Gabriel Abrantes

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Gabriel Abrantes, Birds (still), 2012.

Artist Cinemas presents Birds
Gabriel Abrantes

18 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #4

November 16–22, 2020.

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Gabriel AbrantesBirds (2012), on view from Monday, November 16 through Sunday, November 22, 2020.

An upstart theater director named Gabriel Abrantes attempts to stage a faithful production of Aristophanes’s The Birds in Haiti, only for the locals to lose their patience with his rather excessive approach.

Birds is the fourth installment of Here is where we are, a program of films, texts, and interviews convened by Laure Prouvost, and comprising the fourth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film. It is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker by Mirene Arsanios.

Here is where we are will run from October 24 through December 14, 2020, screening a new film each week accompanied by a text or an interview with the filmmaker(s) by Prouvost and invited guests.

Gabriel Abrantes in conversation with Mirene Arsanios

Mirene Arsanios (MA):
I watched Birds a couple of times and there’s a lot I’d like to talk about. But perhaps we can start by discussing the intriguing combination of Jacmel and Aristophanes: What brought you to Haiti and why Aristophanes?

Gabriel Abrantes (GA):
Around 2011, Daniel Schmidt (co-director of Diamantino, 2018) and I wrote a comedy about two young Haitian women trying to leave Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was written as a slapstick comedy, inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the comedies of remarriage films, like Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940). We wanted to satirize what we saw as the often self-serving “good intentions” of the international philanthropic community that rushed to “save” Haiti in the aftermath of the calamity.

In 2012 I went to Haiti on a research trip, and decided to make a short film as a way to get in touch with people in a practical and productive way. I took my 16mm camera and was accompanied by my friend and collaborator Natxo Checa, but had no script. I was hoping to come up with something as a reaction to what I saw and the people I met. I was reading Aristophanes’ plays at the time, as part of my research into the history of comedy and political satire. I was reading The Birds while in Haiti, and while I was visiting Jacmel, I passed by a studio for papier-mâché costumes for carnival, which is widely celebrated in Haiti, and there were many bird masks in boxes, and they reminded me of the depiction of Aristophanes’ costumes on Greek vase paintings. I was reading of reading The Birds as a critique of colonialism, in the sense that it is a story about two men that colonize the sky as a way to avoid taxation, but end up profiting by creating an elaborate tax system that charged birds, gods, and humans to communicate with each other. In the play, the birds end up organizing a revolt, and I pictured a theater director staging the play as an allegory to the Haitian revolution. The papier-mâché costumes in Haiti often satirize political figures through grotesque caricatured masks, much like Aristophanes would have had caricatures of Cleon and other political leaders or public figures on stage as a form of political satire.

Your email address is artificial humors. I’d like to ask you about the different types of humors you deploy in your movies. There is a certain militancy to satire, an excess and exaggeration that serve a didactic purpose or message. In Birds, two characters in a car denounce the “foolishness” of the filmmaker’s project, his ambition to deliver a political message or prompt a healing process by staging an ancient Greek play performed by locals. You said you arrived in Haiti without a script; at what stage of the filming process did you choose to incorporate this moment of self-criticism? I’m also curious about why the director never features in the film. He is mentioned but remains invisible.

In one of your interviews, you talk about researching indigenous humor for one of your movies. Can you say more about what prompted you to do that, and say more about the relationship between humor and colonialism?

My email is artificial humors because that is my production company name, which I named after my film Os Humores Artificiais (2016) about an artificially intelligent robot that is learning how to use language and conceptual thinking in non-linear forms by trying to learn many varieties of humor. It is a film that mixes anthropology, the history of humor, and artificial intelligence. The name also evoked “the humors,” the theory of how certain emotions are related to the dominance of certain fluids in the body, and that this was the source of an individual’s personality.

