Mariana Sol Porta on "Discovering Newfoundland"

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Mariana Sol Porta's short film "Discovering Newfoundland" is showing at CBC Friday Night at Heart on October 22nd at 7:00pm at Holy Heart Theatre before the screening of Strange & Familiar : Architecture on Fogo Island. The screenings will be followed by a Q & A with founder and CEO of Shorefast Foundation, Zita Cobb and the film's director, Marcia Connolly. The Q & A will be moderated by CBC's Jane Adey. We talked to Mariana about making her film.

MS: “Discovering Newfoundland” is an audiovisual poem on a few of the key historical events that occurred in Newfoundland.

The action is carried out through eleven symbolic/representative characters, who act as metaphoric representations of specific people, or groups of people who made History here. There is a young mother and her baby in Christian clothes representing early European settlers, a little boy playing with a kite - in reference to Marconi and his experiments before sending the first wireless sign from Cabot Tower, a 1st. World War Soldier, a Fishing Merchant, a Viking and a Beothuk Girl - in reference to Shanawdithit, one of the last known Beothuks, etc.

The film depicts history as a permanent discovery, a “collective knitting” into which the audience itself could ultimately feel invited.

Its poetic nature and the ultimate goal of being able to show the film to wider audiences (not exclusively English speakers), led to the idea of the film having no dialogue; instead the film has a few brief captions pointing out dates and events. For example, on top of the image of a kite like the ones Marconi and his associates used, a caption reads “1901: Guillermo Marconi emits the first transatlantic wireless message”. These captions exist in three different languages (En, Fr, Sp). So it’s possible to show the film in a different language by replacing the animation inserts.

I conceived the movie after moving here in 2005. I had practically never heard of Newfoundland and it certainly took me by surprise how many important milestones of recent Western History have occurred on this island. Before coming here, I had been working in Argentina – my home country - on short films, in TV and teaching cinema to various age groups, so, I decided to present a project to NIFCO that would reflect my curiosity about History in this place. I went through weeks of research to come up with the script for a short film to submit to the FTFP (First Time Filmmaker Program).

SJIWFF: How did you choose the actors?

MS: I posted some ads but mainly I approached people who fit the “fixis physique du role” – an expression that refers to having the physical presence and attitude that fits the role. I held a casting session at NIFCO first, and then many rehearsals in my house.

The actors were fantastic to work with. They were all very talented people who did an amazing job, even though none of them worked in performance - it was very fortunate they found this project attractive enough to devote their time to it!

Because the movie has no dialogue, they had to be very expressive. They also had to be quite precise in their performances, as we weren’t able to do more than one take for most scenes - NIFCO provided 10 minutes of film and that was about the length of the Script. In that way, it was like acting for the theatre.

All of the actors provided valuable input regarding their role. One example would be Bill Hickey, who at the time was a DFO employee but is also the son of a skilled fisherman. Bill not only brought props for his role, but also the know-how to work with them. The actors input was key in terms of doing justice to the people they were representing.

SJIWFF: Can you tell me about what the quilt symbolizes?

MS: The quilt represents history in the making. It holds together the many loose pieces of the film.

It was one of the most difficult props to acquire.

Many of the actresses and their relatives ended up knitting small sections of the big quilt in my small kitchen. Isabella St. John (Old Lady in the movie) got in touch with several artists around the island through the Arts Council, asking for contributions. Many sent beautiful pieces, and some added notes. One of them told me that her piece began as a sweater for her son 30 years ago; the son is now a man, the sweater was never finished, but she sent the knitting in the hope that I would be able to use it to finish this new project.

Any time I was frustrated by a technical detail or was faced with a challenge in post-production, I drew strength from all these magical things that happened in pre-production, when a lot of effort and talent was put into the film by so many people. We accomplished a lot with limited means.

SJIWFF: Where did you get the inspiration to mix live action and animation?

MS: I had already used animation in other productions, it is very appealing to me as an expressive complement to the filmed images.

The challenge with animation is that it demands a lot of time and energy, and this was a modest project. In fact, I couldn’t have used animation without sponsorship from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council.

The animation was a very long process, but again I was lucky to find great people to work with. First, Luciano Garay, a brilliant Argentinian artist and friend made all the drawings and the letters for the title. Later on, two fantastic local animators: Anne Macleod and Christopher Darlington, two professionals who are extremely warm people and a real pleasure to work with. They are, of course, busy people, so I operated as their animation assistant  (scanning, rotoscoping, etc.) My oldest daughter, Lara Buren-Porta also helped, she hand-coloured every animation in the film. I was actually pregnant with her during the shoot, so she was present at every stage.

SJIWFF: The music has a kind of fairy tale feel to it.

I agree. I’m quite happy with the soundtrack. It was conceived from the script to be a rich, complex and key component. It really rounded the film out and brought it fully to life.

For the soundtrack I worked with Matthew Thomson, who did an exceptional job creating soundscapes and combining them with the several pieces of music. Maybe his work is less noticeable than the music itself but it plays a huge role in developing the texture and tone of the movie and it influences how we interpret the images.

For the music, I had the invaluable assistance of Nathan Cook, an accomplished cellist and professor at the School of Music at MUN. Nathan watched the silent version of the movie (which was quite tedious to watch) and suggested and played one of the pieces in the film. He also put me in contact with an extremely talented musician and composer, Andrew Noseworthy. Andrew, my husband Alejandro Buren (who is a biologist, but became my right hand on this project) and I worked together on each piece of music, meeting in a bigger kitchen during the harsh winter months - this time in the company of our third baby girl.

Andrew is such an intuitive and creative musician, it was amazing to see how he could interpret each of the pieces. He composed and retouched each one of them until they were exactly what I had in mind. Then, he recorded the song I had chosen for the credits, the popular tune “The Islander” by Bruce Moss – whom I contacted and who gracefully licensed the rights of the song to be played at the end of the film. Andrew recorded the song in three different sessions: one with a male singer, one with instruments (among them a fantastic violin) and finally a child singer, who was my daughter Lara.

SJIWFF: What did you like about “The Islander”?  

MS: I liked the fact that it was so well known and popular here, and mainly I like its lyrics, which reflect in a few simple but precise words, the pride and strong belonging that people who born here feel.

I think my girls will feel that like that when they become adults, they have been “born and bred” here. I wanted to dedicate the film to them and honor their roots. I believe we all feel our own roots are strong and I know that whatever happens in their future, they will always be from Newfoundland.

SJIWFF: Anything you would like to add?

MS: I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to make (and finish!) this film. “Discovering Newfoundland” is about all the waves of different and intermingled cultures that have shaped this place, but it is also about sharing with people outside the island the strong amazement Newfoundland produces for those of us who have been lucky enough to find it.

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