Evgenia Emets, aged 39, grew up in Moscow and Kiev, later coming to Portugal via London, where she lived for ten years and completed her art studies. Whether by coincidence or not, in London, she met her future husband Victor from Poland and they travelled together through Portugal, visiting the solar village Tamera, in the Southern Alentejo. Shortly afterwards, they began making plans to move, their original dream being to create a community in one of the abandoned villages somewhere in Portugal. That’s how they ended up in Ericeira in October 2017. Evgenia has just completed her first 40-minute-long documentary, called Eternal Forest. ECO123 presented the film at its last readers’ workshop. Uwe Heitkamp met her in the Botanical Garden in Lisbon for a longer conversation about her ecological views and future art works.
How did you come to the forest, to the trees, and Nature? What gave you the impetus you needed?
I think my interest has always been there. And this is now in reverse after a year of working on Eternal Forest. I’m beginning to understand that it is inside us. There’s this memory that exists and something is needed to give a little impulse so that this memory is awakened. I’m a city girl, although I grew up surrounded by trees. I’ve lived in towns, and I’ve lived in big cities. Of course, I always go to look at Nature, but it’s not the same as living in Nature. What really gave me the impetus I needed was an invitation by one of our friends to visit the first re-forestry meeting they held in Elvas. It was after the fires in Pedrogão. They had this meeting, and there were about 80 to 90 participants over three days. The idea was to think about how different communities can work together in a living network, to help reforest Portugal and Spain. So, basically, it was more about a vision for the Iberian Peninsula. What happened was there was a world-cafe, where people proposed specific ideas to be discussed. There was one person who proposed discussing how culture and art can help us work towards the future of reforestation, understanding specific things and what needs to be done. So, I went to this group and of course there was a whole lot of emotional stuff going on. It was just after the fires and there were people in the room who had lost land and specific projects. They were asking how art and culture can be a vehicle, a facilitator for specific re-forestations to happen, for this change to take place. And that was the moment when I really started thinking as an artist. I’m aware that I am working with Nature. When I left the meeting, we drove kilometres and kilometres through burnt land. You can never escape it, it’s always there. It always stays in your memory.
How did you make closer contact with the rural population? You don’t speak Portuguese yet.
I decided that I would find a place in Portugal somewhere close to where the fires happened and I found the art residency Raizvanguarda in Góis and this was a really perfect place for me to start this project. The area around Góis had suffered from fires. The fires were really bad and very fast. Everything happened over the short period of 24 hours. It was a really, really quick and devastating fire. And this art residency was located very close to that place. So, I proposed the Eternal Forest project to them. I said that I’d go there for one and a half months. And I would do my research. My focus was on speaking to people and what came out of this first meeting for me, what I learned, what I took away, was my idea. My dream was to try to listen to the voices of common people who live with the land every day, who live near the plantations, and near the natural spaces, near the forest on their own agricultural land. I just wanted to see what these people were going to say. So, my proposal for Raizvanguarda, for this art residency, was: “I’ll go there and talk to people, and conduct interviews with people. Then I’ll convert all these interviews into poetry work, and I’ll also use them to make a documentary. So, I’ll record the interviews as they are and I’ll make a film out of them, recording what the people are saying, what comes from people’s feelings and I’ll also try to get some inspiration for my own poetry work.”
And I did this. So, at the end of the art residency, we held an exhibition which was a combination of visual works based on this poetry, an artist’s book which has all the poems, and the film which is also linked to the art and has the 12 interviews with the people from the area, Góis, Lousã and Arganil, in which we are talking about their relationship with the forest. I really wanted people to open up and see what else came out. Of course, when I asked people specific questions, they also answered in a roundabout way and started telling their own stories.
What was the most important question?
Of course, people have lots of ideas about possible solutions: this and that needs to be done, the policy-makers need to change and there needs to be more of a sense of community and self-organisation. People had different ideas, but then there was this question “What prevents us from making this change happen today? Why is it not actually happening?” So, then, of course people would have to look inside themselves and around themselves to discover this kind of cornerstone that is there and which can’t be moved, to discover what can be changed. But for some reason, this isn’t being done. There is probably something that is blocking the view. And this was what I discovered when talking to more and more people. There is something inside their culture. Culture is something that doesn’t change overnight. It takes a long, long time to shift the patterns that are adopted in a particular culture. There are some difficult situations that we do not necessarily relate to straightaway: like religion, which has created such strong and strict patterns in the human psyche that it will take us years to unlearn the process. And, of course, the idea that there is this link with Nature is always inside us. How do we review that link so that we can actually put it to good use? Although this link is inside our bodies, inside our memories, after thousands of years of our being a part of the ecosystem, it’s now gradually coming out of us and starting to control and even manipulate us. However, the question kept coming up: “why are we not taking that next step?” For me, this question is highly pertinent and, of course, I have my own ideas.
