Sintra Diary

Frame from "Diário de Sintra"/ Disclosure


Commentary on Paula Gaitán's film

Paula Gaitán — metaphors of vision

Filmmaker Paula Gaitán left an indelible mark on the history of Brazilian cinema. Her work is vast and long-lived and encompasses a broad historical arc: from Olho d'água (1983) to The song of poppies (2023). Measuring four decades of art making can be one of the most costly tasks.

His films of “fine intertwined lines” are “painted with the calmness”, the subtlety and “the precision of surgery”. Sometimes they resemble a “pencil no. 2, an eraser, a long ruler and a square”.

Its frames are made from an invisible framework of stitched lines, chromatic contrasts and, above all, subtle retakes of previously announced images.

Paula Gaitán creates beauty with language: “I go as if I were painting. When you paint, you have several layers, you add a brushstroke and you create a surface of textures and matter, of oil, of watercolor, perhaps it has more to do with the layers of watercolor.”

His use of colors, for example, is admirable. While in certain images he prefers monochromic representation – generally the color black – in others he points to polychromic composition. The colors used are obtained from the landscape: pigment from the earth, trunk, sky, mist, foliage, among many others..

The poetics of gesture that characterizes his filmography is permeated with a hidden face, mystery and, therefore, difficult beauty. There is something in the status of the image that “forces thought, in Deleuze’s sense; something like the 'arrival', Jacques Derrida would say; something that 'happens in the event', would say Jean-François Lyotard; something like 'the unthought' would say Michel Foucault; something like an 'indefinite possibility' in Lehmann's expression”.

In other words, Paula Gaitán’s artistic imagination “surfaces camouflaged through symbols, metaphors, substitutions”. Because upon enjoyment of his films, the status of the image opens up to the incessant flow of meaning, in the sense of allegory. Because, in a large part of his filmography, we have enigmatic images that lead the viewer to the wandering gaze, the “madness of the gaze”, making it difficult for the viewer to grasp a fixed point that anchors him. “In other words: the thoughtful image triggers a scopic passion, as 'madness of the gaze', in Roland Barthes' expression: a circularity, or a back and forth that never ceases, between different modes of enunciation, between the knowledge of a represented object and the not-knowing of the intractable reality, which forces thought. It is from this 'zone of indiscernibility', which is the imponderable itself, that would result in 'the distance, the mystery, the enigma' of these images.”

Sintra Diary — initial observations

Paula Gaitán celebrates the city of Sintra in her verses. We see the city of Sintra, filmed in depth, its architecture in the distance, filmed frontally. We soon see the lower part of the city in shadow and the upper part illuminated by the sun. In the middle of the scene, however, coming from the bottom of the frame, passers-by walk towards the camera. A white scarf – bright white – on counter-plot sways in the wind.

Made in Super-8, and filmed in 1981, they are mixed with others from a more recent time (2006), both recorded in the city of Sintra (except some in Lisbon). With mastery and ingenuity, the filmmaker combines Super-8 images from 1981, digital images from 2006. The composite form finds its vocation here to abolish the prospective of time. In this direction, we have a choreography of returns, the time that comes and goes, time as a response.

Paula Gaitán migrates with her family to a charming city called Sintra. The city is splendid. “Beautiful, it has always been, due to its ocean opening, its exuberant vegetation and its solar luminosity”. The window glass reflects the city, the colorful architecture and the city sky in the afternoon. Remembrance and memory blow strong in the filmmaker's heart.

The filmmaker focuses on involuntary memory, seeking to unravel the tangle of memories, their reconstructions, their fictions “to penetrate the dormant zone in which the 'inert traces', 'frozen', seem to emerge from the course of time”. A poetic remembrance about the remnants of memory, its secret, its rediscovered time.

In an interview with Francis Vogner dos Reis, Paula Gaitán says: “But it was finding a memory that is not translatable, but is a memory, something that permeates a memory of the body, a memory of memory, a smell, an image, a noise, he knows? Crossing villages to find the sound of bells, to find the fog, to find a shepherd, like there is in the Sintra Diary".

In this sense, Andrei Tarkovsky highlights: “I felt, all the time, that for the film to be successful, the texture of the scenery and landscapes must be capable of provoking precise memories and poetic associations in me. In general, souvenirs are very dear to people. The fact that they are always surrounded by poetic color is no coincidence.”

The filmmaker, once again, comments on memory: “Memory is full of voids, voids and silences. (…) Memory has moments of fog, it has more crystalline moments, it has more ethereal moments (…)”.

