Documentarian Vince Costa in conversation with Roy Parras
Vince Costa is a native of the village of Curtorim in South Goa, India; population approximately 13,000. If you google Curtorim, you will find it described as, a verdant agrarian village known as the ‘granary of Salcete’. This is incidentally the name of Vince Costa’s documentary short film, Saxtticho Koddo, in the vernacular, Konkani. It is an impressive piece of work by a first-time documentary filmmaker whose film has been short-listed at various festivals, and is a winner in the short documentary category at the Asia Independent Film Festival 2018. Vince has just returned after screening his film in Europe, at Etnografilm in Paris, and in Lisbon and Amsterdam.
About four years ago, Vince, who is a musician, had a record out called ‘Saint & Sinner,’ which perturbed certain southern folk in America who couldn’t fathom how someone from India could write country music, let alone put a whole album out in this genre with impeccable music composition and arrangement. Rolling Stone magazine concluded that, “the immaculately produced album boasts of string & brass sections, accordions and harmonicas, but at its heart, it’s an album about a man who wants to sing with his guitar.” Evidently, that is not all that Costa wants to do.
In the following interview, we talk about his documentary, about the agrarian culture of farmers, and the wisdom of our ancestors.
Roy Parras: Vince, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule on the festival circuit, to have a chat with me about your award-winning, documentary short film, Saxtticho Koddo: The Granary of Salcete. How was the film received in Europe?
Vince Costa: Thanks for reaching out Roy, and for recognising the work that all of us put into making this film. It was a small team, but a very committed one. With regards to Europe, I was really curious at the onset to find out how this film would work with a predominantly foreign audience, because this story is set in a small village in Goa. I did three screenings with a very diverse set of people from pure academics to hardcore filmmakers, and again the response was so encouraging. The film provoked their curiosity and that led to so many questions, which is always a good thing. As a filmmaker, the response was very encouraging. They couldn't believe it was my first film. So all in all, many things to be grateful for, and things to learn.
RP: You are an accomplished musician. How does one make the leap from musician to filmmaker?
VC: My journey from musician to filmmaker was rather organic. There was no intent, nor a preconceived desire to make a film. I did toy around with a camera from time to time but far from taking it seriously. Cameras were to take photos of family get-togethers, moments of farewells and class pictures, not for serious work. Well, that impression has changed now.
RP: I was fascinated by this film, and it is indeed a very timely piece of work on Goa’s agrarian culture, given the rapid pace of legal and illegally rushed land conversions that are currently taking place in Goa. There is so much information beautifully timed and laid out in the pacing of this 38 minute film. This is your first film. Why did you feel the need to make a film about this subject matter?
VC: I was born into the village of Curtorim. As the title of my film says, Saxtticho Koddo - The Granary of Salcete. So symbiotic has been the relationship between the village and its agrarian activity, that it’s hard for any villager even if he or she isn’t directly involved with agriculture not to be affected by it in some way or another.
Over a few years, I started to see visual changes occurring in the landscape. Fields that would welcome me into Curtorim with a green lushness to them were now slowly becoming uncultivated. This visual started to create a niggling thought in my head that in a way lead to an apprehension. I was wondering, what would it be for us if one day all of this faded into oblivion?
My first daughter was 15 months old, and so this was a personal documentation idea that got totally out of hand. There was no intention to turn it into a film. I was merely documenting for her and the family, life in Curtorim, so that one day I could give a hard drive of data to weed through to find answers to questions she may have as she grew up, in case the farming had stopped by then.
RP: In the film Glorio, one of the farmers, divulges that he started helping his father out, and started learning the trade at the young age of 10. Rita, another farmer, recounts how she has been growing rice since she was a kid. These farmers obviously love what they do, and have developed a strong work ethic. One can see the anxieties of an older generation of farmers in the film, because their offspring do not wish to take after them. The farmer, Jose almost chokes up when talking about how his children do not wish to continue in the family tradition. What can we do to change the stigma attached to farming which turns the younger generation off farming, or which makes people look down on farmers?
VC: It would serve us well to try and understand what could cause this stigma. From spending time with this community, it seems to me that the stigma arises from the lack of dignity of labour. Trust me, what the farming community does is back-breaking hard work. Sadly, the ones who put food on our table get the least respect from the upper echelons of society. There is such a huge onus on children to study and “become something”. This ‘becoming of something' rarely suggests farming. Farming is not glamorous, nor is it remunerative, so how can we expect the younger generation of the farming communities to be motivated to take it up?
To answer your question, extending our hand out in respect to the farming community and being genuine and honest about it, in an attempt to begin a conversation would be a good start. I feel it’s a triumvirate of sorts between the farming community, governance, and society.
RP: In a very poignant moment in the film, Jose talks lovingly about his cows and bulls, and how they respond positively to humans, and then he compares them to the attitude of humans. What do you suppose made him express that sentiment?
VC: I’d have to say frustration. He has spent enough time with his cows and bulls to build a heartfelt relationship with them. They share a bond, and from this bond comes a language of love that only they understand. I’m guessing with all his attempts to do the same with humans, he has probably been terribly disappointed.
