For an island in the middle of the Atlantic there is a hell of a lot of film equipment here – also film people. I perhaps had an unusual perspective on this as for the first year of living on São Miguel my family rented a house from a film producer who happened to be in the middle of a big national production – Lobo e Cão. We were surrounded by crew and actors for almost a year, even hauled in to be extras in one scene. And then there is the local branch Portuguese’s national TV channel RTP, seeming to be almost everywhere, interviewing almost everyone about everything from the price of milk to the opening of a new bakery. However, I never expected to find on the island a film director such as Diogo Lima, born and bought up in Ribeira Grande watching RTP and yet also steeped in modern international film trends. It’s this unique combination of Azorean heritage with his own witty take on the mockumentary which makes his first feature film, Os Ultimos Dias do Emmanuel Raposo, so surprising and in my mind special. It’s 45 minutes of perfectly pitched gentle comedy with characters who appear almost spookily real. This makes sense, I realized, when I met up Diogo and realized straight-away that the harried and put-upon film director in the movie is played by himself. A man of many talents.
Interviewer: Diogo, congratulations on your film The Last Days of Emanuel Raposo. I loved it. You told me that it was a bit like an Alan Partridge in the Azores and I think that is a good description. Can you explain your Azorean inspiration for the film?
Diogo: Thank you. The Alan Partridge description came from a couple of user’s comments I found on Letterboxd. Oddly enough, I hadn’t seen more than 15 minutes of it in my life until then. Some of Armando Iannuci’s work, though, is something I love revisiting time to time. The Thick of It is one of my favourite shows and I think I was rewatching it around the time I did Emanuel Raposo.
Most of the drive for setting this film around the world of TV production in the Azores probably comes from my early memories of watching RTP. It was my first window to the outside world before speedy, affordable internet was a thing. Until 2005, people without cable in the region would only have access to two TV channels. Instead of watching all the trendy animation other kids would mimic at school, I had to settle for RTP, which is the portuguese BBC, and its Azorean branch for a while. Compared to its national counterpart, RTP-Açores felt weird, dull and dated, but with time I grew extremely fond of it. I mean, until the digital era came along it was probably the cheapest, most easily-accessible means of watching Azorean news while also aggregating and showing the archipelago’s culture to its own people. It was our own kitsch, highly regionalist take on the majestic world of TV. They’d have locally-made fiction with non-professional actors. They’d have local ‘celebrity’ hosts and news anchors. They’d play local band music videos on breaks. They’d play helicopter footage of local landscapes with those 80s-90s Andean panpipe songs on the background. Plenty of pictures that got stuck in my head for a long time. Several years later, meeting The Last Days’ co-writer Francisco Lopes (the biggest RTP-A geek I know) and a couple of other guys from the crew born around the same time, slowly triggered the idea of making this film. We shared plenty of common references and had a lot of fun thinking of ways of turning this into half satire, half homage.
Interviewer: The film seems to be influenced quite a lot by experimental, meta-style filmmaking. Is that a style of film-making that is growing in popularity in Portuguese and Azorean cinema or is this an influence from further afield?
Diogo: In Portugal there have been some mockumentaries and/or (especially) TV shows playing with this sort of language over the past decade or two, and some of them certainly had an influence in my work. But overall I think they wouldn’t amount to a significant number to the point one could consider it a trend or a particular wave. While some of the meta elements in the film come naturally from its subject, I’m really fond of the idea of making reality and fiction indistinguishable in film. I’d say nothing’s particularly new in what we did here, mainstream or not. Exploring it in an original fashion is the tougher task. Take Rémy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog, Kiarostami’s Close-up or Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema – all of these films work with languages pretty close to documentary and forge some sort of reality to the point it becomes difficult to tell what’s what. I enjoy stimulating the audience’s curiosity this way and forcing it to question what they see.
The biggest compliment I heard was from people mistaking it for an actual documentary. The formal elements of fly-on-the-wall documentaries are an amazing tool to highlight certain feelings or ideas I’d have a harder time passing while shooting in a standard fiction manner. Also, trying to make the film closest to a unique 90s piece without falling in the banal VHS nostalgia trap was a delightful challenge and something our whole crew got deeply invested in with time.
Interviewer: Your crew were all local actors. How did they react to the experimental style of filmmaking that you practise?
