Pedro Neves Marques
Pedro Neves Marques is a Portuguese filmmaker, visual artist, and writer. Their films and artworks have been shown in major contemporary art institutions globally. As a writer, Marques has written two books of short stories: 'Morrer na América' (2017) and 'The Integration Process' (2012). They also co-founded the poetry and literary publisher pântano books / livros do pântano with fellow artist and writer Alice dos Reis in 2020, with whom they published a first poetry collection, 'Sex as Care and Other Viral Poems' (2020). Together with fellow artist Mariana Silva, they run Inhabitants, an online channel for exploratory video and documentary reporting. They directed two short fiction films, 'Exterminator Seed' (2017), 'The Bite' (2019) and a short documentary 'A arte que faz mal à vista '(2018). Their film 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages'(2022), world premiere at IFFR 2022 and winner of a Tiger Short Award, was inspired by their own experiences and conversations about reproductive desires within an LGBTQIA+ context.
Pedro Neves Marques talks about their latest short film, 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages', which celebrates its North-American premiere at the New York Film Festival, after an impressive European festival run along many leading short film festivals. A personal chat about (in)fertility, medical progress, couple dynamics and gender roles.
Asked about Vicente’s feelings on carrying an ovary implant in his body, the cis male protagonist in ‘Becoming Male in the Middle Ages’ takes a brief moment and replies: “It’s abstract. It’s an organ. I don’t think much about it.”
When discussing this particular scene with writer-director Pedro Neves Marques (they/them), I wondered whether Vicente is devoid of any emotional attachment, also pondering the portrayal of pregnancy and the notion of parenthood? “It simply turned out like that in the writing process,” the filmmaker opened up. “Vicente is very sweet, but also very absent-minded. He sees the implant as an organ because he’s not fully realising the implications of this experiment. He’s just focused on the end goal. He wants to feel motherhood.” Mirene, Vicente’s friend, then asks about what’s next. Waiting.
Vicente and Carl, Mirene and André are two couples simultaneously trying to have a biological child in Pedro Neves Marques’ award-winning film ‘Becoming Male in the Middle Ages'. Marques remains faithful to their previously explored interests, interweaving environmental issues, technology and gender expectations in a dense fabula. Their film ‘The Bite’ (2019) (read our coverage here) dealt with genetically engineered mosquitoes and the polyamorous relationship between Tao, Calixto and Helmut. The film before that, ‘Exterminator Seed’ (2017), revolved around an oil spill contaminating the Brazilian coast and the oil rig worker Capivara fleeing the dangerous territory.
We sat down with the Portuguese visual artist to discuss their latest picture, a curious exploration of (in)fertility, medical progress, couple dynamics and gender roles. “I was asking myself why the ovary doesn’t go into a cis male's body. Does the body accept the organ or not? That was the starting point for this film,” elaborates Neves Marques, who was inspired by people in their own circle of friends that were either undergoing IVF or considering having a child after a long time of not wanting one. Given this semi-biographical aspect, it made sense for the filmmaker to star as Vicente. “Not part of the plan initially, but I simply couldn’t find that actor for the role.”
The story of both couples’ struggles develops from Mirene’s perspective. “I wanted a female voice to channel the story in the middle of all these men,” tells Neves Marques, adding that Isabel Costa, who portrays Mirene, is blessed with a tender but firm voice, perfect for a narrator. Mirene’s character is strong-willed, straightforward and opinionated, “but not always right.” As the film’s core, doing the emotional labour for Vicente, Mirene is the one primarily processing all that is happening within this group of friends. “She disagrees with a lot of stuff.”
