Sandra Kogut is a citizen of the world, and she is a camera. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1965, Kogut grew up in Brazil, spent more than a decade in France and now lives in the United States. A video artist and documentarian, Kogut made her fiction feature debut with “Mutum” (2007), a film she hoped would “blur the line” between documentary and fiction. Based on the coming of age novel “Campo Geral” (1964) by Joao Guimaraes Rosa that Kogut adapted with Ana Luiza Martins Costa, “Mutum” is set in the sertao, an isolated part of Brazil’s interior.
Hoping to tell a fictional story “built out of things that exist in real life,” Kogut spent more than a year in the countryside, getting to know local farmers and their families and eventually casting her film from their community. The story’s center is ten-year-old Thiago (Thiago da Silva Mariz), a dreamer at odds with his harshly practical and increasingly violent father. The tiny village where they live was built for the film, built from the same materials as real ones; the film has no score, only the naturally-occurring sounds made by birds, animals, insects and day to day activities. The result is a film that doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, but nonetheless feels intensely real.
“Mutum” has played festivals all over the world, from Berlin to Toronto, picking up awards and accolades, and is being released in the US as part of the Global Lens series, which showcases international cinema with an eye to promoting cross-cultural understanding. I spoke with the filmmaker in a Soho cafe-bookstore, where she provided thoughtful answers to a wide variety of questions in lightly accented English.
McDONAGH: How did you make the transition from video art installations to documentaries and now to a fiction film?
KOGUT: I always saw myself as someone who was interested in other people’s stories, their relationships, and in capturing the. And depending on the project that story could be a film, or a theater piece or an installation. I never had a career plan, and it was not a straight line. But if you look from outside, you see a pattern.
I spent most of my life in Rio. When I was a young artist in my 20s — this would have been 1986 — I did an installation. I made some booths — two meters by two meters — with a video camera inside and put them on the street. I would invite people to go in, one by one, and have an intimate moment with the technology. Now, in the age of the internet, this sounds totally trivial. But at that time the idea was that people who had never met could watch what other people were doing, have a moment of connection. I did this for a couple of years.
Then I got an invitation from a French man who was directing what was then a new program for artists. It was housed in a French chateau, and the idea was to help artists develop projects. I went there for a year, and then continued to do this project all in big cities all over the world. [Kogut eventually edited footage from the project into the 1991 film Parabolic People.] Then at the end I thought I would be going back to Rio. But they said, “No — it’s not that we support projects. We support artists. We’re interested in what you want to do next.” So it became a place I returned to many times. Ultimately I lived in France for a little more than ten years, coming and going back and forth.
McDONAGH: How did you make a living?
KOGUT: There were different moments, but I always managed. There was a time when I was teaching at a fine arts school, so I had a stable financial situation but was also able to keep making films. There is a very real arts scene in Brazil — it wasn’t like that so much 20 years ago, but now there are grants and programs and it’s getting better and more open. Look, if you really want to do something badly enough, you find a way of doing it. You have to be creative, not just in your art, but in how you find a way to make your art.
I also taught here in the United States, but that became complicated because I wasn’t making films here — geographically that was hard to balance. I taught for one semester at Princeton, and I got a job — with tenure — teaching at UCSD [University of California San Diego]. I did that for a year, but then I got the money to make “Mutum”. Because I knew how much time it would take to prepare the film, I couldn’t do both.
McDONAGH: Now you’re living in the US: Do you know what your next project will be?
KOGUT: That’s a good question. I married an American — a professor at Princeton, Thomas Levin [who specializes in media and cultural theory]– and for all these years he was traveling to see me, so now it was sort of my turn to come here. And I’m trying to think about how I could make films here. I haven’t been in the US for a long time, but I’m aware that here there are fewer women making movies than, say, in France and I’m wondering why.
Perhaps because there are fewer sources for funding films in general and non-commercial films in particular. Unlike many other countries, America doesn’t have a Minister or Secretary for culture and there’s no government-level structure in place to systematically support the arts on an ongoing basis. Movies, which are a particularly expensive form of cultural expression, are a business.
It’s true that France was a place where you could do many different kinds of films and there would be a path to existence for them. There are ways of financing them, there are theaters where you can show them and there’s an audience that wants to see them. It’s a very good place to work if you want to make the kind of films I’m interested in.
I don’t know how long it will stay that way, but this made certain things possible for me. “Mutum” had a national theatrical release in France at the beginning of January, which is great: It’s not a very commercial film.
But I’ve lived in many places and I think I’m over the idea that there is only one place you can live. You always bring yourself.
McDONAGH: You also have a child, a nine-month-old daughter, so you have to factor motherhood into the equation.
