As someone with an overabundance of collections, a handful of memory boxes, a sporadic set of journals, and an aversion to KonMari-style minimalism, it’s fair to say that I believe in the power of objects. The things we own, the things we encounter, the things we create—their histories cling to them in ways that are difficult to describe.
Among the most powerful of those objects are the mementos of people we’ve lost. In my office, I keep a crossword dictionary that my grandpa used to use. It was never anything fancy, and over time has only become less so. It’s patched together with tape that has dried out and cracked; its pages are beyond dog-eared. But looking at it, picking it up and flipping through it, I can picture it on the kitchen table it used to live on, and the table swells out to the whole house, and fills in with the sounds and smells and faces I’d find there. A photo wouldn’t do the same; the memories are sunk into the book itself.
Regina Pessoa shows a similar attachment in her film Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days. Though most of the film is made in her instantly recognizable illustration style, originally made from etchings on plaster and recreated these days through multilayered digital drawings, it is bookended by artifacts from real life. It starts with a stop-motion sequence, a straight-edge and a stencil flashing onto the screen before the camera pans down to show a pair of eyeglasses, a roll of measuring tape, a compass—tools for seeing the world, for measuring it and marking it down. Even before the story begins, a portrait begins to form.
These objects are the most direct connection we have to Pessoa’s uncle, an eccentric figure who was an early inspiration on her artistic development. Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Pessoa’s childhood, so the glimpses of Uncle Thomas are necessarily incomplete. We can see that Thomas is kind to her, and that he relates to the world in a way that keeps him apart from other adults, and Pessoa portrays those memories with a warmth that shows just how much his presence meant to her.
The stop-motion returns at the film’s end, first with a collage of her uncle’s journals bundling themselves into a package, and then with Pessoa’s sketches and storyboards, equally as meticulous as Uncle Thomas’ writing, another echo of his influence on her story. And while the film has its share of stirring moments—a first-person motorcycle ride is especially stunning—you get the sense that the heart of the film is in those objects; that somewhere in those journals, pocket knives and tape measures is a piece of the truth.
Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days
dir: Regina Pessoa
syn: Uncle Thomas: Accounting for the Days is about the special relationship between Regina Pessoa and her uncle. The film is a testament to her love for this eccentric, who was an artistic inspiration and played a key role in her becoming a filmmaker. A moving tribute to a poet of the everyday.
Bonus: Pessoa’s 2005 film Tragic Story with Happy Ending is the most award-winning Portuguese film of all time and is well worth watching. CartoonBrew shared a detailed look at Pessoa’s technique back in 2019, and AWN shared some more of the director’s thoughts on the filmmaking process.