Rohnert Park filmmaker returns home with new film for festival
by Michael Shapiro – Press Democrat
Rohnert Park filmmaker Joshua Mellars returns home this week from Europe for the debut of his film, Heaven’s Mirror: A Portuguese Voyage, about the distinctly Portuguese brand of music called fado. Mellars, 35, spoke about the music he’s come to love, the film he made about it, and the concept of “saudade” or ineffable longing.
Mellars’ film Tango Illusions won the award for Best Cine Latino at the Wine Country Film Festival in 2005. Heaven’s Mirror shows Saturday, Sept. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Deerfield Ranch Winery, 10200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood (with fado singers and Portuguese wine); and Sunday Sept. 18 at 4 p.m. at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. Mellars will speak at both events. For more information, see sriff.org.
Q. What inspired your love of fado?
A. Fado is Portuguese for fate. So perhaps it was my fate to be drawn to fado music. After graduating from Rancho Cotate High School, I traveled back East to attend Brown University in Providence, R.I. My college dorm was located near the Portuguese neighborhood of Fox Point and it was there that I heard my first live fado performance. I didn’t understand Portuguese at the time, but I immediately felt an affinity for the music. There was a haunting beauty to the fado that was unlike any music I’d ever heard before.
A few years later, I took a trip to Portugal shortly after my first college romance ended. When I visited a fado house in the Alfama neighborhood, the fado music resonated with me even stronger than it had before. I brought back a CD of fado’s most famous singer, Amalia Rodrigues, and it soon became one of my favorites. After spending nearly six years making this film, fado remains as mysterious to me as ever. Perhaps it’s that mystery that keeps me coming back for more.
A. When I started making Heaven’s Mirror, I had recently returned to the Bay Area after spending ten years away from California. It was wonderful to be back and re-connect with my roots here. At the same time, it was an adjustment. The Bay Area had changed during the years I was gone. My grandmother, who had lived next door to me when I was growing up in Rohnert Park, died shortly after I returned.
Maybe it was because all of those things were on my mind that the Portuguese concept of “saudade” really spoke to me; the fado and the emotions it expresses called out to me. So I set out on my fado quest. Fado music at its best is a very intimate music. It is played in small taverns in Lisbon and Coimbra (Portugal) called Fado Houses (Casas de Fado). In making Heaven’s Mirror, I really wanted to capture that intimate feel. I think it’s hard, if not impossible, to do that if you have a big film crew and lots of cameras and lights.
So my approach was a very intimate one. I had no more than two or three crew members with me for most of the shoots. Many of the interviews I did alone (manning the camera while I interviewed the singers). The concert footage was also filmed in intimate settings, not on big stages, but in the folksy locales where this kind of music was born and evolved. I very much wanted the audience to feel like they were traveling into this world themselves, getting an authentic experience. I think this style of shooting allowed me to capture that feeling — to capture candid moments with singers and take my camera to places that would normally be off limits.
Q. How would you define “saudade”?
A. The Portuguese say that saudade is a word that cannot be translated. The word is often used to express a deep longing for something you can’t quite reach or get back such as the bittersweet nostalgia of remembering a lost love. Portuguese fado music expresses saudade.
Q. What does it mean for you to be featured at the SRIFF?
A. I’m thrilled to be premiering Heaven’s Mirror at the Santa Rosa International Film Festival. Sonoma County is where I grew up and where this film was conceived, so it’s very satisfying to be able to now share it with a local audience. I think the festival’s themes of bringing film, art and music together perfectly complement the style and content of Heaven’s Mirror.
There is nothing like going into a Lisbon fado house in the evening and sipping on a nice Portuguese “vinho verde” (green wine) or “vinho tinto” (red wine) as you listen to fado music. The screening at the Deerfield Ranch Winery’s cave room is a perfect fado venue. It will be as close as you can get to a true Portuguese fado experience on this side of the Atlantic.
The festival organizers will have Portuguese wine and appetizers, live fado singers, and the artwork of Portuguese American painter Joao de Brito accompany the screenings at both venues.
Q. How do you fund your films?
A. Each film is funded in a different way, depending on the subject and the scope. I wanted to make Heaven’s Mirror in a very particular way and so I decided to fund it myself (with money I earned producing other projects) and in collaboration with my executive producer Mo Aimaq. I met Mo during a Rancho Cotate High School Drama Club production of “Harvey” in high school.
Q. Where does the title come from?
A. Heaven’s Mirror comes from a poem entitled “Portuguese Sea,” which was written by one of Portugal’s most famous poets, Fernando Pessoa. The poem is about the Portuguese seafaring tradition and I believe it’s also a metaphor for a certain attitude towards life. The final lines of the poem are: “To go beyond the Cape, you must go beyond sorrow. God placed danger and the abyss in the sea, but he also made it Heaven’s Mirror.”