RP: One of the most important resources for survival is fresh water. Abijit Prabhudesai, in the film, shares a bit of our history with his encyclopedic knowledge of how ingeniously wetlands were converted for rice production by our ancestors. The strategically placed bunds were used to manipulate the spring water from the bottom of the hills in Curtorim, to create lakes for the production of rice. Now that so many of our hills are under the threat of being made into jungles of concrete, how will this affect the water supply, and the future of farming in this state?
VC: Our ancestors gathered a lot of their wisdom through experiences that they had with nature. Today we gather knowledge through books, not sure if that makes us wise. They were wise to understand how nature works and how to work with nature to benefit their lives. It was a cohesive way of looking at things. If you look at folklore or songs of the past, many times the stories or lyrics revolve around conservation of our natural resources.
If we see ourselves separate from nature, then I guess we lose the ability to respect the land. Once that happens, I think the effect will eventually be one that has adverse results. Let’s just imagine Curtorim as a concrete jungle. Though that’s a scary thought, the entire ecology will spiral out of control. We have a really biodiverse village and we could lose that so easily.
RP: According to Prabhudesai, “if we change the use of the land; the culture will accordingly change.” If we are being completely honest with ourselves, this is already happening at a truly frightening frequency. What can the people in power, those that call the shots and pull the strings do, to continue some of the traditional culture of sustainable living alongside the rapid pace of 'development' that is taking place in today’s Goa?
VC: Instead of trying to outline specific policy ideas, I would like to say that if the inherent motive is genuine, to respect the land and its people, to serve and be all-inclusive, then your answers for balance will come from there. Development can be planned, sustainable, and visionary. But these things need to be a priority for the people who are given the final authority, or as you say, in power.
We choose them through the democratic process of voting for them, entrusting them to serve the state and its people. At least when we vote, most of us hope that they will serve us with a sense of integrity. I strongly feel that the way forward is through dialogue and conversations between governance and the stake holders in the state.
RP: Sikkim has 100% organic farming in their state, and it's working beautifully for the farmers, and the population. What do we have to do to achieve similar goals for the good of our people? I was quite surprised when one of the farmers, at the end of the documentary, said that the local MLA was actually helping the farmers with schemes and whatever else they needed in Curtorim. How can we help organic farmers like Shilpa Bhosle succeed in preserving native seeds, and bring awareness to the issue as you've done wonderfully with this film? The Don Bosco College of Agriculture is a good start. But, how can we help people like Sandra Fernandes realise her dream of organic farming, and of teaching organic farming, something that she is so passionate about in the film?
VC: In Curtorim, the farming community had reached a tipping point of sorts. I think they were hanging precariously in the balance, anxious about their futures because they were being crushed by the costs of cultivation, and then harvesting. I think the MLA in Curtorim at the right time made available these machines to them, and that in a way saved the day and allowed this activity to continue.
In my personal opinion, if school curriculum includes more outdoor activities to younger students they will grow up with a sense of responsibility to their own food. They will have the inherent knowledge of what goes into their food and from there, will come the respect. So even if they do end up as doctors or engineers, they would have been farmers first.
As for organic, well, for centuries we have been organic. Chemical, is really a new introduction, but it’s been dangerous enough to have adverse effects in many ways. I think from these learnings, there is a far greater impetus now to move back to an organic way of living. We make collective choices that influence economics. To adhere to our demands, products come to life and not the other way around, which means we must question our way of consuming. How much, and why we consume, and so forth. If we have the courage to slow down, I’m sure we will be able to smell the coffee, which will hopefully be organic.
RP: Nice! I like what you did there at the end… Okay, let’s talk film-making. Did you go to film school, or take any film courses before you made this film? Did you watch a lot of documentaries before starting to shoot it? I ask, because I love that there are a lot of lingering shots after a person has expressed their thoughts. To your credit, you kept it in, and it was a good choice, because it helps set the pace of the film while capturing that emotion that is often lost with a lot of other documentaries when they cut too soon. Was this a conscious choice?
VC: I’m an accidental filmmaker. This film was my film school. I wouldn’t say I watched many documentaries nor film before this, but enough to have a sense of it. As a singer-songwriter, you are already in the realm of storytelling, but with words. So we’re used to editing and suffering in the process. I spent so much time filming the footage that I did suffer in the edit room. There were so many things I wanted to keep while the editor, Gasper D’Souza, made these crucial cuts. So, all credit to him really.
RP: From what I understand, it was just you walking around with a camera, interviewing people. You had no crew. What camera and lenses did you use, and what was your shooting ratio? More importantly, how did you handle the audio given that a lot of the shots are filmed outside? How did you make the locals feel comfortable speaking in front of the camera?
VC: I don’t think a “no-budget” film can afford a crew for three years to shoot. Farmers don’t follow script, or anything remotely film-oriented. They go about with their job. If you get something that works, good for you they say. So, in my case it was the same. I had to shoot for hours to come up with something that had value.
My kit was very down to earth and humble. I shot almost the entire film with one camera, a Canon 60D, one lens, a Zeiss 50mm (absolute beauty), one Rode mic, and a monopod. I had a rain jacket and an umbrella in my back pack. I used a Zoom recorder to get additional sounds for the film.
