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FILMS Portugal

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Who Is Bárbara Virgínia?: Restoring the memory of Portuguese cinema

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- Luísa Sequeira’s feature debut brings the only female director to make a film during the Portuguese dictatorship back to the limelight

Who Is Bárbara Virgínia?: Restoring the memory of Portuguese cinema

Female empowerment is not a recent topic, but it has certainly gained higher visibility in recent years with women publicly demanding equal payment in companies and equal rights in society. The film sector, traditionally run by men, has been no exception. In fact, very few female directors have garnered as much attention as their male counterparts, and history tended to pay no mind to some of them. In the tiny world of Portuguese cinema, one particular case of obliviousness has recently stood out from the darkness. If you have never heard of Bárbara Virgínia, you are probably not alone – and that’s why the documentary Who Is Bárbara Virgínia? by journalist and curator-turned-director Luísa Sequeira, which screened last weekend at Porto/Post/Doc, is an essential film to restore part of the memory of Portuguese cinema.

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With very few references in local filmographies, Virgínia has been relatively unknown for decades, despite the fact that she was the first woman to direct a fiction film in 1940s dictatorial Portugal, and also the first Portuguese woman to present a film at Cannes, back in 1946, during the festival’s first edition. She was only 22 back then. From that Cannes competition title, Três Dias Sem Deus, all we are left with is footage that lasts 22 minutes and has no sound. Most of it was destroyed in a fire at the Portuguese Film Museum. Sequeira found this forgotten story when she was preparing a project about women in Portuguese cinema – and she decided to turn it into a documentary.

Três Dias Sem Deus was the only feature-length film ever directed by Virgínia. She also made a documentary short, A Aldeia dos Rapazes, and years later – when she wanted to direct again – her script for a biopic of poet António Nobre was rejected, and the film did not get financed. Disappointed, Virgínia moved to Brazil, where she continued her life as a radio personality. Her subsequent trips to Portugal and attempts to return to cinema were marked by a general indifference towards her persona. Sequeira’s film points to a conservative and patriarchal society as the reason for Virgínia’s interrupted film career – despite the positive reviews written by (male) journalists upon her film’s local premiere in 1945.

Sequeira adopts an intimate tone in her film, shooting herself during her research trips, checking archives, and narrating her own curiosity and restlessness about Virgínia. After several phone enquiries, Luísa went to Rio de Janeiro to meet Virgínia in person, when she was informed of the old lady’s death. This almost brought the project to a permanent halt, but in a tour de force, Sequeira moved forward and made a film based on archive images, radio interviews and testimonies by Virgínia’s daughter, built as a tale of an auspicious debut followed by an unexpected downfall.

As in Nos Interstícios da Realidade, another local documentary in which director João Monteiro followed the trail of late filmmaker António de Macedo, Who Is Bárbara Virgínia? is imbued with a nostalgic tone, showing the life and work of someone whose promising career faded away in a stifling environment where proactive artists encountered as much opposition from the regime as they did from their peers.

Now that Who Is Bárbara Virgínia? is ready to enter the festival circuit, Sequeira is already working on two other projects: Nada a temer, a documentary co-directed with visual artist Sama about the current political situation in Brazil, and a doc about the 1971 book As Novas Cartas Portuguesas, which was censored by the dictatorial regime.

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