I’m not sure when I decided to put my name into the script as a character. I’ve acted a few times in my films, usually as a form of parodic masquerade or as a grotesque alter-ego that lampoons stereotypes, such as a privileged artist class. I hoped that acting in my films would destabilize the narrative and that the awkward self-reflexivity would confuse and hopefully positively provoke the viewer by suggesting a documentary aspect to the fiction. This might be a reflection of the contradictory relationship I have to sincerity in my films: often times, especially in the earlier films, the work was cloaked in a thick sarcasm and irony, even in relation to my presence as an actor or character in the storylines, but at the same time, in a hidden way, they were highly personal pieces. They are personal because the ideas or themes discussed in them often preoccupy me in my day-to-day in a very practical way: one example is the relationship between art and politics, which is an issue that has always preoccupied me in my own practice. So I think my appearance in the films is complicated, and intentionally so: it is at once ironic and sincere, “documentary” and farce, a playful provocation and a serious form of self-reflection and self-criticism.

When I started making work, I had no idea that I would end up trying to make “funny” work. A lot of the art that I started responding to during my time at university was imbued with playfulness, irony, sarcasm or wry humor, and I naturally started making work that tried to have similar qualities. There is a film that I really love, Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges, that follows a hot-shot Hollywood comedy director who is tired of making what he considers “fluff” films and sets out to direct a socially relevant drama about inequality in the US, but is reminded by his producer that he doesn’t know the first thing about inequality, being a very wealthy Hollywood film director. Sullivan doesn’t waste any time and sets out on a trip across the US pretending to be homeless in order to learn about the suffering of the poor, only to find out throughout his ill-begotten journey that many comedies or “fluff” films seemed to be more relevant and connect with the people he wanted to make a film about than the “prestige” social drama he was setting out to make. I think there is something to this idea, and that it is a root of the politics of cinema, which was born as a cheap mass-media spectacle—the inheritor of slapstick vaudeville and burlesque comedy routines thought to be too gauche for the elites, and marketed to the poor through cineodeons and nickelodeons located in the poorest neighborhoods of urban centers. Charlie Chaplin is a really iconic character in this history, clearly political, satirical, and humorous. There is a beautiful scene in Modern Times (1936) where a red warning flag falls off the back of a pickup truck and Chaplin grabs it and chases after the vehicle, waving the flag trying to get the driver’s attention, and while he is doing this a massive union protest rounds the street corner behind him, making him seem like the red-flag-waving leader of an anti-capitalist march. I think this scene is a good metaphor for Chaplin’s career: comedy is used as a way to camouflage progressive politics.

I was thinking of the way the human/animal relationship is approached allegorically in the play, and how you open to the film with a man leaning next to a tree, later joined by another man with a goat that used to be his wife, and I was wondering if you had any thoughts on these two modes of storytelling—an ancient Greek play and a raconteur-like figure—center the relationship between human and animals differently?

The two men talking at the beginning of the story are telling stories adapted from The Arabian Nights. It is another foundational text that has inspired me (I adapted another story from the book in The Hunchback, co-directed with Ben Rivers (2014)). The history of The Arabian Nights as a text, having come out of the oral tradition—that is, of anonymous, and supposedly multi-author, provenance—that spans and mixes various cultures, geographies, and religions ranging from Eastern India to the Middle East, and then was appropriated and reformulated for European eighteenth-century audiences by Antoine Galland, had a relationship to the themes I wanted to touch upon in Birds. I didn’t want to make the film about this text as well, but I let myself be inspired by it and have it show up in the film.

As for animals, they have a really important role in most of my films. I love filming animals. One of my favorite films is Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), and the role of the animal as the innocent abused beast in the middle of the machinations of farmers, children, and rapscallion drug traffickers was moving to me.

You reference Chaplin and comedy being a way to camouflage progressive politics. I live in the United States where the divide between so-called progressive politics and right-wing conservatism is so profound that no language can seemingly bridge it. Right-wing ideology and its lack of basic common sense (the refusal to wear masks for example) could almost be comedic if it weren’t so deeply racist and destructive. The US might be in dire need of good comedy, Chaplin style, but I also wonder if (progressive) humor only preaches to the converted, and if certain messages can only get through if one is inclined to receive them. In that sense, I doubt that cinema can achieve “more” than an experimental type of cinema (in one of your interviews, you mention that “Lena Dunham’s use-potential is far greater” than Chantal Akerman’s) because I’m not sure of what the “use-potential” of a movie could be.

