My mother's family is from the Douro Valley of Portugal, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, declared in 1756 and selected a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2001. It's a brutalist setting for one of the most beautiful rituals of the year, the Fall wine harvest. Existing beyond the scale of the river and sheets of sheer stone, this province of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro is an exiled expanse, yet for one month is alive with the hearts and hands of the people who descend from nearby towns and villages to work the vineyards each year.
Against a backdrop of heritage winemaking, this is a story of triumph in tradition through seasons of remote isolation and hard work. A lifelong quest of the Transmontanos - the sons and daughters of the terrain - who leave their touch on some of the most celebrated wines of the Old World. When Miguel Torga, the preeminent Portuguese writer and poet of the 20th century tackled these mountainous vines, he found 'a wonderful kingdom.' This film takes its name from a Douro Valley passage in Torga's notable tome from 1950, "Portugal."
And then comes Simone de Oliveira. The octogenarian actor from Lisbon renowned for her music and theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. Her commanding, gravely voice sometimes seems like the film's score in itself heard traversing across the harsh rock of the region. My goal was to bring together de Oliveira, the matriarch of Portugal with Torga's prose, thus setting the narrative and structure of this documentary. De Oliveira told me that she had once met Torga 20 years ago, and I felt capturing this moment would further be bringing the old world to new audiences.
"A Wonderful Kingdom" is a film of parallels. The poetic texts by Torga from "Portugal" are narrated by de Oliveira and drift dream-like above the land, somewhat immune to the beating heart of the September sun. This is abstracted with the reality of the Transmontanos, the generations-old community hunched over the soil. The hypnotic repetition of the traditional wine harvest is a back-breaking process; picking, transporting, selecting and stomping the grapes from across the valley. Day after day. Repeat, repeat. One part slow cinema, one part observational documentary, "A Wonderful Kingdom" includes no interviews nor vineyard owners. The essence of the film is an instinctive love letter to Portugal.
The last time I went to the Douro Valley, I imagined what it would be like to experience this if my grandparents did not use to live 15 minutes away. Then the hard laboring characters appeared on the hills and the universal banter of camaraderie softened an intimidating vista. The ground is so dusty that only grapes, almonds, and olives can grow, and the sky such an emotionally crazy blue that it immersed me and I was captivated. This film would be an unfurling homage to my family and a celebration of people: the Transmontanos. With fantastic food and wine.
Blood red feet stomping the grapes in silence. A visceral transformation that has happened for hundreds of years before, and will occur again next year, and the season after that. The path of least resistance often involves repetition but the reality is that this divine action really works. It's more beautiful to me to tell the story of a timeless voyage that doesn't bask in mythology. The intense, epic journey of these proud people is a celebration. Whether it's the rowdiness of the closing workers' meal or the transferring of wine harvesting skills through their own family trees, if you're lucky enough to get a glimpse through the cracks of the hills, this is a true legacy.