- Interview by
- Marissa Moorman
In May 2023 I sat down in Luanda, Angola to chat with Ery Claver, director of Nossa Senhora da Loja do Chinês/Our Lady of the Chinese Shop (2022). The film premiered at Locarno in August 2022 and screened at the 2023 New York African Film Fest.
This interview has been edited for length, but our conversation ranged widely, from his informal, on-the-job training as a TV cameraman at Angola’s national public broadcaster (TPA), to his film practice, the cinema scene in Angola, and the challenges faced in national and international distribution when you are a small production outlet in a country with little support for the arts. Claver is part of the dynamic and growing production collective Geração 80, whose film Ar Condicionado/Air Conditioner (2020) won the US African Studies Association Best Film Prize in 2020.
Tell me how your film, Nossa Senhora da Loja do Chinês/Our Lady of the Chinese Shop came about?
Ery Claver: It’s a little complicated. I filmed all of Geração 80’s projects and I did some other film projects. The work was vast—from documentary, to more experimental things, even weddings … it was a bit of everything. That allowed me to nuance my narratives, make them interesting, and it let me shed the fear of having to be so formal.
When I started at G80 I found people with academic training, like Fradique … people that intimidated me because they had a much more organized way of working and I said to myself, well, I will never make films because the process just seems to take so long. At a certain moment though, we managed to reconcile our different approaches. Fradique realized that I was very practical. Filming on the street, I managed to create interesting scenarios with just a camera, and I could convince people, and create powerful situations and the others took note.
Together Fradique and I arrived at the conclusion that we should write a screenplay and that turned out to be Ar Condicionado/Air Conditioner (2020). We started working on that screenplay. We argued a lot over it because of our differences … I am urban, more bohemian. And Fradique is more reserved, more likely to organize projects on a table, and I am more likely to organize it on top of a table in a bar! I am more outsider. And we had a lot of questions about the aesthetic of the film and during the time we were writing, I also did two or three shorts for the project called Fucking Globo! There was one film that’s called Lucia no Ceu com Semaforos/Lucy in the Sky with Stoplights. [With that film] I managed to do something that I had wanted to do for a long time, since I started thinking about cinema, and that is a short built from still images.
I had always had this idea about cinema ever since I started reading a lot about film. I would go to the library and read books about cinema. I didn’t have access to the films. Sometimes I would be reading about films like Batman. I saw The Seventh Seal, reading it! I had two images—the chess game with death and one other—and I had to imagine the film from those two images. Later came Google and Youtube, at the time we didn’t even have DVDs, and it all got easier. Around that time, I started taking photos. And I had this thing about photos and text. I would tell a story with four or five photos. And then I called those my shorts.
I did that because I didn’t have much narrative experience and I found the force of images in just a few frames to be so powerful. This then gave me an advantage when it came to writing. Lucy is basically a poem that I wrote. That was the one way I learned to write a screenplay that didn’t seem boring, or flat, because I always found the idea of a screenplay very boring…emotionless, you know? Just “the outside of the house, the day, the interior”… all those rules are really dry.
Fradique also really liked the results of the film. That gave us the courage to move more quickly with the screenplay for Air Conditioner because we had a lot of gaps in terms of the aesthetics we wanted for the film. Instead, we followed what [Brazilian filmmaker] Glauber Rocha said: it’s enough to have a camera in your hand and an idea in your head, and the story develops by itself in the place that you choose to film. You work with what you have.
We spent two, three weeks in the building rehearsing. The neighbors in the building all respected the rehearsals. They knew we were in rehearsals, and they wanted to wait and watch on the day we filmed. But, in fact, we were already filming! We had a small crew—three or four people—and it was all very organic. People didn’t get annoyed, they participated. Aside from the one actor, all the rest were people from the building who took on characters and did so every day. I’d ask, “neighbor, can you put on that skirt again?” And she would do it, happily.
It showed us that it’s possible to make the sort of cinema that we had been dreaming of! But with a few rules. Rules that aren’t even that difficult. They are the city’s rules. The rules of a place that has its own dynamic but that when you manage to understand it, it flows really well. I have never encountered big restrictions or difficulties in making any film in Luanda. Even in terms of starting late. The producer is always crazy and wanting to start at 8 or 9am, but I know that we’ll start at 10. People have a rhythm. It is much easier to create equilibrium by adapting than by imposing. It is a delicate dialogue.
