While a country is doing poorly, does its cinema do well?

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Bacurau and Bolsonaro's Brazil in the pages of Cahiers du cinema

By Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez*

At least in the eyes of international critics, Brazilian cinema is on the rise. Bacurau graced the cover of the leading magazine Cahiers du Cinema, created in 1951 and the birthplace of one of the most important artistic movements of the seventh art, the Novelle Vague. In its September issue, the magazine devoted several pages to Brazilian cinema under the Bolsonaro era: a sort of balance not only of the current state of cinema in the country, but of the incongruous situation that gives title to this text: while a country is going bad, is your cinema going well?

Nightjar: the aesthetic audacity of a political fiction

In its plot permeated by violence and resistance, Bacurau consolidates an approach to history in which “political satire and popular fiction intertwine”, in a kind of logical result of the career development of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, the latter artistic director of Mendonça’s previous films. This is Camille Bui's first consideration of VillageGlobal (Vila Global), a review that not only intends to present the film's plot to the public, but also claims to Bacurau an aesthetic that is a reflection of the time in which it is being produced.

According to Boo, “Bacurau redirects the vindictive and playful energy of western targeting US devouring capitalism and creeping fascism.” This reorientation is carried out through two registers of the world that find themselves in a war: on the one hand, the population of Bacurau in their fight for resistance for a space and a way of life; on the other, foreigners engaged in a manhunt motivated by economic gain.

Such world records not only define the line of action to be followed, but also the way in which they relate to the Sertão, which ceases to be a folkloric scenario and starts to embody not only the country's history, but all tragic symbolism and at the same time same heroic time that carries since the new cinema. Both records thus become two spatial regimes, those who inhabit and those who conquer. It is through such distinctions that the film builds its rising tension.

Resisting the horror under the “every man for himself” dilemma is not the option Bacurau. In place of the individual competitiveness that exists among foreigners in the search for who kills the most, Bacurau and its residents synthesize a collective record of resistance, in which what counts is solidarity and the defense of “a public good threatened with disappearing due to the private whims of corrupt politicians and American paramilitaries”.

Carmelita's funeral procession, right at the beginning of the film, is where Bacurau already presents itself as a community and a united whole. According to Bui, this scene already opens up “a whole grasped in a single frame immersed in the sounds of the same song, but which knows how to compose with heterogeneity: bodies, faces, skin colors, ages, genders”. While forming a collective, Bacurau it does not erase the differences, it does not dilute the characters into abstract figures of impotent resistance. Its residents are a multiple entity, a “collective that progressively reveals itself as the true character of the film”. It is this character, threatened with extinction by the record of invasion and violence, who resists in defense of his own time and his own space.

It is through this threat of extinction that the film operates as a metaphor for Brazil today. According to Bui, the aesthetic criteria of the work converge to a denial of the very reactionary reality that the country is going through, insofar as the plot distances itself from any binary simplism. The two world registers are not seen as excluding and incommunicable, but as ways of acting that admit porous borders between them.

In short, there is a zone of indetermination between “good” and “evil”, between the violence of the oppressor and that of the oppressed. According to the critic, such anti-Manichaeism removes an identification of the invaders from Bacurau with an abstract and essentialist evil; as if it sprang from evil people by nature. Likewise, residents of Bacurau are not raised to status of a passive collectivity that inhabits the morality of a poor but happy people. Sometimes, the look of the exterminators is mixed with that of the villagers – they are looks that are irreducible to any simplification. This care that goes beyond the aesthetic fabric of the film converges as a criticism of the current state of politics in the country, where everything appears as clear and obvious, where the enemies are clear and the heroes proclaim themselves.

According to Bui, the construction of such porous dichotomies serves “to reinforce the disquieting apprehension of the incomprehensible and stir up our empathy with resistance that it awakens”. With this representation that recognizes the complexity of what we point out as “evil”, “the film goes beyond the simple analytical denotation of a state of the world by making us feel with shudders the profound change of route of the fascist threat that has erupted in recent years”.

By moving away from the clichés and dichotomies of reactionary thought, the community of Bacurau it boasts a beauty not for what it is, but for what it can be, “an alternative version of the present or of a possible utopia”. It is through this otherness of reality that the film transforms violence against the invaders into resistance. In this, Bui emphasizes the aesthetic audacity of the film: from its aesthetic demands, it postulates to speak beyond itself, pointing to a “democratic ideal of a society in movement, built by multiplicity and nourished by a history of political resistance and culture – Afro-Brazilians, women, rural workers, indigenous peoples – instead of the legacy of murderous conquests, fascism and patriarchy”.

In an interview given to the magazine, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles confirm the political – but not pamphleteering – character that the film proposes to explore in its plot. According to them, the idea of ​​filming Bacurau arose from an apparent need in national cinema, namely, to represent the poor and the violence that has always mitigated this layer of the population in a new way.

According to them, the construction of this collective character made it possible to speak not only of inequality in the country, but of the very turn towards conservatism and the absurdity that tinges its politics. However, such an attack is made indirectly, intra-aesthetically, which makes the film both subversive and endowed with a certain artistic innocence. We are not facing a work engaged in the classic sense of the term, but a film that internally builds aesthetic criteria that go beyond it. In short, the poor, violence and the Sertão, places so common in national cinema, were placed under a new gaze. In an indirect way, each feature of the film points to the Brazilian reality and its entire past history. According to them, the film exposes a story that belongs to the country's endless cycle of backwardness and violence.