How to emphasize the voice off by Paula Gaitán: “Paths that lead to Sintra / or perhaps nowhere / images that go beyond memory / and communicate only a part of their secret / lost time / time rediscovered / rediscovered / fleeting lines / lines that intersect / flow of time / is a remote time / is a present time / time that is separated from another time / but that becomes present / the landscape is not inhabited / it is lived / it is seen by someone who is in exile / in exile”.

Film material is a stronghold of memory, here the memory of memory is excavated. The sudden flash of memory is materialized in the framing, in the scenic objects, in the colors, in the shadows, in the scratches, in the grains and in the stains. The memory of memory is permeated by fiction, by sound fusion, by popular song, by the incrustation of noises, poems, the ringing of bells, the trembling of things, the sound of the wind and various sounds. Soon the filmmaker's inner and singular memory expands into collective memory.

The landscape “is seen by someone who finds himself in exile, in exile.” Emphasizes the voice off by Paula Gaitán. “Here it is, this is an image of exile, an image of refuge, a painful image”, says one of the friends during the film. “Analyzing a film is also placing it in a context, in a story”.

In the following excerpt, I do not intend to comment, with the detail it deserves, on the period of the Civil-Military Dictatorship. For now, we draw the reader's attention to some questions: Which sound images claim the memory of the civil-military dictatorship in Brazilian cinema? Which films elaborate these memories? What sound images do we have left?

“The demand for the memory of the civil-military dictatorship in contemporary Brazilian cinema intensifies (…). The movies A long trip (Lúcia Murat, 2011), diary of a quest (Flávia Castro, 2010), Elena (Petra Costa, 2013), Memory for everyday use (Beth Formaggini, 2007), Utopia and barbarism (Silvio Tendler, 2009), Citizen Boilesen (Chaim Litewski, 2009) the days with him (Maria Clara Escobar, 2013), among others, are revealing of the current moment in Brazil, where the demand for the memory of the twenty-one years of civil-military dictatorship is slowly being created, with the punishment of crimes and torturers, with the opening of secret archives, with the restitution of the truth surrounding those who disappeared and those murdered by political repression. With the installation of the National Truth Commission in May 2012, the debate about the meaning of this 'revealed' memory gained unprecedented momentum.”

Let's take another example: the film Identification Pictures (2014) by Anita Leandro astounds state terrorism during the period of the Brazilian military dictatorship. Black and white photos of four activists: Antonio Roberto Espinosa, Chael Schreier, Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcellos and Reinaldo Guarany; the files transferred from It's not time to cry (1971), by Pedro Chaskel and Luiz Alberto Sanz and Brazil: a report on torture (Brazil: report of a torture, 1971), by Americans Haskell Wexler and Saul Landau; and the testimonies of two survivors: Antonio Roberto Espinosa and Reinaldo Guarany make up the filmic structure of the documentary. What's out of frame in Chael Schreier's blood-dripping image? “I suffer in front of these images because I understand 'the state of emotion of others', of what is 'outside of me', 'outside of me', because this state concerns the humanity of pain in its sharing”.

Anita Leandro's poignant film highlights that “the way you look at, describe and understand an image is, after all, a political gesture”. “Ultimately, we are moved by the question: in what ways did the images produced come to intervene in the course of social struggles?” In short: (…) “To talk about the ways in which images affect struggles, it is necessary to also talk (and at the same time) about the ways in which struggles affect images”.

Anita Leandro gives the assembly of archives a double function: “restoring the surface of the image” and “excavating its deeper layers”. The film reflects an experience sui generis within Brazilian cinematography that portrays the period of the military dictatorship and, exceptionally, the decree of Institutional Act number 5, AI-5 (December 13, 1968, date of issue).

Identification Pictures is structured in three parts: presentation of the militants and their arrests, the terror of torture and post-prison events. The black monochrome in the opening sequence allegorizes national pain and mourning. The triptych in the image focuses on prisons, deaths and torture. The film delves into the historical past of these militants, victims of the Brazilian military regime (1964-1985). The film brings to light in its precise filmic structure: facts of persecution, torture, arrest, death, reports and investigations. Present, past and future intertwine and, with them, terrifying crimes perpetrated by the State, which remain unpunished to this day.

Fleeting lines

Paula Gaitán starts the film Sintra Diary with a dark screen. Cutting the monochromatic image violently, a raw clarity emerges. We see the sky (the dawn or break of day), some branches, the gray of the clouds and a sliver of blue. It is necessary to return to the darkness to see the first beam of light, the first flash, so that “a light precisely located in a dark room moves (…)”.

At this point, it is worth remembering the recurring use of the dark screen: “Funeral for the decade of white clouds (Geneton Moraes Neto, 1979) begins with a dark and imposing screen that appears before our eyes for almost twenty seconds.”