Did you discover why we don’t live in harmony with Nature? What did you find out when you made the film?
What I see is a huge disconnection. Although the link is there, we are hiding it. Yet, I believe that it has to be alive, which means that, when I wake up, I feel the urge, the need to go out and connect with Nature on a daily basis. This can happen to all of us. For some people, it could be just taking a walk in the park to start with. It could be about planting trees, it could be about something deeper, like a quest for self-discovery. It could involve people going out and getting lost in the wilderness and wanting to do that. But I think that when we wake up, that need has to be so apparent that we can’t fight against it. We have to say to ourselves, “Ok, I’ll wake up with this thought being so strong that I have to do it now, I have to do this today, you know there is no tomorrow.” So, it starts there, with this personal link that is emotional, that is mental, that is, if you like, “spiritual” or “energetic”. On a purely mental level, we can explain it to ourselves in this way, “Ok, I feel better. You know it’s better for my body, better for my health to walk barefoot or to go out and pick up things, or I can just observe things, just enjoy myself, as if I’m bathing in the forest. It all starts there…
You have been working in an area which burned down. What relationship did you form with the element of fire?
I’m definitely a friend of fire because I have a lot of fire inside me, I feel. It pushes me to be active. So, I absolutely love fire, but I also have to say that I have fear and respect for it in a good sense, because I can see that when this energy becomes too great and goes out of control, when it is no longer balanced with the other elements of water, earth and air, then this imbalance leads to disasters and an uncontrollable overspill of this one particular energy. Human beings have worked in collaboration with fire for centuries. It is just that we are seeing this now because fire does not exist by itself, right? Fire exists in the environment, and the environment that we have created allows fire to come and go without any boundaries. All the energy that we work with needs some kind of boundary. Water has the boundary of earth. Fire has to have the boundary of other elements. But, because of the way these monoculture landscapes are created, fire just goes right through. It’s literally just a material. To put it another way: there is no biodiversity of elements in this environment to prevent fire from going pshhhh in a straight line and instead send it in a meandering line, where it will stop somewhere. It will burn a little and then, when there is too much humidity, it will stop. Or there are species of trees that just don’t burn, so they will stop the fire.
These fires are uncontrollable?
Yes, exactly. And I don’t even want to go into the dark side, the human side. I don’t know if I should be saying this, but, when I was asking local people, literally everybody agreed that unfortunately these fires are not happening by themselves. It’s all interconnected: the plantations that burn become much cheaper for the companies to purchase from their owners, and so it becomes a vicious circle…
The dark economy of fire?
We are too shy to talk about it. This is almost like a puzzle. I talk with my friends who come from the South of Italy. When I tell them, “listen, it may be possible that these fires are not natural”, they say, “listen, we know that. This happens in Italy as well.” Basically, my idea is we really need to arrive at the point when we say “Enough!”, and we need to find a way to open a discussion where all the participants interested in this question have the same opportunities to speak. And there have to be different communities around the table. There have to be organisations and ordinary people, there have to be business people and ecologists, there have to be philosophers and artists and economists. And, without that conversation, I don’t think we can move forward.
We have held more than 20 screenings of the film, and there will be more. And, every time I organise a screening with specific organisations, we hold a discussion afterwards. Of course, every discussion is different. However, the latest screenings have led me to convert this debate into a panel discussion. Now we are holding three panel discussions, one in Beira Baixa – another at the Roca Lisboa Gallery and there will hopefully be another one at Lisbon University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. We have to focus on such topics as how we should look at natural spaces, wild spaces that we can really call ours, that we can look at from the point of view not of extracting from them, but of creating something new. Why do we need those spaces and why do we need biodiversity? We must build the discussion around that. Let’s try not to focus just on the problems or on blaming people, but instead on developing some constructive approaches and on finding solutions.
Then I would like to create a model for workshops. So, the idea is this: imagine you get together in Monchique with your community, with the people in the room being the people who live locally, who want to be there and who are ready to have this discussion. But then you also invite the town hall, and you invite associations that want to be associated with this work, that are interested. You invite all the interested parties. You really have to try to bring people into the room who have these different voices, opposing voices, voices that don’t have to agree. And then my idea is you should first try this in one or two places and discover what is the best structure for such a workshop. The purpose of this workshop is for people to start having regular discussions, to start asking questions and to come up with the right solutions for their local area. I want the people in the room to say what they want, what their needs are, what their dream is and why they are struggling. Because only by listening to all the interested parties and understanding their needs can we come up with the right solution for this forest. I would love to find a series of organisations where we can do this, and then I would like to pass on the model to those who would be interested in receiving it and to see what comes out after one year of this kind of work.
What were you hoping to achieve when you worked on the film?
When I started out, my visual picture of Portugal was this: “Ok, I’ve arrived and, of course, there are pockets of nature, but, generally speaking, I don’t know what percentage of this land is just simply devastating monoculture. Plus, it’s burning. Plus, it’s affecting people’s livelihoods in a negative way. They’re losing houses, they’re losing rent.”
