Portuguese director and scriptwriter Ana Rocha de Sousa emerged as a filmmaker after a successful career as an actor in Portugal. She completed her Fine Arts Degree in Painting at the University of Lisbon and moved to London in 2010 to study at London Film School. She completed her MA in Filmmaking, creating several short films that were showcased at the Short Film Corner in Cannes Film Festival.
Ahead of the premiere of her first feature film, “Listen,” in the Orizzonti section of this year’s Venice Film Festival, Tara Karajica talks to Ana Rocha de Sousa about women in film, her next projects and, of course, “Listen,” a heart-wrenching drama that portrays the tireless battle of immigrant parents against the law, to keep their family together.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Ana Rocha de Sousa: Well, I started first as an actress at a very young age in Portugal. Then, I studied Fine Arts, where I’ve experienced Painting and Photography and, for that reason, I also engaged a lot with video installations. After a certain time, and I think growing up and understanding the amount of possibilities that I had in front of me, I started realizing that where I could explore my real essence and combine all this together was actually filmmaking.
How did Listen come about? Why was it important for you to tell this story?
A.R.d.S.: Listen is a film that appeared to me in a very natural way in the sense that I have lived in the UK for a long time, studying filmmaking, after which I had my first child. At that moment, I heard about the subject matter of forced adoption. It was a specific time and understanding the subject matter in a deep way made me think that I needed to make a film about this because this is something that can happen to anyone. Mistakes happen all the time. The subject matter felt very urgent to me and the fact that I lived there and that it could have been my story in the sense that there are so many cultural difficulties in terms of understanding and misunderstandings, different ways of understanding and that the same fact can be understood in so many different ways. I read and understood the subject matter and was shocked at first and everything felt very unfair to me. But then, you realize that what’s behind it is the right thing – the idea of protecting children. What interested me for this film was the amount of possibilities when mistakes and errors take place. And when those mistakes take place, it seems to me that it’s not the best possibilities for these children and this family. But I always like to underline that this film is not against the UK in any way. It is a film and it is a drama; it is a Portuguese point of view on a subject matter, which is what makes it my view, my specific way of feeling about this subject matter. But, essentially, I believe that what moves me and the cause I am always drawn to is justice. It’s always around justice and being fair and trying to find the right balance for anything.
You’re talking about justice, and in that sense, why did you choose to end the film the way you did, which is not very just?
A.R.d.S.: Yes, but the problem is what’s happening is not reality most of the times. It’s not about happy endings. It’s very interesting that you ask that because the importance of the end of the film is first of all: you don’t have as bad an ending as it could have been. It’s very bittersweet, of course, because they end up being able to keep part of the family. Because I don’t want to spoil the film, I don’t want to talk about the end in a sense that people reading this will know the end of the film, but what I mean is the end portrays what actually happens and it would probably be pointless to make a film with a happy ending because the main focus of this film is injustice. My concern in life is justice so, of course, the film is about justice when justice doesn’t totally happen.
You have just talked about understanding and misunderstanding, but in that sense, there’s also a cultural clash on many levels between the family and the UK. Can you talk about that?
A.R.d.S.: Because I lived there, I remember – and this is probably not what you expect from my answer – one moment when I arrived, and I was putting everything together, choosing where to live, doing my contracts for electricity, etc. and the first clash I had was a phone call. In Portugal, that doesn’t happen. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it’s not that. It’s just what it is. Life is different wherever you are and you have to adapt, so that adapting might take years or it can be fast, but this cultural clash happens. It can sometimes be very funny, and it can be very tragic. And I’m talking about the electricity contract for a specific reason – because you are on the phone, you are not familiar with the language enough to fully understanding someone over the phone if they have a difficult accent for you as a foreigner and those kinds of situations put you in a position that makes the simplest thing very complicated and that, of course, is very interesting to me as a person because of the experience. That is only a very simple example, of course. I remember that phone call was a crazy situation because I was over thirty minutes on the phone, trying to understand and the only thing I needed was an electricity contract. And no one is to blame for that situation. It’s just life happening. And when life happens that way, in those simple situations, it also happens in very difficult and tragic situations. And this drama is about that. It’s when things go wrong and keep going wrong and you actually fall into that trap and you can’t get out of it.
How did this film affect you as a mother?
A.R.d.S.: This film was a dive into a world where your fears get louder and scarier as a mother. The topic is very sensitive and all the research it involves becomes easily overwhelming. At a point, you start thinking about your own life and how something can very easily seem something else and become a total injustice. When you really understand what some families have actually been through, it breaks your heart and you position yourself very clearly on where, what and who to defend.
Can you talk about Bela? She is like a lioness, very strong and vulnerable and she doesn’t seem to hold it together, but she actually does and she reacts to everything. How do you see her?
A.R.d.S.: Well, I find Bela very inspiring. At first, you might have some doubts about this family, about her and about everything that is happening and you realize that she is a force of nature. I am very interested in strong female characters and I think she is like a lioness, yes. And she is the one carrying the strength even when you believe she is breaking. I think that it is very, very important to have female characters like that. It’s not by accident that that happens and I’m very interested in the female perspective, of course, because I am a woman. I stand for any kind of equality. I’m a feminist.
The film is very observational, visually simple but emotionally intense. Can you comment on this choice?
