Brazilian cinema is at a turning point, as much in terms of aesthetic experimentation as it is in terms of international recognition. In relation to the latter, the presence of good Brazilian films in the most demanding festivals on the international circuit or their reception among the most stimulating critics has been timid and marginal over the last decades, but this diagnosis is no longer valid. For a long time there was a feeling that important films only received recognition locally, and that the rest of the world ignored them, instead favouring films that had better marketing. But the picture has begun to change. To consider two very recent examples, the trajectories of She Comes Back on Thursday (Ela Volta na Quinta, 2014), the first solo feature directed by André Novais (screened in the official competitions or important showcases of festivals such as FIDMarseille, FICUNAM, BAFICI, Rotterdam and IndieLisboa), and of White Out, Black In (Branco Sai, Preto Fica, 2014), the second feature by Adirley Queirós (screened in festivals such as DocLisboa, Vienalle, Hamburg, Rotterdam, and winning prizes at Mar Del Plata, Cartagena and FICUNAM), demonstrate a reconfiguration of people’s expectations in relation to cinema made in Brazil. Brazil has again come to generate interest among notable curators and critics, as attested to by the end-of-year best-of lists in magazines such as Senses of Cinema, Desistfilm and Transit. The large retrospective organised by the Cinémathèque Française between March and May of 2015 is also an indication of this renewed interest in Brazilian cinema, even if the selection of contemporary films was uninspired and ignored some of the most significant works of the most recent output.
But in recent years, what has Brazilian cinema actually produced that is unique? Beyond the frisson generated by festivals and critics, what are the most stimulating aesthetic propositions in evidence at the moment? Without the pretension of offering a broad overview – something that would be impossible in any case, considering the diversity and quantity of recent films – this essay dedicates itself to the close investigation of two stylistic approaches that have recently emerged as potent and fruitful forms of experimentation in Brazil. The text also aims to give an outline of the genealogy of these approaches, relating them to the past. I refer to two unique ways of producing cinematic space: a new dramaturgical position in relation to the urban periphery, which I call neighbourhood realisms, and the reclaiming of utopia as a space for cinematic invention.
It would be possible to extend the number of films discussed here, but for reasons of space, I have decided to concentrate on a small selection that were screened in the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Tiradentes Film Festival. Since the previous decade, this festival has consolidated its position as the principal showcase for young and independent directors in Brazil. With a competition devoted to directors at the beginning of their feature-filmmaking careers – the Mostra Aurora (Aurora Showcase) – and a series of parallel showcases, Tiradentes has become a crucial launching pad. All of the most thought-provoking directors to emerge in Brazil have recently featured in this festival.
A dramaturgy of immanence
During the first decade of the 2000s, there was a guiding light for a large portion of young filmmakers: Eduardo Coutinho. Coutinho was rightly described by Fábio Andrade as “the most important and influential director for contemporary Brazilian cinema, be it documentary or fiction”, (1) and his work was unavoidable, not only as a direct stylistic reference, but also for suggesting a particular stance in relation to cinema and to the world. The “discrete ethnography” (“etnografia discreta”, as coined by Ismail Xavier (2)) of films such as Boca do Lixo (1993), Santo Forte (1999) and Edifício Master (2002) represented a true dramaturgical paradigm for both documentary and fiction. This paradigm included characteristics such as: a proximity to the characters, anchored in an openness to alterity; the suspension of critical intervention and rejection of a clinical external gaze; the refusal of great transcendent narratives and a refusal to build explanatory theses; investment in a realist figuration of everyday life; and the privileging of small narratives.
The truth is that this paradigm was present in a flood of bad films, especially in the works of filmmakers who never understood the power of Coutinho’s cinema and who only repeated some of his procedures in an automatic way. However it is also important to recognise that it characterised most of the best films of the decade. If we leave aside the already veteran directors, such as Rogério Sganzerla, Júlio Bressane, Andrea Tonacci, Carlos Reichenbach or Edgard Navarro, whose works pointed in other directions, and if we concentrate on younger directors, we can see that many of the most important Brazilian films of the 2000s embodied this dramaturgy of immanence. Films such as Prisoner of the Iron Bars (O Prisioneiro da Grade de Ferro, 2004) by Paulo Sacramento, Santiago (2007) by João Moreira Salles, Suely in the Sky (O Céu de Suely, 2006) by Karim Aïnouz, Behave (Juízo, 2007) by Maria Augusta Ramos and Pacific (2009) by Marcelo Pedroso worked with the low-key, with openness to the intense variation of the world (as opposed to rigidly following scripts), and with the refusal of a critically distanced form of enunciation.
