imposed by the master), I realised that I was there because those Cape Verdeans reminded me of my roots, my family, my mother, and, above all, my father. That's when I decided to leave those fields and make a film centred on me and my relationship with my family.
Because of the personal nature of this film did you have any apprehensions about telling this story or discovering where it might take you?
At first, I had many doubts about exhibiting the film. I was afraid of people's reactions, I was aware of what it meant to tell my family secrets. But as I showed it to friends and my teachers, the doubts began to dissipate. What I'm going to say may seem strange, but I felt that it wasn't exactly my choice and that the film should belong to the public sphere and not the private sphere.
But before submitting it to festivals, I had to show it to my father (my mother, by now, had already seen it). He's the ultimate spectator. I had to face this process. I went to him trembling. The three of us—me, him, and my mother—sat down and watched the film together.
I think it wasn't until the movie ended that he realised how much he'd hurt me. I remember him looking at the living room floor, as if all his past had fallen on him, with a new perspective on our relationship. However, he got up and said goodbye to me very cautiously. Despite everything, he still praised my work (he had never seen any of my films; I don't think he even knew I was a director). And, for me, it was enough for me to have his approval.
What were your thoughts when you first saw your father's 8mm tapes?
I decided to see my father's various 8mm cassettes when I left the place where the Cape Verdean community was, and decided that I wanted to make a film centred on my family. There are several hours and hours of footage, with images of me still in maternity, when I was crawling, in adolescence, and also in adulthood. When I saw them, I felt like I was on an emotional merry-go-round. And, as my father and I no longer had a great relationship, it was very difficult for me to see them.
Initially, I was so compassionate that I wanted to make peace with him. The first version of the script was, in fact, an approximation attempt on my part. But as I talked to my mother, and discovered some of the things he had done over the years, the images took on another meaning – the nostalgia suddenly turned dark and bitter.
In addition, I noticed another detail: I noticed that my mother was appearing less and less, and she was getting thinner and sadder in each film. At one point, when I saw the file, I stopped looking at myself so much and started looking at her more. And I think the film also connotes this change in my gaze.
How important is your relationship with the team that worked with you for you?
I must be one of the people who works with fewer people because I am responsible for capturing and editing my films. In Hip to Da Hop, we were just two directors doing all the creative work. And now, in both Fruit of Thy Womb and A Morte de Isaac, I've been working with João Pedro Soares. We have worked together on all the projects. He is also a director. I was the cinematographer of his two films, Portrait of a Man as an Island (2020) and A Cessante Conquista da Escuridão (2021), which premiered alongside mine at Curtas Vila do Conde. He worked as an assistant director in my films, but for me it was much more than that: he was always with me throughout the investigation process, he always knew how to indicate whether or not I was following the best path; we had long conversations for months; and the film was very much born out of those conversations between the two of us.
I also usually show my projects to the people closest to me when they are still in an embryonic stage. I always work with André Almeida in sound design, and with José Leal Riça in communication. They are creative people, in whom I can put my trust.
There are people who have a direct role and there are people who don't, but their opinions are very important to me. I remember, for example, showing my girlfriend one of the first versions and her asking me why I didn't say I have a sister. Adding that moment made all the difference.
You were also responsible for editing your film. How did you manage to manage all these creative roles?
Editing is the best part of building a film. The writing is exhausting, the shooting is full of inclement weather, and the editing (although it is also tiring) is for me like building a puzzle. At that moment, something totally new appears.
There are directors where I think their strongest point is writing, like Bergman or Paul Schrader. Others are very much in the image field, like Malick or Kubrick. And there are others who lean their energies a lot towards the editing phase, like Resnais or Chris Marker (it's a very personal opinion, others may disagree with this thesis). I think I belong very much to this last category of directors; editing is the phase that fascinates me the most. As Orson Welles would say, it is the only time when the director has absolute control, and that is when a director is a true artist. I share the same opinion.
It's during editing that I imagine the viewers gaze. The script and images so far are ideas, the power of something that may or may not grow, a mathematical formula waiting to gain physical strength. This is where the game becomes attractive, the place where we can predict certain emotions and expectations of those who will be sitting in the cinema room. The design becomes truly sculpted only at this stage. Only here does cinema become truly magical.
When you were already in the shooting phase of the Fruit of Thy Womb, were you flexible in the face of what was happening, or did you follow what you had previously defined?
I already had a script and a storyboard before I started shooting. Most of the time I work this way, before going into the shooting phase, I have to understand very well what will be done. I even set up a kind of animatic with only drawings and reference images, and I record all my voice over before shooting. But I always leave room for unforeseen events when I already have the camera in hand.
For example, the moment when my mother appears, making the bed in her room, was not written. I wanted to film the empty house, but it showed up, and I couldn't film it pretending it wasn't there. That's why I asked him to do this action. At that moment, the upstairs neighbours were nailing something to the wall. And for me, this whole scene has a lot of power: we hear my voice say "my mother has lost two children," we hear in the background the hard knocks on the wall being made by the neighbour's, and we see my mother with a very concentrated face spread the sheets and arrange the pillows. I think if this scene had been written, it wouldn't have been so dramatic.
