Three weeks ago, the documentary filmmaking masters class went to Viana do Castelo, a place in the northern part of Portugal, to create a six-minute film of a portrait in the span of two weeks. The person recommended that we make a portrait of a local ice cream seller who had been one for more than thirty years. His name was Senhor Lima.
I’ve done camera work for documentaries before and what I enjoy the most is how the camera allows for one to come close, and bridge the gap between the person behind and the person in front of it. I am always amazed when people consciously allow you to take a look into their lives. They let you in to record it, to see with your own eyes and to take with you details and visions of what you’ve seen. I’ve managed to do most of these through conversation. For me, the result of being genuinely curious about someone is the beginning of a conversation.
The two weeks in Viana do Castelo though, proved to be very different. Before moving to Portugal, I’ve never filmed in a foreign country; much less, film someone who spoke an entirely different language. I’ve never really understood what words meant until I met Senhor Lima. Before filming, we would have hours of conversations with him where he would tell us about his life, his adventures and consequently, his misadventures. While he tells his stories, I wait for the pauses that come after the stories are over so that my partners can tell me what the conversation was about. I was really lost at some points. I would try to grab hold of the words I heard through my little knowledge of Portuguese, but nothing made sense. I remember coming home after a day of research and thinking of ways in which I could communicate better. The next day, we’d pay Senhor Lima a visit and it would be the same. I wouldn’t have any idea about what he was saying – this made it difficult for me to understand him.
On one of the last days of research, I remember him bringing us to the next two places he would be selling his ice cream to. I was still struggling; but I thought that perhaps, if I couldn’t communicate with him through words, I might be able to connect with him through my actions and my camera. Upon arriving in our destination, I took out my camera and pointed to Senhor Lima things that I had questions about. Most of the time, I would put the camera down and would just watch him move and take his time preparing the things he were to sell in his truck. In those moments when words were incomprehensible, I recognized how words have always failed me. It failed me not just during the days of research and filming, but in many moments. I have always used words and conversations to introduce myself, to warm up and to get to know people. However, it becomes a totally different experience when we are devoid of words.
This incapacity to say things, allows for room to take a few steps back and to see something for what it truly is. In being silent with Senhor Lima, I learned a new way of getting to know someone. This means to watch someone move in their space, and to allow them the chance to be silent—some room for a few short moments where in they can allow us into their lives at their own time.
Senhor Lima made and sold ice cream in his truck for more than thirty years. He is a friend, a father, a brother, a grandfather to the many people who pass by his truck. These things are real in a sense that this fact need not to be told, one has to only be present, with him and to watch the people talk, exchange thoughts and laugh with him, to know that it is true.
Only in recognizing the power and sincerity of silence and gestures did I realize that there is so much to be known just by watching and by exchanging gestures — and most of the time, in silence.
In the days that we’ve spent with Senhor Lima, this is an important thing that I have learned. Sometimes, it is necessary for one to let go of a certain way of doing things in order to be able to go through obstacles. The fear and the confusion of taking a leap into the unknown, in a manner completely new to us, will always be present; but also is the promise of seeing the world in a different light.