At one point, she hints that her gay friends are “privileged” and “self-obsessed”. Unwillingly, while being supportive, a sense of unfairness sneaks into their conversations. Vicente won’t even have to endure morning sickness and Mirene feels robbed of the same reproductive luck. “She’s confronted, questioning herself: Why do I feel this injustice when I never even wanted a baby to begin with?” says Neves Marques. Her voice-over reveals that André did want one, so, after entering her thirties, she reconsidered. Re-examination of one’s standings on family comes with an extra burden once having crossed a certain age threshold, the sound of the biological clock relentlessly ticking in the background. “This confrontation between desire and age is a very complicated reality, especially for women. It definitely becomes a pressing issue.”
While a burning concern for many, it’s a matter of life and death for some. ‘Becoming Male in the Middle Ages’ is a ruthlessly paradoxical film where possibilities and impossibilities coexist: modern medicine that attempts to trick genetics and biology (hence lab-grown meat and male pregnancy) still falls short confronted with infertility and cancer. After extensive research on ovarian transplant procedures, Neves Marques realised that they are mostly performed on women battling cancer. Once done with chemo and having successfully killed the cancer cells, ovaries are often reimplanted. “It’s a very tragic but also beautiful image. Life and death in the same sentence. You’re talking about an organ that provides life while facing potential death. It’s very violent.”
Contrary to Mirene, Vincente and Carl don’t delve into the moral and philosophical aspects of this life-death confrontation and refer to their donor(s) in an unattached, even conceptual manner, using words that are nothing but a strain of anatomical terms — “ovary”, “belly”, “surrogate”, and “implant”. “There is that feeling that for the gay couple there is an ignorance of the female body,” says Neves Marques. “However, it’s not a judgement on an individual’s sensitivity or lack of it. It is simply an indication of the emotional distance each couple and each person is allowing themselves to feel.”
Vicente’s body cannot carry the ovary implant, whereas André cannot impregnate his partner due to low sperm motility caused by increased exposure to environmental pollution. In the stereotypical sense of this term, Vicente and André are both “emasculated”, though each in their own way. “Though some of these aspects happened unintentionally during the writing process, the film does make strong points about the crisis (and toxicness) of masculinity,” further elaborates the filmmaker.
In public discourse and popular culture, male infertility is a subject that largely remains in the shadows. “The common expectation is that when problems with insemination occur, it’s the woman’s fault. In reality, there are more cases of male infertility, so I wanted to play with this prejudice and juggle the expectations around reproduction and health.” Consequently, the failure of having a baby hits differently for Vicente as he had invested both body and heart in providing the host body for the implant. “There is something feminine about him and his desires. But why? Why is it feminine? Just because he wants to have a baby?”
While Vicente’s case challenges reconsidering the stagnating conservative views on gender roles, André’s case, as Mirene remarks in the film, is “more political” in terms of society's general views on what constitutes masculinity. Take for instance the scene with the dildo, which falls out of the couple’s bed while they are making love. A man’s arm reaches for it and affectionately caresses the pink tool. Does it represent some ideal of masculinity for André? “I’ve heard different interpretations about this scene. To me, it’s also an example of how open the couple’s relationship is. And you don’t even know who’s using the dildo on whom. It can be read both ways, as a phallic symbol or a sign of a very open sexual relationship. I’m happy with both readings. I’m not gonna say which one I prefer.”
By diminishing the constructs of masculine and feminine, these heroes are liberated from the frames of expected behaviours, thus having the freedom to act on their individual desires, rather than programmed puppets of society.
‘Becoming Male in the Middle Ages’ starts in soft summer daylight and resumes in twilight, with wind-breaking ocean waves. After successfully collaborating on ‘The Bite’, Pedro Neves Marques again collaborated with director of photography Marta Simões, this time to sync the characters and the city life of Lisbon to nature. “We wanted to film the elements — the clouds, the park, the trees, the sounds of the city — more than the city itself. Marta is very sensitive to 16mm film and we dialogue very well, we both like to aim for a very warm and soft image. When the story seemed too classical and the structure too simple, Simões gave me the confidence to stick to my initial vision.”
