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A journey to the end of the earth

Portuguese filmmaker Gonçalo Tocha’s new film It’s the Earth Not the Moon explores the island of Corvo in Portugal

Written by New York Times |
July 15, 2012 12:17:09 am

Mike Hale

The Portuguese filmmaker Goncalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon begins on the ocean,with nothing visible but water,the prow of a boat and,in the distance,the hazy outline of what might be an island. The boat is carrying Tocha to Corvo,the farthest and smallest outcropping of the Azores archipelago,in the mid-Atlantic more than 900 miles from the Portuguese mainland.

“It’s an extraordinary island,” the boat’s captain says. “I am not going to tell you how it is but —Azores,it’s crazy. And there,it’s even crazier.”

For the next three hours the film immerses the viewer in that tiny (7 square miles) place,home to a hardy population of fewer than 500. Never leaving the island,except for the occasional fishing trip,Tocha tries to show us everything there is to see and do,and all there is to know about Corvo,which he calls “the end—after that you cannot go anywhere else.”

Corvo is a place where premodern rituals of harvest and slaughter sit side by side with disco balls and a contentious,media-saturated local election. Old men who still herd cattle near sheer 2,000-foot cliffs.

“I call it a travel adventure film,” Tocha said. “It’s like the book of an explorer who goes to a place and makes a journal or diary of discovering.”

There is a literary quality to It’s the Earth— emphasised by its division into numbered chapters—as well as an ethnographic impulse that can make it feel antique. But it also feels completely modern,making itself up as it goes along.

Said Tocha,33,“I was trying to really film everything I could. The kind of film it will be I didn’t have any clue. Every year I went to the Azores,it was this childhood dream of the nature and the ocean.”

It’s the Earth shows the island’s absurdly dramatic landscape from every vantage point: atop its cliffs,across its small and verdant pastures,inside the gently eerie caldera of an extinct volcano.

It was more of a challenge to portray the inhabitants,residents of a neat little port that dates to the 16th century. It helped that Tocha’s entire crew during two years of filming consisted of him and his sound man,Didio Pestana. “They (the people) are suspicious of what the image can do. They’re very proud. Nobody knew us,so we have to live there,they have to trust us.”

One set of recurring images that’s puzzling for the viewer,presented in verite style without explanation,shows anonymous people dancing,somewhat listlessly,in strobe-lighted sessions at a bar. They are in the film,Tocha said,because it was the island’s young people who were most resistant to appearing.

“The new generation is very conscious of the images,” he said,explaining that this was the only way they would agree to be in the film. He added,“Actually I liked that—they are the generation that doesn’t speak,and in 20 years they will be running Corvo.”

Long a symbol of isolation,Corvo has changed radically as transportation has improved over the last 50 years,and the changes will only accelerate. “Everything that’s happening everywhere in Western society is happening in this island,but it’s happening for the first time,” he said. “It’s a laboratory of human life.”

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