Spotlight: An interview with Patrícia Vasconcellos
Join us on a journey with acclaimed TV journalist and documentary filmmaker, Patrícia Vasconcellos. From radio to TV journalism, her career has taken her to London, Argentina, and the US. She discusses the convergence of TV journalism and documentary filmmaking and her award-winning documentary "Curfew in NYC." Discover her creative process, inspirations, and upcoming projects.
Hello, Patrícia. Thank you so much for joining us today! Please tell us a little about yourself so our readers could get to know you better.
Hello, it’s a pleasure talking to you! I grew up among mountains in the south of Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil. I started my career in radio working with my father who was a super talented communicator. Just after my graduation from a journalism program, I started my journey in television working as presenter and anchorwoman for TV Globo in Brazil. I spent one year in London studying TV Journalism at Goldsmiths College which granted me a Master's Degree. A few years after that, I moved to Argentina where I was based for six years and worked as a Latin America correspondent. I currently work for one of the biggest TV channels in Brazil, SBT. I was based in New York City for four years and now I am in Washington, D.C. covering the White House and the State Department for our Brazilian audience. I produced, filmed and edited my first documentary in 2007. Cinema is an art that has always enchanted me. I like directing visual works, filming, editing, and writing scripts.
What is a day in the life of a TV Journalist? How did you end up directing your own documentaries?
We don't have a routine and work around the clock as the TV packages are broadcast for the same day. It can be stressful but it’s a pleasure because I really love my job. There is also the expectation that TV professionals are increasingly multitasking. The focus is on the text and information but abroad, while working as a correspondent, many record, edit and are also responsible for sending the content (images and interviews) to their respective countries, which demands some technical skills too. I started directing documentaries during my Master's studies at Goldsmiths College in London. While there, I learned non-linear editing; I also traveled to the Middle East during this period to film “Part of History”, a short documentary recorded in Israel and the West Bank in 2007. I produced it alone, from London, and I also traveled without a cameraman. I recorded this short film in a challenging environment where security was also a concern. I spent around a month traveling between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Nablus. At that moment, when I was doing that work, I realized that I would like to invest in my own projects.
Photo: Oleksandr Kodak
What drew you into this unusual career?
My father, Francisco, was a talented and unique communicator-businessman. He was also a visionary. Together with my mother, Arlete, they encouraged me to start very early in the world of communication. At 11 years old I started working as a radio presenter for my family’s radio station. I had a children's program broadcasted live. Choosing journalism presented the option to continue into TV, which was my dream. I left home very early, at 17, to go to college in another city because in Itajuba, where I was born, there was no higher education course in journalism. I have always been very committed to seeking solutions within the reality that life offers me. I'm a curious person so I like interviewing people, listening to stories, and reporting in text and images. I also love traveling and I tend to adapt fast to new realities so not having a routine at work for many years was not a problem. In fact, it was a solution for someone who likes challenges.
How different is TV journalism from directing documentaries? Do you find any similarities between the two? Where does TV journalism meet Documentary filmmaking?
In television journalism we are committed to impartiality and it is always necessary to listen to all parties. You shouldn't give an opinion unless you're a columnist, for example. We have basic questions to answer: what, when, where, how and why. A documentary, on the other hand, is an artistic work. There is no staging - like in fiction films - but in relation to the script, the director has freedom to convey a message that reflects his or her point of view. Notably, the director can follow any structure. The main point of convergence between television journalism and documentaries is that they both portray real life. The difference lies in how the works are structured, mainly regarding the script.
How do you identify a “good story”? What inspires you to decide to look into a story for a film or an article?
A good story exists anywhere. It could be something from your everyday life, or a particular character, an event from your neighborhood. You don’t have to go far to produce a TV report or an impactful documentary. The secret, I believe, is in the gaze, the sensitivity of the one who perceives and tells the story. I remember the case of a journalist I admire, Narriman Sible, who once reported on a Brazilian couple who, decades ago, fed a bird that appeared in their apartment window. The text she wrote in conjunction with the images was incredibly sensitive. The same happens with documentaries. Among this year's Oscar nominees, “The Last Repair Shop” is a great example of what I'm describing. The directors had the sensitivity to portray the work of artisans in a workshop in downtown Los Angeles where a small team of crafters maintain and tune instruments used by students. Stories like this tend to be my favorites.
I want to talk about your award-winning documentary film Curfew in NYC. In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, you took to the streets of NYC to cover the BLM protests against police brutality, following the murder of George Floyd. What made you decide to make this film?
I covered the pandemic and the BLM protests in New York City daily for SBT. Looking back, I honestly don't know how I managed to stay awake for so many hours and deal with so much at the same time. There was always the risk of catching Covid when there were no vaccines and the challenge of how to organize the recordings in a touch-and-go environment when we didn't know how the police would react. There were cases of reporters who were detained or had problems in other regions of the country while doing their jobs. I decided to make the documentary just after the end of NYC's one-week curfew. During my coverage for SBT, we broadcast daily reports but I felt that I hadn't had the opportunity to deliver the whole picture of that event. I had hours of images and interviews on my computer that deserved to be released in another way. So I asked the TV network for permission to use this material and edit a documentary on my own. Since we were in the pandemic, I contacted an editor in Paris that I know. I sent all the material via Dropbox to him along with the script. After creating the sequence and organizing the timeline we had a few video calls in which we quite literally worked together virtually. He was editing in Paris while talking with me, in Brooklyn.
