Image by Alexandre Alagôa

Ripping Perception to Shreds with Filmmaker Alexandre Alagôa

Alexandre Alagôa’s film When I Close My Eyes I See Everything sets out to strip away the contexts and references that muddle and complicate our experience of vision.

In an elegant screening room in Cinema São Jorge, attendees of the IndieLisboa film festival gather to watch a selection of short films chosen to compete in the festival’s national competition. IndieLisboa, Portugal’s premiere independent film festival, has long been a bastion for filmmakers operating outside the commercial sphere. Still, the festival is inevitably saturated with narrative projects centered around cities, citizens, and their stories. Surely there’s nothing wrong with a good story, but it’s always exciting when something a bit different breaks the tide.

For this year’s edition of IndieLisboa, that something was When I Close My Eyes I See Everything, an arresting and deeply meditative short film from Portuguese artist and filmmaker Alexandre Alagôa. First shown late last year at the end of Alagôa’s residency at Kulturfrabrik in the south of Luxembourg, the Sesimbra native’s film had its national Portuguese premiere on Wednesday, May 3rd, at Cinema Sao Jorge. 

Image by Alina Nadolu
Image by Alina Nadolu

Talking with Alagôa, it’s immediately apparent that the 28-year-old filmmaker is more interested in universal truths than individual stories. When I Close My Eyes I See Everything is an experimental film in the truest sense; his intentions for the 13-minute film are only part of the project. The rest lies in the hands of the audience. “We all have our own roads to walk,” Alagôa says.

From its very inception, When I Close My Eyes I See Everything was a dissertation in subjectivity and perception. Informed by intimate studies of Alan Watts and Stan Brakhage, both champions of the exploration of perception in their respective mediums, Alagôa’s film sets out to strip away the contexts and references that muddle and complicate our experience of vision. In his own words, the film asks its audience to “look at a specific object and understand that there’s so much more to it than we usually understand.”

Image by Alexandre Alagôa

Film, as Alagôa demonstrates, is capable of so much more than storytelling. When dissected and separated into its most fundamental pieces, film can affect and surprise viewers in ways that contextual images and stories can’t. A field, a tree, a leaf: when crystallized into solely light and movement, they all elicit entirely different reactions than the more familiar sums of their parts. 

Somewhere between eight and ten thousand digital still photographs make up the film’s source material. Captured on numerous walks through Luxembourg’s southern woodlands between spring and autumn, these depictions of the forest are “common things that we can relate to. We have a notion of what they are and what they mean to us,” says Alagôa. These organically evocative scenes of the forest are deftly pulled apart by Alagôa as the film progresses. 

Image by Alexandre Alagôa

Comfortably common occurrences like the sun refracting through the leaves of trees, dried stuff crunching underfoot, lush vegetation, and browning grasses, are stripped of all familiarity as photographs begin to fly by at a rapidly accelerating pace. Just a few minutes into the film, these forest visions are dissected and concentrated into their most basic parts: light, color, and movement. Echoing the work of Brakhage, the atomic parts of the forest begin to morph into a sort of anonymous cosmos. Twisted, dissected, and pulverized by Alagôa, the “forest” becomes a maelstrom of stars and supernovas, invoking an entirely different kind of familiarity. 

Image by Alexandre Alagôa

No longer formal or terrestrial, this new familiarity is a recognition of perceptive experiences at once infinitely farther and closer than the trees the camera passes under. Alagôa leaves us with the building blocks of perception, or, as Alagôa says, “the cosmology of perception.” This cosmology points not only to the heavens but also to the galaxies perceived inside of our eyelids. Alagôa succeeds in emulating the forms and figures of light we see when we close our eyes, the curious world of entoptic phenomena.

Entoptic phenomena are as good a starting point as any for exploring the nature of perception. Like finding faces in the clouds, our minds are eager, if not desperate, to find a link between the abstract and the concrete. 

“We are so used to looking at things with this perspectival logic, this compositional rigor,” says Alagôa, “but there is so much more to vision than three-dimensional space, or perspective, or distance.”

Even in the cosmos, we tend to crane our heads skywards and paint familiar pictures. Our eyes naturally perceive the stars as “nothing but these symbolic and mythological figures that we as humans understand [for example, the Leo constellation] as a lion in the sky. We always try to take things apart in order to understand them.”  Whether we will it or not, experiencing entoptic phenomena is a practice in what Brakhage called the “untutored eye.” Alagôa explains that seeing with the “untutored eye” is seeing things outside of the referential framework of life. It is seeing the stars as simply the stars, without performing cognitive gymnastics in order to make out the shape of a lion. The untutored eye is the eye with which When I Close My Eyes I See Everything demands to be seen.  As the images become distorted, says Alagôa, “[we] start to lose the reference between the signifier and the signified. What you end up with is a new element that you have to make sense out of … The movements start to become so sudden that your concept of a tree is lost, and now you only have color, and light, and new, formless shapes to deal with.”

Image by Alexandre Alagôa

Sitting down with Alagôa’s film, a film painstakingly crafted with purpose and precision, is sitting down with a Rorschach ink blot. It contains multitudes — and may express one thing to the filmmaker and an entirely different thing to each individual member of the audience. 

The images that flash by throughout the film’s 13-minute run time were left almost entirely untouched during post-production. Any perceived filters or modifications to the images shown are virtually all the products of the natural and material circumstances of the moments in which the photos were taken. 

Nevertheless, the succession of more or less simple photographs that make up Alagôa’s film elicit widely different reactions and interpretations, some of which weren’t even anticipated by the filmmaker himself. During the premiere of When I Close My Eyes I See Everything last year in Luxembourg, Alagôa observed audience members taking the active experience of the film into their own hands:

“We had the film on a loop in a cinema room, and people could come in and out and see the film as they wanted. I was so surprised how some people would watch the film. Some [would watch] with their eyes closed, some would go to the canvas and literally glue their eyes to the canvas. . . For some people it was like an acid trip, some people brought sci-fi references to it, [such as] going into the sun.”

The experiment fashioned by Alagôa and the journeys of the viewers, or “perceivers,” themselves, converge on a common idea: perception is subjective, beauty, and reality itself, are truly in the eye of the beholder. 

“Once you [get past the] figurative part of the film, the film becomes your own. The object[s] become drained, they become this empty vessel [that] you can bring your own poetic interpretation into. . . for me, that is really beautiful.”

Image by Alexandre Alagôa
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