It often seems that many filmmakers go to extended lengths to find remarkable stories. Christian de Rezendes, however, was lucky. His extraordinary story was literally close to home, in the form of his 86-year-old grandmother Alzira de Jesus Soares.
The Rhode Island-based de Rezendes has helmed “Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story,” which is perhaps one of the most remarkable documentaries now in release. Spanning four continents and eight decades, “Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story” centers on the filmmaker’s grandmother and her quiet determination to build a better life for herself and her far-flung family despite circumstances which seem almost Dickensian. Born and raised in the dismal Portuguese village of Bouçoais, where her father and two younger siblings died from influenza and starvation, Alzira had the rare opportunity to come to America at the age of 16. Her emigration, however, had a double-edged bitterness: she was forced to leave her family behind and she arrived in America with no money and no knowledge of English in 1929…at the start of the Great Depression.
Through hard work and with a glorious freedom from self-doubt and self-pity, Alzira achieved her goals. Settling in Rhode Island, she married a local Portugese-American contractor and displayed an uncanny talent for helping to run and grow his business (and even saving him from a shady proposition which would have spelled calamity for their finances). Over time, she sponsored 24 family members to join her in a better life in America.
Alzira’s family grew and literally thrived in the ideal American dream, yet she never forgot her roots and those she left behind. In the film’s most dramatic sequences, Alzira returns to Bouçoais, a rocky and impoverished village which stands in sharp contrast to the comfortable suburban American life she created for herself. Despite the poverty of the village, Alzira never dips into the bathos of nostalgia or the obvious compare/contrast points of yesteryear and today. Instead, she brings a serenity to her visit and to her conversations with those she encounters–she embodies the emotions and values of love and family which often seems forgotten or ridiculed in today’s cynical environment. This is not Frank Capra-corn or Hallmark Card gush, but a sublime state of being which is rarely captured in films today.
“Alzira: A Matriarch Tells Her Story” is currently playing the festival circuit throughout Europe and the US; it recently won the Award of Distinction presented in the Videographers Awards ceremony in Arlington, Texas. De Rezendes, who is also the Program Manager for this year’s Rhode Island International Film Festival, spoke with Film Threat on the story behind “Alzira”–both the film and the woman celebrated by his camera.
[ Why did you decide to create a documentary about your family's history? ] ^ My grandmother’s story is a universal example of the European immigrant. She was granted the unique opportunity to come to America in the early years of the Depression. Her decades of struggle — along with her husband/my grandfather Mario — to sponsor her entire family from the north of Portugal to a better life in southern New England had its ups and downs. Through all the trial and error, she regrets nothing. As she says in the film, “Everyone of them have houses now…”
[ To most people outside of the state, the Rhode Island film industry consists solely of the Farrelly Brothers. What is the state of independent filmmaking within Rhode Island, and what were the joys and headaches of creating a feature film in Rhode Island? ] ^ Sometimes the best and most powerful stories are in your own backyard, and I don’t find it too necessary to reach beyond your local environments to tell an effective story. The little things we take for granted (when photographed and told candidly) can emote more to an audience and leave a lasting impression. While Rhode Island is a great place to make a movie, I choose to focus on content over location. I find that if I make the story the centerpiece and show it effectively, the rest (location) will take care of itself. ^ Overall, I love all kinds of film…from David Lean to John Landis. Everything truly has its place. Bobby Farrelly has been our Honorary Chairman for the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF) since 1997. He and his brother Peter Farrelly bring attention and comedy to the area, which is much appreciated. Whether it be commercial or independent, filmmaking can be productive in Rhode Island. Our festival has and will continue to foster new talent to filmmakers from around the world. As Program Manager for the festival this year, it’s an exciting challenge to discover fresh films, make rewarding connections, and create a thought-provoking line-up. ^ And “Alzira” will also have it’s New England premiere with RIIFF this summer.
