A Portuguese elevator factory might not seem like the most obvious setting for a maximalist experimental feature about the state of contemporary labor, but anyone who follows the more audacious streams of Portugal’s national cinema knows to always expect the unexpected. Directed and co-written by Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory is the story of a group of factory workers who stage an occupation of their workplace when they learn of the management’s plans to remove its equipment overnight. The film largely centers on worker José (José Smith Vargas) as he moves through collective and collaborative relationships of varying scales and forms, whether with his factory coworkers, his family, or his hardcore punk band.
A noble heir to the agitprop tradition of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972), which shares the film’s factory-as-a-stage setting (and whose fourth wall is equally loosely-hinged), the film is beautifully shaggy and unpredictable, with various digressions and interludes that never dull its Marxist core—be sure to stick around for the astonishing musical sequence.
The Nothing Factory further builds upon certain elements of Pinho’s two previous features, its end-product grander and even more ambitious. The film’s themes of labor and shifting economies can also be seen in the impressive Trading Cities (2014, co-directed by The Nothing Factory’s editor Luísa Homem), which utilized more conventional observational documentary methods to chart the development of the tourism industry in Cape Verde. But The Nothing Factory, like Pinho’s medium-length The End of the World (2013), is set in the outskirts of Lisbon, shot with a primarily non-professional cast, and marked by a narrative freedom that belies its formal rigor.
All of Pinho’s work has been produced by Terratreme, a Portuguese collective of filmmakers who share credits on each others’ films. While Pinho is the designated director of The Nothing Factory, on the title card that declares “a film by” his is only one of the names, alongside João Matos, Leonor Noivo, Luísa Homem, and Tiago Hespanha. The Brooklyn Rail spoke with Pedro Pinho in Lisbon.
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Jesse Cumming (Brooklyn Rail): How did you initially find the factory?
Pedro Pinho: We were having some trouble finding a place to film. Everywhere we went we found plenty of factories that were abandoned or out of operation where they could have let us shoot, but when they read the script about workers who occupy a factory they immediately didn’t want to talk with us any further.
We were considering shooting in a studio and making a factory somehow, but I didn’t like that idea, so we went to a factory that I thought was nice from the outside. I went and was trying to very carefully explain the story of the film, and the guy was like, “That is the story of this factory.” He explained that the factory was abandoned by the American administration in the 1975 revolutionary process. The workers were unemployed and they called the administration to propose buying the factory for $1, and [the Americans] accepted. The workers owned and managed the factory themselves from 1975 until 2016, so when we started shooting in 2014 they were still running it; they just closed during our editing, because they didn’t have enough orders.
Rail: Were such practices common?
Pinho: Well, yes, from 1975 through the mid-1980s. But then there was a big offensive from the right-wing counterrevolution, which established a centrist government. Somehow they started to undo all the revolutionary measures that had just been taken, and there was a big offensive against self-managed projects. By the ’90s there were very few left.
Rail: How many of the individuals in the film were the actual workers from the factory?
Pinho: Only one, the woman worker. The others are from the same region [outside of Lisbon] and worked in different industrial realms, but not in that factory.
Rail: How did you find them?
Pinho: All through casting, except for the lead actor and another person who were friends. Joana Pais de Brito, who plays the woman from the company, was a professional actress but also came from casting; most of the rest were non-professionals. Two of them were actually amateur actors in small theater groups.
Rail: Was there a lot of improvisation on set?
Pinho: Yes, a lot. We wrote the entire script, with dialogue and everything, but we didn’t show it to the actors. It was like a secret script. Each day of shooting we presented the situations to the actors, and we had individual briefings with all the characters to tell them what we wanted them to do or say, in very general lines.
Rail: To what extent did they collaborate on the script?
Pinho: Very much, as much of dialogue was adapted from the conversations we’d had with them during the casting. We had like two-hour-long conversations with these people and they all had such incredible stories, which we knew we had to put in the film, and did.
They influenced the aesthetics too, as we had recorded the initial conversations on video. At points we ended up with an empty, crude shot of a guy sitting there, speaking about his life, totally fucked by his adversities and his need of work. It was so strong that we had to put exactly this shot, in the same aesthetic register, in the film. So this was a reason why we had to find this architecture and these structures, we had to put some kind of documentary feeling in the film. Yes, we can draw some characters in the film, but nothing is as powerful as this guy sitting in a chair speaking about his experience.
Rail: In that case, why were you compelled to make the film primarily fiction, and not a more straightforward documentary like your previous film, Trading Cities?