Brazilian cinema in the Bolsonaro era

In an extensive dossier, critic Ariel Schweitzer takes stock of Brazilian cinema, just as he exposes to the French public the tragic strangulation and rigging that culture has been suffering in Brazil since Bolsonaro came to power. However, until reaching this point, national cinema had a golden history. According to Schweitzer, in recent years Brazil has stood out for its participation in major international film festivals. This year, both in Berlin and in Cannes, Brazil was represented, and in the latter it won two statuettes: it won the jury prize for Bacurau and the show prize Un Certain Regard by The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, by Karim Ainouz.

On the other hand, precisely at this moment in the spotlight of national cinema, we follow the rise and victory of the far right in the 2018 elections. Such a disturbing scenario is the object of the critic's investigation. For Schweitzer, Brazilian cinema is now in a delicate and ambiguous moment: after the glorious period of Cinema Novo in the 60s, we have never been so strong and, at the same time, so threatened. The movie represented by Bacurau and other recent productions is one of the causes or one of the consequences of the political tragedy we are witnessing? Perhaps the question should be put in other terms.

Among the public enemies of the President of the Republic, national cinema is one of the main ones. Since then, we have followed numerous news that indicate an ideological control both of cinematographic production and in the appointment of the technical bodies of the institutions that regulate the country's culture. Everything that is not consistent with the creed of the top government must be demolished. When listing the attacks that Brazilian cinema has received, Schweitzer recalls one of the president's countless phrases regarding Ancine, in which he declared that “we must have a filter in this agency, and if we cannot do that, we will privatize or suppress it”. -there". Everything possible to change the direction of national cinema will be done: not financing films about the dictatorship, suppressing support funds and dehydrating the Rouanet Law, modifying the criteria for allocating public money, practicing censorship, among other policies of dismantling of the country's cultural apparatus.

According to the critic, only “the future will tell if Brazilian cinema will be able to survive such attacks, but it is already possible to say that Bolsonaro’s policy has put a brutal end to a golden period that began with the creation of Ancine in 2001 and the rise to power. Lula's power in 2003”. In his view, the cultural policy put into practice by the PT governments played an enormous role in the advancement of national cinema – and it is the advances obtained in this period that are under direct threat.

One of the great advances in cultural production in Brazil was, according to Schweitzer, the decentralization of cinematographic production via the development of regional funds co-financed by Ancine and by different state governments, diversifying a production that, until then, was concentrated in the southeast region. from the country. One result of this process was, for example, the emergence of Recife as an important music and film production scene. In addition to Kléber Mendonça Filho himself, another prominent director from the region is Gabriel Mascaro, with three feature films under his belt: Ventos de Agosto (2014), Rodeo (2015) and Divino Amor (2019).

Fortaleza has also produced great names, such as Karim Aïnouz, Marcelo Gomes and Sérgio Machado. One of the most promising filmmakers from this region is, in Schweitzer's opinion, Guto Parente, with his outstanding last feature film, Hellraiser (2018). In Minas Gerais, Schweitzer highlights the cinema produced in Contagem, such as the film Season (2019), by André Novais Oliveira. The list could be extended to many other regional centers of cinema development, however, such examples are enough to give us an idea of ​​how much cinema has evolved since then.

According to Schweitzer, the other major recent advance in national cinema was the growing visibility given to racial, social or sexual minorities, who constitute populations that are relatively underrepresented on our screens. Until then, there were few titles that represented such groups: the critic recalls the pioneering film by Zózimo Balbul, soul in the eye (1973), which deals with the black issue, and the film by Karim Aïnouz, Madame Satan (2002), which focuses, among other topics, on homosexuality. However, what was rare, turned into creative wealth.

Since then, the presence of such groups in Brazilian cinema has only increased – a phenomenon made possible thanks to the various public and funding policies carried out in the area. For Schweitzer, this development was noticed at the Berlin Festival last year, in which two Brazilian films received the Teddy Award, the most important award for LGBT-themed films: Rough Paint (2018), by Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon in the category of fiction and queer transvesty (2018), by Claudia Priscila and Kiko Goifman in the documentary category. Another highlight in the international awards was the aforementioned The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (2019), by Karim Aïnouz, which portrays the female issue in the patriarchal society of Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s.

If national cinema has won a prominent place in international festivals over the last few years, what will be its destiny in view of such a drastic change in the political life of the country? According to Schweitzer, it is up to producers, distributors and others involved in Brazilian film production to choose a strategy that seeks to preserve the advances made and keep productions active and ideologically independent.

The big question is to understand “what strategy to establish in the face of a power that does not shy away from hiding its hostility towards cinema” and its independence. According to the critic, it is up to us to decide how to dialogue with other sectors of society and how to combat such destructive trends in our culture. If the risk of destroying this legacy that was built in recent years was not enough, we still run the risk of creating a great schism in our cinema: “on the one hand, the official cinema, centralized, depoliticized and generously financed by public money, and , on the other hand, a regionalized, radical, highly politicized and practically self-financed cinema”.

It is necessary to discover how to continue producing critical and powerful cinema under the threats of the Bolsonaro era, a cinema that is not restricted to the pages of the Cahiers du cinema, but be accepted by the country itself. A cinema that thinks of its own time and place and that can serve as an instrument to combat the violence of our own barbarism. We know the solution Bacurau gave this question. What will be our response in the face of so much chaos?

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a graduate student in sociology at USP.

Translations by Artur Passos Ruivo.

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