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From Kbela (2015), dir. Yasmin Thayná (all images courtesy Film at Lincoln Center, unless otherwise stated)

Politically turbulent times don’t hold a monopoly on radicality, but they help us focus on what’s at stake. This is certainly the case with Veredas: A Generation of Brazilian Filmmakers, a film series co-presented by Film at Lincoln Center and Cinema Tropical which begins today. The program challenges the boundaries of genre and form, and features films that explore representations of race, gender, and class. To watch them at this time is to gain a keen awareness of lives that are discriminated against and consistently written out of official narratives.

Kbela (2012), a short by Yasmin Thayná, made with mostly nonprofessional Black actresses, riffs on hair as part of one’s identity. In one of its many tableaux, a woman in a green polka-dot dress and jacket sits at the edge of what seems to be a bathtub. We don’t see her face — instead, her head sits at her side, as she applies white paste to the hair. This montage — a headless woman, a live severed head— is a nimble introduction into Thayná’s universe, which mixes surrealism and anthropology, cinéma vérité, and performance. This tension, between intimacy and tenderness but also agony and roughness, is a central motif in a film that also points to the complexity of Black Brazilian identity. In the program, Kbela screens alongside Bedouin (2016), the latest feature from the influential Cinema Marginal director, Júlio Bressane, whose logic is also rooted in expanded reality, a mélange of reverie, dreams, and performance.

From Kbela

In both method and theme, performance is also central in Swinguerra (2019), directed by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. Shot in Recife, the short alludes to the musical rhythm, pagode, also known as swingueira (hence a play on the words swing and “guerra” or “war”). Performers of diverse gender expressions engage in an outdoor dance competition —  ruthlessly sizing each other up in a championship of wills. On one hand, the staging enacts a duel or battle; on the other, it politicizes the city’s urban space, as one in which expressivity allows bodies to escape rigid binary definitions. The dancers reveal urban culture as an expression of togetherness, but also of their ingenuity and singularity. The performativity of this wonderful short recalls the work of the American filmmakers and artists, Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena Harold, in Black Bus Stop (2019)

Ingenuity and entrepreneurship, with a satirical bent, also lie at the center of the debut feature by Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins, In the Heart of the World (2019). The formidable Grace Passô (who has appeared in a number of films produced by Filmes de Plastico, the production company of which both directors are part) plays Selma, a small photography studio owner. With the help of a wealthy female friend, she plans an ambitious heist, enlisting an equally desperate neighborhood couple (a superb Leo Pyrata and Kelly Crifer) to help her. To her misfortune, the neighborhood talent she employs isn’t up to par. The perfect crime gone bust, she must scavenge her plan. The western-inspired film was shot on the periphery of Brazil’s Belo Horizonte and lovingly depicts a community where survival depends on pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and relying on your wits. 

From In the Heart of the World (2019), dirs. Gabriel Martins and Maurilio Martins (image courtesy Festival Scope)

Among other features that blur facile delineations between genres are Tiago Mata Machado’s The Sleepwalkers (2018) and Tavinho Teixeira’s Sol Alegria (2018), which both draw from Brazil’s avant-garde of the 1970s, particularly Cinema Marginal, either as a direct influence or a philosophical affirmation of marginality. 

The Sleepwalkers comes closest to acting as a manifesto of Brazil’s zeitgeist. It centers on the dilemmas of a small group of alienated revolutionaries, in an indeterminate, authoritarian future — one that also recalls Brazil’s violent past. In its performative fragments and dark, static interiors, this perambulatory hallucination echoes the portraiture of Pedro Costa and the history-inflected reenactments of Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark (2016). The Sleepwalkers presents paralysis as a collateral of action. The revolutionary cell spends time waiting, deliberating over a course of action, and doubting each other. With the murky, languid cinematography by Fernando Lockett, delicate editing by Alice Furtado and Luiz Pretti, plus evocative music by Juan Rojo Pedro Durães, the film plays like a whispery ghost movie, in which the real tormentors are the protagonists’ inner thoughts. The anguished relationship between ill-starred lovers, (Clara Choveaux and Rômulo Braga) evokes Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth (1967). 

From Swinguerra (2019), dirs. Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca

In contrast, Teixeira’s Sol Alegria is a joyous romp, though deadly serious in a political sense. Where The Sleepwalkers depicts a demise of the utopian dream, Sol Alegria (literally Sun, Joy) is an anarchic, Rabelaisian outburst. In the film, a family travels to a commune in the countryside run by radical nuns. Everyone here is polyamorous and sexually woke. The gun-toting, breast-baring, marijuana-planting nuns love sex — particularly anal — as much as their visitors. The atmosphere is a bit like a sunnier Walerian Borowczyk, or an auteurist twist on Brazilian pornochanchadas (sexploitation comedies). Teixeira isn’t blind to the violence faced by non-conforming communities — in one scene the family is chased by and later defecates on a pursuing police car — but he extols the freedoms that have been won, particularly in terms of expressions of sexuality and gender. 

One can only hope that viewers will appreciate how free the Brazilian filmmakers are in their creative visions — a body of work that’s particularly heartening when one considers the encroachments on freedom that Brazilian cinema must now confront. 

Veredas: A Generation of Brazilian Filmmakers screens at Film at Lincoln Center December 6–11, 2019. The series was organized by Mary Jane Marcasiano and Fabio Andrade, and is co-presented with Cinema Tropical.

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Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.