"The film Zorns Lemma (1970) by Hollis Frampton begins with a black screen and a voice-over reading of a textbook used in the XNUMXth century to teach the alphabet in primary schools”. In this sense, says Stan Brakhage: “(…) Imagine and marvel at the cat's well-known internal mirrors that capture every ray of light in the darkness and reflect it, intensifying it”.

And, reiterates Didi-Huberman: “When the night is deeper, we are able to capture the slightest flash, and it is the exhalation of the light itself that is even more visible to us in its wake, even if faint.” In fact, as Abbas Kiarostami says, “after the darkness, we can understand the importance and strength of light (…).”

In the foreground, light and shadow shake the film material. The chiaroscuro, the atmosphere of the city, the reiterated images. The bluish sky blurs the space of the frame, tearing up the image field, the landscape. In the upper right corner – the contrast between the green hue of the foliage and the bluish sky elevates the harmony of colors a little. This occurs in a purely plastic image, like the image of the bird, in which it lands out of frame in the light, which enchants the contrast between light and shadow, the silhouette of colors, wings and shadow.

Stan Brakhage, once again, makes an interesting comment: “You can film handheld and inherit worlds of space. The film could be underexposed and overexposed. You can use the filters of the world, such as fog and rain, ill-adjusted lights, neons with neurotic color temperatures (…)”. As Andrei Tarkovsky tells us: “When I talk about poetry, I don’t think of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a specific form of relationship with reality. Thus, poetry becomes a philosophy that guides man throughout his life.”

In this direction, Francis Alys highlights: “A ray of sunlight, still warm from dawn, crosses the resort like a flag of light, like the ghostly sail of a ship. Vibratory network that captures, in its course, the invisible life of space. Let the astonished philosopher see the entire swarm of fine dust that fills the air. A saraband of luminous points comes and goes, like a dazed shoal that tries in vain to escape the net of light.”

The relationship between the representation of the dialogue between light and shadow and the harmony of the composition makes the film moving. The arrangement is admirably balanced. In the center, the reflection on the wall of the bird drives the image, for example. A little further on, a bird lands on a line made of shadow that tends subtly towards an ascending diagonal. The plan has harmony in composition and a well-defined contour.

The emanation of grain in the super-8 image appears with a flock of birds that flutter about. Risks appear and scratch the plan. We soon see grainy images and strips of shadow that cut horizontally across the frame. Outdoors, under a clear sky, the super-8 image appears milky pale. Towards the edges of the painting, birds draw in a racket.

The image appears clean, fresh, full of flavor and smell; “the colors also catch my attention, because they are worn (…)”. In the picture “the faded, the peeled has preference”. The viewer attentive to the hue soon notices “the blue and green (greenish) tone; Every now and then they appear egg-yellow (faded too) or pink. Pastel tones predominate, the tone of old wood (…)”.

These fairy sequences bring to mind the essay “Metaphors of Vision”, by Stan Brakhage, a confessed reading by Paula Gaitán.

Poetics of gesture

“This is the day when the fog rises from the river in this beautiful city, between meadows, hills, blurring it like a memory.” (Cesare Pavese)

“It was more present than ever, on that hillside.” (Natalia Ginzburg)

In a closer image, in a joint shot, a gesture penetrates the mise-en-scène. Glauber Rocha with a festive air plays with his children. The environment is surrounded by fraternal and paternal affection. We listen to Glauber Rocha's sonorous prose in voice off. Glauber Rocha appears in the images expansive, affectionate and with a benevolent air towards his children. The painting – where the children are sheltered – is filled with sweetness and paternal care. “In what way can objects, places, conditions of existence, beings, behaviors seem charged with poetry?”

A little further on, Glauber Rocha watches his daughter attentively on the slide. The camera approaches Glauber and the children intimately, the frame lasts slowly, in silence, the memory condensed by the editing rests on the father and the children. The color intervenes sweetly in the texture of the grains, especially with spots of blue and brown.

The beauty of the gesture is paternal. The camera-in-hand accompanies him, takes a close-up of his face. His face appears centered in relation to the frame, sometimes appearing a little to the right, giving balance to the composition. In another shot, a little closer, still with the camera in hand, we see Glauber Rocha's almond-shaped eyes. At another point Paula Gaitán says: “No absence is deeper than yours”.

For Portuguese researcher Isabel Capeloa Gil: “Family portraits, memories of trips, parties and commemorative days, perhaps of multiple others (of human beings and animals, landscapes and built spaces) that intersect with the photographer, constitute forms prismatic ways of composing the space of memory (…).” In this sense, Paula Gaitán says: “In the film I talk about Sylvia Plath's poem: “Widows the compassionate trees / Widows the compassionate trees / The trees of loneliness lean, the trees of mourning”. (…) “My relationship with Glauber is one of creation, of transcendence. A physical upbringing relationship, we even had two beautiful children.”

