By Yun-hua Chen.
Most of my films are about male characters going through some sort of coming of age or the process of becoming adults even if they are at different moments of life…. When you start talking about vulnerability, you can extend into different directions.”
Winner of the Europa Cinemas Label as Best European Film at the 75th Locarno Film Festival, Tommy Guns situates itself in an encapsulated time and space that is indeterminate and resisting the change of time. It is set in Angola, after years of civil war, when the colony gradually reclaims its sovereignty from the Portuguese colonizers and their descendants. A nun provides medical assistance in an aboriginal tribe. An indigenous girl meets a young Portuguese soldier who brings love and death at the same time. From the preludes, the narrative drifts to a group of young soldiers barracked inside a walled communities and trained against an enemy that they do not see with their own eyes, until they realize that this is the Plato’s Cave.
A beautiful fable and a bold metaphor, Tommy Guns reflects upon political manipulation, brutal encounters between two worlds because of power imbalance, the model of exploitation, and the fear of the unknown.
Film International talks with the director, producer and scriptwriter of Tommy Guns, Carlos Conceição, in Locarno about this particular film world that he created.
I like the structure of the film, from the nun and the girl, the girl and the soldier, and then to the soldiers. What were your thoughts behind the film structure?
It just happened. I needed characters that would give me different perspectives. In a way to create some sort of a fresco. So, we would go from moments to moments to build a fresco, and that would somehow lead me to the twist that we just mentioned in a more progressive way. It’s almost like the real protagonist is the sort of feelings or the ideas that go from person to person.
You were born in Angola and moved to Lisbon in 2002. It’s interesting to see that this film also started in Angola and ended in Lisbon.
My friend António Gonçalves, who co-edited the film with me and who was also a production partner in Mirabilis, said to me once that he thought that the film was maybe subconsciously autobiographical because when I was in Angola. During the final years of my stay there, I really wanted to leave because I was studying English while knowing that I wanted to study film, and I could not wait to leave and go to a film school. I was really unhappy and uncomfortable and really wanted to go away. António said that he thought of the wall as that struggle somehow, but that’s just the micro-perspective of my own. I’d like to think that many people have had this feeling and gone through this transition.
You started with a woman leading the way and ended with a woman leading the way, and in the middle of the film it was very much focused on men…
I feel that the film was not dominated by men, but rather, it’s always related to the idea of and the reflection on the motherland, as we see the women in the beginning and in the end. In the middle, it was sort of abstractions because these soldiers were orphans in a way. So, there is one female figure embodying the idea of the motherland which somehow creates the bridge between the first woman and the last one.
The film plays with some genre conventions. What are your thoughts about genres in arthouse filmmaking?
There are some genre elements that I borrowed for what I was trying to talk about. I was trying to make a point, a fictitious one obviously, on nationalism somehow. To me, the genre elements in the film embody the same ghosts or the same things that are missing in an objective observation of nationalism, so it’s almost like fleshing out an idea through cinematic codes, which I consider the trick of genre cinema, and horror films in particular. It’s the embodiment of larger ideas.
The idea of motherland and motherhood is entwined with the theme of a missing mother, which is also in your other films. What fascinates you most about this theme?
Most of my films are about male characters going through some sort of coming of age or the process of becoming adults even if they are at different moments of life. The idea of the absence of the mother, the threat of the missing mother, or the threat of losing a mother is always about ultimate vulnerability for me. That’s some very nice material somehow. It’s very interesting and relatable. When you start talking about vulnerability, you can extend into different directions.
Can you tell us about the film location of army barracks? Where did you film that part of the film and how did you find the location?
That’s production design. We shot that in Portugal. We used an army shooting range which is a huge area of the army. It’s a huge area with a lot of similarities to the south of Angola, and southern Africa in general, including the vegetation, the landscape, and the color of the earth, so we built our set there.
Did you feel the irony of shooting a film about colonialism in Angola in a military base in Portugal?
It’s ironic. Somehow, when you use army properties in Portugal, they cannot charge you any money, so these places are usually a possibility for filmmaking. It’s very common for the army to have collaborations with film companies and stuff like that.
If I recognize some sort of influence, I kind of walk the other way and deliberately go around it. Being a cinephile means that you accidentally have a lot to drink from.”
Sound is a very strong element in your film. What’s your thoughts behind the sound design?
I also studied sound design when I was in the film school. Sound is always the soul of the film somehow. I’d like to think that cinematography is the mind, and the sound is the heart, and I also feel that the sound of the film is about everything you don’t see. So, you can actually create a lot of elements in the film to say that although it is not there, you can perceive it by listening to them. It is therefore much more interesting to create a lot of different layers in sound than what is possible in images.
You have worked in many different formats of the audio-visual medium, including music videos and video installations a long time ago. Do different formats mean different expressions for you?
Expression is expression. Narrative is narrative. It’s just that stories have different sizes. I have made a film that is 59 minutes long, and it’s because that’s the length it needs to have. For a story like this one, it makes sense to have a longer format because there is a lot to be said. But there are also many stories that are somehow told in 15 or 20 minutes. I prefer shorter narratives, but I think they are more difficult to create because of condensation. The necessity of condensing the narrative and making it very light leaves very little room to be cinematic if you are concerned with information. And, I don’t have those ideas that can somehow be told through a lot of abstractions, so I always need some playground in order for information to be transmitted. But I also feel the need to play with images, so making short films becomes much more difficult.
You have broadly used elements of ghosts, zombies, and supernatural elements in your films. In this film they seem to be the reincarnation of the past that reclaims the land?
In this film, the ghosts for me are the dead revolutionaries. I am sort of making them return from the grave and give back their voices and the possibility of redemption. This is what they are seeking somehow, a redemptive arrangement with the soldiers.
There is a strong sense of alienation and entrapment in the film.
When I look back, I feel that my first shorts are all about people being trapped in an isolated place, isolated from the rest of the world either by hazard or by option. I wonder if these films are not already about this idea of alienation from reality, which kind of becomes a bit more present and more obvious somehow in Tommy Guns. This sense of alienation from reality and from the present was there and is transmitted to other characters.
My favorite filmmakers are classical filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Raoul Roche, a lot of the melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s, and Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say that they are direct influences because when I think of films, I always try to find my own way of expressing it. If I recognize some sort of influence, I kind of walk the other way and deliberately go around it. Being a cinephile means that you accidentally have a lot to drink from.
The appearance of a woman in the barracks seems to be the catalyst in the film….
It’s a moment of transition in the film because we gradually understand that these characters have very little contact with other people in general, and with women in particular. The fact that someone comes from outside gives them the perspective of a completely different world, and the fact that this person is a woman in her late 30s and early 40s gives them this idea of their mothers that they haven’t seen for a long time, as we realize later on. My idea is to create the duality between sexual desire and motherly tenderness in a kind of trance moment. That, to me, is a sort of a possibility to create this moment of beauty for her character that somehow rises above the initial impression of a sex worker. She is not a sex worker to me. She is kind of a Greek tragedy heroine, Electra or Helen of Troy, someone that somehow brings the light to this crack in the world.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).