"Fruit of Thy Womb has already had several festivals, in Spain, Brazil, and Germany. It has won four awards, but for me, everything remains a surprise."
What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Usually, it's usually in the shooting or editing phase where there are more challenges, and when the film is finished and selected for festivals, that's when we can relax. But with me, it was the opposite. Making the film was like a cathartic scream; showing it to other people cost me a lot.
The first time it was shown was at Indie Lisboa, in the Manoel de Oliveira room, and several friends were there to see the session. Most were completely unaware of my family's history. The session was almost sold out, and my mother was by my side. It was something very emotional. We held hands throughout the session. We both knew how important that moment was to us.
Now I feel that this phase, where this fear of other people's judgement hovered, has passed. Most people say I was brave, but there were people who questioned how far I should have gone in exposing such private things. I accept all opinions; for me, they are all valid.
How much has your time on your master’s degree in cinema helped guide your filmmaking process?
The Masters in Cinema was extremely important. I had already done Hip to Da Hop before joining the course, but I felt like I needed to find my own authorial voice.
This is why I enrolled at the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema, in Lisbon. The one who taught me the most was Professor Vítor Gonçalves, who is also a director. He had the patience to direct me to the right place. It's like he always knows the answers to all my questions but leaves almost every time I find them, even if it takes weeks.
I would like to be a kind of cinematographic poet, to only have beautiful images and to provoke an emotion that approaches the sublime. It's very idyllic, but that's my long-term ambition. And I think that's what the school encourages its students to do, in the sense of helping us find our authorial voice.
Would you consider turning Fruit of Thy Womb into a feature?
My next film will be a feature-length documentary, which will be a continuation of Fruit of Thy Womb. I've already put together an hour-and-a-half version, but I've decided I'm going to remake it and shoot it all over again. I have traveled, spent many hours talking to my mother again, revisiting archives, reading sociology and history books, and talking to Cape Verdean researchers. The whole process of making the film has been interesting. Those who saw the Fruit of Thy Womb will have a broader perspective...
What was the most important lesson you learned while working on Fruit of Thy Womb, and what does it say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you tell?
I think the most important lesson I learned was to be as honest as possible. Art is about honesty. If the director is not honest, he may eventually succeed, but the mask will eventually fall off. That has been my main focus.
Meanwhile, Fruit of Thy Womb has already had several festivals, in Spain, Brazil, and Germany. It has won four awards, but for me, everything remains a surprise. I'm very happy that the film took this path, but I try to keep my focus only on the creative, and that everything else comes a little bit by bit.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I hated it the first time I was on a movie set. He was about 20 years old at the time. I volunteered to be an assistant in a film by Vicente Alves do Ó, but when I realised how everything worked behind the cameras, I was devastated. No one had told me how difficult a shooting day was. I only showed up there for two days, and I never set foot there again. I was really shaken.
I started to enjoy being on film sets when I discovered I could make movies. Since then, I started to study other directors and to understand how others do it. I don't just study directing but also cinematography and editing. I read as much as possible, books on editing, film history, and montage theories. I'm going to start a PhD in Cinema right now because I really have an insatiable hunger to know more about this art, and the more I know, the more I realise that I don't know anything.
Do you have any advice or tips you would offer to any aspiring filmmaker?
The first piece of advice would be to not be in a hurry. There are many artists who only started to be successful after the age of fifty because they had until then to perfect their style. I think that we have to be patient and not despair if we are not successful, even when we are young.
Then I think it's also very important that we don't think we're discovering gunpowder. Cinema has been around since 1895 (at least), and therefore you need to know what has been done since the beginning. No artist can be good if he doesn't know the history of the art he produces. If we can't be doing something that was done fifty years ago, and think it's something new and totally disruptive.
Finally, I advise you to make films, even if financing them is difficult. Currently, with the progress of digital, this is possible. If you can't do the herculean project you want, do something smaller. Start by filming your streets and your family (as Scorsese did). If you want to make a fiction film, film with friends and reduce the budget to a minimum (the first film by Nolan is a good example). But it is important not to give up, even when financial conditions are not very favourable.
Finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from seeing Fruit of Thy Womb?
There was a journalist who interviewed me, and she said that my film had an impact on her because it made her reflect on her relationship with her father. Her words stuck with me. Until then, I thought the film was so personal that the viewer had just seen it and was left thinking only about my family and about what I had exposed. But knowing that I can change other people's perspectives on life is worth more than any award or selection at a festival.
Cinema for me must make you uncomfortable. Rip the rug from your feet. I want the viewer to feel like a foreigner. There are still a lot of people who see the cinema as just entertainment. But for me, the films I want to make should leave you in a state of unease. You must leave the room and ask about your reality. That's the kind of movie I want to make.