[ Your grandmother is a true natural on camera--she is quite charming and at ease while relating her remarkable life. What was her off-camera contribution to the story, in terms of shaping the screenplay and in determining the ebb and flow of the film? ] ^ Off-camera, I grew up with her. Hearing her stories were an inspiration. However, once her interviews (and everything else) was recorded, I worked on this project myself. Over the four-and-a-half years it took to make this film, and she would see my frustrations is struggling to put it all together. Once in a while, she’d ask, “How’s my movie?” Other times, she said: “If I knew it was going to take so long, I never would have done the interviews.” This comment was truly out of concern for a large effort that might not pay off.
[ The footage shot in Portugal is quite dramatic, with the raw landscape and poor villages in marked contrast to the suburban safety of the American sequences. What were the challenges of shooting the Portugal footage, and how did the Portuguese villagers react to having a film production descend on their neighborhood? ] ^ My crew consisted of me and a small Hi8 videocamera, so I looked like a tourist. The villagers would stare, for the most part. In the north of Portugal, it is abnormal to see this, but everyone was kind when the camera was pointed their way. At the time (1995), I shot every little moment I could…preserving every little interaction, conversation, meeting and emotion possible. After a while, the camera became a fixture on my face.
[ Your film spans eight decades and four continents in the course of roughly an hour. It would seem some aspects of the family history did not make the final cut. What sequences did not make the final version and how did you come to decide which passages remained and which did not? ] ^ When the shooting was completed, there was just under 55 hours of footage. My original scope was too broad, because there were so many stories to tell. I wanted to include them all — not only from my grandmother, but the many generations she brought over. After outlining the documentary on paper, I discovered “Alzira” would run over three hours. So I re-evaluated what I was doing. I had initially began this film to tell my grandmother’s story, so that’s what I decided to focus on and stick to. ^ So two-thirds of the film went out, and whatever stayed had to comment directly or indirectly on the story of my grandmother and flow freely and evenly within those limits. The timing and pacing of these cuts were a huge challenge — mainly because a lot of my vision had to be left behind, but it made the film 10 times better. My lesson was that “less can be more.”
[ Alzira's story is one with a surplus of pain, including the anguish of separation from her family as a young girl, the fear of arriving in a strange new country, the economic and emotional horror of the Great Depression, and the problems in trying to reunite her divided family. Yet this film is not the least bit depressing--in fact, there is an extraordinary sense of serenity and matter-of-factness. How were you able to create a balance of calm out of such a chaotic story? ] ^ Alzira’s delivery took care of the film’s tone. Her words were the best guide for how to deliver this story emotionally – i.e., pictures, editing, music, camera movement, etc. Her humor has been a way of survival throughout her life, and she grew to love aspects of America which we have always taken for granted. She’s lived a full life without regrets.
[ What is your distribution plan for the film? And what kind of response (both positive and negative) have you fielded from festival programmers, exhibitors and potential distributors. ] ^ So far, the reaction has been very positive for the most part. I have heard from few that the film is too long and wordy. I feel confident that the film delivers an even balance and pace, and allows Alzira the opportunity to tell her story clearly, emotionally and memorably. ^ The creators of the VideoLisboa International Video Festival in Lisbon, Portugal, selected “Alzira” for their event last April. The experience was wonderful, and while I attended, I discovered they’d had a 50-minute time limit of their entries. My film ran 63 minutes, and in that moment, it was nice to discover they’d bent the rules to fit Alzira’s story into their line-up. It was truly an honor. ^ I am currently seeking a distributor for “Alzira,” so I’ll keep entering in film/video festivals around the world in my search. I’ll have to seek and learn.
[ What professional and personal advice would you give to any filmmaker who wants to follow your example and create a documentary of their family's history? ] ^ That the best and most personal stories can be found in your own backyard. Our family interactions are most revealing. Cherish and capture those, and research why things are the way they are. Focus on the emotional content… this alone should reveal more than any exposition would. Find the core of your story. If you discover that and express it effectively, then your story will be memorable.
Get more info online at CDR Pictures.
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Posted on June 7, 2000 in Interviews by Phil Hall
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