Culture, Globe, Screen, United Kingdom

Jose Vieira, a society’s scapegoats reveal its ghosts

Shocked that immigrants were again living in shanties, near Paris, José began to follow the Romanian and Roma people. Taking photos for them, led to making films, and being invited to Romania. He talks about giving voice to migrants through films made on a shoestring budget.


Graham Douglas


José Vieira was asked about his investigative method in an interview by Carlos Campos for the LEFFEST festival, which was not published. He replied that making a film was like a journey in which you are guided by the flavour of sensations. “I make a historical and sociological investigation, and I soak up the literature in order to find the words to tell the story (…) When I made Os Emigrantes (2009), I worked a lot with the idea of the double absence, which the sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad wrote about with that title (1999): the experience of having lost the place you had, and being out of place wherever you go. (…) I look at my first rushes, observe the characters, I try to capture what is written in their memories, I write an outline, film some more, and so on. But this means that I have to pay everything from my own pocket. Previously, I used to write a project, and look for a producer, but I got fed up with so much waiting, so much wasted time, and sometimes the indifference I experienced.”

Despite the struggle, he says that he loves the craftwork of making documentaries, and the communication with people. During his time working with Romanian migrants in France he took hundreds of photos, and gave them prints to send home. He began to learn their language, and eventually went to visit their villages in Romania, where the warmth of hospitality had a big effect on him.

We continued our conversation, until he almost missed the Q&A for one of his films.

You’ve made films about Romanians and the Roma more recently. How important are the changes in economic conditions and racism?

When we arrived, we were welcomed by the French as a labour force, and they wanted Portuguese workers, not Algerians. It was political too. From 1964 we could not continue to be clandestine, there was an economic imperative, they needed us for construction work. Today France still needs unskilled workers. But now the situation is completely different, there are people coming from Africa. The Romanians are sedentary people, some are skilled, they don’t come from isolated villages, they have travelled across several countries and speak more than one language, and they come as whole families, not just the men as it was in the ‘60s.

The situation of the Roma in Romania is terrible, there are 2 million of them, and they are treated like the blacks in South Africa during apartheid. The people from the south of Romania, were actually really slaves until 1865.

When I made that film in 2008, they had not been there long, they didn’t speak French. Now it’s quite different, the kids go to school, but they don’t integrate.

The French gypsies are travellers, gens de voyage, those from Romania have been used to living in villages for 500 years. They worked in the mines or on the land, or the roads, but after the end of communism, there was no work. But nowadays, in France most prejudice is directed at Muslims. The number of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria in France is very small, 20,000 is only 0.03% of the population.

Our bidonville lasted 13 years. It’s more difficult now, because the shanties are bulldozed after maybe a year and the people forced out. Manuel Valls is racist. Now they are expelled but they come back, because they have nothing, really nothing in Romania, whole villages have been abandoned, in France at least they can make 10 euros a day.

Recovering memories is an important aspect of your films?

Absolutely. For example, in France there is this image of the Portuguese immigrants as heroes, but they haven’t just become rich, they are still part of the capitalist system, and if they become successful and exploit others, is that progress?

And part of France’s economic success depended on the hard work of Portuguese immigrants.

One of my films is the story of an almost-abandoned village in central France that was rebuilt by Portuguese immigrants, and I asked someone if they knew a woman I wanted to talk to about the Portuguese immigration. And she said, “oh, you don’t want to do that, she’s a poor woman, it’s not a good idea”. But she was an intelligent woman, who wanted to talk, she had a terrible story to tell. It’s this shame that people from villages feel, like a family secret. “Everything is fine”! Let’s talk about success, people who’ve got businesses.

I want to make films that reveal the experiences of immigrants. This silence has lasted too long. Twenty years ago it was unthinkable to make films like this.

Are these experiences expressed in popular music?

As far as I know, there isn’t much. The best-known song is O emigrante by Maria Albertina. It’s a song full of ‘saudades’ and experiences of emptiness, that could have been written by Salazar’s “Legends Office”, calling for the inevitable return to the native soil. And there are other ‘litanies’ that cry over what we have lost. But there are songs by José Afonso, Manuel Freire, Adriano Correia de Oliveira, Sergio Godinho … that talk about the violence that is entailed in emigrating, deserting, fleeing.

In your film Memorias de um Futuro Radiosa (2014), you referred to both Portuguese and Romanian emigration, how did this come about?

In 2005, I discovered new bidonvilles near Paris, where Romanians were living, I never imagined this would still happen in the 21st Century, and I decided that talking about history wasn’t enough, and given the racism that they were suffering, it was urgent to defend them. I followed this group – who came from three villages near Craiova in Romania – as they moved from place to place. And in 2010 I made Le Bateau en Carton with this intention, (The Cardboard Boat – the title refers to a story that the regime, which definitely tried to eliminate the Roma people during WW2, did so by making them sail on a river in cardboard boats that eventually sank). And to give voice to a group of people who were trying, in the face of terrible conditions, to realize their dream of a better life.

During the making of that film, the group arrived near to where we had lived in a bidonville when I was a boy, and I remember the day I got the idea to make a film crossing the two migrations, which became Memorias.

I was watching the children playing in a nearby lake in the park, where swimming was not allowed. People were walking by, trees were in flower, nearby buildings were beautifully reflected in the water, and the kids were all smiles. It brought to mind some of those colourful ‘60s films which looked forward to a utopia in the year 2000. I re-lived my own experiences as a child, I talked to people who had lived there in those days, I consulted the archives.

Each crisis has its scapegoats – and the way foreigners are talked about always reveals the ghosts that a society fears.

A free e-book (in Portuguese), which describes the work of José Vieira and others on Portuguese emigration was produced for the Melgaço Film Festival in 2014.

(Photos provided by Jose Veiria)

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