Hiroatsu Suzuki

Cineasta autodidacta e artista visual.
Desde cedo frequentou o Museu de Quioto e o clube de cinema local, onde viu muitos filmes clássicos japoneses e cinema mundial. Depois de várias experiências em filmes independentes, residiu em Okinawa onde começou a interessar-se pela fotografia em ambiente rural.
Partiu para a Europa com o objectivo de apurar o seu sentido visual e artístico através da prática fotográfica e da visualização de filmes. Viu alguns filmes portugueses e veio para Portugal conhecer mais sobre o cinema Português. Conheceu Rossana Torres e começou a filmar em volta de Mértola e com ela realizou o primeiro filme Cordão Verde, apresentado nos festivais de Locarno, Toronto, Viennale, entre outros.
O filme Terra ganhou o prémio Doclisboa’18 para Melhor Filme Competição Portuguesa.


2018  Terra (co-Realização)
2012  O Sabor do Leite Creme (co-Realização)
2009  Cordão Verde (co-Realização)



Daisuke Akasaka: What was the starting point for Earth? Your two previous films were ways of approaching places that Rossana Torres kept in her memory… How did it all happen this time?
Hiroatsu Suzuki: Our first film Green Belt was filmed in the Mértola area and the Serra de Caldeirão. As Rossana lives in Mértola we explored lots of places together and met many local people. When I was younger I lived in the country for several years in Okinawa, an archipelago in the south of Japan, where completely different languages are spoken and the influence of animism is still very strong. My interest in the relationship between nature, spirituality and traditional handcraft stems from that time and place. The Alentejo landscapes are very different but the way people live there reminds me of Okinawa.
The Taste of Crème Brûlée was filmed in Rossana’s grandmother’s house, where she lived when she was a child. When I first visited this house it reminded me of my grandmother’s house in Kyoto, Japan, where I used to spend my summer holidays when I was a child. Many people who saw this film told us about their memories of their grandparents’ houses. The sweets made by our grandmothers must be a common memory shared by many people of the world.

Rossana Torres: After the film Green Belt, we wanted to go straight back to filming in the Guadiana valley. However, while we were looking for financial backing, an opportunity arose to film in my grandmother’s house in the Beira Alta. It was extremely emotional for me to return to live in the house of my childhood and especially to be in the company of the two beautiful sisters.
But we never stopped exploring the area around Mértola, without really knowing what we were looking for. When we met Nuno, a charcoal burner, and got to know the place where the kilns were, we would go and accompany his work on a regular basis.

D.A.: Can you tell me a little about the people who do this type of work and their living conditions? Did you do any research on the history or the future of this activity?
H.S.: When I lived in Okinawa, I saw the complete charcoal making process in the mountains. There, the kilns are usually near the forest, near the source of wood. But when I saw Nuno’s two kilns near the lake I felt that place to be unique. I have always been fascinated by all sorts of kilns: for ceramics, for limestone, for bread… I had the experience of working in a ceramics kiln, one that was covered with earth. I helped keep the fire constantly lit for more than a week and then the kiln was closed for it to cool down. When I watched the opening of the kiln and saw the objects being taken out, it was like treasure coming out of the kiln! It was something magical, reminding me of alchemy, all that transformation of earth into beautiful objects. So the objects were born in the kiln and at the same time something special was born in me…
Since the time when I lived in Okinawa, I have been interested in architecture that uses natural materials such as earth and lime. In the Alentejo there are still lots of houses made in rammed earth – a traditional construction technique pressing earth between wooden frames. I have visited many houses made from rammed earth. It touches me, in the landscape of the Alentejo, to see the ruins of these houses that collapse and disappear with time, returning to the earth once more. The charcoal kilns are covered with local soil which also arouses a lot of interest in me.

R.T: Small plantations of holm oaks predominate in this area, a species of tree that takes many years to grow and can become enormous. Holm oaks are fantastic for their shade in the hot summers of southern Portugal. They are normally pruned and the cut branches make good firewood and good charcoal. Over the last few years, what with depopulation and the land being abandoned, many of these trees become disease-ridden and have ended up dying.
Nuno lives in a small village near Mértola and prunes holm oaks, and fells the dead ones. He makes use of the wood both for firewood and charcoal and also for creating pieces of furniture. He learnt how to make charcoal from a neighbour, who, in turn, had learnt it from older people. This handcraft skill, almost extinct nowadays, uses the earth to cover the trunks of wood, leaving openings in order to control the fire. As it’s a job that requires great strength, especially when piling up wood inside the kiln and later taking the charcoal out, Nuno arranges for his family and friends, to come and work together on these occasions.

D.A.: How long did the filming take? Did it coincide with the time needed to produce the charcoal?
R.T.: The entire process of making charcoal takes between three and four weeks. Once the kiln is filled with holm oak wood and the fire is lit, combustion takes between around five or seven days depending on the size of the kiln. During this time, the air openings must be  controlled in order for the wood not to burn too much or too little. Little by little, the openings are covered to prevent the fire from consuming all the wood. After having insulated everything, there is a waiting period of at least seven days until the kiln cools down. Once it even took almost two weeks to cool.

