Marquim do Tropa observing the unrest in Once There Was Brasília (2017), directed by Adirley Queirós (all stills courtesy Terratreme)

Not unlike many countries around the world, Brazil is in a state of unease and unrest. Things have been bad, but they’ve only gotten worse ever since ex-President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, with some calling it a coup. Former Vice President Michel Temer took her place and surrounded himself with likeminded old white men (hardly representative of one of the most diverse countries in the world) who exude center-right politics. With Temer as president the last two years, Brazil has become more conservative and more corrupt. Now, the widely unpopular president is looking to stay on for another term in the upcoming October election.

It is amidst this political morass that Adirley Quierós’s Once There Was Brasília (2017) situates itself in. Like Quierós’s White Out, Black In (2014), this new film is also a lo-fi sci-fi consisting of Afro-Brazilian non-actors, only it takes place in Brasília (the capital) and Ceilândia — an impoverished satellite city first built for temporary residence. The film is screening this Friday as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s yearly series Art of the Real.

A scene from Once There Was Brasília (2017)

Once There Was Brasília’s threadbare story (and given its thinness, it is still opaque) consists of an intergalactic traveler, WA4 (Wellington Abreu), hired to assassinate President Juscelino Kubitschek on the day that he inaugurates Brasília in 1960. Queirós devotes a healthy amount of time to WA4 chain-smoking in his cramped rattletrap of a ship and preparing for his hit. The ship malfunctions and crashes too far into the future, in 2016 Ceilândia, a city he observes as similar to his own on a planet called Karpenstahll. There he meets Andreia (Andreia Vieira), once incarcerated for busting a cue stick over a man’s head and killing him, and the wheelchair-bound Marquim (Marquim do Tropa), an observer who “sees things that no one else believes in.” Andreia witnesses them too, tracing the imaginary trajectory of a UFO, of perhaps the ship of the intergalactic hitman. When WA4 lands on Earth, his plans change. He joins Andreia and Marquim, along with a larger group in solidarity, to stage an insurrection against the politicians in the National Congress. And yet their plan appears to fizzle out by film’s end.

A story, or the suggestion of one, seems to be of secondary concern for Queirós. He seems more interested in creating and sustaining a mood of nocturnal dread with minimal settings, sparse lighting, and all-around inventive cinematography by DP Joana Pimenta (a filmmaker in her own right). Moreover, Once There Was Brasília is virtually a series of set pieces, of portraits of characters in futuristic garb made out of everyday materials (WA4 wears a gas mask and a suit of rubber; a welding helmet dons Marquim’s head). Queirós prefers protracted, long-take shots that feature one or two events (a car exploding, a ship crashing, characters endlessly waiting and looking). The net effect is a film that alternates between awesome ingenuity and tediousness.

Marquim and Andreaia Vieira meet on the yellow bridge in Once There Was Brasília (2017)

The most startling shots are the two set in a subway car and platform that show people of color — heads perpetually down, shackled and in blue jumpsuits — surrounded by security guards. This is Brazil as a police state, rounding up people to export them to Ceilândia. With Alphaville (1965), Jean-Luc Godard turned contemporary Paris into a dystopia just by filming it. And this is precisely what Qeuirós does to Brasília and Ceilândia at night with Once There Was Brasília, which is scored to the archival audio of Roussef’s impeachment, as well as Brasília and Temer’s respective inaugurations.

Although Once There Was Brasília doesn’t quite coalesce, Quierós still brims with ideas on how to approach politics and nonfiction filmmaking. Terse and elliptical, it paints a bleak picture of Brazil. It is in this film where the outcasts, the outsiders, and the perpetually neglected look on at the entropy marring the country.

WA4 (Wellington Abreu) prepares to assassinate President Juscelino Kubitschek in Once There Was Brasília (2017)

Once There Was Brasília directed by Adirley Queirós is screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) as part of Art of the Real on Friday, April 27 at 6:30pm. More info at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Tanner Tafelski

Tanner is a freelance film critic based in New York. You can read his writing archived on his blog, The Mongrel Muse, and you can give him a holler @TTafelski.