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A classic example of simulation in feature films is the car ride that has been filmed in the studio. Rear projections provide the appropriate background; exterior footage of cities, streets, landscapes filmed while in motion bring movement into what is actually a static backdrop. Mostly, the fact that these images are not real is easy to recognize – by exaggerated manipulation of the steering wheel, for example, or the contrast in focus between the rear projection and the studio footage. Nevertheless the car ride with rear projection has become a cinematic convention – which, through its use beyond the era of classic studio films, for example in the films of Claude Sautet, also narrates something about its history as a visual set-piece of cinema. The artificiality of the car ride indicates neither ineptitude nor an insufficient budget, but rather is legible as a loving reminder of the „made-ness” of cinema itself. One can regard these scenes with the eyes of a child that has grown into an adult, who understands that Grandmother is telling tales and is not disappointed at being disillusioned, but instead moved by storytelling as such.

This long history with its eventful oscillation between the real and the made flows into Susana Nobre’s NO TÁXI DO JACK (JACK’S RIDE). With its consciousness of cinema history, the film’s exposition once more pulls out all the stops to showcase the art that resides in the studio-filmed car ride: the close-up of the face of a taxi driver lightly bumping up and down, the look at his old-fashioned meter, which clacks contentedly, the dramatic yet warm red bathing the scene that could never have been produced by the real brake lights of another car, and a New York night outside, with its mixture of asphalt and neon signs.

In Nobre’s film, the ride ends in the reality of the movie studio. The image slowly moves away from the windshield: it reveals the setup, the rear-projection wall, the lighting apparatus and, last but not least: the tracks on which the camera itself has been moving, an elegant gesture to mark the field in which NO TÁXI DO JACK is told, in the inversion of the feature-film car ride. If, here, reality is suggested with artificial methods, the documentary history is dreaming in images that it has taken from fictional cinema.

Three films inspired by an adult education project

Susana Nobre has been familiar with the story of former New York cab driver „Jack,” Joaquim Calçada, since her involvement with a large state-funded continuing-education project. The New Opportunities Programme was launched in Portugal in December 2005 to provide additional education in a country in which people spend an average 8.2 years in school, the shortest amount in Europe. The filmmaker’s perspective is shown in NO TÁXI DO JACK right after the end of the car-ride scene: we watch how Susana Nobre sets up a camera next to herself on a desk, across from which Joaquim Calçada takes a seat.

It’s the perspective that one of her earlier films consistently sustains. Between 2007 and 2011, the filmmaker worked for the continuing education programme to gather stories about people’s lives and educations; from the outset, and in coordination with the agency, she used the job for her own film work. That becomes immediately clear in VIDA ACTIVA from 2013 – the first of three films that emerged from Nobre’s work for the New Opportunities Programme.

As Jack Joaquim Calçada becomes the nonchalant star of a film that imagines a sad reality as something bigger and more beautiful.

In VIDA ACTIVA, the images are straightforwardly documentary: the camera next to Nobre is attached in such a way that it films the individual people in front of the desk; the takes are not so perfectly framed that, as in NO TÁXI DO JACK, they allude to images common in feature films. In the pragmatism of their recording, they feel more like surveillance videos; as if they couldn’t have been arranged, but must have been wrung from the circumstances. In addition, there is footage of plain utilitarian buildings that, in their anonymity and interchangeability, recall the stagings of such functional spaces in the art of Thomas Demand.

In comparison to NO TÁXI DO JACK and 2015’s PROVAS, EXORCISMOS – the second of the New Opportunities films, in which Joaquim Calçada is part of a group of workers whose factory goes bankrupt – VIDA ACTIVA comes across as a collection of material. On the one hand, that’s true of the collection of life stories in which people’s education ends after the fourth grade or, at the latest, when they are teenagers and get jobs, as with „Jack.” He started working in a factory as a 14-year-old, and at 22 went to the United States for two decades, where he earned a living as a factory worker, cab driver, and chauffeur (for, among others, Jackie Kennedy and Muhammad Ali, as he proudly recounts). But it’s also true of the films’ visual style: Nobre translates the plainness of the offices in VIDA ACTIVA into the locations (or should one speak rather of sets?) in NO TÁXI DO JACK, which are ambitiously arranged and carefully filmed, exuding a certain distance and coolness.

Depreciation of work

Three months before he is due to retire, Jack moves through these spaces as demanded to document the fact that he is applying for jobs – jobs that, of course, he will never get. He exemplifies the asynchronicity of the New Opportunities Programme, which tries, too late, to impart the education that they missed to people who left school early in order to contribute to their families’ finances – although they have long since amassed lengthy histories of precarious work experience. The job landscape through which Joaquim Calçada moves so laconically that it occasionally seems comical – something one recognizes from the films of Roy Andersson or Elia Suleiman – comes too late for his working life, which he narrates in voice-over. The reality of the employment office seems, relative to actual employment, like a museum in which Calçada is now only an observer and no longer actively taking part.

That observing has taken the place of doing says something about how the world and the value of work have changed since the mid-twentieth century. One can understand Jack’s vicarious observing – this is a film, after all – also as a set of instructions to understand how in Nobre’s films documentary narrative is encased in the fictional – as the onetime cab driver Jack stages the stations of his job search as a film figure from the past. In a certain sense, Nobre thereby gives Joaquim Calçada not only his dignity, but also the work that the employment office doesn’t have: as Jack, he has become the nonchalant star of a film that imagines a sad reality as something bigger and more beautiful.

The key to this playful approach to the images is to be found in PROVAS, EXORCISMOS, the centrepiece of the trilogy. In this film, the narrative of a grandmother in a church who is recounting her fragile relationship with her grandchildren is disturbed by a group of tourists with a guide, who explains: „What is interesting about this work is that it belongs to an art form in which painting and sculpture complement each other.” If one were to understand the documentary component in NO TÁXI DO JACK as the pictorial aspect of painting, and the fictional elements – such as the car ride with rear projection at the beginning – as spatialization, the sculptural element through which the story of Joaquim Calçada as Jack would gain the greater dimension of cinema, then this description of the picture could say everything about the maverick style of Susana Nobre.


Matthias Dell lives in Berlin and works as a media critic.

Translation: Donna Stonecipher

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