For me. it was a bit shocking. What I wanted to understand by making the film was whether this was the current state of what is in people’s hearts and minds, whether the link with nature exists, and, if so, what does it reveal? You know, questioning people. So, I wanted to hear the voices that were saying, “yes, this link exists”, or “no, this link doesn’t exist”, as well as everything else around this. You know, their view of things, and, of course, their vision for the future as well, their dreams for the future. Actually, this is another interesting thing. One of the questions was, “What is your dream for the land where you live?” Or “How do you see this land after a hundred years?” And, you know, I had a really big problem with this one because people weren’t telling me about their dreams for this place after a hundred years. You know, only one or two people told me their dreams. But the first time they answered this question, their answers were more like: “oh, it’s going to be like this because of this and that, and this is how things are now, you know. So, they were projecting their visions based on the current state of things. And it was shocking for me. I said, “Wait, wait, wait! It’s great to hear what you think it will be like, but what is your dream? If everything were to disappear, if you could do anything, what would be your dream for this place?”
So, it took me time to get people to open up and to hear their dreams and, in the same way, by organising these panels and workshops, I want people to open up more and dream about something that isn’t here, that doesn’t exist and requires imagination. Something that requires collaboration, a sense of community and self-organisation in a specific place, all of which we can say is more or less absent at the moment. You know? It’s absent. And until it is present, I don’t think we can achieve any good results, any tangible, long-lasting and sustainable results.
Isn’t it interesting that people don’t have dreams about the future?
What does this mean?
Why is it that people don’t have dreams, or any imagination about their future?
Why aren’t people curious? Is it a question of education?
I think education plays a huge role in putting people’s minds in boxes and creating generation after generation of people who just have to perform a specific function. You know, they have to fit into the system. They have to work. They have their family, and then this continues into the next generation. But there is almost no room for them to dream. But also, I was thinking this morning about such a thing as altruism. Does it exist or does it not? Why are some people doing incredible things, such as planting whole forests? Did they do this because that was the only meaning in their life? That was their number one dream and that was the meaning of life for them? And that action, that process, was giving them meaning every day? I think people have a role to play. I think people are taking life for granted and life can’t be taken for granted. I think the important point is: when you start taking life for granted, what will happen? You go about your daily business, you can’t bother about anything else, because you don’t have the energy and you don’t have the extra capacity needed to notice what is happening around you. But life happens everywhere you step. Life is happening all around you. And yet you’re only participating in that narrow strip of life which is 0.01 percent of everything around you, going to work and bringing your kids up and sending them to school and hoping they will get into the best university and get the best education. I don’t know, maybe it’s not enough anymore. Maybe we have to get involved a little bit more, because it proves that giving power away to other organisations, to corporations, to politicians, doesn’t serve us very well. This is one reason why we don’t have a dream, because we have also given our power away. So, because we don’t feel empowered to change things, to go and do something well for ourselves, we have chosen these people. They can do the work instead of us.
Would it lead to the question Share or Dominate?
Share, of course. But this means unlearning lots of things.
How do you want to bring together in one workshop people who want to share and others who want to dominate? People who want to plant monocultures are not sharing.
They’re dominating what should grow in the soil. So, where’s the solution between these two positions, between sharing and dominating?
It’s going to be a long process. I don’t think it’s going to change overnight. Without being able to touch somebody’s heart, I don’t think you can change their minds. So, in other words, we have to make this work in the same room, so that people can start listening to each other. Everybody can speak because everybody has the right to do so, not just those with the money and the power. But people must also sit in the room and open their ears, open their hearts and make an effort to listen to each other. And I think the people who enter the room have at least agreed to be there. This is important, you know.
So, you want to invite Portucel, the Navigator paper company?
And bring them together with nature conservation associations like Quercus and LPN?
We have to start having discussions at all levels, but definitely involving the paper companies, which we see as – let’s say – the biggest problem. Because the biggest problem could also be the biggest opportunity. And I don’t believe they’re going to change overnight, but I do believe that they will have to change. The way I see it, there is no escape from making a change. But how are they going to change? And when are we going to make that change happen? Because I think we’re already past that moment. We have to catch up on the time we’ve lost.
So, are we late?
I don’t want to say we’re late, but we do have to move much more quickly because we just can’t wait any longer. I’m sure there are lots of people inside these companies who would love to do something different, but they don’t know how to.
Can you say in a few words what your film sets out to achieve?
One thing that I wanted was for people to feel the absence of something in their life, something very important. Something that is missing, something that isn’t there. And what isn’t there? I want them to question things, to start feeling things, seeking answers for themselves. So, that forest is almost like a mirage right now, because where do you find an eternal forest today in Portugal? We have to go and rediscover it.