David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for May, 2007

The cousin from hell and then food poisoning, and more cousins.

Wed ,30/05/2007

It’s easy to run into people here, it being such a small island. And even without directly running into people, they still seem to hear that you’re around and then sometimes even go looking for you. Such is the case with my dad’s childhood friend Joao, who probably means well, but has this unbearable tendency to talk ALL the time and cut you off if you try and say anything. Against my protestations, we went on a car tour with cousin Joao, under the premise of taking the car to a friend’s body shop to get the miniscule scratch fixed, and then going off somewhere else with him.

Joao, short, balding, chubby and three by-passes later, really is a work. With a thick South African accent, offensive views about … well, everything, he’s about the last person i would ever want to be stuck in a car with, much less thrashing around in the back seat as he whips his tiny car around winding mountain roads, loosing his attention at every corner as he tells his disjoint stories. My dad apologized on his behalf – he hadn’t seem him in 50 plus years.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, I came down with food poisoning and had to drive the fixed car back to Funchal, literally on the verge of vomiting.

Anyway, I’ll leave all the fun details out, I’m feeling much better now having been bed ridden for the better part of the last day. I did get a bit of walking around with my dad in, visiting an old neighbour (whose house is the last one standing among a seaside of concrete resorts), and walking along the ocean boardwalk in Lido, where he grew up.

I’m thinking that I need a day off very soon. Maybe a day to go hiking in the mountains or something – I do love my father and my family, but i’m really feeling like I need a little time to myself to sort of have some peace and quiet and just take the world in silently, do some writing and reflecting.

I’m probably going to see some younger cousins here soon – they’re really cool, nrinder and I had a really nice time with them last year. Hernando is a sculptor/visual artist – originally from Colombia, and Ana, his wife, is my second or third cousin (I never understand…) – my mom’s cousin and my dad’s friend’s daughter – originally from Venezuela. They were having a bit of a hard time adjusting to the relaxed pace of life here after leaving Caracas. ANYWAY. I really like them and i think we’re hanging out on Saturday. Sunday is a BBQ over at another cousin’s place. Basically, if you’re not sure how someone is related to you, or you just like them, or you don’t like them and are afraid to call them a friend, they’re your cousin.

Madeira is a garden… with a lot of condos.

Sun ,27/05/2007

There’s a saying here that Madeira is a garden – it’s even a lyric in the unofficial national anthem – and as much as it is a place of intense greenery, flora and beauty, it’s also a place that is very quickly loosing it’s soul. I’m feeling that on a really personal level these past two days.

Yesterday, my first full day here, I got to visit the site where my dad grew up (now a massive seaside hotel), the place where my dad’s grandfather lived (still a banana farm, but about to become apartments), and also the site where my dad was born (now a half torched and rotting banana farm, soon to be massive apartment development).

Basically, all the places my parents and their siblings grew up are now or are in the process of being resortified. This is beyond gentrification, this is wholesale demolition and reconfiguration of the whole landscape, to a point beyond recognition. It’s actually quite shocking. And it’s all made more poignant since I am staying with my mom’s sister – my Tia Rita (a true gem) – who’s home is a window into another era – worn down and original in almost every way, with no way to access it but a very steep, winding footpath.

Like in Cuba, tourism has become a really major industry here, and as a result, anything at all seems to go. Massive concrete hotels owned by English, German and Dutch chains are eating up the coast of the cities here, and on an island that is only 55km long, with a population of 350K – it’s having a big impact.

So, I’m feeling a bit torn. I’m so happy to be here and to get to see these places and meet these relatives before everything turns into condo-resort-land. But I’m also feeling a real nostalgia for a past that isn’t even mine and maybe isn’t even my place to be holding on to. The things I personally find beauty in are the old places, the crumbling shacks, cracked walls, clay roofs, old people and stories about a much more rural, simpler time. That’s the Madeira of my parents’ generation. But the old people are dying out and the children are selling the farms.

