The Aesthetic of Voyeurism: Interview with Antonio Da Silva
The shorts of Antonio Da Silva combine elements of pornography, narrative and the art film. He talks to Michael Langan about poetry, porn and how in touch with his audience he is.
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Antonio Da Silva makes short erotic films combining elements of pornography, narrative and the art film – they could as easily be shown in an art gallery as in the cinema. His work has been shown in film festivals around the world and he has a website dedicated to their dissemination, where people can pay to view them, and contact him with feedback and ideas for future projects. Recently, Fringe! Film Festival presented an evening of his work, as had Queer Lisboa, in his native Portugal, a few months before. His work has attained a certain status that being on the festival circuit affords and the aesthetic of voyeurism, well established in porn, seems to be in all of the films – the eroticism of watching and looking and peeping. Watching the films as a corpus, I began to ask myself certain questions: what the stories are that Antonio da Silva wants to tell, do they have anything to offer beyond the porn element, and do they even need that, what statements might he be trying to make? I got the chance to ask him these questions and more.
How do you categorise your films, or how do you see what you’re doing?
For me it’s a process and a journey. There are connections between the films and it’s a learning process also because they tell me what I should move towards. If they are too pornographic I should maybe try to make them more poetic, because we also need poetry. I want to have these questions that I have with myself, in the work too. My academic background is very mixed – I started in sound design, performance art, then moved on to dance film and fashion film – and now I want to put it all together. You can sense that in the way the films interact. I made a lot of art films before I started making the ones with explicit content. I wanted to put all the different elements together, as well as mixing my Portuguese background with my experience of living in London. It’s very much about myself, the things I desire, the things I want to see.
And you have a very direct relationship with your audience, because of the website?
Very much so. I get feedback from the audience and they tell me they want to see. I originally put my films online so that people who don’t have access to film festivals can see them. Now, people can support me through paying to view them and it has become a very dynamic, organic, structure because my audience have become my clients, in a way. They communicate with me a lot, and I try to meet their needs. Some of them even offer to be in my films.
When you were making the transition into the kinds of films you’re making at the moment, did that feel like a big step for you? You’re exposing elements of your own sexuality, which seems like a brave thing to do.
For me it was just a part of the longer process and, actually, it was making my very first film that was the big step. I wanted to explore that part of my life, but now everyone is doing it – taking selfies and exposing themselves in a very straightforward way. I still want to protect many things in my life but I’m generally very open. My inner thoughts are in my films, and I don’t feel ashamed of any of them.
In Pix and also in Mates you examine the relationship between technology and sex – how technology enables sexual contact, but also stimulates and influences it too. Do you have a particular statement you want to make about that?
No, how you want to interpret my work is up to you. For me, nothing is bad in that, nothing is wrong. I try to bring positivity, even when there is sadness in my films. I have frustrations about many LGBT films I see, much of the porn I see, and art world mechanisms. There’s a statement, I suppose, about my frustration and desires, but nothing political, nothing judgmental. I’m trying to show some reality.
I think any discussion of your films should be taken out of a moral discourse. But maybe that is quite political in the widest sense because of the kind of activity that you show. In some ways the films are affirming of queer identity because they’re not mainstream and that can also be political in itself. Not to mention just the fact you show men’s bodies in the way you do, erections, ejaculations…
It has a bit of a didactic element, because many young people I know aren’t aware of this reality, so it has an ethnographic element. In pornography they are explicit and try to do narrative, and in cinema they are narrative and want to do explicit, but they can’t. These two worlds are so separate and there’s nothing in between. I want to be in that space.
Is there an aesthetic tension there?
It’s not a tension because they’re different elements I want to play with. I want to have elements of narrative, of pornography, of poetry, to be interested in and enjoy what I’m doing. I have to learn and experience something new with each film I make.
There are films that have more narrative than others – Julian for example, or Cariocas – and sometimes you have a voiced-over narrator, who is not you, so there’s a device there that separates the person holding the camera from the person speaking. It means there’s a character behind the camera, who then becomes a character in the action, and sometimes a participant in the activity. It creates complexity because you’re not just filming what you see, as a result of that comment and participation. How much are people aware of the camera, how much is set up?
