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83 min. Portuguese.

The opening titles say Carlos Conceição was born in Africa and left for Europe in his teens, his mother stayed behind. She said she wanted to adopt a bird that would live for 150 years, but only if he would take care of it when she died. The landscape the young man flies over afterwards can only be Africa too, mountains and great plains, antelope herds, earth the colour of an impossible clay. A woman speaks to him in voiceover when he lands, imploring him to come find her without delay and thus a journey begins. There will be roads, cities, boats and all manner of shimmering landscapes, although the path isn’t linear but governed by gleeful digression, folding back on itself, snaking through past, present and future and wandering off into different genres, as the size and texture of the image shifts and piano or violin replace synths. We see the man as a ruff-wearing colonialist, a gun-slinging cowboy, an astronaut in a retro spaceship, or just a hipster in jeans and sunglasses, but otherwise little changes, even as the end is nigh. He keeps on moving, the same playful, melancholy thoughts in voiceover, the same solitude, the rushing of the wind, the voices of birds. (James Lattimer)

Carlos Conceição was born in Santa Clara, Angola in 1979. In 2002, he earned a PhD in English from the Agostinho Neto University in Lubango, Angola. That same year, he began a B.A. in Film Directing and Sound Design at the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema (ESTC) in Lisbon, Portugal, earning his degree in 2006. In the years that followed, he created his first video installations and short films. In 2013, Carlos Conceição participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus, and in 2017 he enrolled in a post-graduate degree in Global Cinema Studies at the University of Houston. From 2012 to 2018, he taught audiovisual media at the Universidade Privada de Angola (UPRA). Serpentário is his first feature-length film.

African Gothic

All my family had been in Angola for 3 generations when they were kicked out in 1975 after 15 long years of civil war. These people were suddenly branded Portuguese even though they had never been to Portugal. So, before and after the Angolan independence in 1975, they were forced to exile – often wearing but the clothes on their body.
All my family fled to Portugal except my mother and my father, who had high hopes for the new country Angola would become. I was born 4 years after this, already into a new civil war. In fact, there was a partisan war, another with South Africa, plus the Cold War, the spies, the bombs, Stalinism, poverty … There was not much for a child to grow up to, especially none of the memories that had made my folks stay. Above all, there was no sense of home in Angola because there was no memory. Cinema alone helped to forge the past through images. The war was over in 2002, the same year I left and went to film school in Lisbon. Behind me was a physically and culturally ravaged country. I didn’t go back for 10 years.
When I went back to shoot Serpentarius, memories had become movies in my head. The war had been a rite of passage between the cut connection with History and the reinvention of its textures and colours. The past became an adventure, a Western, a disaster movie as I watched my younger self try to come to terms with a land that betrayed back. I am not represented in African cinema. Mine is an often untold African tale: the tale of the landless, of the wandering ghosts that forever seek for themselves amidst the dusts of memory.
But there was a part of Africa that still felt like home. Not a place, but a feeling. We had to be alone in the landscape to look for it. There was no other way to make this film. It is a documentary of the search for that feeling.
While I was preparing it, my mother told me she was thinking of adopting a type of parrot that has a surprisingly long life expectancy. She asked me to think about it for a few days: she would only do it if I was willing to take care of the bird after she died.

Interview with Carlos Conceição

Where did the idea for SERPENTARIUS come from?

My mother has always lived in Angola. I had just gone there to visit after ten years in Lisbon when she told be about the bird. She loves animals and wanted a parrot since she was a child. So, suddenly there was this chance to adopt a baby macaw and she was thrilled. But these animals live up to 80 or 85 years, maybe more, and since I don’t have any brothers or sisters she wanted to make sure I was willing to take care of the bird after she died. It was quite a serious talk. She asked me to think carefully and give her my decision a couple of days later. One hour after we talked, this film was in my head. The whole of it, flashbacks, genre plays, the post-catastrophe ... And also the certainty that, in spite of my taste for traditional film production, this was a film I would never be able to do with a shooting team. It had to be as private and lonely as this, just us: João, me and my mother.

