Illustrative Stories: Joaquim Pinto Recalls the Making of What Now? Remind Me (Web Exclusive)
by Aaron Cutler
The film What Now? Remind Me (2013) sets out to tell a life story. The life under question belongs to Portuguese film artist Joaquim Pinto, who shares it with us. In earlier times (recalled in voice-over), he served as a sound designer and producer for great filmmakers and cherished friends, several of whom—including Robert Kramer, João Cesar Monteiro, Raúl Ruiz, and Werner Schroeter—have passed away. In late 2011, he has been living with HIV and HCV (Hepatitis C Virus) for two decades and, in tandem with his husband Nuno Leonel, he has largely stepped away from cinema with a focus towards his health.
What Now? Remind Me—much of which Pinto himself narrates in diaristic fashion—unfolds over the course of the ensuing calendar year as he tries a new Madrid-based medical treatment. The film presents his journeys and struggles with an emphasis on the moment-to-moment passage of time. We sit with Joaquim while he lies awake at night and describes his sharp headaches; and we walk with him while he carries the camera outdoors on his and Nuno’s farm during the daytime, making an effort to appreciate his surroundings’ beauties nonetheless.
Throughout the film, Joaquim’s concentration breaks into fragments that he fights to piece back together. In contrast to his wavering mind stands the calm firmness of Nuno, forever focused and silently staring at the hurdles that lie in front of the couple. This story of a life also tracks a still-developing love relationship, in which people change over time through exchanges with one another. When Joaquim hesitates to tend to himself, Nuno challenges him to do so. Joaquim challenges his husband in turn to surrender a distant attitude and grow closer to him in order to help.
“I have to want to believe,” says Joaquim in a film about finding faith in oneself. What Now? Remind Me shows some of the challenges of seeking such faith as well as many of the search’s rewards, and suggests its own creation to be part of this larger process.
The film won the Jury Prize at last year’s edition of the Locarno International Film Festival, and opened theatrically in the United States this August courtesy of The Cinema Guild. Its U.S. theatrical premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center coincided with the repertory series “A Life Less Ordinary: The Films of Joaquim Pinto,” whose lineup featured Pinto’s rare early fiction features, long unavailable to the general public for rights reasons.
I interviewed the filmmaker over Skype in anticipation of his Lincoln Center events. The conversation has since been edited between us and is being published here as a monologue. —Aaron Cutler
What Now? Remind Me is a diary film chronicling director Joaquim Pinto's experiences living with HIV
What Now? Remind Me reminds me that anything can be communicated between people—call it friendship, love, or whatever you like—and that feelings can be translated into concrete things perhaps perceptible to others. I would dedicate the film to Claudio Martinez, though doing so might be too obvious. I will dedicate it to Nuno. I first told Nuno about the work of the Portuguese poet Ruy Belo many years ago, but it was Nuno reading Belo’s poems to me during our filming. It was Nuno who read me the Bible on every trip that we took to Madrid together, who stayed with me at the hospital and during our long waits, who forced me to look at Francisco de Holanda’s work with fresh eyes, and who so often locked our foci together into the act of editing our film in order to create sequences that could not have existed otherwise. He helped me to be concise in my speech, and avoid my tendencies to talk too much and lose myself in all directions.
I will start on that note.
Michel Foucault was someone whose work I reread before beginning to make What Now? Remind Me. I felt that I had to come back to him because, even if I disagreed with some of his views, he was an influence in my youth. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were three main lines of thought that framed intellectual ways of looking at films and thinking about life—Marxism, psychoanalysis, and structuralism—all of which were taken like unquestioned truths.
I read Foucault back then as a result. I never met him, but I found out that he was close to friends of mine. I remember the day I read the newspaper. It was 1984. I was staying at the Parisian home of my friend Claudio, a film editor, and was about to leave to do the sound recording for a film in Rome. I went downstairs to buy some croissants and a copy of Libération. I was surprised to read the news of his death, but Claudio didn’t seem so at all.
