Spare Room

Left: Pedro Costa, In Vanda's Room, 2000, still from a color digital video, 170 minutes. Zita Duarte. Right: The Capricci DVD edition of In Vanda's Room.

IN VANDA’S ROOM (2000) is the second of the three remarkable films Pedro Costa has devoted to the Lisbon slum suburb of Fontainhas. While the enigmatic and beautiful Bones (1997), shot on 35-mm film by a proper crew and featuring (a few) professional actors and a (fragmentary) plot, remains an art-house film in the classic sense, In Vanda’s Room is something altogether different. A “documentary fiction,” the nearly three-hour film was shot on digital video over a period of two years by a crew essentially consisting of one person—Pedro Costa. It depicts the reality of the destitute neighborhood through a nonnarrative sequence of intimate portraits of its inhabitants and their everyday lives of drug addiction and poverty.

Focusing on the sisters Vanda and Zita Duarte, who spend most of their time smoking heroin in Vanda’s room, the film defies the distinction between fiction and documentary, with the protagonists acting the roles of themselves rather than being merely depicted in situ. The undermining of narrative conventions and genre codes; the awareness of the qualities and limitations of the recording technologies employed; and the devotion to the reality, rhythm, and visual and aural characteristics of a certain time and place all point to the radicalism of Costa’s work and create a new realist cinematography keyed to the present. Without diminishing the gravity of the social situation, however, In Vanda’s Room does not only put misery and desperation on display. Rather, it depicts people who do not accept the conventional understanding of their own conditions, people who should be victims but who, lacking access to reasonable means of life, are forced to design another existence in the margins of the social order. The protagonists of Costa’s film find a certain pride in what is generally considered valueless.

In a two-hundred-page interview in the book that accompanies the new, outstanding French DVD edition of In Vanda’s Room, Costa discusses his influences and predecessors. The names that figure in the conversation range from the apparent to the unpredictable and include Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose programmatic idea about the director’s absolute responsibility toward the aesthetic qualities of a specific time and place clearly informs Costa’s work, and Andy Warhol, whose patient fascination with his protagonists and their existence in space influenced Costa’s long takes of Vanda as she smokes, coughs, quarrels with her sister, and sleeps in her decrepit bedroom. More surprising yet ultimately quite obvious is the relation Costa points out between his punk-rock idols—Wire and the Clash, John Lydon’s Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited—and his own DIY aesthetic, which dismisses traditional, encumbering models of film production and creates a portrait of a population that exists on the borders of society and established culture.

Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room is now available on a French-language DVD produced by Capricci Films. For more information, click here. Costa will introduce Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's Too Early, Too Late at Light Industry in Brooklyn on Sunday, November 9. For more information, click here.