15 Jun Interview to Sérgio Tréfaut director or “Alentejo, Alentejo”

by Carolina Parreira

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Sérgio, a Brazilian born in the sixties, begins his connection with Alentejo – southern region of Portugal – in his teenage years when he discovers it for the first time. With time that connection became stronger taking a special place in his heart and life. In Alentejo, Alentejo he takes us deep inside the hot region discovering Cante music and the life of its performers. The polyphonic songs of Alentejo, known as Cante Alentejano or just Cante, were born in the taverns and in the fields, sung by miners and peasants with no musical education of any kind. And yet when they sing it seems they express “the deep voice of the Earth”. When UNESCO recognized Cante as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014 the conflict between tradition and modernity was accentuated bringing questions about its place in modern life and how it will survive the pressure of a ever more globalized world. Alentejo, Alentejo is a tribute to them. We take a seat and the film starts… and we are fully in by the end of the first minute. Identity is part of it from the beginning till the end.

This is not the first time you go to Alentejo for your documentaries…. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea of ‘Alentejo, Alentejo’ came up?

Serpa city hall [in Alentejo], that had led the application process to UNESCO for Cante Alentejano to become Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, invited me in 2011 to do a short film for the application and at the same time a feature film about this kind of music. This feature film ended up being ‘Alentejo, Alentejo’. My father is from Alentejo and since my teenage years, I have developed a strong relationship with the region and its people. Actually my father has managed to seduce my mother that was French, singing a surprise serenade of an Alentejo choir under the window of her room.

How well received was ‘Alentejo, Alentejo’?

For the people of Alentejo – Alentejanos – this film is a kind of a flag and that makes me really happy. Also it has been the most seen documentary in the cinemas in Portugal last year and has had a non-stop circuit of more than 200 presentations all over the country. Has been circulated internationally and has won the award for Best Portuguese Film at Indie Lisboa [Lisbon International Independent Film Festival]. This year the film moves to France, Spain, Austria, Poland, USA, Brazil…

How was the experience of working with the choirs?

The biggest challenge was how to film choirs of twenty or thirty people with a single camera and manage to reveal the wonderful beauty of this type of music and the people who sing it. Everything I have seen filmed by television was just poor. It took me a while until I found out the way to film in order to show what I wanted: the soul of the singers.

Interview to Sérgio Tréfaut director or “Alentejo, Alentejo”2

Cante Alentejano has been recognized, by UNESCO, as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity not so long ago…What is it that inspires you about Cante?

What moves me the most in Cante is the fact that the people from the choirs are people without any musical education, literally, and they are the transmitters of a centennial tradition. More than that… a lot of them are people who can’t write or read but they sing beautifully. They pass on from one generation to another melodies that are part of a nation. Beyond its musical beauty, there is the pride, the dignity and the honor that moves me deeply. It has always been the people with no land that sang and loved that very land the most.

IberoDocs theme of 2015 revolves around indentity/ies. How do you see  the film connected to global concept of the festival?

‘Alentejo, Alentejo’ it’s a film about the identity of a whole region, essentially through a type of music that everybody knows, everybody sings and that it belongs to all. This film also uses other ways that also speak to their identity to make the people talk: cookery and the wine!

How did you feel about your film traveling all the way to Scotland?

That is why I have done it so that a way of being, its music and its culture could be spread beyond its frontiers.

When we come out of the cinema we always bring something with us of what we have just seen. Which reaction would like to see in the audiences?

The will to visit Alentejo and hear the choirs singing in the taverns.

You have a long list of awards and films. How do you see this film in terms of your career as a director?

I don’t identify myself with the idea of a career or even my identity as being a director. Each film is a new challenge a new project that will give me pleasure. This one has given me a great deal and it allowed me to create a beautiful net of new friendships that stayed with me till now.

Are you working in any project at the moment?

I am working in several documentaries and also a fiction, an adaptation of one of the most important Portuguese novels of the 20th century – ‘Seara de Vento’ by Manuel da Fonseca (himself also from Alentejo). This novel, as the film, is based on real facts that occurred in Alentejo in the beginning of the century and are known as the “Tragedy of Beja”. The reality was that in Alentejo, like in other countries of Southern Europe and Latin America, the business of big agricultural proprieties was powerful and the owners did not only own the land but almost owners of the people who worked for them.

These were times of great poverty and hunger and the film portrays that and a specific conflict: a rebellious and humiliated man fights alone against the police and the army for three days isolated in a hill.

One last question…Have you tried singing with any of the choirs?

I have sang many times in taverns or lunches with the groups I am more familiar with but my main problem is not my way of singing, my vocals, the lyrics or the melodies… is my accent. You see I was born in Brazil and I have a Brazilian accent.