Filmmaker Q&A — Out of the shadows comes a tale of darkness and light in Lisbon's Creole community.

Sombra lives his life in darkness, hiding from sunlight and existing in a world of the night. Basil da Cunha’s great After The Night follows Sombra through the shadows of Lisbon’s Reboleira ghetto as he attempts to escape being wrongly accused of stealing from a local gang who control the neighbourhood.

If the plot sounds all too familiar, da Cunha’s process is anything but. He has lived in Reboleira for the last six years and the cast is made up of his friends and neighbours. The resulting film is a product of the community in which it was made, relying heavily on improvisation and the participation of local people. Blending documentary, thriller and film noir, After the Night immerses us in an invisible community who live disconnected from the rest of their city.

Tell us more about the community where you shot After the Night?
The film is shot in Reboleira, a ghetto community on the outskirts of Lisbon. It’s made up of people from Cabo Verde who arrived in Lisbon in the 1970s, and I made the film with second generation immigrants. They grew up in Lisbon, so they are Portuguese but in the ghetto they don’t speak Portuguese, they speak Creole. The day to day reality of life in the ghetto is like being in Africa, it doesn’t feel like Europe. The community has it’s own rules. Police don’t enter the ghetto, and neither do white people. It’s a very closed community. Some people work but most of them are unemployed. There’s a real separation between the Portuguese and the people of the community.

Did you feel a responsibility to represent the community authentically?
I tried to devolve the process of filmmaking to the community, to give them a dignity they are not given in reality. That’s why I tried not to make ‘social issues’ film. They are not victims in the film, they are the heroes of the movie.

But by building the story around criminal and drug dealers, don’t you think you are helping to reinforce negative stereotypes?
I don’t think so. I have already made three short films in this community and none of those were about drugs or violence. This movie is a mix of documentary, thriller and film noir but if you look at the movie, there really isn’t a huge amount of violence. The inclusion of drugs and trafficking is really not very important. What is important is the relationships between the characters. We focus on other aspects, the humanity of the people and their sense of humour. I don’t present them as victims, but it’s not also about violence and drugs. I don’t think that when you finish watching this movie you’ve seen these kind of stereotypes.

I shot with real people who are my friends, so I don’t think in terms of stereotypes and things like that. The film presents a difficult reality and we deal with characters who are invoked with drugs, but that’s not what the movie is about. The violence is always secondary, the scenes and the conversations between characters are far more important. I don’t want to focus on the violence.

What is your connection to this community?
I didn’t go there to shoot movies, I live there. All of the people involved in the film are my friends or my neighbours. Six years ago I discovered this community and I felt that I belonged there, in a certain way. I wasn’t born there, but since I’ve live in Reboleira I have made lots of friends and I always chose to work with the people around me. Before I went to this community, I was living in Switzerland. I also worked with my neighbourhood there, Portuguese people and Arabs, and all the people who lived around me. In my way of making films, it’s always a family process, with the people close to me. It’s the same in Portugal or Switzerland.

Now I’m in Portugal, the people I work with are also my friends, but we have other things that are important to us. I understood later that this community won’t exist much longer. It’s a very unique way of living, that capitalism and neoliberalism is destroying. It’s something from the past, and some day it’s going to disappear. I admire the way these people live, and that’s why they are my heroes.

There are so many stories to tell in a place like this. After making four films here, we have a great group of people who know how to work together, and understand that we’re trying to develop a filmmaking method all together. It’s important to go forward with these same people because we understand each other very well. We have a team. As I’ve lived here for the last six years, it’s a very different process to a filmmaker who comes to a community to make a movie. I went and lived there and then we eventually shot movies together.

Darkness and the night are often presented in art as things to fear. But what is there to fear about the light?
We belong to the night, we feel better in the night. In the film it’s a kind of metaphor for this feeling that we don’t belong to the mainstream society. In the night you feel other things. That’s the reality of our day to day. We live the night. In the beginning the movie was about a man who had a real sickness, we call it “the child from the moon,’ for people that cannot see the sun. I also like the idea of a vampire, a kind of samurai of the night who cannot see the day. For me, and for many people, we feel better at night, because we don’t see the rest of society living; that’s our moment.

What are the major lessons you’ve learned from making the film?
We have a special way of talking, because we don’t repeat anything. We shot all of the movie in a chronological order. At the beginning of the movie we had maybe ten or twenty actors, but by the end maybe a hundred because many came in and many left. Reality is always there. We don’t stop the life of the ghetto and we have to deal with that.

What we learned while doing this movie, and the others, is directly related to the actors. The secret of our work is to believe in each other. We don’t work together with the actors before the movie. Some of them had never made a film before, so the secret is to believe the best in each other. If you make the actor believe that he’s the only one who can do it, and he believes in you, he can be the best in that role. That’s the most important thing I learned in this movie.

I learned a lot of things about how to make a movie, because I have seen a lot of mistakes that I made, so the next one will be better, in filmmaking terms. But the human aspect is the most important. We make movies without money and without a structure. We are a team of three professionals, one does the camera, another the sound and I direct. That’s the team. The actors and other people help us out. So the only thing that holds us together is this faith that we have in one another.

After the Night is out in the UK Friday, April 25. Or preorder it here.