It’s all very strange. I get the sense that average Madeirans resent all this development, and yet, it’s average Madeirans, with inheritances, who are selling off their heritage to develop them as condos and hotels. And there’s plenty of money in it. They’re selling a crumbling old banana farm and turning that into a fortune. Can I blame them? Are young, well-educated, english-speaking Madeirans really gonna toil on a banana farm in an age of online shopping and 24h satellite TV? Would I?

It’s bittersweet. I love being here and spending time with my father and getting to physically experience where he grew up – take tonnes of picture and video to boot. But it’s kind of like taking pictures of ghosts – these places and people are going to disappear very soon and then all any of us will have to remember them are words and pictures.

I’ve taken hundreds of photos and hours of video so far. I’m feeling extra motivated to document things, preserve them in some form – ANY form – because i know i won’t get another chance. My dad’s immediate family don’t own anything here anymore, so what’s left is in the hands of cousins and great aunts. It’s really all quite futile though. I’ll never capture everything, and I know that i can’t. Maybe I’m feeling inadequate with just pictures and video. I want to be able to come to these places 20 years from now and show my kids or something. It’s a selfish thought, for sure.

Anyway. Weather is great, island is as beautiful as ever, and I’ve learned the hard way that one should absolutely NOT, EVER, park a standard transmission car facing uphill at a 40° angle and expect to go anywhere but backwards. Um, oops. No one got hurt. And the tree is ok too. The bumper on the other hand…

Roots, memory and stories

Fri ,25/05/2007

So, I’m off to Madeira today. It’s a sunny and warm day in London. Busy place, kind of like new york, except vaguely more polite – friendlier anyway. I can’t say I’d want to spend any extended time here. If I came back I’d check out a few galleries and bookstores, but otherwise it’s just another big, crowded, expensive city with probably too many very well dressed people in too much of a rush.

I didn’t manage to go out last night, choosing instead to catch up on sleep and write a bit. I did take a stroll through Soho right around the beginning of bar hopping time (which is the second work is over, apparently) – it was already rowdy.

I started thinking about roots and what it really means to be *from* somewhere. I was born in Canada, but I feel a connection to Madeira through my parents and family who were all born there and lived a solid chunk of their life there. I’m thinking about how I know Madeira mostly as a picture, painted by many overlapping, conflicting, and incomplete stories that my mother has told. I don’t know it as much through my father, so this is gonna be really interesting for me how much the picture changes.

I was also thinking about how when people in our lives die, we really aren’t left with much – some pictures, some documents that claim they existed, and maybe if we’re lucky, an old 8mm film or a video or two. And the memories we have change over time. They become less detailed. A little more like feelings and ideas than anything precise or vivd. I feel that way about my brother, who died when i was 13. Luckily i have some audio recordings of him singing and playing music, so I have something to recall his voice by – i think things like that help keep memories more vivid. But mostly he’s a fading ghost for me. I was a kid when he left. And largely, I remember him through the eyes of a kid. He really took on being a father figure when my father left us. He came back from BC and made sure he was present in my life when my father wasn’t. My strongest memories are of playing frisbee in the park or watching him play guitar. He introduced me to music, to art and to nature. And 21 years later, it’s hard to remember all that – events kind of blur into each other, the story changes, I probably make some things up. I remember the things I want to and interpret them in ways that i like.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about memory and story-telling and how the further away we get from something, the more the story changes – I think about that in terms of my mother and her non-stop stories – no narrative – just bits and pieces interconnected like some hyper-active web page with too many links. And I think about that too in terms of documentary and interviewing people about their past – about how people tell the stories they like to tell and avoid ones that conflict with the picture they want to paint. I think about how fallible memory is and how ultimately we tell stories because we have to – it’s the only way we know how to interpret our lives.

Anyway, I’m pretty intense today, but still finding moments to look around and just take things in. It is a very beautiful day.

Who Shrank London?

Thu ,24/05/2007

Wow, for a city with such a long and storied history as imperial centre of the world it’s pretty amazing how compact this place is. Maybe after having been to New York so much I’m expecting the same kind of viral sprawl. The core is a lot smaller than i had realised. I have been here once before, but not for long and didn’t do much other than walk around.