What was it like to make Curfew in NYC?
It was challenging. The United States was closed to foreign tourists and journalists due to Covid. I think that's why I didn't see many press professionals on the street during the BLM protests. Many American TVs networks recorded everything from above, using helicopters. It was all so unexpected that I had to rely on my instinct to decide where to go and when to go. I was with a cameraman and a driver the entire time, both of whom were also Brazilian. The day the curfew started in New York City, I decided to go to the Barclays Center to check how everything was there and by coincidence I came across a peaceful demonstration. I walked with them, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot and, once in Manhattan, at night, we were faced with a chaotic situation. A store was being looted in front of us. I managed to interview some looters who came to me wanting to talk. They told us why they were behaving the way they were. Luckily I had press vests with me in NYC - which identified me in the crowd - and helmets that I wore for years while covering conflicts in Latin America. I think my experience covering these types of events gave me the peace of mind to carry out this work.
What did you learn from covering the BLM protests in 2020?
That we must, as journalists and documentary filmmakers, follow our instincts about what not to do as well as when to do things in unplanned situations and listen to what everyone has to say. I also learned that a piece of reality is a portrait of a specific moment that carries a thousand facets. For example, I was asked by some people why I included my interview with the looter in the documentary. My answer: because he is part of what was happening. He is as much a part of the story as the merchant who stood in front of the store with a baseball bat to defend his property, the residents who were afraid, and those who peacefully protested. From a personal perspective, I’ve learned that a just cause mobilizes crowds and the strength of the whole is very powerful. A group of people gathering to demand fair requests has the power to force governments and institutions to seek positive change.
How would you describe your creative process?
The most challenging thing, at least for me, is defining the theme or topic of a story. Then, once chosen, what will be the perspective? Once this step is accomplished, I think about how to best proceed with the work. I rarely structure a documentary script before I start recording a documentary. Of course I have the “blocks” or pieces structured in my mind but because this is a work based in reality, I understand that it is necessary to first listen to the interviewees. The moment I break down the material, watch and listen to everything, the script takes shape. It’s almost always like this.
Are there any directors or films that have influenced your own filmmaking? What is it about them that drew your attention?
I am an admirer of the work of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker. I had already been following her career when she won her first Oscar for “Saving Face.” I remember that I even got in touch with her asking for guidance for a project I had when I returned from the Middle East. She probably doesn't even remember this as it happened over ten years ago but she emailed me back straight away. I found it so generous. I identify with Sharmeen's trajectory because of her start working on TV documentaries before specializing in film work. Her first documentaries were done with one cameraman and herself, usually in high-risk areas and environments. Regarding directors and works that have inspired me throughout my life… There are so many. Simon Hartog, Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, and others that I love for their unique style: Scorsese, Tim Burton, Tarantino, Kubrick. I have always been attracted to directors who went beyond what was usual in their time by presenting scripts and material outside of the norm. Some films that influenced me at different stages of my life and work: “Reservoir Dogs”, a film recorded as one great theater scene; “Sabotage” a genuinely surprising film from the 1930s with iconic and memorable scenes, in an iconic scene; and “Jackie Brown ” a film that I would describe as “soulful.”
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
It would be a dream to work with Pedro Almodóvar. Although he is not a documentary filmmaker, I’ve always had this dream of working with him on a documentary in Spain.
Someone who is not here with us anymore but I truly admire is Agnès Varda. She was such an inspirational woman and filmmaker.
Are there any “must watch” films you can recommend to anyone who is interested in documentary filmmaking?
One of the most beautiful documentaries I’ve seen is Agnès Varda’s “The Gleaners and I.” It’s a self-reflexive work that I would be remiss if I did not include it on this list. There are so many good works out there from different generations. I would suggest the following short list of films from different countries: “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Don’t Look Back,” “American Movie,” “Blackfish,” “Saving Face,” “Cabra Marcado para Morrer” (from the Brazilian Eduardo Coutinho), and the more recent “20 Days in Mariupol.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are currently working on?
I have always felt a great interest in topics related to human rights. It’s still too early to give details, but one of my personal projects is linked to the migration issue. This is something that affects not only the United States but Europe and so many places around the world. The impact of global warming on wildlife - land and sea - is also something that deserves more and more attention. My goal is to dedicate time to a documentary on the subject.
Can you give a word of advice to aspiring filmmakers and story-tellers around the world?
First of all, never give up on your projects and dreams. Something that I have always done and that brought me positive results was seeking contact with professionals that I admire. Nowadays, with social media and all the tools in the virtual world, it is much easier to build this bridge than when I started. I would also say to pay attention to everyday life and details. A good story that deserves to be told or that serves as inspiration for another exists everywhere.
Thank you so much for your time today, Patricia. It was a pleasure talking to you. Where can our readers see more of your work and continue following your career?
Thanks New York Film Awards for this opportunity. It would be a pleasure to get in touch with other directors and anyone interested in documentary filmmaking.
You can find more about me and my work: Instagram: @pat_vasc
Curfew in NYC won Best Short Documentary at NYFA in October 2020.
Watch Curfew in NYC: