The Portuguese filmmaker Goncalo Tocha’s “It’s the Earth Not the Moon” begins on the ocean, with nothing visible but water, the prow of a boat and, in the distance, the hazy outline of what might be an island. The boat is carrying Tocha to Corvo, the farthest and smallest outcropping of the Azores archipelago, in the mid-Atlantic more than 900 miles from the Portuguese mainland.
“It’s an extraordinary island,” the boat’s captain says. “I am not going to tell you how it is but — Azores, it’s crazy. And there, it’s even crazier.”
For the next three hours the film immerses the viewer in that tiny (7 square miles) and remarkable place, home to a hardy population of fewer than 500. Never leaving the island, except for the occasional fishing trip, Tocha tries to show us everything there is to see and do, and all there is to know about Corvo, which he calls “the end — after that you cannot go anywhere else.”
A diary of discovery
Through Tocha’s lens, Corvo is a place where premodern rituals of harvest and slaughter sit side by side with disco balls and a contentious, media-saturated local election (in which the Socialist, the winner among the seven candidates, draws 90 votes). Old men who still herd cattle near sheer 2,000-foot cliffs recall the days when a rocket signaled that whales had been spotted, and they would race from the high pastures down to the oceans to grab harpoons and set off in pursuit.
“I call it a travel adventure film,” Tocha said by telephone this week from northern Portugal, when asked to classify “It’s the Earth Not the Moon” (“E na Terra Nao e na Lua”), which had its New York theatrical premiere beginning Friday at Anthology Film Archives. “It’s like the book of an explorer who goes to a place and makes a journal or diary of discovering.”
There is a literary quality to “It’s the Earth” — emphasized by its division into numbered chapters — as well as an ethnographic impulse that can make it feel antique, like a faithful adaptation of a Victorian best-seller. But it also feels completely modern, making itself up as it goes along.
“The basis is documentary, but I’m also working to try everything,” said Tocha, 33. “I went with no previous idea of what I’m trying to do. I was trying to really film everything I could. The kind of film it will be I didn’t have any clue.”
“It’s the Earth,” Tocha’s second feature, grew directly out of his first, “Balaou,” which focused on a boat trip he took from the Azores to Lisbon after the death of his mother, who came from the islands. “We used to spend our holidays there since I was a child,” he said. “Every year I went to the Azores, it was this childhood dream of the nature and the ocean.”
He had not planned to film again in the islands, but when a regional association invited him to do another project there and suggested Corvo as a subject, “It’s like something turned very clear,” he said. “Like I’m going to discover the place for the first time through cinema.”
It is easy to see the visual enchantment of Corvo, and “It’s the Earth” shows the island’s absurdly dramatic landscape from every vantage point: atop its cliffs, across its small and verdant pastures, inside the gently eerie caldera of an extinct volcano.
It was more of a challenge to portray the inhabitants, residents of a neat little port that dates to the 16th century. It helped that Tocha’s entire crew during two years of filming consisted of him and his sound man, Didio Pestana.
“Corvo is really difficult to film, to get people to speak,” Tocha said. “They are suspicious of what the image can do. They’re very proud. Nobody knew us, so we have to live there, they have to trust us. This was a long-term process.”
The results of that process were 180 hours of film and a rapport that’s evident on screen, as Tocha and Pestana are greeted and occasionally admonished by islanders going about their daily business of farming, fishing, picking up provisions or staring at the sea. In a sequence that frames the film, a local craftswoman knits Tocha a traditional Corvo sailor’s cap.
One set of recurring images that’s puzzling for the viewer, presented in verite style without explanation, shows anonymous people dancing, somewhat listlessly, in strobe-lighted sessions at a bar. They are in the film, Tocha said, because it was the island’s young people who were most resistant to appearing.
“The new generation is very conscious of the images,” he said, explaining that this was the only way they would agree to be in the film. He added, “Actually I liked that — they are the generation that doesn’t speak, and in 20 years they will be running Corvo.”
That idea of transformation was particularly interesting for Tocha. Long a symbol of isolation, Corvo has changed radically as transportation has improved over the last 50 years, and the changes will only accelerate.
“Everything that’s happening everywhere in Western society is happening in this island, but it’s happening for the first time,” he said. “It’s a laboratory of human life.”
Tocha just laughed when asked if he accomplished his stated goal of filming every resident of the island. “New things are happening every time in Corvo,” he said. “I had to stop my process. If you don’t stop, then you have 300 hours or 400 hours, and you’re completely lost.” (There is a proposal to make the entire 180-hour cache available in a library or museum in the islands.)
Currently working on several short documentaries on the mainland, he plans to return to the Azores for another feature, possibly involving whaling. In the rhythm of the islands he finds an analogue for his own methods.
“They have this thing of looking at things for a long time, just stopping their action and starting to look — it can be to the ocean, to a cow, to the landscape,” he said. “I don’t know what happens in their minds. But it’s like a long shot, a shot that starts and ends itself, and I don’t have to cut it. That’s why I love to make films in the Azores. I think it’s my natural place.”