Anyway, Bristol was great. Small, green, pretty, nice architecture – new and old – tonnes of parks and public spaces, small enough to walk most places. I spent all of yesterday checking out 8 more BAFC films – it was truly a marathon. I thought I’d loose steam by the fourth one, but it got really interesting around then. The Last Angel of History, in particular, really woke me up – it’s a bit dated, but it was an interesting retrospective on the history and influence of western black music and culture making links between blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop and science fiction. Well executed, narrated, etc, and maybe the first real foray the BAFC took into digital filmmaking – this was 1995 (Clearly someone stumbled across after effects). The sound scores in all the films, by BAFC members Trevor Mathison, are truly remarkable. All the films are neat, but the Last Angel and the Martin Luther King biography are really innovative. I have the curator’s email, from the arnolfini, and I’m hoping to somehow get a few of these on video. Unfortunately, nothing is available commercially. So sad…

Having fried my brain indoors all day, i took a couple of hours to actually walk around Bristol. Later, I went over to Nicky’s sister’s place for drinks and a late dinner. All-in-all a lovely day.

I’m not really sure what i’m doing in london today, I’m taking it easy, walking around and stopping for the occasional pint refresh, criss-crossing the Thames and taking the odd picture. I’m not in super picture-taking mode right now, though there is plenty of pretty scenery around here.

I’m off to Madeira island tomorrow. And i’m thinking a lot about the trip and how I’m going to balance spending quality time with folks and also getting all the shots i want to get for this little film i’m making. I haven’t pulled the video camera out yet – I’ve barely used the still. I’m kind of enjoying just taking things in and walking around. I’ll be doing plenty of shooting in Madeira.

Ok, back to being a tourist.

Where the hell is Bristol?

Tue ,22/05/2007

Way more west of London than that silly Google maps thingie let on, that’s for sure. And there’s way more farm land in England that I ever imagined. In this part of the country, it seems like it’s either rural or city, with very, very sparse suburbs. That’s the impression from the train anyway. Quite a contrast to southern ontario, which is basically all suburbs with a bit of urban and rural thrown in for some flavour.

It’s a small, compact city with lots of character, tonnes of young people, and some incredible musical lineage, not the least of who are Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. This little city pretty much programmed two solid years worth of CD player for me (unknowingly) in the 90′s.

Despite falling asleep about 18 times on the train ride from Gatwick to here, I was too excited to rest and headed straight out to the Arnolfini to check out the Black Audio Film Collective retrospective. I also subsequently re-confirmed my suspicion that i won’t be doing anything else tomorrow but watching the other 10 films i didn’t get to see today.

The three i did were fabulous: Handsworth Songs, a long-time favourite and then two more I haven’t seen: Twighlight City, about gentrification, thatcherism and diasporic displacement in London, in the late 80′s, and also Signs of Empire, essentially a slide show juxtaposing images of British colonialism/nationalism with images of the labour slavery and servitude that empowered it.

I am totally spent, reeling with enthusiam, and drinking a dry cider – a nice mix of contrasts for a day of contrasts. (And shit, dry cider on tap!)

My plan is to sleep very soon, wake up early tomorrow, take a few pics of this pretty little city, and then binge out on BAFC from 10am until close. I intend to take one break, but this really is my only chance to see these films, as they STILL haven’t been collected for resale. (One of the friendly staff at the gallery is trying to put me in touch with one of the curators so i can beg them to put a compilation out).

I am dumbstruck by the works i saw today, particularly Twighlight City since it is new to me and was effective on so many levels: Incredible soundtrack/sound mix, a personal and yet also partly fictional narrative and lots of haunting imagery of gentrification, decay and re-’development’/displacement. The soundtracks on all their films are pretty amazing – super dub inspired and also very expressionistic – they add this dischordant tension and anxiety, it reminds me of how important sound and score are to the emotional feel of films.