I dropped over 80 hours of footage on Gasper without even indexing the film. That’s how much of a novice I was. Gasper really worked hard. With regards to the locals speaking to the camera, that comes down to building a relationship with them. Initially they had the regular apprehension, but then, after a period of time they warmed up and got used to me hanging around the fields walking alongside them. You know they are getting comfortable when they start to offer you tea or food.
RP: When I was editing my film in 2010, I remember getting to a point where I didn’t know what worked and what didn’t. I had seen the material so many times that I was starting to loathe it. Sometimes, you just have to get away from it, and then come back to it. When I saw one of your earlier cuts, you had over an hour of footage. How were you able to condense all that information without losing the soul of the documentary, especially since you and Gasper had seen it over and over again during the editing process?
VC: Trust me, after all that time we spent on the film, first, for me filming it, and then for him editing it, we both went through some serious battle fatigue, and the brain turning to pulp. I was driving from Curtorim to Calangute, and there were days when I was exhausted. This film tested us severely. I had to dig deep to come up with the goods. Of course I wanted to stop, to give up, to rest, but we just had to keep going. It taught me that you need stamina; physical, emotional, and mental.
The reason the soul of the film stays in is because we kept it really simple. We knew who the champions were, and they were right there staring at us through the footage. The soul exists because the village exists, and because her people exist. We merely captured it and put it together in a 40 minute narrative.
RP: When I was working and living in Hollywood, film executives wanted to tell stories that have already been told because it was economically safer, or they have run out of ideas, or there is this belief that people like familiarity of content. Your film is unique, because it depicts lives of farmers and an agrarian culture that is disappearing fast because of modernity. This is a bold move for a first-time filmmaker. What is your advice to aspiring young Goan film-makers who might not know how to make their mark in the world of film-making, and think that you have to be a “Steven Spielberg”, or go to an expensive film school before they make a film, or play it safe with subject matter that has already been explored by someone else?
VC: If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that the equipment doesn’t matter. It’s always the story that wins. Many people, and more so aspiring filmmakers, feel like they need the perfect camera or different technical toys, before they can go out there and start to tell a story. Wrong! If you’re remaking King Kong; then I would say, sure, get the best camera you can afford; don’t try to pull it off with a Canon 60 D, or a cell phone.
But, if you want to tell a down to earth story, and there are tons of them in Goa, then start with what you have, in the place that you are. There is no perfect time or place. By all means, draw all the inspiration you can from your predecessors, but also try to find your voice. I'm a big advocate for honouring our cultural heritage and the stories that come from it. Stories are around us; chase them, and tell them with honesty. The rest will fall into place. Audiences know when you have used your heart, and they don’t care which camera you used to film the documentary.
RP: You mentioned earlier that making this film was film school for you. So knowing what you know now, what would you say are the top 3 things that you would do differently if you were to make the same film again, given the same resources, and circumstances?
VC: I’d have to say that the three things I'd focus on are: the narrative, cinematography and distribution. I'd spend more time fleshing out the narrative so as to avoid the editing process from being tedious. It's so important to get a good sense of the story without compromising the spirit of the film, or over thinking it.
Cinematography, because now I understand the value of having shots with steady images. Gasper was at his wit’s end with my "artistic" shots. This is visual language and so the cinematography is really important to communicate the narrative.
And finally, a film is meant to be watched and if one is to stay in this field, it's really important to get the commercial side of the project together. I kept it as the last point, but in reality, I would begin with this. It's absolutely paramount in making a film a success.
RP: You have done a huge service to the people of Goa, the new Goans from other parts of the country that have moved here and now call Goa home, our ancestors, and future generations, with this film. There are many lessons that we can take away from the forward thinking ingenuity of our ancestors, while still developing our beloved Goa in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Jose said it rightly, “…without agriculture, what will we eat?” Indeed. This film should be made mandatory viewing in all schools and colleges in my opinion, and I hope it inspires more kids to be farmers. So thank you very much for that. What’s next for you?
VC: REDMACKEREL is the company that I’ve formed to focus on stories from Goa, and the Goan community around the world. For now, I will screen the film as much as I can in Goa to the general public, but more so, to schools and colleges, and then later to the Goan community abroad.
Once the film finds its feet, I’ll be free to start work on my next story. I have written down some ideas but I‘ll need to see what resonates the most. I like the organic process of finding my way. It takes a bit longer but it’s more meaningful when I get there.
Roy Parras is an award-winning actor, and filmmaker of Goan origin. He trained with the South Coast Repertory Theatre Conservatory in Orange County, California, and at the East West Players Actors’ Conservatory in Los Angeles, California. He has appeared in several independent films, and has performed in plays in Los Angeles and Hollywood. He wrote, edited, produced, directed, and played the titular role in his first film, ‘Ricky Goes To Hollywood’, which was a finalist at several film festivals, and premiered at Times Square in New York City. He played the lead character, Klifford, in the multi-award winning film ‘Bullied’. He holds university degrees in Mathematics, and the Management of Information Systems.