Culture, Migrants, Multiculture, Screen

Susana Nobre: A taxi-ride through the life of an immigrant

An intimate portrait of emigration and return. Propelled by the hopelessness of his prospects during the fascist period in Portugal, a man finds the motivation to leave. 20 years later he returns to a democratic country, and his personal history continues unfolding drawing in the lessons and reflections he has accumulated.

 

Graham Douglas

 

Joaquim is a Portuguese man who left the country in 1972, before the end of Salazar’s ‘dictadura’, and spent 20 years in the US, doing all sorts of work including driving taxis and limousines.

He had earlier worked repairing aircraft, and spent some time doing that for the army in Angola during the colonial war, where he began to see the poverty that African people had to face.

That story, among many others, is recounted in the director Susana Nobre’s first feature film “Tempo commun” (Ordinary Time, 2018). In both films we see the director’s talent for close-up character portraits, and in the earlier film the slow-moving intimacy between couples and friends is communicated to the viewer with a kind of sympathy that I have come to regard as characteristically Portuguese.

Life has its adventures, but these films engage with the deeper currents not the brash surface dramas.

The New Opportunities Programme in Portugal, where the director met Joaquim, was closed in 2011, but during that time hundreds of people passed through it, with the aim of converting the records of their life experience into a means to employment, for those who had often been forced to leave school after only their fourth or sixth year due to family poverty.

Joaquim

However, the new film “Jack’s Ride” is not straight documentary, but a category between reality and fiction, which -to this viewer at least- masquerades as reality.

Joaquim is a real person, but some of the episodes in the film may not be, such as the episode of the $2000 debt, although they surely happened to someone somewhere. The viewer will make up their own mind, or perhaps leave the cinema wondering if they too have been ‘taken for a ride’ by her and Jack.

The Prisma spoke to Susana Nobre by Zoom, following the showing of her film at the Berlinale Film Festival, held in the first week of March.

How did you meet Joaquim?

It was while I was working in the New Opportunities program. It was very important in Portugal in 2008, during the economic crisis, and unemployed adults who had not completed their schooling were obliged to attend as a condition of receiving benefits.

I wanted to make a documentary film about it, and I got a job as a technician inside the program in Vila Franca da Xira, near Lisbon.

But the film was made in 2019.

Yes, it was the result of our friendship over this long period, and he had already appeared in 2 other films of mine.

Looking at his hairstyle and the gold pendant, he reminded me of Elvis Presley. It seems that his period in the US is still an influence in his life.

Yes, it’s very common among immigrants, and in his case, I think it’s like a protection that keeps him feeling young and strong.

Joaquim seems a very positive and determined person, and not afraid to challenge the situation he was in, for example lifting the fence with his fork-lift truck at night so his mates can go home while he clocks them as if they had been working all night.

There is a big community of Portuguese people living in Newark, New Jersey. It’s very nice that you remember that episode, because it shows his solidarity with other immigrants. And when you see him and his friend practising English after work, and sharing the costs of a teacher – it’s very hard to imagine that happening in a small town in Portugal during the dictatorship. People kept their heads down.

Susana Nobre

The question of solidarity comes up again at the end of the film when the African woman is telling him about a racist incident when a woman told her to keep away from her son. Was she someone he knew, or did you ask him to act the scene?

She is a real person, but they didn’t know each other.

I wanted to introduce some fragments of experiences that I heard from other people who were taking part in the New Opportunities programme.

And I think it is appropriate for him, because his attitude is like a Citizen of the World.

New York is divided into different racial zones, and when he was a taxi driver, he always said he would go anywhere as long as he was paid, he was not prejudiced.

He spends a lot of time looking after his friend Rato, who he was with during his military service in Africa, and is now blind from diabetes. But he only talks about the US. Was that because he didn’t want to talk about Africa?

He talked about this more in another film I made, “Tempo commun”, so I didn’t want to repeat that. And he felt privileged because by working as a mechanic he was excused from combat.

In Africa, and while he was in the US before 1974 other young men were fighting a war. But I think this is something that is not well explained in the film.

I was puzzled that he only seems to talk about his work experiences in the US, but he must have memories of social life too. His life there was better, and he could afford to enjoy himself.

Remember that he was also directing me in the film, and it was clear that there were things he didn’t want to talk about. He had children while he was there. I didn’t insist.

I’m interested in his character, because he tells his stories in a very calm way without any drama, but suddenly a red line is crossed and he changes, and threatens the guy who owed him money.

Yes, he is a complex character, like most people, but it’s also a question of being an immigrant in a foreign country. The community is strong, but you also have to look out for yourself.

He doesn’t say much about Portugal, or about being near retirement.

He spends a lot of time with his girlfriend, and he is always busy going to see people, going to parties, and he spends time with Rato, so I don’t think he is bothered much about retirement.

Do you have another project on the go?

This year I am starting work on a new fiction feature film. It is a melancholic comedy about grief. The main character is a 40-year old woman whose parents have both died and she starts to live a kind of second teenage life. She gets into some comic situations, but there is a melancholic aspect because the place where she was born is about to disappear.

(Photos provided by Susana Nobre)

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