IDFA 2021: A Stranger to Time – Leonardo Mouramateus on Half a Light-Year

Leonardo Mouramateus was sitting in Rua Do Poços Dos Negros (Blacks’ Well Street) in Lisbon, the sunlight shifting as the day passed by. From a seemingly banal experience, a film emerged. Half a Light-Year is playing this year’s IDFA after screening at DocLisboa. It features Mouramateus himself in this street, drawing people who are passing by, while we listen to a conversation between two characters talking about a wallet that he found that day. Was this wallet dropped by a pickpocket? Did someone put it there on purpose? Had the wallet always been there? Did it time travel all the way from 1912? Leonardo Mouramateus breaks down parts of Half a Light-Year, in the meantime addressing questions of illusion, perception, and tenderness.

LFRM: I feel that Half a Light-Year is a metaphysical film in the way it seems to be conveying doubt about what time and space are through images and sound.

LM: Cinema is very linked to the experience of reality: you put down a camera, you shoot something, and things are supposed to look and feel as they are in reality. I think cinema is an illusion though. I like the idea of taking this illusionary quality of cinema, this first layer of cinema representing reality, and slowly showing that not only the medium is an illusion, but also the idea of reality is an illusion — that my reality is not the same as yours. When I make a movie and think of the movies that I like, they have some connection with reality and people. I don’t make abstract things but I really love the idea of films that start with reality to find something abstract, or something that is a little bit more than reality. This is the way I like to think about cinema. I feel that something that is true can be very boring.

LFRM: So in a way we all perceive reality in different ways. Can film be thought of as a way of fixing one particular perception of reality?

LM: Maybe. For me, as someone that is making film, I like to experiment with perception, reality, and time. The first material is reality: I place the camera and get what is happening in front of it. This is only the first layer with which I can play.

LFRM: In ‘Against Interpretation’, Susan Sontag calls for a focus away from the content or the interpretation of what a film is saying, instead finding depth in that first sensorial layer.

LM: Yes, what is beautiful about this first layer is that everyone is invited to it. There is no one way to approach it. The perception, this first layer, is the part in which everybody is together. Even if you are blind the regimes of reality are almost the same. What makes me different from you is that while I am watching the film, I put myself in it as a spectator, and slowly the film breaks up in as many parts as it has spectators. This first layer is very deep in its superficiality.

LFRM: Your film has a very memorable soundscape. There are images of people walking around in the street, but the sound is coming from inside a bedroom. It’s a conversation between you and your boyfriend, I guess, and there are all these sound effects coming from a video game he is playing that we never get to see. How was this soundscape created?

LM: They are two narrators, interpreted by me and Mauro Soares. He is not exactly my boyfriend, even if he is. I wrote his lines and I wrote my lines: it’s based on ourselves but a fictional version of us. We shot the images in five days, but the sound took us six months, and everything was created from scratch. The video game doesn’t exist, nothing exists! We had one person making the image, cinematographer João Leão, whose approach to light I love, because I wanted to make a film about the light in this street. We decided to go there a lot of times, waiting with faith for a choreography to happen between passersby. It was easy because the structure of the image is similar throughout the film, but the sound was more complicated. I wanted to have a multilayer approach to sound, to make the film a puzzle: a layer of direct sound, a layer of dialogue between the two narrators, a layer of the video game soundtrack, a layer of the video game sound effects, plus editing, plus mixing. Each of these was charged to a different person: I wanted them to contribute with their own ideas instead of from a preordained design.

LFRM: Everything is faked! Do you think you are hacking IDFA somehow, it being focused on documentary and non-fiction films?

LM: I never shot a documentary in the strict sense. In some films, I have an experience of putting a camera between me and something over which I have no direct control. I am playing with reality. I think documentaries are more games with reality, and the fiction films I have made are not playing with reality but with actors or other things. There is another connection between my documentaries, especially Europa, Mauro in Cayenne, The Party and the Barking, and this one: they are films about specific spaces. I am not only playing with reality but with the history of these places. History as something possible to shoot.

LFRM: Speaking about places, the film was shot in Lisbon and is programmed in a curatorial program called ‘unConscious Bias’, about the legacy of colonialism in different cities of the world. In this case it focuses on how Lisbon was built partly from wealth derived from extractivism in Brazil and other places. How does Half a Light-Year let you access this past?

LM: There are many layers to this question. I had to make a film to express what I feel as a Brazilian guy living in Lisbon. I had to live there for five or six years to know how to put my feelings as a Brazilian immigrant in a film, but it is not only about this. I am somebody in the film that is still there, drawing, not passing by as the people we see. I am there with my full conscience. There are a lot of metaphors that you can draw from the film. As a friend said, it’s not only about being a stranger to a place, but about being a stranger to the times. And the film is about being a stranger to the times! This view on colonialism is something that I notice so much, but there are lots of people walking by that don’t think about this at all; there are people who do and people who don’t, in so many different ways.

LFRM: It ties back to the question of perception.

LM: Yes! It’s the same. I’m presenting my film at IDFA, I’m in the Netherlands, showing a film included in this program, and of course the film is not about the perception of an immigrant. It is about the perception of Europeans who don’t notice something so crude, so raw as the name of the street (Blacks’ Well) and what it entails. My experience as an immigrant has layers that some Europeans can’t even grasp! The film is not explicit about it, but it can serve as a way to talk about the perception of colonialism, because everything starts from perception. It will be impossible to have reparations if you don’t perceive what is happening.

LFRM: The film gets its title from a conversation between the two narrators in which one asks the other how far away from Earth a camera would have to be in order to see what was happening in this street 500 years ago. Do you think that the fact that film is dependent on the materiality of light is a gateway to seeing the past?

LM: My approach is not so scientific, it’s more poetic. There is not much use in seeing exactly what happened in the past: only for historians, for the police, for states of power. What happened is in the faces of people, in the lives of people. You don’t have to take a picture of 500 years ago to understand. You just have to watch.

LFRM: To learn how to watch.

LM: Yes, that’s why I’m not doing a period film. You just have to watch, see the names of the streets. The film started as a study of light moving in this specific street while the day passes. I wasn’t sitting at a table thinking of making a film about all these things. Everything started from wanting to shoot the light in the street. The light is more or less the same for millions of years, but the street is not. The street is a document of history. The film starts only with these two elements, the street and the light, and then one day I understood the structure of the film and how it could talk about physics, history, but most importantly about two lovers talking.

LFRM: There is a contrast between the images of the public street and the soundscape, and the very intimate setting between two lovers.

LM: Yes, the film is also about two men talking about love. There is a song by DJ Sprinkles that uses a sample from a homophobic Gil Scott-Heron poem. At the end of the song there’s two guys talking about fear and love; a very sweet, simple and sensible dialogue about hope in the middle of fear. There is a connection between the public space and its banality, and the banality of death in this space, with the sweetness of two people talking about love. That was the structure of the film: a simple desire to bring a cuddle and a breath of air in the middle of the historical moment we are living, with death and confusion all around.

LFRM: It’s also a way of showing community as something revolutionary.

LM: Absolutely, tenderness is something revolutionary. I can only live with tenderness: it’s a place I can come back to.