Pinho: I think that fiction can reach much further. I like the idea of this plasticity and the ability to change or manipulate reality; for me it’s very appealing. I find that [The Nothing Factory] and Trading Cities are very different—for the previous film the proposition was to be quiet and register change. For this film the goal is to speak about drama and conflict, so it had be built; conflict can and does exist in documentary, but you can’t build it.
Also, in Portugal there is an ongoing questioning of the distinction between fiction and documentary, and we wanted to laugh a bit about it, to play a bit with these frontiers. Everyone knows everything anyone could say about this topic [of hybrid documentary], so let’s play with it while still participating in it. The same goes for the meta-sequences that show the film’s construction.
Rail: When the film moves outside of the factory and enters in the realm of the family the main character is seen in relation to both an older and younger generation. We see scenes of him with his partner’s son (effectively his own son), as well as quite striking scenes with his father, as the latter reveals his stockpile of guns from the revolution. Can you talk a bit about these intergenerational dynamics?
Pinho: We wanted the main character to be somehow related to these possibilities of political alternatives, but to have him detached from all these possibilities and ideological backgrounds. We wanted him to be fed up with his father and this relationship, so we created this militant figure in his father as a means of representing what the character didn’t want. Somehow he appreciates this background and philosophical heritage—and knows it from the inside—but he’s from another generation and doesn’t identify with it in the same way.
In the father character there are also ideas informed by the recent period of crisis, in which people started to put everything in question. It shook people’s lives so much that they began to question big structures and big ideas. My mother at some point even said to me, “Well, there is this land of your grandfather’s in the north and we can’t lose it. I think there will be a time in our life when we have to go there and plant potatoes.” Somehow there was this radical questioning that people felt everywhere in Portugal, as well as Spain and Greece. Like, “we cannot trust this economic system, we can only trust that there are some potatoes and some land”—a real back-to-basics mentality.
Rail: How has the film been received in these places?
Pinho: It went well here in Portugal. The press reacted very well, and audiences were also good. You can feel a lot of differences of reaction in the countries that were somehow affected by the crisis and this confrontation with this problem. You can feel that people are somehow much more alert to these problems, so they react very well; the audience reaction is very informed and you see that they are thinking about these things.
Rail: About austerity and the stagnation of manufacturing in particular?
Pinho: Not specifically. More to do with the state of the capitalistic system and how people can organize themselves out of this situation. People that are suffering from this, like in Spain and Brazil, are very aware. The response in Cannes was positive and similar but it’s more cinephilic. All across France the response was very good, but also cinephilic, rather than something that you are living. If people are very attached to it on an emotional level you can see it. Here and in Brazil I felt it a lot.
Rail: So much of the film seems grounded in this and other examples of a crisis of faith, not only in overarching systems but also in the sense of collective trust and the potential of collective action. The main character is clearly ambivalent about the factory occupation and other collective actions as he watches certain colleagues make deals with the company. Can I ask you about producing and working collectively? The film isn’t credited only to you, but rather yourself and a number of your collaborators from Terratreme Filmes.
Pinho: I have a problem with authorship, and I think that’s something we want to discuss with Terratreme. The fact is that the film started with a long conversation between all of us, and we wrote it together. And then it’s impossible to direct a film with eight hands, so it was decided that I would direct and the critical decisions would be made by me and would be centralized in me, but it’s something that we felt we built together. I would hate for it to be in the end “a film by Pedro Pinho,” as the writing process and the entire act of editing and assembly was all shared.
Terratreme formed because we felt we should be autonomous from the Portuguese production companies, and we didn’t want to depend on a producer. So we started to work together and work on each other’s films, which allowed us to work with smaller budgets. And we made a lot of films in the beginning with very small budgets, before we started growing to reach another scale.
Now we still keep these two main philosophies: the first is participating in each other’s processes and sharing the work. The second main idea is that the production model is an important aesthetic issue, and that director must manage the budget as the budget in a sense becomes an aesthetic issue.
Rail: How does The Nothing Factory serve as an example of this? Not only is it long, but it’s shot entirely on 16mm.
Pinho: It would be impossible to produce this film with any other model. First off, no other producer would let me shoot this much on 16mm, and then, secondly, allow me to edit for one and a half years. I could only make it because we owned the film.
Rail: What was the editing process like?
Pinho: The first cut was four and a half-hours . . . it was impossible to watch. I was fighting to keep it below three hours. When we finally ended up at two hours and fifty-six minutes I was happy. It’s a monster with several heads and it was very hard to make the film work in three hours; there was this equilibrium that we had to achieve. Some edits that we had assembled didn’t work, as you lost connections with the different parts and couldn’t tolerate the length. But the film is still big, as you can lose too much when you take out certain scenes. We decided in the end that despite the challenges of the editing, we had to retain the complexity.