Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer & Filmmaker Mariano Bartolomeu

In directors, film, writing on January 17, 2011 at 1:03 pm


Mariano Bartolomeu

Mariano Bartolomeu. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the Angolan filmmaker Mariano Bartolomeu. Originally from Angola’s capitol city, Luanda, Bartolomeu has lived in a handful of different countries and now resides in the United States. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking and he is a Fulbright alumni. His short films have been selected and screened at a variety of international film festivals, and his documentary “The Sun Still Shines” (1995), made for French TV Channel La Sept-Arte, won Best Documentary and the Fipresci Award at the Milan International Film Festival.


Quick Facts on Mariano Bartolomeu

  • Home: Arlington, Virginia
  • Comfort food: pasta, Italian food, Angolan food
  • Top authors: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, JD Salinger, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Pepetela, Manuel Rui
  • Top directors: Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman
  • Current reads: Call If You Need Me by Raymond Carver, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image essays by Gilles Deleuze

What are you working on at the moment?

Two things. One, because I need to make a living. I am working on a television program pilot that will be about technology and entertainment, written for an Angolan audience. It will be made here, but from an Angolan perspective.

At the same time, I am working on what I hope will be my first feature film. I’ve done mostly short films and a couple of television miniseries programs. Now I want to make a feature film. The feature film will take place in Angola. Its tentative title is “Ilundu,” which means the protective spirit of your ancestors in an Angolan dialect. It’s a road movie, the story of a young guy who decides to help a street boy to find his mom, whom the boy was separated from during war. She lives in a region in Angola that is similar to what used to be the American far west, a frontier and lawless region. To get there, they have to cross most of the country. The man and the boy start their trip from the city. It also becomes a journey of self-discovery for the young man (about himself, Angolan culture, and the landscape) because this is his first time ever going out to the villages.

“You might think that anyone who lives in Africa

is in touch with village life and wildlife,

but that’s not true.”

During the long Angolan Civil War, people wouldn’t travel inside the country. The villages were completely cut off. You might think that anyone who lives in Africa is in touch with village life and wildlife, but that’s not true, at least not in the case of Angolans. Only now, after the end of the Civil War eight years ago, people are traveling by road again and getting in touch again with life in the villages and the African landscape.

This is a first-time experience for the urban generation of young Angolans who where born during or after the seventies, when Angola become independent from Portugal; and I would say that only now, for example, most of my friends are starting to get in touch with what life in a village looks like. Even today, it can still be dangerous because there are leftover landmines in the countryside. But it’s much easier because the whole country is in transformation and roads are being built everywhere with help from China.

What do you hope people will take away from your current project?

One thing that made me decide to make a feature film was to show things that people outside Angola don’t know about. With this project, first I want to put out a kind of worldview of my culture, which somehow is strange even for us Angolans. As I said before, many of us grew up in an urban environment and most of our values and references are western. That’s why I literally want to show a trip discovering some items and a forgotten cosmovision that are strange for Angolans and still exist in villages. I also want to explore the music that surrounds this environment.

Ultimately, I write to discover myself, to learn about myself, but also include some fantasy. When I write fiction I look into myself, but when I work on documentaries I try to deal with other people’s  experiences.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

I do, but I don’t have any preference. I just listen to music. For this feature film project, I’ve been listening to Angolan music from the sixties and seventies because it gives me the mood and the images I want to include in the movie. Music has such an evocative capacity. You hear a sound and visualize images. This movie includes a lot of memories from my childhood. When I was about six years old, I lived for two or three years in a village. I have images in my head from that time that I would like to explore in film.

Who do you picture as the ideal audience for your work?

For the TV show, my audience is very specific: an Angolan audience. I hope to later expand it to a larger audience of Portuguese-speaking Africans.

In terms of film, yeah, of course, I always want it to be as broad as possible. But, when I’m writing I’m not thinking about the audience. I believe that my movie stories probably won’t have this broad appeal because I my films tend to be minimalist and slow-paced. I aim to please everyone, but I think my audience is probably more people who are curious about discovering themselves by watching a film. When I’m writing, I am trying to discover myself.

“When I’m writing, I am trying to discover myself.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I work better at night. But, I am a very inconsistent writer because writing for me is almost painful, like a delivery. I am not one of those writers who has a ritual of writing methodically. I’m a little more disorganized; I have this idea and I try to deal with it as best as I can. Sometimes it takes long time for me to understand what is all about. I take notes, and more notes and eventually one day I sit and it comes together. Then it’s intense, and I only stop writing when it’s finished. It’s a very painful process for me because I am almost exhausted in the end. I am always telling myself, “next time will be different,” but it’s always the same.