A.R.d.S.: My roots come from Art. I breathe Art with all my being. So, my natural tendency is to always keep in mind the basic concepts of color, space, balance, framing, visual rhythm, visual weight – all those concepts that have become part of my life naturally. Though… I can’t be that director that blocks a scene limiting everyone and everything. At some point in my life, I absolutely understood that my goal as a filmmaker is to combine and embrace contrast. I mean, to combine shots that could be a painting, a still moment with the rawness of life happening in front of the camera and the camera being as free as possible. Having worked as an actress for so long also brought me a specific understanding of what I want to achieve working together with actors, and to let them explore their characters in a scene with all the freedom. That is key for what I am willing to express. Emotion will always be there when you decide to tell a story like this. My main focus is to never force it. Never. That is where it can get difficult. It is very easy to lose the right balance of emotion in a scene. The secret is that it looks very simple, but it is not that simple. Editing is also crucial to reach that balance, but it is basically an intense exchange of trust between the actors and myself.
We haven’t been given any context for the family’s situation, but we are very much part of it; you suck us into their story and you make us care. Can you elaborate on that choice as well?
A.R.d.S.: Once the story starts, I would have two options: one would be to fall into the trap of explaining everything, which doesn’t sound very interesting, or the other option that feels more interesting to me, which is to choose the ambiguity of the family and take the risk of trying to conquer the audience during the film. I must say that ambiguity was more intense in the first cut we had. We decided to change it as it felt too much until too late. As with everything, the secret is in finding the right balance.
Do you think the film will make an impact? Can it serve as a catalyst for change in some people’s situations apart from making the world aware of this reality?
A.R.d.S.: I hope so. The choice of a subject matter like this is not random. I mean, I would lie if I didn’t say that I would love if this film helped bring change at least to some families. What worries me is: how can the system become more accurate in its evaluations to reduce errors and avoid flaws?
Deafness is what saves Lucia in the end. In that sense, the system is the wrong solution. Can you comment on that and what is your opinion on the system?
A.R.d.S.: I have no doubt that the system is thought to try to defend the best interest of these children. There is no doubt that the system’s goal is to be effective but… Is it? Forced adoptions should be the final solution, the exception and not the rule. I also believe money should never be involved in any moment related to an adoption.
Can you talk about the casting and shooting processes? Did you shoot in two different languages?
A.R.d.S.: I tried as much as possible to always give directions in English but, at certain points, specifically with actors, I spoke and exchanged ideas in Portuguese, just punctually. We actually shot in three languages: British Sign Language was also a way to communicate when Maisie was on set. I only managed to learn some essential ideas in BSL, but we had interpreters on set to help communicate and Lúcia Moniz, the leading actress, had classes too. With the cast, directing was a process that started much before shooting. My process is very simple. I trust actors. I only make sure we exchange as many ideas as possible about the characters and the film before shooting. Until it feels part of their skin. Sometimes, that method is not possible due to time restrictions. I deal with whatever comes up. There is always a way to achieve what a film needs.
The title has many layers. Can you talk about it?
A.R.d.S.: Yes, the title… For some reason, one of the things that came to me before almost anything else was the title. This film never had something like a “working title.” That is very rare to me. Once I know the story I want to tell, the title pops up and it becomes nearly impossible for me to change it. It’s a clumsy comparison, but it’s a bit like naming a child… Once you choose a name, it doesn’t make much sense to change it afterwards. Its layers, yes, they are like the whole film, which in turn carries a lot of layers. I wish people could listen to these families. I wish children could be heard. I wish we all could listen more to the needs of others. And also… Little Lu, the deaf child, is the one that “listens” the most in this film. I mean, she is the character paying more attention to everything that is happening around her.
You have said earlier you were a feminist. How does it inform your filmmaking? What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today? And, how is it in Portugal?
A.R.d.S.: Well, in Portugal, it’s very rare and in the world it’s not very different. I think the balance has not been achieved yet. And we need to keep fighting for it. We had amazing women on set and I am very happy about the fact that we had a very equal crew in terms of gender and it is very important for film to be absolutely open to that. I am very happy to be part of the selection of this year’s Venice Film Festival because of that and because it seems to me that there is a change and it is very relevant. When I say that it’s very important to me to have strong female roles, I think that’s my position as a filmmaker, but not only as a filmmaker. I’m for equality and for talent and I don’t quite understand why around the world equality has not been achieved yet. I understand it’s because of the industry. I don’t agree, but I understand why it happens. We need to keep fighting for that. Also, there’s always some connection to women that really bothers and that is that there is also some kind of sexualization. It’s like if you are wearing blue, you might get a stamp straight away for the way you present yourself and my fight as a filmmaker, as a person, as a woman, is to go against that with this idea that I can wear whatever I want. That doesn’t affect my integrity or intelligence. It can’t affect them. You can’t just put stamps on people and make some kind of wrong assumptions about people and have ideas that are not fair. You know, justice again…
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
A.R.d.S.: I think Sofia Coppola is a great example of someone who went in front and just fought for us and I really like Lost in Translation, but I believe the female filmmaker that I totally identify with is Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. Her work is very impressive. And it is very relevant. I identify with the background but, of course, the environment that she is in is totally different.
What are your next projects?
A.R.d.S.: At the moment, I am writing my next feature film. It is also a film with a very specific topic that interests me and that I consider relevant nowadays. I don’t know if that is going to be my next project. The future will bring the answer to that. I also want to shoot documentaries again. It is a field that I feel very connected to. I guess it is because of my acting background, when I used to stand still and observe, simply learning with people by listening or observing their real experiences.
Photo credits: Carlos Ramos.