KOGUT: She’s my second child; I also have a five year old. I always took them everywhere. When I started “Mutum”, my son was a little baby. I spent a whole year and a half researching, and I had him with me the whole time. Places where there was no running water, the nearest clinic was who knows where; I breast fed him until he was about two years old. He became like a little kid from the farm. And my daughter has been many places with me already.
I’m lucky that they’re very good travelers. But I also think that children — especially small children — feel that the way they’re living, however it is, is normal life.
McDONAGH: You’ve talked about wanting to “blur the line” between fiction and documentary, which for many documentary filmmakers is a concept that approaches blasphemy.
KOGUT: I was blurring this line before “Mutum”, even when I was making documentaries. The kind of documentaries I was making were not about interviews or people analyzing issues; I always looked at what I was doing as telling a story in which real people were characters. And I’ll tell you, ultimately with a film it’s always about the construction. It’s always about what you put in and what you leave out to get to where you want to go. The way you get there can be more documentary or more fiction, but the filmmaker is always making choices and decisions.
Two things made me want to make this film. I loved the story, but I also really wanted to know if you could tell this story today. Not as a period piece — the story was set in the 1950s — but as something that could happen now. And if you could, then where would it take place and how would these people live?
The answer was yes, it could: There are people in rural Brazil living almost exactly the way people did more than 50 years ago, and those are the people who are in “Mutum”. I never considered the possibility of working with a professional cast [only Joao Miguel, who plays Thiago’s father, is an actor]. So the story is fiction, but the film itself is built out of things that exist in real life.
McDONAGH: Were you shocked to find such cultural isolation in modern-day Brazil? Poverty and deprivation are one thing: You can find them in the United States as easily as anywhere else. But you told me that the children you cast in “Mutum” had never seen a movie, and neither had their parents.
KOGUT: Yes, I found it shocking. And what was even more shocking than the fact that this kind of rural poverty does exists is that I thought before that if it did, I would have to go really far away from a city like Rio to find it. And I didn’t.
The place where we shot, you could take a plane to a smaller city and then drive for, say, five hours to a little town. They another hour into the real countryside and it’s as though you go back in time. Less than a day, and you’re in a place where people are so isolated that they’ve never seen a movie. When I began to do the research, I waited for a long time to tell them I was a filmmaker because I was concerned about setting up certain kinds of expectations.
McDONAGH: So what did they think you were doing, spending months hanging around with them?
KOGUT: I don’t really know. I told them I was doing research about childhood and about the region where they lived and that seemed to be enough. I really realized what an other world this was when, months later, I decide to invite the boy, Thiago, to play in the film. By then I knew his family, so I went first to his father and his father said, “Okay, but what is this movie, this cinema? What are you talking about?” It’s not just that he had never seen a movie. He really didn’t have an idea of what a movie was. In some way, what I was doing was all so removed from their lives that they didn’t even think about it.
On the other hand, when we were finished, I was really impressed that they just went back to their lives. They didn’t come away wanting to be someone else; they had a culture that connected them and supported them and made them happy in some very important ways. I’m not arguing that people should be isolated or kept cut off from the modern world. Everyone should have access, but that access shouldn’t come at the price of looking at what you had before and rejecting it as having no value.
McDONAGH: You’ve talked about this region, the sertao, as having a great deal of cultural resonance for Brazilians. What are its connotations?
KOGUT: In Brazil, when you say you’re going to the sertao, people tell you it’s impossible to get there because it’s more a state of mind than a place. Joao Guimaraes Rosa used to say that the sertao is inside us. in the 60s, there was a movement, the Cinema Novo, and certain filmmakers who became very famous often shot there. But their films were different from what I wanted to do. Everything is very allegorical; in fact, it’s almost the opposite of what I had in mind. Even so, for a filmmaker the landscape is very loaded with these associations; you can’t let them inhibit you, but you have to be aware of them.
McDONAGH: Have you shown “Mutum” to your cast?
KOGUT: Thiago saw the premiere in Rio; we brought him and his mum. Everything was a first: First time in a plane, first time in a big city, first time in a movie theater… all firsts. And it was a big theater — maybe 1000 seats. Before we arrived, I asked Thiago what he thought the theater would look like and he said, “a little house.” I was a little concerned and tried to explain that it would be a lot bigger than “a little house.” It was very moving to watch him watching it: I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go to a movie for the very first time, and you are the person in the movie.
After that, we organized some screenings closer to home for the cast. There was a town where we could play it — there was a kind of open air theater, not really a theater but somewhere you could show a movie — but people had to travel, some a good distance. And it was incredible: It was packed and there was a Q&A after and people were really into the film. They didn’t look at it as though it was a “critics’ film” or an “art film;” for them it was a popular film and that really made me think about what a popular film can be.