This was at the beginning of the AIDS era. The disease didn’t become part of everyday discussions among people until it began touching those close to them. (Claudio himself would die of complications from HIV.) I chose to mention Foucault’s death in the film as part of recounting my memories because it marked a turning point in my life. His cause of death was not declared publicly then. It was people I knew that told me.
Eventually, it became clear to me that I had something. Initially I didn’t want to get checked because there were no good treatments available, so confirmation seemed useless. The first time I went, in 1997, my husband Nuno went for his own appointment, and we discovered that we both had HIV and HCV (Hepatitis C Virus). The major difference between us was that my defenses were extremely low—I had already gotten AIDS. Nuno’s defenses were still very high, which meant that he had probably been infected much more recently than I had been.
He’s a strong guy and over a decade younger than I am, so he’s been able to keep himself in good shape while exploring treatment options. We have tried several different treatments between us. We pursued one together with Interferon and a few other drugs in 2009, and it was a nightmare. The drugs didn’t work for Nuno, so he had to stop taking them. I grew violent, aggressive, and isolated, and Nuno couldn’t understand my behavior. I have very few memories of this period, but I know that it was hard for us.
We eventually sought out an experimental treatment whose facilities were based in Madrid. We agreed that I would go first. (It would be crazy for both members of a couple to be experimented on at the same time.) I stayed with the treatment for a full calendar year, even while my body reacted badly to it, and then finally went off the drugs with success—today HCV cannot be detected in my system. This process is largely what we document in What Now? Remind Me, and I am sure that it would not have been the same if we weren’t doing the film.
I could say that Nuno and I were disappointed at the start. We were disappointed with the Portuguese healthcare system and with its lack of options for us, but we were also disappointed with cinema. Nearly a decade prior we had made a documentary together called Rabo de Peixe (2003), focused on the life of a young boy in a fishing village who works artisanally, but we had done very little in cinema afterwards. For a while, prior to this treatment, we had given up doing films altogether. Then, as it approached, we thought that there were so many films being made about well-known subjects that it could be interesting for us to discuss things that had been forgotten.
HIV and HCV seemed like subjects that mass media were leaving largely uncovered. Before I started the treatment I was looking for films about them, and I didn’t find much. Some interesting records of people undergoing intensive medical care were realized by third parties, but I couldn’t find many compelling documents made by treatment patients themselves. I thought it intriguing to make a first-person film that would reflect on illness in general—not upon physical maladies, but on disease as an idea, with the thought that society as a whole is sick and could use help.
I didn’t want to make a self-portrait. The film would always be only passingly autobiographical. I didn’t think that my life was special, and if it weren’t for what I was going through, I wouldn’t have filmed my situation. Our goal was to make a film about disease as a social construct that would take my case as a metaphor. I would use myself to address how people in minority groups are perceived within their societies.
I wrote a long text full of ideas and presented it to the selection board of Portugal’s Instituto do Cinema e do Audiovisual [Film and Audiovisual Institute] as the basis for a documentary. It wasn’t accepted. The Instituto had and still has very little money available for film funding, so they approved only three documentary projects, and we were fourth in line.
I told Nuno that we should forget about doing a film—the treatment would be hard enough. He challenged me, though. He insisted that I write a letter to the committee explaining why I felt the project to be important, not just for me, but as a film. I did as he said, and it worked out. The jury found a little money for us.
We then needed a producer, so we agreed to work with the Portuguese company C.R.I.M. Productions, whose heads we knew because we had done the sound design for a beautiful, haunting period film of theirs directed by our friend Rita Azevedo Gomes called A Woman’s Revenge (2011). C.R.I.M. co-founder Joana Ferreira suggested we hire people to do our cinematography and sound. Nuno and I quickly understood, though, that we had to do it all ourselves.