“That’s very mildly funny,” replies the filmmaker, when we discuss the full moon scene, in which André points out that the position of the moon might not be the best period for impregnation. Despite all the medical and logical solutions they seek, two rational people put their faith in something ephemeral. However, Neves Marques’ intention by including the lunar phase’s remark was also pragmatic, connecting their heroes to nature’s cyclicality and observing how they relate to them.
“So why this title?” I asked. “Did you borrow some elements or ideas from the 1997 academic publication by Cohen and Wheeler?”
“The book is about medieval queerness. It’s an interesting read and I was very taken by the title, it felt so beautiful and out of context.” Allegorically the title reflects on transition, entering one’s thirties or forties. One could argue that it’s not technically mid-life, but it certainly feels like a mid-point. In addition, it is a hopeful metaphor. “The Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance; that’s also happening in the film. A scientific promise of a different world, different future where the [social] station is no longer attached to gender.”
It’s not the sole case in the film when books reveal a larger truth about the people who are seen reading them. Mirene is holding ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, a feminist classic written by Marge Piercy, where the author describes a hell of a journey the protagonist Connie goes through in 1970s New York, also envisioning a future where babies are born out of tubes and where there is no place for inequality and discrimination based on gender or race.
“As a fan of science fiction, I wanted to have it there. It made sense that Mirene would be reading that. Maybe she is searching for answers in books and fiction.” Meanwhile, André has Tiago Saraiva’s ‘Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism’ on his table. Saraiva investigates how genetic experiments with agricultural plants and breeding of domestic animals were the essence of the fascist regime’s food independence and land acquisition policies.
Again, it ‘clicks’. After careful examination, André, a vegan, ends up eating a politically correct chunk of a non-cow that’s discussed in the opening sequence of the film. “I wanted to give some hints about his personality and his position on animal rights.” Perhaps in reading this book, André was searching for precedents?
Mentioned twice in the film, the term ‘artificial’ has at least two shades. At the start, André refers to the non-cow meat, while by the end, Carl uses it in the context of Mirene’s decisive suggestion to form a nuclear family of three grownups and a potential baby. Both interpretations are of equal importance. Artificiality is a sign of progress: bioengineering leads to meat without butchering a cow while male pregnancy allows Vicente to imagine carrying a baby.
Furthermore, friends becoming family reassures that the family institution is flexible. But artificiality also means something is inherently fake. The lab-grown steak makes André sick and Vicente’s first implant success is short-lived — an ovary needs a womb. Finally, an unusual family suddenly feels like a foreign concept to otherwise progressive people.
Both couples are going through a relationship crisis paired with inner insecurities: apathy, self-doubt, and fatigue. Nevertheless, in each relationship, there is always someone who has compromised on the “baby question”. By the looks of it, Mirene and André are less likely to survive this. However, the writer-director remarks that the relationship dynamic between the heterosexual couple is more equal, whereas in the homosexual couple the balance is “much more gendered”, Carl being the dominant one, while Vicente remains soft and feminine.
“Even Carl ends up having to question himself. He’s very tired and he’s the one paying for all of it.” He, who didn’t have any problems with artificial meat, is not instantly at ease with the proposed family model. The tables have turned. “We can create our own artificiality,” concludes Mirene. Time and patience have tested both principal couples. Time and cancer have put a deadline on women of reproductive age. Suddenly it's all about waiting or acting immediately. Nevertheless, this multilayered story asks curious questions about hormonal research, future bodies and the climate crisis affecting fertility. “Our bodies or any organic bodies are mutants. It can change. It can be transformed,” concludes Neves Marques.
1 Still from sound and video installation 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages' (Pedro Neves Marques, 2019) in collaboration with HAUT
2 Still from 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages' (Pedro Neves Marques, 2022)
3 Still from 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages' (Pedro Neves Marques, 2022)
4 Still from 'Becoming Male in the Middle Ages' (Pedro Neves Marques, 2022)