An interview with Mattijs van de Port

Monday December 3rd, 2018

Mattijs van de Port is a visual anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam and at the VU University Amsterdam, creator of “Knots and Holes”, that premiered at this year’s 9th Ethnofest. In a conversation, Mattijs told us more about his filmmaking process, the current state of affairs in Brazil and the potential and limitations of the poetic image in film as a way to create theory.

The interview was conducted by Lillian Dam Bracia, Traffic and Programme Assistant at Ethnofest.

Ethnofest: With the whole political situation in Brazil right now, how was your film received there when you showed it?

Mattijs van de Port: Well, obviously I showed it to a crowd of leftist intellectuals also I would say, especially at the USP [University of Sao Paulo], so people were quite enthusiastic. We were talking about bubbles, so I absolutely showed it inside the bubble and I have no idea, how people would respond to it outside of the bubble…this is interesting because there’s always this moment when you make a film and then you also wanna show to the people who are in the film and with my previous film on Candomble [“The Possibility of Spirits”], I did it, it premiered in Salvador and most of the people in the film were there. And they had very mixed responses, on the whole they liked it, but some were silently critical I would say. But with this film I’m more worried because I know that some people in the film will absolutely not like it the way how I situated them, especially the evangelicals. For instance, Dona Lindaura – the old lady – she used to be from Candomble, already long time ago, but now she became an evangelical and she keeps saying that Candomble she doesn’t wanna have anything to do with it, she wants to be out of it, that was a very painful part of her past and she didn’t want to be reminded of it. And I’m totally aware that she’s now in a film where Candomble is also present and I could imagine that she would not be very happy about that, in her presence, and seeing some Candomble. Same for the evangelical pastor, who is a bit of an allegorical figure in my film, in that he represents a kind of a very rigid categorical thinking of this is “good” and this is “bad” – the kind of straightness which I think is seducing many people in Brazil, with the evangelical boom that is going on there, has a lot to do with people wanting to simplify the world and moving away from complexities and just saying this is “good” and this is “bad” and this we can do and this we cannot do. And for me, I’m sad about this because for me Brazil was always this place where they were the masters of being able to navigate all these sorts of dualisms and find the middle ground, and they were the master of  finding the “jogo de cintura”. You know, you have to move your way around, you should not be so rigid in your opinions, and that seems to be Brazil that increasingly people are no longer seduced by and I’m really sad about that because for me that was the joy of Brazil – this capacity to live incoherencies, the capacity to embrace the fact that the world is not a coherent place and that…there are paradoxes that cannot be resolved…. and I always thought that Brazil had such a talent to sort of make art out of that if you want. I always think it’s so telling when you look, if you walk into an old church, a Catholic church in Bahia – it’s Baroque, you see all these curls and colors and everything is in movement and is fluid and you almost become dizzy by all the decorations and the ornaments that are there. And you walk into a new Pentecostal church and it’s like…a shopping mall (laughs)…it’s straight and there’s no curl whatsoever…

Ethnofest: It’s very rigid…

MvdP: And I really think you have to take that seriously because it’s sort of signals where people, apparently, don’t want the confusion of the Baroque art and this movement and the fluidity, instead, they want these rigid, rigid aesthetics. Anyway, I think the film picks up on that theme by discussing the principle of filtering, that every net does. I think of every net as a way to filter reality if you want, to say, this is what I want from it and this not, that can pass. And for me that becomes a metaphor, that is to impose certain structures on reality. But then other dimensions of the film were about the impossibility to really catch reality as it is. So, elements, like water, erotics and love, and the touch; these are the elements that I’ve introduced in the film as ways to sort of evoke. We try to impose our stories into the world but the world is so much more and we can never catch all of it. That is the tension that I try to show in the film. As human beings we have no other option then to narrate the world, to try to transform the world into a coherent story. But on the other hand, in our experience we constantly face the fact that the world cannot be narrated, that the world is always so much more than the stories that we produce about it and I think that is what the film tries to articulate.

Ethnofest: Yeah, I really think that is interesting that you say that, because I also had the feeling that in a way you were kind of following this thing. You were using the net as a metaphor but also sometimes quite literally. But I think, messiness is a theme from your last work. And you move from spirits now to nets which for me, initially it seems like something very static, or more concrete than spirits. But at the same time you are following this thing, not just literally but also symbolically, metaphorically and you go to different places. You’re in Salvador, then you go to Sao Paulo, then you’re in Amsterdam and then you’re on Grindr. I was wondering how was that process for you, were you really following this thing everywhere you were going or did you have an idea in mind?

MvdP: Yeah, I like that question. Indeed I had the idea that I wanted to break-up this sort of ethnographic locality, I don’t wanna say this film is about an specific locality where I as an ethnographer and everything in the film has to do with that particular place. And that has to do with what the whole film was about, I was a bit frustrated with ethnographic filmmaking because very often I felt that so many films that bring you to a place and they beautifully evoke what life is like in that place. But very often I would come out of the film thinking, OK, beautiful, yet another place where I would love to go. But intellectually I would not be really challenged, if you want. And for me, anthropology is always about the combination of going to a small place to discuss larger issues as Thomas Eriksen puts it. But these large issues, I really felt like, can we bring that into our films? In written anthropology, that is done all the time, we discuss small things and then we summarize it, try to make larger statements. But in films, it seems to me that was not really being done, also because doing theory and film, there’s something strange about it, to become theoretical means very often to become more abstract and you cannot be abstract in film because the photographic image is always very concrete. So if you try to be abstract in a film, immediately the world becomes very co-present with whatever abstraction you are trying to produce. And I thought that was a problem, so how can you get to theory? But then I thought, wait, maybe that is not a problem, that is a promise, like I say in the film. Because maybe theory is much more interesting when it’s articulated in the presence of very concrete stuff of the world. Always the world is already present in whatever theoretical move you wanna make. 