We divided everything up between us using two different cameras. One was a high-definition, large-sensor camera that we intended to use most of the time, and the other was a smaller camera for moments in which we needed to be mobile, like the Madrid trips that I would take alone. The cameras had matching and interchangeable lenses and were set up such that we could do nearly everything with them by hand.
We began without a proper shooting schedule. There were some locations that we knew we wanted to film, like the primary research institute, as well as the Hospital do Desterro in Lisbon, which houses molds made of diseased people between the start of the twentieth century and the 1930s. These visits had to be planned.
There were also some events that we knew we wanted to stage for the camera. One was a re-enactment of my childhood dream of seeing the world upside down on a wall; we achieved it with a camera-obscura effect, which Nuno had never seen before. Another was a sex scene between us, the main reason being that if we were to show ourselves as a couple, then it would make sense to include a moment of intimacy. We weren’t anticipating exact dates on which to film such happenings—we just recorded them when it felt right.
For the bulk of the film, our process was quite free. We generally didn’t say that we were going to shoot some things today and some tomorrow, but tried to keep our attentions open. We made an effort with the film to reflect our daily lives, and what happened to us, to people we knew, and to our dogs during the year. Even virtually all the music that you hear on the soundtrack—pop, rock, jazz, and classical—consists of what we were listening to during this period.
Our approach entailed that we not preconceive a way to portray our relationship. Nuno appears in front of the camera in small glimpses during the film’s first several scenes, performing simple actions like driving a car and sleeping. I announce in voice-over that he is unwilling to participate any more in the film than he already is, just to be clear with the viewer.
This was during the first part of the film shoot, which was fairly smooth. The deeper I went into the treatment, though, the more my body reacted against it, and the more emotionally unstable I became, to the point of my sometimes not knowing what we were recording.
Nuno had to compensate for me at these times, which is part of why I can say honestly that the film approached us. Nuno’s decision to stop making films had initially been final. He hadn’t wanted to go back. It was my idea to make this one and he followed me, sometimes not as an artistic collaborator, but as someone giving a gift. I am certain that as we advanced and my ability to contribute weakened, he grew more involved.
For example, Nuno comes from an animation background, and he promised early on that he would draw something for me to put in the film. He never talked about it afterwards, but then one day I saw him at work. The film contains a short animated sequence of birds flying as a result. He was letting me see through his eyes.
What Now? Remind Me emerges at the cross points between my sensitivities and Nuno’s. I signed the film, but we are four eyes and four ears and two minds. In the earlier fiction features that I directed alone—Tall Stories (1988), Where the Sun Beats (1989), and Twin Flames (1992)—I think I was concentrated largely on capturing the human figure. The films’ stories revolve around people forming relationships with one another, and if you remember how Pier Paolo Pasolini presents his actors’ bodies in several of his films, then you can perhaps sense what I was after. Nuno opened me to another way of looking at things.
There is a moment in What Now? Remind Me where I present my early directorial efforts at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, and I say in voice-over, “I do not know how to talk about films. We talk about lives, about experiences.” What I mean to say with this is that I enjoy reflecting on films but that I cannot stay objective about them. I feel a visceral reaction to films, like something organic. This would happen to me even when I was working on other peoples’ films. When I did sound, I would get close to the actors, and their performances would fill my ears. A line of dialogue sometimes wouldn’t sound right, the project would begin to fail to make sense, and I would find it difficult to keep working. I left a few films before they finished their shoots, and while I would be able to invent some reason for doing so, I would be masking the real one. I can phrase this reason in religious terms: I had lost faith.
During the shooting of What Now? Remind Me, Nuno and I were inspired to also make a film called The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John (2013), in which our friend the great actor Luís Miguel Cintra reads aloud from the Gospel of John. (What Now? Remind Me contains some scenes of us at work on this film.) Christ is key to Nuno. I am not religious, and we have heated discussions between us about matters of faith. I will speak only for myself: I truly doubt that Jesus Christ actually wanted to start a church. I see him as an illuminated person that spoke about a number of ideas that were present before him. He merged theory and praxis. In the strength of his words and of his life, he was able to enlighten people.