H.S.: We began filming at the two kilns in the middle of December and often filmed there until March. Everything was really beautiful. We were filming but we still didn’t really know what to do with the material.  At the same time we were filming in other places, other people, going where our fancy took us.  At that time we didn’t even suspect that the charcoal kilns were going to be the main characters in our film…

D.A.: In the film there is not even an explanation about the work or the place where everything is taking place, not even interviews with the people. Instead, the beauty of the light is conveyed with great freshness as is the smoke arising from the openings of the burning charcoal, the passing of time and the transformation of space within this place. When was it that you decided on the film’s structure?
H.S.: When we began to look at all our material we considered the possibility that the last image could be the cranes flying overhead. The crane is a symbol of happiness in Japan. Every year between the months of November and February, the cranes arrive in the south of Portugal after their journey from Sweden. At the end of every day they fly together to rest at a lake. We saw them flying one evening and afterwards we waited for them on several occasions. The choice of the first image was also clear to us when we saw again the image of Nuno shutting the kiln door, as this accentuated the mystery of what was happening behind that door. After that it was a question of choosing the other images taking into consideration linking aspects and dialogues between each one. How to construct a film without commentaries or interviews, “only” with images and sound? How to feel the essential elements: fire, water, air, earth and space? How to lead the viewer to feel what we felt? We did not want to use the images and sounds to explain, so how to express all this without words? For me the experience of cinema lies beyond words.

R.T.: We don’t usually have the intention of making a documentary about an activity where all is explained. In Earth we didn’t think about the construction of the film while we were filming just as we hadn’t in Green Belt and The Taste of Crème Brûlée. That winter, we filmed a lot of things in various villages around Mértola. The real construction of the film began when viewing and choosing images which touched us one way or another.  As we aligned the images we began to experiment with links between them and intuitively discovered ways, like following the rhythms of the passing of time.

D.A.: Who are those people, the hunters that don’t appear in the area where the charcoal is produced? Although those scenes are also interesting, why include them in the storyline?
H.S.: During the winter months, the men of the villages in this area get together and go hunting wild boar. We went with them on several occasions, spending the whole day together. At the end of the day, they offer one of the hunted wild boar to the population and everyone eats and drinks.
While the kilns cool down, the charcoal burner has to wait for several days before he can take out the charcoal. In the hunting scenes, the hunters also wait while talking about the birds which are not seen in the image. The last image of the cranes is like an echo of these scenes.

R.T: During the editing of the film there was a need for the film to breathe in another place, in a different situation, in a more open space where other lives crossed with the one being shown.

D.A.: Normally in films that deal with types of activities, close-ups are used but not in this case. In your film it’s very much the opposite, immense long shots are used, a camera that is both fixed and such a long way away that the activity being filmed can’t be seen very well. What is behind this way you have of filming? I’d like to hear you, the film directors, speak about the reasons that led you to film like this…
H.S.: We don’t follow rules. We often go to the same places from early morning to nightfall, filming the whole day. The light is constantly changing. For me, the kilns are so mysterious in themselves that I wanted to respect and preserve their mystery. The composition of the images arose naturally.

R.T: This film is not a documentary about the making of charcoal. This was one of the reasons for not using the word “charcoal” in the title – just “earth”. The idea of this title is linked to the multiple meanings of the word in Portuguese: “earth” is the ground we walk on, “earth” is material that can be moulded, “earth” is the place where we live and “Earth” is also the name of our world. And in the Alentejo the following is sung: “I am in debt to the earth / And the earth in debt to me / The earth pays me in life / I pay the earth in dying.”

D.A.: Earth is a feature film of sixty minutes. Did you cut much in the editing? Could you tell me what you had in mind during the editing process?
R.T.: We had to make many choices, mainly between very similar compositions; it wasn’t easy choosing one from amongst the others as they all looked very similar. The other challenge was to work the rhythm, for example the time of each image. This work was only possible as we were editing the sound which was done simultaneously.

H.S.: We did not want the image or the sound to explain something. Our question is for example when to use close-ups of the charcoal or the smoking chimney? We wanted to feel the image, feel the sound, we wanted there to be a correspondence between images, between image and sound and between sounds.

D.A.: Throughout the film we hear various sounds of nature. There’s birdsong and sheep bells that are not seen in the scene…The film has a great wealth of sounds. What did you have in mind in relation to sound?
R.T.: Editing sound was very difficult. On the one hand, there were a lot of repetitive sounds we did not want to overdo, such as the sheep bells which were constant. So too was the sound of cars passing by on a road and various songs of birds. On the other hand, we tried to create different atmospheres, for example, a more or less wet one, one in the morning and another at end of the day…And like the way we edited images, we would experiment sometimes with one sound sometimes with another, sometimes with little annotations – all in a way to feel the rhythm of the earth.

H.S.: We occasionally used sheep bells to mark a certain moment, as in the last scene of film Green Belt where we began to hear sheep bells before they appear and drink at the water hole. Here too in the last scene of Earth, the sound of the call of cranes is heard before we first see them.
We were careful in the way sound can help us feel what we cannot see: what is within the kiln and what is outside it, what is in the frame and what is outside it.
I would like the sound to touch our heart in some way.

Questions: Daisuke Akasaka (Film Critic)
Transcription of the replies: Rossana Torres e Hiroatsu Suzuki
Portuguese translation of the questions from Japanese and text revision: Marta Morais
English translation from Portuguese: Joanna Feer

(texto em português no Jornal dos «Encontros Cinematográficos»)