This enunciative stance continues to bear fruit even today. Beyond My Reflection (Mais do que eu Possa me Reconhecer, 2015) by Allan Ribeiro, winner of the critics prize for best feature at the last Tiradentes Film Festival, takes an interesting step in this direction by investing in a mixing of the day-to-day life of a visual artist, as filmed by the director, with fragments of the protagonist’s home movies, resulting in a powerful interplay between the gaze of the director and that of his subject. However, certain strategies show signs of being exhausted, which is leading various directors – even those who were most prominent at the height of this paradigm of immanence – in other directions. There are new forces at play and it is now the job of the critics to identify the common threads between films, establish genealogies and comparisons, and risk the definition of a historiographic movement.
In a recently published text in the Brazilian journal Devires, I looked for some clues to help understand what I called the “detour through fiction” (“desvio pela ficcão”), which consisted of the emergence of a series of markedly fictional gestures among Brazilian directors who had been close to the documentary at the end of the last decade. In this discussion, and looking at the paradigmatic film Playing (Jogo de Cena, Eduardo Coutinho, 2007), I argued that the film featured a crisis of certain strategies of the documentary and, at the same time, pointed to possible new directions in fiction. In a paradoxical way, it was the same Eduardo Coutinho – the Brazilian documentary filmmaker par excellence, and the director who inspired a whole generation of documentary filmmakers – who was laying the groundwork for a new fictional drift.
It is interesting to note how an expressive number of directors who started their careers with films that were very strongly documentary – Marília Rocha, Gabriel Mascaro, Marcelo Pedroso, Adirley Queirós and Rodrigo Siqueira, among others – today demonstrate a strong desire to work with fiction, sometimes even in dialogue with genre film and science fiction (as in the cases of Queirós and Pedroso). The two approaches that we consider next relate directly to these questions. The dramaturgy of immanence continues to be an important backdrop, but there is a clear change of position, both aesthetically and politically, that has become more evident with the emergence of new elements: the drawing of more pronounced dramatic curves, the adoption of a less contemplative and more performative stance in films relating to the urban periphery, a new taste for the novelistic, a desire for more direct political intervention, the return of a critical approach to the idea of the Nation, and the reinvention of utopian spaces.
André Novais’ trajectory gives us clues as to the nature of this change in dramaturgical and political attitude. His first film to circulate in festivals, the decisive Ghosts (Fantasmas, 2010), combined minimalism, spontaneity and sophistication in an unprecedented way. A long take of approximately ten minutes frames a corner in a peripheric neighbourhood (from an angle similar to that of a security camera), while we hear a delightful, light conversation between two friends (brought to life by Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins, both actor/filmmaker colleagues of André’s at the Filmes de Plástico production company). At a certain moment in the conversation, which draws out and tends towards banality, the spectator suddenly realises that the until-then-unchanging frame was actually part of the diegesis. A camera had been installed there by one of the characters in order to record an ex-girlfriend who had been seen driving a car past that corner some days earlier. The friend, furious, tries to stop him. The fight between the two protagonists for possession of the camera (a fight we never see but that we experience in a tactile way through the variations in the framing) destabilises our gaze and pushes the film into unexpected territory. Through this violent but good-humoured rupture of the camera’s contemplative gaze over the street corner in the periphery, Ghosts’ irreverence lands a benevolent blow to this minimalist tradition from the previous decade. Good films were produced from the contemplative tradition but many films were suffocated by the concept and paralysed by its stance of conciliatory acceptance of the world.
In About a Month (Pouco Mais de um Mês, 2013), a short which was awarded an honorary mention at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, André confirms his talent for a revived fictional treatment of the banal, the commonplace and the familiar, always working with references and actors very close to him. The amorous interlude of a newly-formed couple (played by André himself and by his girlfriend, Élida Silpe) is filmed with particular attention to small gestures, but not as a form of automatic celebration. Although hushed, and although employing a fascinating vocabulary, Novais’ dialogues never settle for simply being part of a celebratory tableau of popular experience from the periphery.