Were you already thinking about Our Lady while you were making Air Conditioner, or was it only after finishing that first full-length film that you began to think about it?
When I wasn’t filming, I would sustain myself visually with poems. Poems are, for me, highly visual, very cinematic. But I wanted something larger. Our Lady was something that I was imagining out of a short—an Angolan version of Pinnochio—and another short I wanted to make about the bull ring in Luanda. I had a sort of political event in mind. I showed it to Jorge [Jorge Cohen, G80 founder and producer] and he said “no, make it full length and let’s take advantage of this energy we have going.” I went back to other shorts I had written. There were three characters I had already developed, to which I added more layers. The only new thing that came in the film was the Chinese shop and the plastic figure of the saint.
And why the bull ring?
I had always said to Jorge that the bull ring, for me, is a personification of Luanda. It is a grand space, but somewhat abandoned, something unfinished, something waiting to happen. Why do I say it was something waiting to happen? It has all that spatial grandeur. It is sitting there in the center, serves no use, and we are just waiting for it to come back to life. There was a concert there—it had Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, the Kalunga Project [1980 brought Brazilian musicians to Angola for intercultural exchange]. Using the bull ring was for us a way to pay homage to that moment in which there was an attempt to create something big and important with Angolan artists. And so I wanted to bring in people who had experienced that space in that period.
We started the film during the pandemic. And obviously, there was that sense of suspension, people not knowing what the future would be, but I think that for me and for Jorge, it was the best thing that could have happened, without wanting to lose sight of the fact that people lost loved ones. But for us, everything stopped, and it gave us time to dedicate ourselves solely to this project. Filming, setting aside the constraints of masks and the other details of restrictions, was very easy because the city was very calm, people were at home, there wasn’t anywhere to go, people were following the rules because they needed the work, and everyone wanted to be free from being at home. It was much easier to film than Air Conditioner, even though it was a bigger film.
We had to adapt the screenplay a few times, mostly in the bull ring where we had planned to have people in the stadium, but then we could not, and had to find a creative solution. I had to re-write the screenplay but in symbolic terms, I think it actually turned out better. What I wanted to say, indirectly, was precisely what is now in the images. It is one of those things the pandemic gave us, it gave us this magic. And that is something I really like. This unforeseen-ness of cinema doesn’t bother me at all. It makes you improvise and be alive. You are always developing all the senses. You are always conditioned.
What was the greatest challenge in making Our Lady?
Working with the narrator’s language. When I set myself the challenge to use an analysis of Angola-China—those economic relations—I wanted it to touch relations between folklore too, in order to mask the other part … so it wouldn’t be such a directly economic story.
When I wrote the screenplay it was Domingas [one of the main characters] who was the narrator of the film. She would narrate the story and, at a certain point, go to the Chinese shop to buy a product available there. There wasn’t that relationship there. But when I thought about, I realized, there is a story here. It’s about, I wouldn’t call it an imposition, but a situation in which our mechanism of adoration and miracles and faith is supported by another culture that is placed in our country in such an all-embracing way and about which we barely know anything. So it is a very strange thing. We are looking for something. What we believe, it’s already foreign and the other even more so. So our identity is completely misrepresented and we will never have palpable dominion over our country because we are always subaltern to others.
I thought it was interesting that the Chinese have a saying, don’t consume what you sell. Even the actor I worked with said that: “that’s your problem. You give the people what they believe in, but you also consume it.” He was speaking of the government. In other words, even those who are providing access to the product are dazzled by it too. They don’t even control the deception, the imposition they are making on the people.
That is how I got the idea to not only put the narration in voice over but to also use Chinese proverbs in some of the film’s chapters. When I researched those proverbs, I found them so similar to the Angolan ones I was looking at, both in their symbols and in the use of words … how with so little you create a world, a universe of distorted words and that only those who are deeply within the symbolic context, the place, can understand certain details. And I wanted to mix a bit of that strangeness with which we respond to the Chinese language but with narrative definition of proverbs that have a lot to do with our own oral folklore of earlier times.
