Island Record
By Genevieve Yue

It’s the Earth Not the Moon
Dir. Gonçalo Tocha, Portugal

Corvo, the subject of Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon, is difficult to find on a map. As if windblown from the coast of Northern Europe, this small, volcano-formed island rests in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and from a distance it appears as little more than a crater-dimpled, moss-covered stone. The first view Tocha provides of Corvo is appropriately small, a shot from a slightly sickled porthole, dark and uneven as though a paper cutout for a pinhole lens. The camera zooms in, its focus trained on the specks that mar the thick glass, with the sky and sea hazily split in the distance. As the view enlarges, Corvo’s startlingly bright green cliffs fade in, white waves lapping at the rocky mass. The mission Tocha, working as his own DP, and his sound recorder, Dídio Pestana, have set out for themselves—“to be everywhere at the same time and not miss a thing”—begins in this indistinct place, from where Corvo could just as easily be missed, or mistaken for a spot of dirt on a binocular lens.

On their approach, Tocha and Pestana gently argue in voiceover the Corvo record, disagreeing over its size (either six kilometers by four kilometers, or 7x4) and its number of inhabitants (either 440 or 450 people). Less contestable are its singularities: one village, nestled at the southern tip of the island, one airport with one landing strip, one church, one school, one restaurant, and two (no, three, Pestana interjects) cafes. What they do agree on is their exhaustive goal of filming every detail of the island. As the ship enters the dock, they vow to film “every street, every work place, and every corner of the island…every tree, every field…every cow…every pig...”

Though expansive, Tocha aims not for ethnographic chronicle as the film’s three-plus hours, organized into sixteen sections, might suggest, but poetic evocation. Its somewhat circular structure returns us to the same misty shores, the same cafe-turned-disco, the same faces that appear at the dock, in windows, and in family photographs. Owing to Corvo’s diminutive size but also Tocha’s elliptical sensibility, images repeat as if shuffling through a sestina: wind cascading over the waves, the ever-present moon, couples leaning boozily on each other over a karaoke din, and two references—one of which crops up in a recounted dream—to a zeppelin that flew by the island in 1945. Tocha makes good on his promise to film every pig, from the little squealer lowered into a bag by his ears (and seen wriggling from within his sack enclosure), to the hand-butchered pork in a later chapter, and later still, the efficient workings of a modern, largely machine-operated slaughterhouse.

Tocha is warmly welcomed by Corvo’s villagers, and his documentary curiosity is especially stirred by their lapses in memory, the archives either lost, purposefully destroyed, or, as Tocha observes with a touch of dismay, never gathered in the first place. Óscar Nunes, the retired corporal who tended Corvo’s docks and kept its manifest, is in many ways the keeper of the island’s memory, but as he admits, he burned his own journals, over 8000 entries chronicling forty years, after he fell behind with the upkeep. When Tocha asks whether anything remained of his records, however, Óscar refuses the question and looks away. Much later in the film, and by now far more trusting of this soft-spoken, mop-haired filmmaker, we see him standing in a window, giving Tocha a wave and a thumbs-up. After inviting him in, Óscar pulls out a number of photocopied articles, one from 1970 called “It’s the Earth, Not the Moon,” with the subheading “Notes from a Journal.” As the camera patiently scans the page in close-up, Óscar remarks, “There are things here that I didn’t even remember.”

The inhabited history of Corvo, as an outpost of Portugal, spans 500 years, though, as Tocha narrates, the Municipal Council was only established two hundred years ago, and even then its records were partially destroyed by fire. “It seems that the island doesn’t have its own written memory,” he muses, and, with his camera, he sets about reconstructing this largely absent history, lingering on photographs of a cattle drive, pouring over an album documenting the height of different ocean swells, and collecting as many stories as the islanders are willing to tell. We hear different accounts, for example, about the end of whaling on Corvo. Pimentel’s niece, in telling her version, suggests that it was the death of her uncle’s brother-in-law that finished things, though why or how this affected the rest of the island is never addressed. Another former whaler, Fernando, who proudly proclaims himself the second oldest man in Corvo, offers a different perspective. He admits he doesn’t go back to his post at the whale-watching station, so Tocha takes him there via the footage playing on his laptop. Sitting at his kitchen table, Fernando doesn’t immediately recognize the building, even as a woman explains that the chimney he disputes was constructed after he left. “I see but I can’t understand what I’m seeing,” he says.

Tocha finds other kinds of histories, too, dwelling on mostly forgotten practices like cheese-making or the knitting of a whaler’s cap; at one point, the oldest man in Corvo (Tocha is understandably drawn to the elderly) plays a dusty accordion for an impromptu afternoon concert. Sometimes these skills, like carving wooden locks, have fallen away due to circumstance (Corvo doesn’t have any crime, though it’s doubtful it ever did), but many of these seem conditioned by external forces, like the building of a cheese factory, or the island’s shifting population—though it’s not addressed, the predominant absence of young adults suggests the cosmopolitan allure of mainland Europe. Others, weary of the continent, come to Corvo for a similar change of pace, like the German music instructor who wished to escape the suffocating rules of his home country, or the fisherman who left behind a family out of curiosity and stayed until, as he says, “Now all I have is here.” There are also the French dancers living in an artist colony far from the village, happily losing track of time, and the expensively outfitted British ornithologists, one of whom, Tocha recounts, once saw a bird so rare he threw up.

These visitors and tokens of another world—among them a postcard of the Statue of Liberty tacked to one woman’s wall and a faded green cap sent by American relatives—heighten Corvo’s sense of cultural as well as geographic remove, one we easily settle into with the film’s languorous pace. When politicians begin canvassing the island in the second half, however, doling out campaign swag from car windows or listing the grievances they intend to ameliorate, we realize that this distance is largely a fantasy, and that Corvo, too, has been blighted by the ill effects of European austerity. However quaint its time-stilled way of life, however mysterious its unrecorded pasts, Corvo is also a real place that must contend with waste management, inadequate social services, and the often insufficient support it receives from the Portuguese government.

Too soon, however, the film returns to its somewhat ponderous conceit, the making of Tocha’s hat by the 75-year-old Inês Inês. Aware of her vanishing craft, she insists in the early stages that the cap will help Tocha remember his stay in Corvo, a time singularly elongated, it seems, by her interminable, Penelope-like knitting. The languid slowness of It’s the Earth Not the Moon may not be to everyone’s taste, but it forms part of the film’s argument about the gradual accrual of change over time, with memory dimmed by fog and sometimes sharply illuminated by an unexpected return to the same photograph, the same face. When Tocha restages portraits based on a found and presumably amateur film shot (no explanation is given) many decades ago, the effect is powerful particularly for those things that are no longer there: the graffiti on the background wall, Alfredo’s missing beret, and those craggy faces of men and women who have no contemporary equivalent.

In the film’s fourteenth chapter, Tocha lists some of Corvo’s alternate names, many deriving from a statue of a knight said to have once protruded from one of the cliffs. In their report to the king, the first sailors to reach the island described this statue pointing the way to the New World with its right hand. When the king’s men returned, however, the statue shattered during their attempts to retrieve it. As he speaks, Tocha films the ragged gash in a rock face overlooking the ocean, the spot, perhaps, that Joca described as marking the silhouette of the missing statue. The image is serene, set off like many shots with a black iris, and the water below is calm. In voiceover, Pestana protests. “Isn’t that just a myth?” he asks. “Sure,” Tocha replies, “but Joca says he has seen it.”