It does take a lot of discipline to be a writer. So, I don’t know if I’m really a writer. I only write because I have to write my own films. When I first started to be interested in making films, I had a different model of a filmmaker. I wanted to be able to pick up other people’s scripts and shape them in film according to my vision of that script. But I discovered pretty soon that unless you have lots of money to do that, you really have to write your own scripts. But I like writing. It began when I was young and first read Hemingway—I was so impressed that it made me want to write. I did some experiments. Then I discovered that I could express myself in film. And I decided I wanted to make movies.

I am a very inconsistent writer, one of those where writing is almost painful, like a delivery. I am not one of those writers who has a ritual. I’m a little more disorganized; I have this idea and I see it. I take notes, and more notes and eventually it comes together.

It does take a lot of discipline to be a writer. I don’t know if I’m really a writer. I write because I have to to make my films. When I first started making films, I had a different model. The filmmaker would shape a script from a writer, but I discovered that unless you have lots of money to do that, you really have to write your own scripts. But I like writing. It began when I was young and first read Hemingway—I was so impressed that it made me want to write. It was later in life that I discovered film.

Do you usually write in English or Portuguese?

That is an interesting question. I always say that I don’t speak any language very well. Apparently, my first language is Portuguese—because that’s what my country speaks. But, my mother never spoke to me in Portuguese. She spoke to me in Kimbundu, an Angolan dialect. However, I never learned that dialect very well either, because she always encouraged me to learn Portuguese because it would be better and more helpful for me outside the home. So she would speak to me in Kimbundu and I would respond in Portuguese. So Portuguese wasn’t really my “mother” tongue.

Then, I learned Spanish because I went to study film in Cuba. I also lived in Italy for a while and I got to the point where I would think in Italian, even though I couldn’t really write in Italian because I didn’t formally learn it. And then, I learned English when I came to study here. And, I know my English is not perfect either. So, I would say wherever I am living, I am thinking in the language of that country.

“I write in whatever language

makes it easier to express my ideas.”

Sometimes it can be confusing. For instance, when I am with other Angolans in Washington, DC, I actually have to think harder to speak in Portuguese because I have gotten used to thinking in English. If you look at my writing notes, you’ll see that I switch languages all the time. I write in whatever language makes it easier to express my ideas.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Well, I really like living here in America. I would love to be able to stay here and live here, probably somewhere like New York. I like to be in urban, crowded places, to talk to strangers in bars, and things like that. But, I want to make my films about Africa, and Angola, and to film them on location.

“Film comes with responsibility. Images are very strong.”

I’d also like to make films about America, of course, but in a way I don’t feel like I know enough about the country and its people yet. Film comes with responsibility. Images are very strong—you need to know exactly what you are talking about to make a film. I might be wrong, because today it seems anyone can make a film and be a filmmaker, and sometimes they start with a question and try to discover an answer along the way. That hasn’t been my approach, and maybe that’s why I haven’t made my feature film yet. [He laughs.] I know that my thought process may be a little bit restrictive.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

I am very curious about people and what’s behind their feelings and emotions. I’m interested in understanding, in a way, how emotions work. I’m also interested in learning about dreams, and why and how they talk to us the way they do. Dreams are kind of a narrative process. I don’t think this is a philosophy exactly. But these things are fascinating to me, enough that it makes me feel that it’s why I want to write and tell stuff. I don’t really have a framework for this, but when I’m writing I am trying to put my emotions and my dreams into perspective. It feels very abstract. I don’t really know how to explain this idea.

How do you balance content with form?

Well, I usually know right away whether I want to write an idea as a short film versus a documentary, or a feature film. Most of the time I am much more interested in the narrative structure than in the story itself. Of course content interests me, but when I get an idea I tend to think about the structure of a story first and then fill out the rest of the details. The structure is like the pretext to get the content come to life.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Also a  director I met once, Melvin Van Peebles, said something like, “Anyone can write a story. The hardest thing is finding the money to make your film.” Although this is not exactly a quote, it’s more like inspiring advice, and it is something that’s stayed with me.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Know what you are doing. Try to know yourself, to understand yourself, to be able to relate true things. Otherwise, you will just be imitating things that already exist. Be curious about yourself. It’s not easy; it can be scary to discover things about yourself. Be courageous about putting things out there. And, of course, work hard.

“Be curious about yourself.

Be courageous about putting things out there.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Again, I go back to Hemingway who said something like, “If you are able to describe truly enough about what is happening in front of you, then you will be able to provoke an emotion out of that.”