We have a similarity in the way of thinking but with the difference that they put their symbolic thinking into action. We don’t. We take it as folklore in fact. When we tell the story of the lion that goes to the bush, or whatever, for us, it is only folklore. For them, no. They put the strength of the folklore, of proverbs, into practice. So, they are more disciplined. They actually use folklore and their symbolic language. We use only one part or another of the proverbs. But it isn’t part of our language. We don’t use it in our approach.
We speak in Portuguese and Portuguese is very grammatical and doesn’t represent our way of thinking. We don’t think very much when we speak Portuguese. Sometimes it is hard for us to communicate. You communicate better with the magic of your neighborhood. You get your point across better. Portuguese limits us a lot. If you go to the ghetto here, they have a much more dynamic language.
You have someone like [kuduro artist] Sacerdote. I sometimes ask him to translate the [kuduro] lyrics and I read them … forget about the beat that is sometimes super heavy … those lyrics are really rich! It is something so rich in terms of the intelligence in the use of the language, rhymes, and the musicality of the word.
How did you find the Chinese actor?
Finding an actor was difficult because the Chinese are very reserved. We went to their home base here, where they have the big warehouses, which is where the greatest number of Chinese are. And even there it was difficult. Because there were people interested, but they are limited by the government. It was hard for them to get involved quickly in a project like ours. They asked for time to send a letter to the government to explain what they were doing, because they come on contracts and are very limited. The leaders have more autonomy. So we did casting with two of the administrators and Tony passed the casting and, by chance, he is actually a manager in Chinatown, and that gave us the freedom to film there. But he could only offer milliseconds to film because he is so busy. He is the busiest person I have ever seen in my life! Per week, he would give us 15 minutes! I would have liked to have done much more with him, but I couldn’t manage to.
Did he have any prior experience acting?
No. But I was inspired by his posture when he is in Chinatown because he is a great observer. He walked around, with his cigarette in hand, observing, supervising stores from afar and so the character was inspired by him. So, it was easy. I would only say: Tony play yourself. We were lucky because, from the beginning, he wasn’t meant to be the narrator. The narration was to be done by another actor, a professional that would know how to do the readings.
Our translator introduced us to this marvelous, beautiful person who is Maeli Li. He is an opera singer. He lives in Hamburg. He had just finished doing Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera, and he wanted to do something freer, lighter because he had spent many months doing the opera. He liked the text. And he said, okay, it will be a pleasure to do this but there is an error here and we will need to transform the text into Cantonese from Mandarin. We sent the text in Mandarin and Portuguese and English. And he said that for this type of poetry, you will find more vocabulary for it in Cantonese which is a language rich in poetic terms. They say that Mandarin is very formal, something they use for purposes of the state bureaucracy, something harder. So we had to translate the film into Cantonese.
What did you most like making film and what do you most like in the final product?
I can’t watch the film, because I only see the errors. But one thing that does make me happy, is having made the film, I respected my proposal, my idea. I did it in a way that some people respect, because it is a daring idea. For being a feature length, sometimes people hope for a product that will make everyone happy, because it isn’t every day that feature films get made in Angola. When you make a feature length film with the sort of responsibility that G80 has, I would hope it would be a more open film. When I see the film, what makes me proud, as I said, is that I really managed to create that which I was imagining with my images and texts.
What would you have liked me to ask you that I didn’t ask?
For those that don’t come with academic training, those not formally schooled in cinema, sometimes it takes a long time to believe in your language … that you can tell a story in a different way. From beginning to end, from end to beginning. I think we have a very interesting city and mechanisms that we artists haven’t yet tried. And we have an opportunity … today, our cinema is seen as original in other places … in Europe. People take it seriously. Sometimes people ask us, where is this coming from? Even with the shorts that I took recently to Spain. Why is this Angolan cinema so vibrant, so, “fuck off man!” We don’t have so many aesthetic definitions, limits. Even in ideological terms, it isn’t organized by ideological motivations … it is really emotionally driven. I think the city still has more for us to do. We have only scratched the surface. The field is open.