Ethnofest: You do see how “nets” are also intricate in gender discourse and in the contestations of belief and religions and for me it was hard not to see that because with the anthropological lens I’m thinking oh OK, so this is reflecting again in the Bible. But then I really had to fight it not to be up here [points to the head] but also to feel the film. So the fact that you expose so much of yourself that’s also what made the film really interesting and it’s not just about the local culture but also outside of that and making it more universal to everyone, also to think about their own lives and think about how are you also imposing certain structures as a human or academic.

MvdP: Right. I’m really glad that you picked that out. Because again, my filmmaking is not like I plan a lot before…I have a very vague idea and then I walk around 24/7 in Bahia and I basically film everything (laughs). And I always tell my students never to do it like this, to organize themselves but I’m more like this. And only in the editing I start to build up the film in constant interaction with my footage. It’s not that when I go to do the editing that I know where I’m going and that also as a result, the film ran away with it. So it became more and more personal, so I thought, okay, if you wanna elaborate some thought or some theory then it is very convenient to use those theories thinking about others, people in Bahia or something. But I think the first test case for any theory should always be yourself, would you want to live in that theory, would it help to make sense of yourself and if it doesn’t, what makes you think that it would work for others? So for me that is a very logical step, if you want, if I want to try to come up with some very general idea to how human beings try to make sense of their lives, then I’m a human being so I should in one way or the other should try to come in contact with that theory and learn something about myself. There was one scene about Grindr which was quite absurd and extreme in contact with the processes of filtering. What I like about that scene because on one hand, what is Grindr? Grindr is the promise that you can enter the realm of eroticism, that is why people go there. So they want to enter this realm where nothing is really structured because eroticism is that something that cannot be categorized but then to enter you have to – (laughs)

Ethnofest: There’s a web! (laughs).

MvdP: You fall into all these categories of what tribe you are and what size you have and what sexual axe you prefer over the others. And there’s this very weird filter that you have to go through then to be able to go through the world in filters that don’t really make sense. So there’s a tension in my daily experience of this dating app between where it wants to take you and how it takes you there. There’s a very strange thing there and the other is, that I have a very intense relationship with Lucas, this transatlantic, impossible kind of beautiful love. And I’m totally aware that one of my ways to kind of deal with it is to refuse all the labels and categories. That is to say, this is love, period! Because every label come with a scenario and every scenario will sort of in a way transform that love and if I refuse to categorize it than it will sort of remain love to the full…and I’m totally aware that this is a sort of romantic, impossible way…

Ethnofest: Also very theoretical! (laughs)

MvdP: Also very theoretical…see where theory takes me eh? But this is exactly what I’m doing, I’m thinking oh, in the end, I think what is anthropologically is interesting, I think anthropology is in a way the attempt to find the common ground. Where is the way I’m trying to organize my life and the fishermen at Santiago de Iguape, the way they organize their life – what do we have in common? I do not only want to talk about the differences…oh they do it that way. Obviously they do it things differently but the underlying principles are very similar and they also provide a basis I guess, for understanding and getting closer and in the end that’s what I like about anthropology because there’s still this attempt to understand OK, underneath all the differences what is the common denominator of us human beings. And I think that all to be part of mine anthropology and also of mine anthropological filmmaking.

Ethnofest: Right, and you think that film, as a last question, you think maybe film as a medium is perhaps a better medium to make that sort of point or.. than text would you say, as a poetic image?

MvdP: I always am hesitant to say yes to that question, as in to lay those very different apart because I think if you are a good writer, of course you can do this. I think the conventions of social science writing is not very helpful…let that be clear. But there are so many other modes of writing that I don’t wanna go and say oh that could never be done in text. But I must say that I really love working with film for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that I think it’s that, what I’m really interested at is to make that intellectual argument, that is to do theory in the presence of sounds, silences and images. So instead of having one narrative line as in as you write, the narrative line is now in the co-presence of what I just said, images, sounds and silences. And my search is for what is interesting in the relationship between these three layers that I have and how can they comment on each other. What I’m trying to say is, be counteracted by what you see or what you can hear and these are the moments when these images take over and you can hear me talking but I’m sure there are moments when you probably don’t even listen anymore to what I’m saying because the image takes over. I find that interesting because there’s sort of a competition going on with all these different layers that are trying to get your attention and that is a move away from the work, I’m sure you know it, from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, who really go all the way for sensorial kind of engagement with the world and they say this is what you need to film and we can give an audience a 90 minutes in to a sort of audio-visual immersion. I think it’s a beautiful film but for me in the end it is not satisfactory because, I can’t do that if I make a film about Candomble for instance and I give them, a Western audience, a 90 minute immersion into Candomble ritual without contextualizing it than what I am doing is, producing exotic images of black people becoming possessed and doing an animal sacrifice, I mean there’s not where you should go…and I can’t say that people who watch it will have a full freedom to interpret these images in the way they like it because you need to have some basic knowledge to what these people are doing there. So for me this idea, because there’s a lot of debate when you introduce voiceover narration or text, there’s a lot of debate to whether you sort of prohibit the viewer to make their own interpretation to what she’s seeing but for me I think, as an artist that’s fine, artists can sort of open space where the viewer sort of individually try to make sense of what is it that she’s seeing. But for an anthropologist I think the anthropologist is questioning whether this experience is adequate for the images that are on the screen – can you follow that? Because for me that is very important, to emancipate the voiceover and emancipate in a way the expertise of anthropologist and step in and not to say that I know everything what is going on here but at least to ask questions about what is appearing on the screen and at least try to give guide into a thought process and not to just let these images to speak for themselves. I think anthropologically speaking that is really problematic.