Diogo: Overall it wasn’t too far off of what I think a regular film production would be. I was already acquainted or friends with most of the cast, which helped a lot. We did table readings and delved into the characters a bit before going into shooting. We had less than a week to record the whole thing and since only one of them was a professional actor (Mia Tomé) we had to shoot it on the cast’s free time so it was tough but everyone was lovely throughout. Shooting a film about recording a TV show can create a bit of a mess on set, especially when the director is in front of camera and your art director/wardrobe guy plays cameraman. But I tried to make the most of it and had the actors play along. My favourite scenes in the film come precisely from improvised moments when no one really knows if we’re still rolling or not. The style is more the result of working with brutal financial constraints rather than a rule-based, strict method of acting or filming. The crew, for instance, had a really hard time shooting it. We had to find locations almost until the last minute. We had three different sound operators because our guy who came from Lisbon had to quarantine at arrival in São Miguel. We used an old camera that RTP-Açores lent us but the tape recorder wasn’t working, so we had to use a small but heavy combination of gadgets to make it run. Such setbacks can take a hit on you especially if you’re working for no money. But the most admirable thing was that the crew also managed to play a crucial part in keeping the mood light so the pressure on the actors was kept on a minimum. Anxiety and all apart, it was a great experience.
Interviewer: You grew up in the Azores – was becoming a film director something that seemed possible back when you were in school?
Diogo: I don’t know. It felt difficult but not impossible. Growing up as a middle-class millennial in a fairly protective family can spoil you a bit. When you live in this beautiful albeit small island with close to no hardship to face there’s a lot of room for you to start growing some sense of almost entitlement where you feel life is a smooth ride and things will work out for you as long as you work hard. So as a teenager I was more worried that what I’d be as an adult would fulfil me personally. Being a film director seemed a great way to merge several interests in the arts and being creative while also leaving sort of a mark of my own. Then I left for Lisbon, enrolled in university, started my professional career and reality started doing its job of readjusting one’s expectations of life. I wouldn’t say I’m exclusively a film director, but I might be heading there.
Interviewer: What do you think are the important themes and questions that you can explore as a filmmaker here in the Azores? Has the Azores reached it’s potential as a film location?
Diogo: That’s up to whoever’s brave enough to shoot in the Azores. If making a film is hard per se, getting to do so on a set of islands 1500km away from continental Europe takes it to another level.
Your question is tricky, in a sense. Films don’t always exist to address specific questions or problems somewhere. Francisco Lacerda, for example, directs great genre short films that often draw elements from very specific mannerisms or elements of Azorean culture, but I’d say they come more from a love for cinema than the region itself. With that being said, there are plenty of stories in the islands waiting to be told. From historical narratives to contemporary social issue dramas, they come in all shapes and sizes. The archipelago has been visited by several productions that use it as a location in different ways, from film to ads to TV. You had prominent national filmmakers such as Manoel de Oliveira and Luis Filipe Rocha shooting in the islands. You had national TV productions, even soap operas being partly shot there. Most recently, arthouse director Cláudia Varejão shot a feature film and got deeply involved with local non-actors. Netflix produced a series based on a 2000’s story of this Italian ship dumping cocaine along the island’s coast. Those are nice steps, but I’d say the Azores is far from being drained as a territory people can shoot in.
Of course, certain repetition in stories of poverty and footage of the same green landscapes being shown over and over might become tiring and could even stigmatise certain segments of the local population. What I’d love to see more of is narratives shaped by people who are native to the islands. A mainlander’s gaze carries the risk of bringing a shallow approach to the subjects their films depict sometimes. The Azores is much more than poverty, drug addiction and tired poetic fantasies of hard-working fishermen or whatever.
Interviewer: What are the challenges of having a film industry in the Azores? How receptive are the Portuguese mainland to stories set in the Azores?
Diogo: The region’s audiovisual industry rather relies on TV, advertising or other kinds of commercial work to subsist. It’s a fragile ecosystem lacking in specialised technicians and infrastructure. That’s not to say fully local productions don’t exist, but they’re more exceptions or fleeting endeavours than a necessary norm in order for a film industry to sustainably survive.
Local government can only do so much in terms of funding – and that’s understandable for our dimension – but it steel feels opaque and lacking in policy regarding film. The region can and should run on its strengths as a potential location and attract foreign investment to it. We have the means to help overseas production companies do work in the archipelago and should think of it as a way of stimulating local economy rather than dull, boring cultural experiments.
As for the second question: most national movies have a hard time finding an audience anywhere in Portugal. This year, only five films out of twenty, thirty something had more than 10.000 spectators. So I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of how receptive would a mainland Portuguese audience be to a local film. It’s more a matter of if the film is good and properly marketed.
Interviewer: Next film? Any ideas?
Diogo: I spent 2022 directing and editing a TV show that’s premiering on RTP1 this December. It’s called “Sou Menino Para Ir” and it’s a 40 minute, 8 episode comedy reality/documentary series that features Lisbon comedian Salvador Martinha taking on challenges sent to him by viewers. There’s a lot of improvisation and the show relies heavily on the events happening on the days of shooting so it’s also quite intensive in terms of editing. Being heavily engaged in that project for so long made me want to take a vacation from thinking creatively for a while, but I’m sure ill be back sooner than later.