Anyway, great day, I’m beat. And running out of laptop power as i mistakenly thought all of europe hade the same AC prongs – apparently not so. I need to find the UK version.

A mini-rant: the Arnolfini is funded mostly by lottery money and the BAFC show, spanning three floors, three theatres and many galleries – is all free.

Um… where does Ontario/Canadian lottery money go? (Just asking, no idea.)

Also, the BAFC work, as mind-bending, controversial and challenging as it is, on many levels, was largely funded through a system of public grants. Like, wow. Here’s to public arts funding. wow.


Ok, first time

Sat ,19/05/2007

I’m totally a late-comer to this whole blogging thing, but i’m gonna try it out for a bit, mostly because I’m heading to England and Portugal next week and i want an easy way to share thoughts about the trip. It’s an important one for me.

Sometime last fall, my father called me at work looking to chat for a bit. I was way too ‘busy’ to speak with him – having several other things i’d procrastinated on that day. I had also conjured up my favourite explanation for why he ever calls: he wants to guilt-trip me for not calling enough.

I did finally get back to him several days later, on a saturday. Turns out the reason he called me at work, during the day, was not to guilt-trip me about how much i don’t call, but to let me know that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and needed to go for treatment.

Driving back from Toronto that weekend I spent the whole four hour car ride beating myself up for being such a selfish asshole, and realising that the cancer curse in my family had finally hit one of my parents (after taking my brother, 2 cousins, several aunts and uncles, etc…). And the idea of my father with cancer – the guy who at the age of 73 is out in his backyard in the middle of an ontario summer for 8 hours on end, building decks, moving rocks and cleaning up his riverbed – the guy who surely has some mule genes in his blood somewhere (if not for his stubbornness, then for his remarkable stamina); the thought of my Dad being sick with anything other than a little cough – that was pretty fucking shocking.

Fast forward a bit, he opted for radiation treatment over surgery and has just finished his grueling 3-month treatment schedule. And now he’s decided to go home to Madeira Island for a bit, visit some family and collect a well-overdue pension.

He’d asked me if I wanted to go with him earlier in the winter, but that always seemed predicated on an unpredictable and successful completion of his treatment. When he decided to go for sure a couple of weeks ago, I was hesitant mainly because of the speed at which I’ve been burning through my savings – buying new appliances, stuff for the house, computer equipment I need now that I am a freelancer and don’t have a fully flanked studio anymore. I was going to opt out because of money and timing.

And then I spoke to Nrinder, who lost her dad in 2001, and I realised that not-going would become one of the stupider things i do in my life.

So, I’m going. I leave on Monday. Like, 2 days from now.

And I’m taking a video camera and some photo equipment and I’m going to make a short, personal doc about the experience, looking at roots, identity, family and feeling a connection to a place simply through story and lineage without ever having lived there. I’m really excited about this whole trip. I think it’s going to be a pivotal moment for my relationship with my father, who for most of my life I’ve kept pretty arm’s length.

I’m also excited about taking a pit stop in England to visit Bristol, not because I know ANYTHING at all about bristol (but assume there must be a good story about bristol board) but because I am going to see an exhibit at the Arnolfini: the very first time the entire work of the Black Audio Film Collective is on display. It’s a travelling exhibit and it’s currently in Bristol, so, Bristol, here i come.

I was exposed to the work of the BAFC while in Cinema Studies at U of T in the 90′s. I remember seeing Handsworth Songs and being totally touched and moved by the film, which is about ‘riots’ that happened in Birmingham in the 80′s, but is really about race, identity, anger and poetry. The film really breaks a lot of boundaries in documentary film, blurring the lines between poetic reflection and reportage. Anyway, their work is amazing and I am so stoked i get to spend a couple of days soaking it all in. I’ve been looking to buy a couple of their flims for years now and it’s like, no chance. NOTHING is available. (I’m secretly plotting with some mysterious all powerful forces in toronto to get at least the films brought here for a show).

Anyway. Voila. My first, rambling blog post.