The Metamorphosis of Birds - Ghosts and Their Memories - Perspectives Film Festival 2020

The Metamorphosis of Birds – Ghosts and Their Memories

BY JODIE LIM

 

Why is death morbid, but birth beautiful? 

 

Perhaps because we see death as the end, and birth as the beginning. Perhaps it has to do with the inevitable nature of death it becomes deeply personal and unsettling when we confront our own mortality; the unspoken expiry of our existence. 

Death’s irreversible finality can seem terrifying, and the uncertainties of afterlife even more so. The topic is hence taboo in many parts of the world. Within Asian cultures, even the mere mention of it is believed to bring misfortune. In China, people pay extra for phone numbers without the digit 4, because it is a homophone for death in Mandarin; and few register as organ donors or write their own wills for the fear of cursing themselves. In Western cultures, the end of life is lived out in hospitals, characterised by pills, tubes and even life support. At times, death is viewed as medical failures, making conversations about it awkward and painful. 

 

© Perspectives Film Festival 2020

 

The taboo surrounding death often seems harmless. But in avoiding conversations about death, we cease to confront it. To many, the thought of their own death, or that of a loved one, brings existential dread, or a fear they can’t seem to rationalise. This stems from the mystery surrounding death, exacerbated by social norms that conveniently keep it out of conversations. In tiptoeing around the topic, we fail to consider:

When, then, do we confront death? Is there a correct way to grieve?  

Death as a narrative has long been present in art. It presents us with a way to come to terms with our mortality, shrouding it with distracting abstract beauty, or softening it through a distance provided by the screen. The distance that is created when artworks or films fictionalise death grants us space to process it without the usual accompanying dread. When the film ends, we can simply walk away. 

Portuguese writer-director Catarina Vasconcelos boldly confronts death in her debut feature, fusing reality with fiction in The Metamorphosis of Birds. The poetic documentary essay was birthed through an introspective journey she undertook to reconnect with her family history.

 

The Metamorphosis of Birds © Portuguese Film Agency

 

“This film could never be a documentary in the sense of a film that depicts reality: which reality? And what is reality anyway?”

 

Vasconcelos herself explains the choice to include elements of reality interwoven into the visual and verbal metaphors. Rather than having fictional characters created in place of her family members, she uses real family photos, names and even quirks of her aunts and uncles.  

In countering the emotionally disruptive notion of death, the imagery of the film is rarely explicit. Vasconcelos broaches the topic gently, conveying the events of the film through images that at first glance seem to bear little relation to the contents of the voiceover. Rather, her intentions seep through when one considers the metaphors employed to represent the emotional space her family occupies. 

 

The Metamorphosis of Birds © Portuguese Film Agency

 

Vasconcelos tells the first half of the family saga through an endearing series of letters between her grandparents, Beatriz and Henrique. Motifs of nature are interwoven in their descriptions of one another. Beatriz is associated with trees, a metaphor that expounds her nurturing nature. A sentiment she expresses comes to epitomise a mother’s everlasting desire to shield her children from harm: “when they climb up trees I can only see the possibility of a fall, but in their eyes there is only the promise of flying.”

 

Like birds, the children dream only of flying.

 

In fulfilling those dreams, Beatriz is the tree that brings the birds closer to the sky — a little closer to flying. In extending this metaphor, Vasconcelos highlights the name of Beatriz’ first born, Jacinto, which translates to ‘hyacinth’, a type of bird. He becomes the first of the little birds (children) who are granted space, freedom and love to grow by their tree (mother). 

 

The Metamorphosis of Birds © Portuguese Film Agency

 

The warmth of love that emanates from the use of an ecosystem as a metaphor for the Vasconcelos family never fades, even as the audience learns of the deaths of Beatriz and Catarina’s mother. We merely realise, as an afterthought, how the birds that flourished with the help of their tree are now impacted by its death.

 

“Mom, you were the one who went with the birds, but it’s always you I remember when spring comes,”

 

Catarina mourns quietly, without anger at death for taking away the one she so loved. In seeing her mother’s death as flight with the birds, she wholly comes to terms with it, choosing to view it as an attainment of freedom. 

It is precisely with such lightness that The Metamorphosis of Birds deals with death. Rather than skirting around it or dramatising it, the film normalises death. Death is omnipresent, but never allowed to dominate the narrative. In confronting the reality of her family deaths, Vasconcelos welcomes the inevitable, finding beauty in letting go. 

Vasconcelos calls her debut feature “a home for the ghosts and their memories”. Art presents an effective medium to contemplate death. Some would say the infusing of stylistic elements into the discussion of a very real phenomenon makes it less truthful. But in a story constructed to find peace with death, perhaps there are the most human truths to find. Truths of loss, love and finding acceptance.

Catch The Metamorphosis of Birds at this year’s Perspectives Film Festival.

 

 


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