Here, it is important to make a short historical digression. The universe of the urban periphery – through which André Novais’ cinema moves – is one of the most persistent and profitable (in the good sense, but also in the bad sense) motifs in the history of Brazilian cinema. Many of our greatest directors – Sganzerla, Reichenbach, Coutinho, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Aloysio Raulino, Ozualdo Candeias – dedicated some of their best films to this geographical and existential space. In the last two decades, however, the bombardment of films working in this space has been so great that it came to configure a kind of commercial genre: the so-called favela movies, whose paradigmatic example is City of God (Cidade de Deus, Fernando Meirelles, 2002). These films were dominated by a spectacularisation of violence and by the “cosmetics of hunger” (as described by Ivana Bentes, (3) in counterpoint to the “aesthetics of hunger” formulated by Glauber Rocha in the 1960s). In the face of this scenario and as a form of counterpoint to the voracity of the spectacle, independent cinema frequently sought to approach the periphery from an observational standpoint, paying attention to the temporality of the everyday, and backing an idea of the uniqueness of peripheric experience. Frequently, however, this stance made space for an attitude that was conciliatory to alterity, leading to the erasure of class conflicts and to the transformation of affect into condescension.
It is in relation to this picture that the construction of peripheric space in André Novais’ cinema stands out. While his first solo feature She Comes Back on Thursday undoubtedly draws inspiration from the same sources as his shorts, it is an exponential jump in terms of dramaturgical ambition. The small, random events are still present, but they are seated in a larger-scale family drama. The drama takes place in the urban periphery and is impregnated by it, but does not for a moment settle for some kind of intrinsic belonging to this marginalised universe. Because he is so close to his characters, Novais does not see a corner or a backyard in the periphery as a peculiarity to be celebrated in its own right, but rather as a possible backdrop for fantasy. By taking up the task of reinventing the neighbourhood itself, his cinema takes as its starting point the place that many filmmakers take as their destination: that the experience of the urban periphery is a potent source, and not an object to be catalogued. His new short film Backyard (Quintal, 2015) results in an even more striking jump towards fabulation. New elements are added to this delicate portrait of the periphery, such as a more direct dialogue with blaxploitation cinema, pornography, humour and special effects. A realism centred in the everyday remains an important backdrop, but there is a decisive move in the direction of maddening fantasy.
This realism of the neighbourhood – which sees proximity as an opportunity for invention – is also the motor of another great, recent film: The Hidden Tiger (A Vizinhança do Tigre, 2014) by Affonso Uchôa. (4) An ensemble film, the feature brings together fragments from the day-to-day lives of five young residents of the Bairro Nacional neighbourhood in Contagem (the same city where She Comes Back on Thursday is set). Again, there are crucial dramaturgical differences from earlier attempts to approach the space of the urban periphery: the fragments are not simply brought together as a patchwork, but rather compose a more ambitious and complex dramaturgical structure, with a clear dramatic arc; the contemplative approach gives way to a propositional mise-en-scene, which results in a collection of sketches brought to life by the performances of the occasional actors; and the drugs and crime are not a motive for sorrow or source of exploitative spectacle, but are instead dramatic subjects that are as relevant as work or love.
The unique ways in which the space of the periphery is presented by Novais’ and Uchôa’s films point to significant differences, both to the white exploitation and conservatism of the favela movies, and to earlier observational approaches, which often succumbed to solemnity or to exoticism. She Comes Back on Thursday and The Hidden Tiger are liberated, fresh films that, in the neighbourhood, find an opportunity to start further ahead. The filmmakers know the space so well that they can forget what they know in order to film the space from a new perspective. From moving through the periphery with agility, both also manifest a gaze that is truly irreverent; irreverent in the strong sense of the word, that is, with no reverence for a terrain that is considered “sacred” or “pure”, or for previous imagery of this terrain.
