Film

Brazil’s Extreme Social Tensions on Film

The 21st edition of the Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes film festival reflected Brazil’s volatile social and political climate, while avoiding the conventions of poverty porn.

Still from <em>Outer Edge</em>, directed by Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta (courtesy the filmmakers)
Still from Outer Edge, directed by Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta (courtesy the filmmakers)

TIRADENTES, Brazil — A foreigner arriving here — a pristine baroque town in Minas Gerais, the site of Portugal’s colonial-era gold mines — may not know that it’s a place where cultural and social tensions are at a boiling point. Tiradentes is a major tourist destination, but much more importantly, it’s also where, for 21 years, Brazil’s pioneering indie film festival, Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, has brazenly set the course for the country’s cinema. Now the festival increasingly channels anger about the status quo.

Brazilians have plenty to be angry about. For one, the hijacking of democracy after the Operation Car Wash; the revelations of corruption at the highest levels; and the ousting of president Dilma Rouseff (which, as the international press widely reported, was partly a result of political calculations dictated by class interests). The country’s social inequality is again on the rise, and so is vehement, violent conservatism that further compromises the rights of women, gays, and transsexuals.

Back in Tiradentes, this year Affonso Uchoa — the winner of a past festival, in 2014, for his film, The Hidden Tiger — showcased his latest film, Arábia (2017, co-directed with João Dumans), which premiered in Rotterdam and went on to a number of prestigious festivals. Uchoa’s bold hybrid form and refined poetic sensibility have inspired a generation of filmmakers. Among them is Juliana Antunes, whose intimate film blending fiction and nonfiction, Baronesa, won Best Film at Tiradentes last year, garnered top prizes at festivals in Chile (FicValdivia), Argentina (Mar del Plata), and Cuba (Latin American Festival), and is slated to play in the “Art of the Real” program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this spring.

Uchoa and Antunes have given the stories of Brazil’s marginalized an epic framing. In Arábia, migrant worker Cristiano (Aristedes de Sousa) is constantly on the move, toils without pay, and is sent packing when he demands his fair share. This is perhaps not new in Brazil, but the undermined ability of workers to unite against corporate and technocratic forces is, and makes this tale more sinister and universal. In spite of its American folk soundtrack, Arábia is no regular road movie, but rather one that channels Brechtian theater and Baudelarian spleen. Like Baudelaire, who took the temperature of Europe during the early industrial revolution, Uchoa takes Brazil’s in the late-industrial age.

The country’s rising temperature is also gauged by Adirley Queirós, another Tiradentes veteran, whose futurist docudrama White Out, Black In, played here in 2014. In Queirós’s latest feature, Once There Was Brasília (2017) that premiered in Locarno — a science-fiction film with nonactors and an emphasis on actual settings and specific political context (including the live audio from Rouseff’s impeachment) — the inhabitants of Ceilândia, a poor neighborhood outside the capital, Brasília, prepare to attack Congress, with the help of an intergalactic visitor. Quierós’s extensive collaboration with Afro-Brazilian nonactors has already made him a key voice in national cinema. In a festival panel, he stressed that filmmakers must use state funds, plus the daring of festivals like Tiradentes, to dismantle the official narratives of “order and progress.”

The dismantling of state-sanctioned narratives couldn’t be clearer in the feature competition winner at this year’s festival, Outer Edge, by Belo Horizonte natives Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta. The rampant growth of Brazilian cities has been captured before, notably by Kleber Mendonça Filho, a Recife native, in Neighboring Sounds (2012) and in Aquarius (2016). But in Belico and Marotta’s film, Belo Horizonte is a character, its squares, dimly lit streets, and corners portrayed with as much attention as its residents. The latter struggle to reoccupy public spaces, through everything from outdoor concerts to sex in public parks. Trapped in an urban nightmare that borders on post-apocalyptic, they are haunted by the past, yet unwilling to break with it and leave for good.

Still from Outer Edge, directed by Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta (courtesy the filmmakers)
Still from Outer Edge, directed by Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta (courtesy the filmmakers)

Like Arábia, Outer Edge is formally beautiful, with luscious nocturnal cinematography and monologues that sound as if they were lifted from a Greek tragedy. It also leaves all the physical violence off-screen; this stylistic choice signals a growing wariness on the part of Brazilian filmmakers toward the miserabilist aesthetic that still prevails at international festivals, with spectacles of poverty and violence being praised for their “realism.” Instead, in Outer Edge, violence annihilates one’s inner sense of freedom, and with it, the desire to live. And though a police car’s siren does eventually sound — a symbol of oppression rather than protection in so many Brazilian films focused on the marginalized — at the forefront is the violence’s historical lineage in slavery. In the allegorical closing sequence, a black priestess appears. She addresses the audience directly like a Greek chorus, speaking of ebó, a spiritual candomblé offering, to rectify bad karma. She’s calling for a historical reckoning of sorts, and reminding viewers that Brazil’s centuries-old racial tensions have yet to enter the mainstream public discourse.

Like all festivals, Tiradentes has its rituals of inclusion, which mask the fact that the film industry remains predominantly male and that some seasoned critics don’t hesitate to call women’s stories, or stories told by women, “niche” (a sentiment that painfully resonates with similar statements made this year at Sundance, as reported by Buzzfeed’s Alison Wilmore). In Tiradentes, the festival’s MC addressed the audience each night with, “Good night to all,” using “a todas” — implying an entirely female audience — and echoing political grammar that in the past led some to refer to Rouseff as a “presidenta.” But beyond such gestures, the movies on the festival’s slate rippled with sexual and social fissions. In We Are All Here, a short by São Paulo filmmakers Chico Santos and Rafael Mellim, Rosa (Rosa Luz), a young trans woman, rebels against eviction agents. “Last night, the protagonist I play was thrown out of her father’s house,” Rosa tells us in the film’s opening. Homeless, she tries to construct a hut in a swamp. Denied help by authority, she rallies her neighbors against it.

Still from "We Are All Here" (2017), directed by Chico Santos e Rafael Mellim (courtesy the filmmakers)
Still from “We Are All Here” (2017), directed by Chico Santos e Rafael Mellim (courtesy the filmmakers)

The violence of eviction was also at the heart of the shorts competition winner, Calm, by Rio de Janeiro filmmaker Rafael Simões. As in We Are All Here, Calm captured marginality and anger in a striking cinematic language. With its rhythmic editing and quick pace, We Are All Here borrowed from the aesthetic of music videos, with shots of Rosa’s race against the clock that were reminiscent of Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run (1998). Meanwhile, Calm is composed of languidly moving or static shots in which architectural detail mingles with semi-surrealist monologues. In both, young Brazilian filmmakers offer glimpses of resilience and grace against the desperation of our times.

The 21st edition of Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes took place January 19–27 at venues around Tiradentes, Brazil.

comments (0)