‘The Garbage Man’: Laura Gonçalves’ Ode to an Unforgettable Uncle

***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***

Laura Gonçalves’ lovingly crafted short The Garbage Man (Homem do Lixo) pays a poignant homage to the filmmaker’s uncle who emigrated to France from Portugal in the 1960s. The 2D-animated project, which won the top prize at Animafest Zagreb and was also nominated for top prizes at Annecy, Cannes and Toronto, was the result of months of interviews with her family members.

“Before I even structured the short, I began by recording conversations with my family as they shared their memories during meals whenever we were together,” says Gonçalves.

“That’s when I started to dig deeper into a past that I knew existed, but I’d never really explored. These are events that are very important in our identity and history as a country in Portugal, like the war in Angola where thousands were killed. Yet, it’s still taboo to talk about, as well as the wave of illegal emigration to France, the Salazar dictatorship, the colonial war. Describing these situations in my uncle’s life also helps tell the stories of thousands of other Portuguese people who lived in this dark period in our history.”

The Garbage Man
The Garbage Man

Finding Treasures

The filmmaker mentions that despite living through difficult times, her uncle always managed to celebrate life to the fullest. “He was always bringing joy to everyone around him,” she recalls. “When he worked as a garbage man in France, he used to collect things that others didn’t find valuable anymore. He brought those objects back to an impoverished Portugal, where many didn’t have access to many of those things which were considered ‘garbage.’”

Laura Goncalves
Laura Gonçalves

The production of The Garbage Man took about three years, and the project took longer than usual because of the COVID lockdown. She notes, “We did the 2D animation frame by frame using TVPaint, and then we painted it in Krita. I had a team that included animators, in-betweeners, final artists (tracing and painters), compositors, sound designers, Foley, musicians, producers — which in total was around 24 people.”

Gonçalves says she is very pleased with the fact that she got to learn so much about her family history as the result of all her interviews. “There are two moments that are special to me,” she says. “I asked my aunt about the time they emigrated to France by salto (translated as ‘the jump’ between Portugal and France). It was a very tough subject for her. It was one of the hardest moment in their lives, and it was something I only found out as I was recording her for the short. It represents an important moment of our history, the harshness of the period and the strength of so many people who went looking for a better life.”

“Another instance is when I asked my aunt if my uncle had brought something home from the war, and she answered, ‘No … just a bag of pineapples.’ It was one of the funniest and surprising moments for me, which also illustrated my uncle’s character!”

The Garbage Man
The Garbage Man

Magic of the Medium

Gonçalves says she loves 2D animation’s ability to represent emotions, thoughts and abstract images that don’t often find a place in our everyday reality. “The expression of the drawn line is something that is very important in my work,” she says. “It’s how I capture reality, because when everything else fails, there is always the possibility of drawing which can capture something very intimate. Also, when you represent people through drawing and animation, it can offer a certain anonymity. At the same time, the characters become symbols that allow everyone to relate them to people in their own experience. I wanted to tell this story without leaving the family environment for too long, always staying very close to the table where everyone is talking, playing with camera movements to make the passage of time and using the set itself to represent some memories.”

Gonçalves’ fondness for the medium goes back to her early days when she fell in love with Disney cartoons, which eventually led her to study art, multimedia and animation in Lisbon. “Our professor Zepe spent many hours informing us about the history of animation, which was very important for me,” she notes. “It is impossible not to mention the important role played by Regina Pessoa in animation in Portugal. She has dedicated her career to animated shorts, and she will always be one of my heroes.” She also mentions David Doutel, Vasco Sá, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Michaela Pavlátová, Caroline Leaf, Joanna Quinn and Priit Pärn as some of her personal animation heroes.

Of course, we had to find out how her family responded to her personal short. “It was very important to me to get feedback from everyone, so I actually had screening at my parent’s house this summer for family and close friends,” she says. “They really enjoyed it and told me the short was very faithful to reality, which is something that I really wanted them to feel.”

For more info, visit cargocollective.com/lauragoncalves.

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