The return of utopia
Utopia has been a central motif in Brazilian cinema. With Glauber Rocha, it was the touchstone for a body of work – from the marine utopia of Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, 1964) to the Eldorado of Terra em Transe, 1967 – and it became the central aesthetic and political concern for the whole Cinema Novo generation. In the 1960s, a moment in which different visions for the nation were locked in open ideological dispute, the formulation of utopian narratives was a way of deceiving censors in the darkest days of the military dictatorship and of keeping in check the idea of the Nation. In this sense, cinema’s role was considered to be that of making sense of Brazilian historical experience. Since then, the utopian motif has returned a number of times, even if it has not had the same power, or has instead taken on a dimension of nostalgia, as in the films of the period in the 1990s known as the Retomada (or “Renaissance”), and as analysed by Lúcia Nagib.
At the beginning of this new century, in keeping with the discrediting of grand narratives and with the post-utopian drift of our societies, utopia has almost always been distant, like a cloudy memory of the past. On the one hand, our young directors seemed incapable of formulating the Brazilian historical experience in terms of the Nation, preferring instead to give their attention to small narratives and to the uniqueness of individual characters. On the other hand, the dramaturgy of immanence discouraged the creation of utopian narratives, since the intense variation of the world seemed to always surpass any attempt to produce discursive totalisations or to displace the reality of the present.
In the last three to four years, however, utopia has returned to claim a significant place in the creative explorations of some of our best young filmmakers. Hood Movie: Is the City One Only? (Cidade é uma Só?, 2011), the first feature by Adirley Queirós, is a fundamental point in this history. It is significant not only for its documentation of the failure of the developmental ideal inscribed in the project of the national capital – an architectural and political synthesis of the modernist, Brazilian utopia – but also, principally, for grafting into a documentary narrative the fictional trajectory of Dildu, the quixotic political candidate who embodied the failure of our electoral system while also creating new possibilities for Brazilian cinema. The meeting of Dildu with the motorcade of the then presidential candidate Dilma Roussef was such a violent coup that it seemed to reinaugurate, for Brazilian cinema, the possibility of facing national political projects head-on.
In this new context, utopia seems to acquire two distinct faces. On one hand, in strong dialogue with the tradition of the essay film, it is a case of cinematically formulating a critical and ironic analysis of the new utopias of Brazilian capitalism, such as hygienist urbanism and the paradise of the automotive industry. These characteristics can be seen in films such as The Harbor (O Porto, 2103) by Clarissa Campolina, Julia De Simone, Luiz Pretti and Ricardo Pretti, In Transit (Em Trânsito,2013) and Brazil Inc. (Brasil S/A, 2014), by Marcelo Pedroso or E (2014), by Alexandre Wahrhaftig, Helena Ungaretti and Miguel Antunes Ramos. On the other hand, some films opt for the construction of fictional utopias. Sometimes this takes place through playful immersion in transcendental mysticism – as in Amazing World Remix (Mundo Incrível Remix, 2014) by Gabriel Martins – sometimes as a nostalgic revival of political and cinematic ideologies of the past – as in Clenched Fists (Com os Punhos Cerrados, 2014) by Luiz Pretti, Ricardo Pretti and Pedro Diógenes – and sometimes as warrior fable, in confrontation with official discourse – as in White Out, Black In (Branco Sai, Preto Fica, 2014) by Adirley Queirós.
Here it is again useful to make a small historical digression. If Playing was a crucial film for understanding the fictional movement that emerged among filmmakers working in the documentary idiom, the utopian tendency in contemporary Brazilian cinema seems to have another source. I will hazard the following hypothesis: that the recent utopian narratives take as their reference the sequence from Hills of Disorder (Serras de Desordem, 2006), in which Andrea Tonacci condenses the utopian developmentalism that permeated the 20th century (and which gained new dimensions with the arrival of the era of President Lula) into a five-minute-long montage of archival footage. By resignifying government advertising material in a strange and parodic sequence that was also ironically and exaggeratedly nationalistic, Tonacci’s essayism opened up a new front for cinematic enquiry that has born wonderful fruit today.
