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Smashing Frogs: How This Young Portuguese Filmmaker Is Breaking Xenophobia

Leonor Teles, the daughter of a gypsy, physically attacks a symbol of European bigotry.

"Batrachian's Ballad"

“Batrachian’s Ballad”

Leonor Teles

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists. The following interview, conducted by a member of the Critics Academy, focuses on a participant in the affiliated Filmmakers Academy program at the festival.

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Leonor Teles won the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, but she would never tell you that. Neither would she present herself as a director.

Being the 24-year-old daughter of a gypsy, Teles had already depicted her Romani community in her first short film, but in “Batrachian’s Ballad” she went a step further. In some European countries ceramic frogs are placed in shops and restaurant doorways to keep gypsies away — some of them have a superstition about the animal.  In “Batrachian’s Ballad,” Teles goes after these bigoted bibelots, snatching them and breaking them in the middle of the street.

Indiewire caught up with the irreverent filmmaker in Locarno, where she is taking part in the Filmmaker’s Academy.

Leonor Teles

Leonor Teles

Joana Galhardas

You’ve been running around the world for the last few months presenting “Batrachian’s Ballad.” How have been people reacting to it?

Outside Portugal I am often asked if that custom is actually true. And curiously many people in Portugal didn’t know it either — or some of them told me that after watching the film they started noticing frogs everywhere. And a few days after I won the Golden Bear a Portuguese newspaper revealed that ceramic frogs’ sales just spiked up, which is a most strange reaction — as if by learning what the frogs meant people also wanted to have one to protect them from gypsies.

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I guess that wasn’t exactly what you expected. What did you have in mind when you started making the film?

I am not sure if I was expecting any specific reaction, though of course I wasn’t very happy about that one. I just had an idea I wanted to explore. It normally starts like that — there’s something that interests or disturbs me and I need to bring it out. My first short film, “Rhoma Acans,” started like that. I wondered what it would have been like if my father hadn’t married my mother, how it would have been to grow up as a Romani child, a Romani girl. So I decided to film that group of gypsy young women as a way to establish a comparison between my life and theirs.

Did “Batrachian’s Ballad” start in a similar way?

Well, not exactly. In someway its origin is way back, when I was about 13. I remember being with my mom in a cafeteria, seeing one of those ceramic frogs and asking her what that was about. She explained it to me and we started joking around [about] the idea of [going] into restaurants and shops [and breaking] all the frogs. About three years ago I was having lunch with my producers and there was a frog there, so I just asked them out of fun if they knew why it was there, which they didn’t. After knowing the story, they kept encouraging me to make a film out of that.

So the frog-breaking scene worked as a starting point?

Yes, and the film was also an excuse, a way to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, something that, if it was not for that context, would be simply considered vandalism. Above all, the film allowed me to present that action in a larger scale, to give it broader consequences. As a gypsy’s daughter I can’t say I was ever a victim of discrimination and I don’t think my father felt that either. But nonetheless I felt that mean tradition needed some answer, some sort of criticism.

And how did the idea develop then?

I guess it is important for me to find a format that relates to the idea I want to explore — you cannot have a fixed format and then use it for every film you do. For example, the moment I decided I wanted to shoot on Super 8 was a very important one — I wouldn’t have made the film any other way. Super 8 always reminds me of things from the past — and who would say that this frog tradition, such a stupid one, still exists, right? Something so silly needed to be treated as so. And at the same time it has a colorful, grainy look which always reminds me of story tales like the one I use in the film.

Are there some filmmakers you admire or whose style you feel closer to?

Well, there are some that I like. Without thinking too much, I would say Wong Kar-wai, only up until “In the Mood For Love.” And Andrea Arnold. I love her. The way a 50-year-old person is able to depict youth, the way she faces her characters, it’s very beautiful. Besides, she is a woman. Which is kind of rare in cinema. Also Lucrecia Martel. She’s amazing too, in a different way of course.

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And for you what it is like to be an up-and-coming female director in Portugal, what are the challenges?

Well, first of all I don’t see myself exactly as a director, or not only. I would rather be behind the camera, either as a camera operator or DP. Maybe because I can’t imagine myself presenting a bunch of projects to some producer. I only want to do films when I feel some kind of urge. About the up-and-coming part, I don’t like to talk about me in particular. I would rather talk about my colleagues, my generation, our efforts to make cinema. It is hard, but if you want to, as Jonas Mekas and Douglas Gordon told us the other day, you just have to “do so.” Getting financed in Portugal might be specially difficult, but the truth is everything is difficult. I think we need to start moving, to keep trying. At least if you’re starting, just make one or two short films, you may end up achieving something, getting selected to some festival. That is actually what happened to me.

That is one of the reasons why you are in Locarno now, taking part in the Filmmakers Academy. How do you feel about it?

I’ve been traveling around and going to all these festivals and I must confess I am beginning to get a bit tired of talking about films all the time. Cinema isn’t everything. Sometimes I feel festivals are a bit like a bubble, as if cinema was the only thing in the world. Today for the first time I had an interesting conversation about the state of alert we’re now living in Europe because of the last months’ attacks. Why don’t we do films about what is going on, about crisis, about the fact that my generation needs to have two or three jobs in order to survive? It is not that I expect films will teach anything to people. I don’t believe films can actually change the world, but if I am lucky enough to have someone spending 10 minutes of her life to watch one of my films, if she gets something from it, whatever that is, then I am happy. For me, cinema has much to do with relationships between people.

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