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

I don’t know off the top of my head, but I’ll tell you about a funny experience I had with Shakespeare’s work. You see, our experience in Angola, we had the Socialist model after independence, (we went through a Communist and Socialist revolution), what happened when I was growing up was that I was very curious about reading. I would read everything I could find, but I was by myself because my mom and my dad were not literate and my friends were not interested in literature. I was reading all kinds of books and I would find lots of quotes and references about Shakespeare. I became curious about who is this guy, Shakespeare. I would ask everyone about him, but nobody had any Shakespeare for me to read at the time.

Then one day at my middle school, there was this room that had always been closed—it was a library that had been left behind by the Portuguese and the books that were inside were considered colonialist literature, something toxic that we should not read—one day, I arrived at school and this room was open. They were cleaning the room and throwing away the books. Just throwing them away! Among them was a collection of Shakespeare, a full collection of his work published in archaic Portuguese from the late nineteenth century. So I took it home, and I owned that collection!

I’ll tell you, it was a great experience, but I was very young. I was like 15 or 16 and probably didn’t understand even half of what I was reading in this very old Portuguese. But I was so lucky to have those books. I loved trying to read them all. Unfortunately I ended up losing the books later when I loaned them to friends.

What do you find challenging about writing? About filmmaking?

In a sense when you are writing, you are by yourself and your only limit is your imagination. You can get blocked when you can’t articulate feelings. The white page can be very scary. Sometimes you don’t even know how to put a word in front of another word to make a sentence out of it. But the process only depends on yourself.

“Film is really sort of a crisis management process.”

In film, it’s challenging because you have to manage many things at the same time. You have to manage people and make sense of the story in your head. You have to protect your vision, but also find a way to make it happen. The pressure that comes out of that can alienate you in a way. Film is also rewarding because you get to work and stay with people—get to know them. Film is really sort of a crisis management process, but it ends up being like alchemy, sort of a chemical mix-up of different minds. There’s this transformation when all these minds come together, and then suddenly there’s a product. Film is a combination of many little visions; the story that comes out is your vision as well as a collective vision of everyone who worked on the film.

“Film is a combination of many little visions.”

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

Actually, there is a question people ask about my work, and it is why have I only done short films up to now. I respond that it is because short film is an art form by itself, and kind of an exploratory path towards finding my style and voice before I venture into features. I can tell you that, except for my documentaries, all of my short films were free adaptations from short stories by authors I like. I haven’t really stopped to think about why I’ve done that, but I think my urge to do a feature film now has a lot to do with the fact that this is completely my own story. I guess I can claim that I’ve finally worked out those phantoms and I am ready for a feature.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like listening to music, going to the beach, hanging out with friends. Playing with my two kids. I like meeting people and talking to strangers. Dancing, too—it’s a passion; it’s very cathartic.

I also like watching movies. I’m always watching the same movies. I need someone to say, “Let’s go to this movie,” and then I see something new. Otherwise, I always like to watch the same movies over and over again.

About Mariano Bartolomeu

Mariano Bartolomeu, a Fulbright alumni from Angola, completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Filmmaking at the Ohio University in Athens (2003). In 1991, he graduated with a BA in Film and Television as director at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in San Antonio de Los Baños, Cuba, an institution sponsored by the Latin American Foundation for New Cinema. He then worked on film and television in Italy and Angola. His short films have been officially selected and screened in various international film festivals, including Rimini (Italy), Locarno (Switzerland), Amiens (France), Oberhausen (Germany), Havana (Cuba), and Ouagadougou (Burkina-Faso), among others. In Angola, he co-founded Dreadlocks Productions, a leading production company, and directed several miniseries for local TV. His documentary “The Sun Still Shines”(1995), made for French TV Channel La Sept-Arte, won Best Documentary and the Fipresci Award at the Milan International Film Festival. He co-wrote and starred in the Italian feature “Bell’Amico” (2003), which won the Best Comedy Award at the Monte Carlo International Film Festival.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer & Filmmaker Mariano Bartolomeu.” Words With Writers (January 17, 2011),

  1. Great interview, I found it very inspiring!

    Marissa, your work with the Words with Writers is unique, it is great to get all these authors sharing their stories… it does bring to us their worldviews.

    Look, I have a suggestion for you — Pepetela is an Angolan writer with some books in English ( available in Amazon ) and you can read a chapter previews… maybe it would be one of your future reads and who knows a future guest for your blog.

    Keep the Great Work,

    Carlos Cunha

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