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Catarina Vasconcelos • Director of The Metamorphosis of Birds

“If I don’t know it, I can invent it”


- Cineuropa caught up with Catarina Vasconcelos to talk about The Metamorphosis of Birds, the winner of the Vilnius Film Festival, right after the online awards ceremony

Catarina Vasconcelos  • Director of The Metamorphosis of Birds

“I was happy that they managed to have a festival anyway, in such complicated and singular times,” Lisbon-born Catarina Vasconcelos told Cineuropa after her hybrid documentary The Metamorphosis of Birds [+see also:
film review
interview: Catarina Vasconcelos
film profile
was named Best Film at the Vilnius Film Festival (see the news) for its portrayal of loss and family relations combined with gentle, poetic narration. “We need to keep on going!”

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Cineuropa: When watching your film, you feel as if you could just close your eyes and listen to it instead. What was your thinking behind combining these stories with visual equivalents that are not always obvious?
Catarina Vasconcelos: It took me six years to make this film. I started with something personal, with my family, and then I got quite concerned – I didn’t want it to be just some family story that no one else could connect to. At the same time, I don’t come from a cinema background, so I had nothing to lose. I was able to try things out. I come from fine arts, and suddenly, I started to have all these visions, taking me back to paintings, for example. You know when you are completing a jigsaw puzzle and all of these elements start to come together? That’s how it happened here, in a very weird way.

You talk about people not understanding the concept of birds’ migration at first, but “what human beings can’t explain, they invent”. Is that something you also wanted to do with your family?
Definitely. My family was extremely generous when I started. I interviewed my uncles and aunts, but there were some things they wouldn’t tell me. At the beginning, it felt a bit harsh. “Why are they keeping these secrets?” And then I understood that’s how it works in families. There are some things you don’t say. But if I don’t know it, I can invent it. That’s what we do! Even when trying to find a cure for the coronavirus. I think there is a sense of that in the film: sometimes you have to invent things in order for them to exist.

You show a certain balance in the way nature reflects people’s lives. But nowadays, this balance is certainly off.
Thinking about death made me think about our relationship with nature. Because in nature, it’s something that just happens – death connects us all. Human beings, animals, plants. So is the experience of loss, as the elephants bury their own, too! Nature gave me hope, mostly because of its cycles. You have autumn, winter, but then comes the spring, and it feels like you are born again. One day, I was just staring at the leaves, thinking how similar they look to our skin, to what we are. I could relate to it so easily and make all these parallels – also between the funeral of the bird [shown in the film] and what we normally do when somebody passes away. I don’t know if you remember the first time you realised we are going to die. It can be quite shocking. Thinking about the bird makes these kids think about their father, but in that moment, they are surrounded by nature. That gives them some consolation, I think.

Despite all the seriousness, there are moments when you show your sense of humour. Like when a list of things women were “supposed” to do, like knitting, cooking or “taking care of the houses that belonged to men”, is interrupted by the noise of the hairdryer.
When I was doing the research about my grandmother, it ended up being research about women in the 1950s and 1960s in Portugal, during the dictatorship. Today, things are still quite unfair, but back then, it was just unbelievable. There was this idea that men ruled everything: their word was the word of God. But in my family, my grandmother was the one keeping everything together – my grandfather was always at sea! In the scene that you mention, the narrator also says, “Women get pregnant and they abort.” It was something that would happen all the time, but nobody would talk about it. Women just had to deal with it. I wanted to talk about it all even more.

You decided to share some very specific details, like your grandfather’s dying wish to burn all the letters addressed to your grandmother. Is it harder when you can’t hide behind some creative invention?
That’s a really good question. It was very hard to deal with his decision. From the moment I found out to the moment the letters were burnt, it took two years, but at the beginning, I was very angry. Then you go through all these stages of grief [laughs]. It was important to have it in the film as something beautiful, also because the actual burning wasn’t very special. But, as you know, if I can’t have it the way I want, I will invent it. I will make a memory I would like to keep. I showed the film to my family before all the festivals, and I was afraid of their reaction. But then one of my uncles told me something nice. He said: “Some things weren’t like this, but maybe they were.”

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