Our New Testament’s creation proved important to me. At the time, I was close to abandoning the What Now? Remind Me project, since I had discovered after one of my Madrid trips that the main researcher at my clinic was going to be tried for performing tests on patients without their consent—and that, furthermore, he had spoken publicly about homosexuality as a mental problem. I was shocked when I learned the news about him. I even considered ditching the treatment, but Nuno told me, “Don’t be stupid. It’s your health.”
I recorded the sounds of Luís Miguel speaking the Gospel of John, and the act of absorbing the text—not just reading it, but hearing it spoken aloud—offered me new meanings. In the years immediately following Christ’s death, the Gospel was transmitted orally, only becoming a written document after half a century or so. Receiving its words this way surprised me and caught my reflection. I think that the text’s message that you can rise through Christ’s words touched me from an early age. John differs from the other three Gospels to me in that it most clearly states how Christ resolves the central contradiction of the Jewish tradition: God speaks a universal message for a specific chosen people, not for everyone. In the Gospel of John, Christ breaks with this by speaking to all.
Francisco de Holanda was another figure that crossed our path during the making of What Now? Remind Me, and he, too, became an important part of it. Holanda emerged for us by chance. He was a sixteenth-century Portuguese artist who followed a curious path in which he gave everything up and tried to find meaning by reducing life to its most basic means, in much the same way that primitive Christians tried to do.
He spent nearly thirty years of his life writing and hand-painting a unique manuscript called The Illustrated Ages of the World (1545–1573). Holanda started creating it in Portugal when he was young, and then carried it with him wherever he went, revising it according to his own decisions and to social pressures. (Once the Inquisition came to Portugal, he had to redo some parts because his views of the Bible and of world history were not accepted.) Dom Sebastian of Portugal died in 1580, and the Spanish ruled our country for several decades afterwards. King Philip II of Spain, who became King Philip I of Portugal, took Holanda’s book with him to Spain as a teaching tool for his children. The book has not left Spain since then.
I once tried to produce a film about Holanda that didn’t get made for various reasons. At the time I started the Madrid treatment, Nuno told me that the book had been rediscovered at the Spanish National Library, so I started to find ways to have access to it. The library’s staff doesn’t show the book publicly. It’s kept locked inside a safe. So amidst everything else that was going on in my life, I spent a whole year trying to access this manuscript with the help of my friend José Maria Prado, who directs the Spanish Film Archive. My permission was granted only during my last visit to Madrid, at the end of my treatment.
Upon seeing The Illustrated Ages of the World, I lost my breath. This has happened to me with other works of art—some great films that I have seen projected for the first time, or Mark Rothko’s paintings when I saw them in New York. It is a sensation that cannot be conveyed through reproduction. You have to face the object. I looked through the book, filming images and making discoveries, including a line from Virgil reprinted on Holanda’s last page: “NUNC SCIO QUID SIT AMOR.” “Now I know what love is.” And just by chance and accident, I misread the first two words as “Nuno.”
I think that we all depend upon our surroundings. We are dependent, each of us, on things to the point of getting addicted to them—cigarettes, coffee, drugs. My drug is Nuno. Whenever he and I separate for some time, even if it’s just two days, I end up feeling hung over. It’s like I’ve severed something that I shouldn’t separate from myself. I thought about this throughout our filming. We only began looking at and editing our material after my treatment period had ended, and when we did, I felt that it should be reflected in the film’s voice-over.
I took many notes while we were editing, but didn’t record any voice-over then. The first time that our producers saw the film, it was a rough cut without voice-over, and I was doing a live running commentary that helped me sense which words could work well. Then we invited Luís Miguel Cintra, and he loved what he saw, so much so that he was disappointed to see the film with voice-over afterwards. In time, though, he told me, “Now I understand that you wanted to make a political film.” Simply showing our lives was not enough for us. We felt that we needed some spoken commentary in order to make our meanings explicit.