How true is this story?

I take it as a big allegory, a parable. But everything is true. Starting from the discoveries in the 14th century, going into the Slave Trade, the early stages of Portuguese colonialism, and then the 20th century with all its changes.
If I wanted to investigate why my mother decided to stay in Angola, I thought I might as well wonder why did my ancestors go there in the first place.
I think the film becomes a fable around the historical period when I am born. We can see briefly in the film the moment when president Agostinho Neto proclaimed the independence of Angola, which was a turning point. Something great of course, but I would say very badly done. The colonial war was over but gave way to a fight for power between two parties that lasted for more than 25 years.
The names “Portugal” and “Angola” are never mentioned in the film. I didn’t really want it to be historical or political in that particular sense. This is why all these wars and tragedies remain unnamed it the film. There is just a sense of post-apocalypse and a brief mention to “the tragedy”. Everybody knows a tragedy. We all live one sooner or later. So, in order to focus on other aspects I opted for a metaphor instead of a direct depiction of events.

Do you place the film in a political perspective?

It has to be, but then everything is. It is political even when it is not. When I was a child at school in Angola I was treated as a foreigner. The aftermath of colonialism was that white people were not Angolan but Portuguese. Most of them had fled but the ones that stayed were not easily included, especially not among naive children. When I went to Portugal I was never treated as Portuguese but always as Angolan. I was denied Portuguese nationality until I was 20. All the while I just wanted to live somewhere where I had access to culture, something that was hard to achieve in Angola during the eighties and nineties. All the while I wondered what made my mother stay in Angola, at the same time I was searching for my balance in Europe.
There are thousands of people like this that were never portrayed in movies. So yes, I guess there is a very political background to all of this, though I would say my goal is more existential.

What were your influences for the film?

In the beginning nothing really, apart from my own need for search. After we shot it and I edited the material I started thinking of Ballard’s future worlds and a sense of wonder replaced the sense of dread. Also, something reminded me of Antonioni, whom I love, especially in The Passenger or, my favorite, Zabriskie Point. But the feeling of science fiction, of a hyper-structured future world, is present in many of his films. We can feel that L’Avventura and L‘Eclisse are dystopias, Red Desert and Blow Up are the portraits of chaos while Zabriskie and The Passenger are post-catastrophe allegories. It’s just something I thought about. But for the final tone of the film we went for a hint of early-eighties action flick.

How much of it appeared in the editing room?

Not much. It’s pretty much what was on paper, apart from a couple of monologues that were added later. Perhaps the idea for the ending became more dramatic while we were editing the sound. Welcoming accidents can be wonderful, creatively speaking. It’s the way nature has of telling you what your own film is about.

(Interview: Ricardo Figueiredo, January 2019)

Production Carlos Conceição, Margarida Ventura, António Gonçalves. Production company Mirabilis (Lisbon, Portugal). Written and directed by Carlos Conceição. Cinematography Carlos Conceição. Editing Carlos Conceição with the support of Mariana Gaivão, António Gonçalves. Music Hugo Leitão, Carlos Conceição. Sound editor Rafael Gonçalves Cardoso. With João Arrais, Isabel Abreu (Voice), Carlos Conceição (Voice).

World sales Agência - Portuguese Short Film Agency
Premiere February 09, 2019, Forum


2007: No Escaping Gravity (15 min., video installation), Criminal (7 min., video installation). 2010: Temporária 2 x (12 min., video installation), Carne / The Flesh (20 min.). 2011: O Inferno / Hell, or Poolkeeping (20 min.). 2013: Versailles (19 min.). 2014: Boa Noite Cinderela / Goodnight Cinderella (30 min.). 2015: Acorda Leviatã / Wake Up Leviathan (20 min.). 2017: Coelho Mau / Bad Bunny (33 min.). 2019: Serpentário / Serpentarius.

Photo: © Mirabilis, 2019

Funded by:

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