Each film has a different approach, a different negotiation; there’s compromise, and respect and I’m also trying to understand that process in each situation. Sometimes things happen and I will say to the person, I have a camera with me and I would like what you just did to happen on camera. It becomes a mix of different layers and levels of observation. For example, Bankers is purely hidden camera. Generally, if you see a face there was consent, but if you don’t then the person allowed me to film them, but not show them.
The editing in Dancers is so perfectly done that it’s like you’re watching the same solo danced by different people, and yet it was largely improvised.
This is a thing that happens in all my films – it’s a choreography made from editing. I’m very practised at that, I’ve trained myself in it over many years. My aesthetics are clearer so I’ve become very efficient at that editing now.
You place the viewer, the audience, in the position of the voyeur. It’s not necessarily about being aroused, so the films can work on different levels. You can still be interested in what’s going on and can be as much about the erotic as well as being erotic. I found Cariocas interesting because of the narrative but also how the space changes at night, the people using the outdoor gym, so it takes on a dynamic about class and race. How conscious is that sort of thing in your work?
Not very much. Again, it’s a process, and sometimes you have surprises like that. It’s my intuition and if I’m persistent enough something can suddenly happen.
There’s a certain amount of trust required because you’re in that space – the outdoor gym, for example – and you have a camera. You’re filming guys working out, in close-up sometimes. You must have to build up trust very quickly.
I explained to the guys that I was interested in their body language, and got their permission to film. Once the camera is set up, anyone who arrives after that knows it’s there, so I don’t have to explicitly ask permission after that point. It happens really naturally, but you have to make yourself one of them. I used that space to exercise myself – and I love that gym. I see the exercise not as a sexual thing but as choreography. I’m transforming their movements into choreography. I studied dance film and became interested in the question of how to make a dance film without using dancers. And now I’m interested in how I can make pornography without using porn actors.
Once you introduce a camera into a space – you said you wanted to show reality – you’re influencing reality. How self-consciously were those guys displaying their bodies, to each other, for themselves?
The moments I select in my editing are the ones where the person forgets the camera is there. If I see ‘acting,’ I won’t use that. That’s why in some of my films I show people leaving the moment after having sex, I’m interested in that afterwards moment. I can sense when the person forgets the camera and often that’s the bit I want. Even in Gingers, they knew the camera was there but they’re not talking to the camera they’re talking to me. It becomes something else.
Nowadays we’re so used to cameras, and quite sophisticated in our approach to technologies. Are you trying to cut through that? To capture authenticity and those moments when a lot of people’s defences are down?
It’s one of my main concerns. I also have issues with a lot of documentary work, in which everything is in place and lit beautifully, almost scripted. They’re pure fictions. I am frustrated by how reality is being presented and perceived. I like people to be authentic. I like most the person who doesn’t know they’re beautiful, but I also need narcissists to appear in my work. I play off both types of people and all these elements.
In both Gingers and Daddies you’re addressing questions around identity. These are quite often identities imposed on the subjects from outside, which are then perhaps embraced in some way. Did you have a particular statement you wanted to make about those specific identities, or are you interested in identity generally?
Well, I do have a bit of a fetish about gingers and I’m also interested in how I might be growing up as a person. I do want to learn about myself from my films. With Gingers I wanted to think about transforming something traditionally seen as negative into something good. With Daddies, I want to feel good about my own ageing, and looking my age, and look forward to being a daddy. It’s about accepting yourself.
Your films are all relatively short and structurally similar. Do you have plans to extend them, and how do you see your process developing?
I recently released extras from Bankers and people are loving it. How deep do people want to go into a subject? My audience can be obsessed with my subjects and I want to make films that answer their questions and show the process. I’m interested in making longer works, with more choreography, exposing my archive and how the footage came about. I want to keep improving, be inspired, and respond to people’s demands. My next project is about a cruising ground in Portugal, where I’m mixing up sounds and images that will define the film a lot. I’m also making a film about London and what it means to me. I’m interested in younger people and their use of the internet, the way people are promoting themselves. I want to keep surprising myself in my work and challenging my own life.
You can see the uncensored trailers for Antonio’s films at his website here.