The film’s voice-over also exists partly because Nuno and I are silent in many scenes. It was often impossible for us to talk because one of us was holding a camera and we didn’t want to just put it somewhere. The film does not reflect our reality entirely in this sense: We share a constant, unending conversation every day about everything. Even this morning, Nuno was reading me a text that the philosopher Henri Bergson wrote in the 1920s about cinematography. Bergson’s work expresses the idea that consciousness emerges from a perfect relationship between subject and object. It doesn’t exist by itself, but exists only in this relationship that you can establish with another being and that can transcend words.
This is what I think can happen between you and a dog or between you and a fly. What Now? Remind Me contains many images of us regarding animals—bees, dogs, flies, grasshoppers, slugs. I feel that full communication between you and another being is only possible when you overcome fear. You only start to establish an energy flow once the barrier of fear is broken and you surrender yourself to the other.
For instance, the film contains a long shot of a damselfly. We’re looking at her. She’s looking at us. In the beginning she’s gazing from the side, and then she comes around to look us in the eyes. Then she leaves and comes back to the shot twice. My feeling is that, after a first moment of connection, she’s inviting me to fly with her. Of course I can’t, but she’s coming and going as if to extend the invitation and then finally returns because she understands. She decides to stay, and then she does something amazing, which is that she turns her back on me. Only an animal that has lost fear will peacefully turn its back on you. And then she turns again.
I don’t pretend to own the final analysis, but to me this moment represents a vital kind of connection that is being lost to us as we live mediated lives through objects. We don’t grasp the Earth. We treat it as something far away. We’ve been losing touch with our most basic elements. Nuno and I wanted to make a call to return to them. We thought that our method was right for this project, and we followed it without trying to adhere to any schools or genres. I don’t think that I will make a similar film—in fact, I don’t know what I will do. (I have ideas.)
With that said, I think that What Now? Remind Me can be useful. There is an ongoing trend towards controlling minority groups that is widening all over Europe. You don’t need to go to Iran or to Turkey to witness it. Even here in Portugal, one sees growth by the fundamentalist right—not the Catholic right, but the fundamentalist right—in ways I find frightening. Gay marriage is legal in Portugal, but gay adoptions and co-adoptions are not. Most people who live in Portugal with HIV are unemployed and can be easily fired from jobs, since their employers know that the courts would likely uphold the firings. There are many people in my country today who are trying to hide themselves. I think that if I can serve as a voice for them, then the film can help.
I say at one point in What Now? Remind Me that, “I have to want to believe.” My impulse behind the line was twofold. One thought was to discuss how one navigates one’s faith. The other was to stress a person’s freedom to choose what he or she becomes.
I don’t believe I have accomplished anything. I feel that each day I start over. The film offers closure, but I have to keep living. Nuno and I still regularly have fights that keep us from whatever the ideal of a balanced relationship might be. We still strive to stay focused. The Spanish health system has now been closed off to foreigners, and here in Portugal very little is happening. Our government’s main cuts following its recent economic crisis have been to education and to healthcare. There’s barely money available for the most basic medical treatments, so it’s not expected that more advanced drugs will come soon.
I hope that Nuno stays well and that he keeps going strong until we figure out how to solve his problems. My sense of wellness has improved. I am relieved from this hard period when we were shooting our film. The Spanish hospital where I was undergoing my tests will probably be closed shortly, and some of its employees will be fired and others transferred to other facilities. The last time I went to Spain was to say goodbye to them. So I have to go on with the Portuguese healthcare system now, but I feel better. With ups and downs, yes, but I feel better.
Aaron Cutler lives in São Paulo and keeps a Website, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.
What Now? Remind Me is distributed in the United States by The Cinema Guild, http://cinemaguild.com.
More information about Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s work with cinema, publishing, and other fields can be found at their Website,http://www.presente.pt/index.html.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4