Further on, through the reflection of the window, you can see the city of Sintra again; the camera-in-hand shows a child with several photographs; the camera frames the horizon; Passers-by, framed at chest height, try to guess Glauber Rocha's photo. A little further on, in the background, it is possible to see a flash that breaks out and hits a photograph hanging with a red pin on the dry branch of a tree. In the lower left part of the image, the flash advances, leaving a trail in the image. “There will be shades, gradations, capable of resisting the “despairing, extremely luminous, absurd fierce white, which penetrates through the eyes, through the nostrils, through the pores (…)”.

In another moment we see a landscape-image that takes us to a faded horizon full of hues. In the right corner of the screen, a light suddenly appears. The plan is fixed. Its figuration slips into abstraction. The color gradation is sibylline. Around him, a mosaic of colors, a kind of iridescent signs. Its expression, however, is plastic, as it is similar to painting. The colors appear on the verge of disappearance. The five frame images are presented in a gestural language of subtle brushstrokes. This sequence is similar to the formal procedures used by several visual artists, that is, the use of imperceptible passages between colors and their hues.

His lyrical paintings are provoked by intuition, sensations, deviations, studies, previous and long and elaborate compositions. We soon see a painting shrouded in fog, misty images obscuring the mystery. 'She is a visual, plastic artist”, says Glauber Rocha at a certain point in the film. The colors – which emanate from different textures – are not flat, but wandering, splashed by different pigments, like signs of abstract expressionism. In this sense, it is interesting to observe in the paintings: the lines, colors, balance and harmony in the composition.

In this direction, Francis Alys highlights: “The spaces between the lines were colored and shapes began to appear. Or could one begin to imagine shapes? Flat or solid, geometric or lyrical, abstract or figurative, organized or chaotic: it doesn’t matter. Autonomous figures; images. Color frames were also included among the recorded material. As they were static, they marked pauses. A space to breathe. The pauses interrupted the continuum of the camera's performance and created a rhythm. In combination with a random distribution of the four action movements – wait for the tornadoes, chase them, catch them or miss them (…).”

While watching the film Diário de Sintra, a filmic gesture caught my attention: the reiterated image of the filmmaker's hand performing in the frame. This gesture would be responsible for some of the film's crucial images. How many times do we see the image of Paula Gaitán's hand in the center or in the corner performing the painting? The repeated use of this image deserves precision here. Let's see how this happens.

They leitmotiv, very complex, permeated with resonances throughout the film, requires a brief scan, paying attention to the recurring metaphors, the obsessive insertions, the nuances of meaning. The close shots, enlarged and performed by the silhouettes of the palm, the fingers, the outstretched hand; the frequent use of these images composing the piercing chiaroscuro of some scenes.

The gestures are slow: the hand that performs the backlight in the painting during a journey; the hand hanging from a photograph like a leaf or like fruit on the branch of a tree; the hand that passes through a torrid shadow; the hand that shares the printed photographs in the hands of passersby. Suddenly, the filmmaker's left hand suddenly bursts in and slides from the left corner to the right corner of the frame.

Sintra Diary metaphorically records the hand of filmmaker Paula Gaitán. In these sequences, elements that mark the structure of the film come together. On the one hand, the image of the filmmaker's hand is plastically inscribed in the image, on the other, the image makes up an indispensable element in the filmic fabric. In this sense, Gilda de Mello highlights: “(…) The obsession with hands went beyond this social and expressive connotation to take on, in parallel, a more technical aspect, derived from the admirable confidence in reproducing them plastically”.

It is then not difficult to glimpse, behind this curved time, a gesture that comes and goes, and is constantly intersecting throughout the film based on this matrix and driving image. Paula Gaitán's hand moves in the film like a dance step. The hand is the driving image in the film, the matrix image, the generating image, a political image. There is an important detail that must be highlighted.

The film Sintra Diary It is made up of 16 sequences of images from the filmmaker's hand, in shots of different durations. Sintra Diary it is structured with the camera literally in your hand. The filmmaker's hand feels the image. Paula Gaitán's hand glimpses something inside and outside the frame. The hand that creates, that invents, that fables, that thrives and multiplies with power and strength in Brazilian filmography.

Gabriel de Sousa Santos He is studying for a master's degree in Audiovisual Media and Processes at ECA-USP.


Sintra Diary
Brazil, documentary, 2007, 90 minutes.
Direction and script: Paula Gaitán.
Director of Photography: Paula Gaitán and Pedro Urano.
Editing: Karen Akerman and Vinícius Quintela.
Cast: Paula Gaitán, Glauber Rocha


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