The current moment is really strange for comedy. On the one hand, there is a current of sometimes overly cautious self-censorship in order to avoid offense, and, as Angela Nagle suggests, the right has all but fully appropriated the banner of free speech from the left. On the other hand, the news has by force of current events become so close to what used to be enacted as parody and satire, that it is hard for comedians to come up with fresh material that lampoons or exaggerates upon the already unfathomably grotesque caricatures that occupy current real world politics.

I don’t agree with what I said about Dunham and Ackerman. I was exaggerating a contrast to make a point about why I was interested in cinema as a popular form and not as a rarefied elite cultural product, and hence juxtaposing Dunham as a “popular” director and writer with a broad audience with Akerman’s more specific cinephile euro arthouse audience. Whether there is any practical use for cinema (and art in general) is debatable, but art moves me, makes me think, opens my mind, exposes me to the new and unexpected (even if it is just adding to my discourse and not necessarily “converting’” me or anyone else across party lines or anything, which I agree in today’s increasingly polarized political landscape is seemingly impossible). I also think that films still function as a way to “move the needle” on public opinion: the writer of Milk (2008), the Harvey Milk biopic, said that that was his objective—to write scripts that could somehow nudge the needle of public opinion, and I think he succeeded. I definitely think that films are always nudging the needle. There are also movies that have a very concrete political or activist function—such as Thin Blue Line (1988), that got a wrongly convicted person out of prison for example.

You come from an art background (you studied at the Cooper Union) and are now operating in the world of cinema. Your last movie, Diamantino, was well-received and widely screened. Did you move towards cinema because you considered it to be more political in terms of the audiences you wanted to reach and the messages you wanted to communicate? Do you now exclusively produce film or do you go back and forth between various genres?

What kind of films to you produce with Artificial Humors?

I started out as a painter, and painted since I was a child. I always thought I would be a visual artist and didn’t really consider becoming a film director. At Cooper I started really falling in love with cinema, I think for a number of reasons: I fell in love with the spectacle, with the effects, with the fantasy made by the “magic factory” and the “cinema of attractions.” But I was also attracted to cinema as a form of public art, and to its history as a popular cultural form. At the time I was conflicted about making and exhibiting artwork for a very exclusive niche, and the negative political implications that had for me, and felt very inspired by the broad reach of films. Diamantino is the first film I have directed that has a slightly broader reach, but it is still a very niche and eccentric European arthouse film. In February I opened a show in Lisbon at MAAT, Programmed Melancholy,where I reinstalled a large group of video installations, as well as a virtual reality piece, sculptures, watercolors, and paintings. The paintings were all made specifically for the show, and marked a really big shift for me, because I had not painted for over a decade. Maybe the success of Diamantino as a film to be shown in cinemas prompted me to reinvigorate my art practice through painting and watercolor and VR installations. My work is evolving, I think I will try to make films that try to cross over and have a broader appeal, and simultaneously allow myself to embrace a more hermetic visual art practice that I have avoided for so long.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a show for Kunstverein Salzburg, and will make an animation, installation, and paintings for it, continuing the work that I made for Programmed Melancholy. I am also getting started on the preproduction of my second feature film, which will be a horror film that takes place in Tras-os-Montes, the remote mountainous region in the north of Portugal where part of my family is from.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Theater
Video Art, Documentary, Humor & Comedy, Animals
Return to Here is where we are
Return to Artist Cinemas

Gabriel Abrantes was born in North Carolina, United States, in 1984. His films have premiered at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and Semaine de la Critique - Cannes, Berlinale, Locarno Film Festival, the Venice Biennial, and the Toronto International Film Festival. He currently lives and works in Lisbon.


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