It is in relation to this source that we can situate Brazil Inc. (2014) by Marcelo Pedroso. As Raul Arthuso wrote, (5) “Brazil Inc. is an overview coming from the place where Tonacci stopped”. Starting with the title, Pedroso expresses a desire to rethink the historical Brazilian experience in terms of the Nation, changing the name of the country into the name of a corporation. Throughout the film, a series of fictional sequences portraying different aspects of Brazil’s developmentism – the mechanisation of the sugarcane plantations, the growth of the automotive industry, the hygienist urbanism of glass skyscrapers – are put together with the same grandiloquence as government advertising, making use of slow-motion, cosmetically beautiful cinematography and triumphalist music. The human figures do not speak, but rather provide a bizarre choreography; the agricultural machinery has taken over and come to control reality. Like Paul Verhoeven in Starship Troopers (1997), the director builds an entire film out of a contrary mimesis. By using a mimesis of the spectacular strategies of exaggerated nationalism and taking them to the brink of absurdity, the film transforms the reality of the country into a grotesque dystopia, with no way out. In Brazil Inc., Pedroso takes up a task that has been neglected by all of the other directors of his generation: to work at the level of emblems and think of the Nation from a broad ideological perspective.
If there are the negative utopias, another manner of building imaginary spaces is also at play. In White Out, Black In, Adirely Queirós begins by creating a dystopian city in the near future. In this future, Ceilândia – a satellite city on the periphery of Brasilia – has become uninhabitable and is controlled by a totalitarian state, which materialises in the sound of the helicopters that patrol the night. Markim and Shokito – Afro-Brazilian men who were maimed in a police raid on a “black dance party” in the 1980s – cut themselves off from the world and find refuge in fortified bunkers. Sent from the future to gather evidence against the Brazilian state for its crimes against the population of the urban periphery, the detective Dimas Cravalanças roams through the empty spaces in search of evidence for reparations for the historical damage. While this takes place, Markim is not satisfied with the melancholic reports coming through his solitary radio and springs into action. With the help of Shokito and his friend Jamaica, he begins to prepare a “sound bomb” with the objective of destroying the country’s capital.
The fable of the construction of the bomb in White Out, Black In signals a crucial break from the panorama of works mapped out up to this point. While the portrayal of Brazilian reality as a dystopia is also present in the film, Adirley, together with his characters, builds a possible utopian response to this present state of things that silences and imprisons. Even if it is fantasy and even if it is impregnated with a certain melancholy, the explosive utopia is the transformation of transitory revolt into a symbolic revenge against all of the crimes committed historically by the Brazilian state. The symbolic destruction of the monuments of the federal capital – communicated through a series of drawings – is not, however, merely a cathartic denouement. In the last shot of the film, Dimas Caravalanças appears, lost in a tangle of debris, as if looking for a place amidst the ruins of a confused and terrorising reality. Confronted with a revenge that does not resolve conflicts or relieve tension, viewers are also obliged to situate themselves in an ambiguous, fragmented, threatening space.
Both the neighbourhood realisms and new forms of utopia point to a change of political and aesthetic attitudes. Today’s Brazilian cinema is more affirmative, more dramaturgically ambitious, less contemplative and more propositive. There are certainly a series of risks in this – analytic simplification, sterile caricature, self-legitimising discourse – but there is also a new readiness to confront the dilemmas of Brazilian society. In a country that is currently dealing with strong ideological polarisation, it is good to be able to rely on a cinema that is capable of putting us all in crisis.
I would like to thank my loyal friends Marcella Jacques, Luís Fernando Moura and Juliano Gomes for their generous readings and fundamental contributions to this essay.
Translated by Daniel Yencken.
1. “O mais importante e influente diretor para o cinema brasileiro contemporâneo – seja o documentário ou o de ficção” in the original quote. From Fábio Andrade, “O canto dos mortos – As canções de Eduardo Coutinho” in Milton Ohata (ed.), Eduardo Coutinho, Cosac & Naify, São Paulo, 2013.
2. Ismail Xavier, “Ressentimento e realismo ameno”, interview given to Mário Sérgio Conti, in Adilson Mendes (ed.). Ismail Xavier, Azougue, Rio de Janeiro, 2009.
3. Ivana Bentes, “Sertões e favelas no cinema brasileiro contemporâneo: estética e cosmética da fome”, Alceu, v. 8, n. 15, Jul/Dec 2007, p. 242-255.
4. The English translation of the film’s title – The Hidden Tiger – loses sight of the idea of the neighbourhood. The inspiration for this text comes from the film and its original title, which in literal translation would be The Tiger’s Neighborhood.
5. “Brasil S/A é um painel saído de onde Tonacci parou” in the original quote.