Among Bolsonaro’s first acts as president was a scorched-earth assault on Brazilian cinema. He eliminated all state financing of film production, had the Cinemateca Brasileira – home to one of the world’s five largest film archives – effectively shuttered, and suspended funding for film festivals at home and for sending artists to festivals abroad. Then came the pandemic to put the sector out of its misery: the cinemas were closed for much of 2020, and when they reopened, most of the public stayed away.
All that remained were the online film festivals. These draw support from the global circuit which, in recent decades, has swelled the worldwide audience for art films. Such digital events are modelled on the festivals at Cannes and Venice, but with a broader range of films permitted to define themselves as ‘artistic’ – usually resulting in an aesthetic conformism, even when the subject matter itself is not particularly commercial.
This is the case with experimental films and documentaries, both of which are so well-represented at these festivals that they almost make up an aesthetic category in themselves. Many of the former are positively yawn-inducing, awash with empty, self-indulgent images, submerged in a sensibility of false refinement that makes no real impression on the collective consciousness. The documentaries, meanwhile, provoke yawns for other reasons, characterized by the trudging alternation of archive images and commentaries from assorted talking heads. These works suffer from the same flaws that define the worst kind of journalism, compressing a complex reality into a worn-out rote formula. We are a long way from the shock of Chris Marker’s La Jetée or the anguished tenacity of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog.
In this context then, it is remarkable that Brazilian cinema has recently produced three films as creative and politically incisive as Carlos Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque, and Bárbara Paz’s Babenco. All emerged through the festival circuit but refuse to be boxed in by its conventions. All were produced either after Bolsonaro’s assumption of the presidency, or in the immediate run-up to it, and each, in its own way, deals with the deeper conditions that gave rise to his ascent.
To start with Adriano’s O que Há em Ti, which is only 16 minutes long. A literal translation of the title would be, ‘What There Is in You’, although the play on ‘Haiti’ in the Portuguese allows it to be rendered officially as Brazil is thee Haiti is (t)here. A word on the director. Carlos Adriano is a rare, perhaps unique, case within the landscape of contemporary Brazilian cinema. He has made dozens of films, of varying length. He doesn’t go looking for success; he is an eminently personal, subjective auteur; highly educated, with two post-doctorate degrees, his raw material consists of cinema footage itself, specifically archive images. His artistic influences can be found in poetry, above all in formalist verse, and Russian constructivism, both visual arts (Malevich, Rodchenko) and movies (Dziga-Vertov, Eisenstein). None of his films is linear: what generally distinguishes them is their sense of abstraction and, in many cases, self-conscious aestheticization.
O que Há em Ti retains this general aesthetic framework, though the crux of the film is the politics of the present moment. It deploys a piece of found footage, whose motif is a two-word phrase: Você acabou – ‘You’re over’. On the night of 16 March 2020, a black man accosted Bolsonaro in front of the Alvorada Palace, his official residence in Brasília. This is where, heading out in the morning or coming home at night, the President stops to consort with his admirers (police ensure that nobody else is able to enter the area). That evening, however, a man came up to Bolsonaro and said: ‘You’re over.’ The President pretended not to have understood, whereupon the man completed his thought: ‘You are no longer president.’
Having said his piece, he disappeared. Nobody knows his name, his occupation or his motives. Was he an avenging angel, visiting from the future to share the good news of Bolsonaro’s downfall? All that is known of him is what he said that night: ‘I’m from Haiti, I’m Brazilian’.
Adriano replays this scene with variations innumerable times: he provides close-ups on the hand gestures, puts the sequence into black and white, divides the screen, blurs the images, transposes them into negatives. It becomes a kind of visual mantra, with an accompanying musical mantra provided by the lyric ninguém é cidadão (‘nobody is a citizen’), from ‘Haiti’, a 90s rap track by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both point in the same direction: Brazil and Haiti share a historical trajectory, their development arrested by the deformation of colonialism. The wider historical context appears through a series of references: Toussaint Louverture on the Haitian revolution and the abolition of slavery; the poetry of Aimé Césaire; Paul Robeson’s political interventions; the Black Macbeth of Orson Welles.
Suddenly, the screen turns black and the film takes a sharp detour to the recent past. White text appears onscreen relating the massacres perpetrated by the Brazilian military during its 13-year deployment in Haiti, authorised by the Workers Party government. On 6 October 2005, troops from MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, under the command of Brazilian generals, invaded the slum quarter of Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince and killed 65 people. The film gives the names of the officers responsible for these acts of barbarism, who were subsequently promoted to senior military positions by Bolsonaro. Is it ‘over’? Hardly. O que Há em Ti shows Bolsonaro at the height of his recent agitation for a coup d’état, when he demanded the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, by force if necessary. Speaking at a demonstration, he roars: ‘It’s over, fuck it!’ The repressive impulse is still very much alive and has now been turned back against Brazilians.
Rubens Rewald’s #eagoraoque – #and now what? – contains a scene, only a couple of minutes long, which is so brutal that it seems to last a half-hour. A young black man starts caressing the face of a white spectator, whispering: ‘Buy!’ He gets closer and closer and, when the two are only a few centimetres apart, he roars – 204 times – the furious imperative: ‘Buy!’ You can almost feel the spittle.
In another scene, the same white man, who we now know to be a philosopher, speaks with two favela residents from the outskirts of São Paulo. He tells them that the intellectuals and the favela-dwelling poor can learn from one another and should join forces to revolutionize Brazil. He gets an unwelcome response: no chance. ‘What, us over here, and you tucked away over there?’, one of them asks. A black girl informs the esteemed intellectual that white academics are paternalists and ideologues, looking to manipulate the disenfranchised. The clothing of these young people almost seems like a uniform: T-shirt, piercings, tattoos, a hat or cap. They repeat, ad nauseam, a question that won’t be evaded: ‘Tá ligado?’ (‘You get me?’) ‘Perhaps what I meant to say didn’t come across clearly…’ ventures the philosopher, at which, there’s a hail of shouting. ‘What, you don’t think we can understand you?’ The philosopher falls silent; white as wax, bald and sporting a Lenin-like goatee. He bows his head.
Scenes like this give #eagoraoque a feeling of high voltage. The rather weak title is a gesture towards social media, an area that these filmmakers otherwise do not engage with. It is the work of a collective at the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious university: the critic and writer Jean-Claude Bernadet, the philosopher and musician Vladimir Safatle, and the playwright and film director Rubens Rewald. All are part of the left intelligentsia, a category under attack from the Bolsonaro government and often deprecated as well by feminists and black activists from the favelas and poor neighbourhoods. As Bernadet and Safatle appear as themselves, the film elides fiction with documentary to the point of making it impossible to divide the real from scripted or unscripted dramatic enactments.
Bernadet, at 84, is an intellectual of the old-guard who, in his latest work, is returning to the themes that concerned him in the 1960s: the relations between aesthetics and politics, popular struggle and the petty-bourgeoisie. Belgian by birth, Bernadet was a leading critical theorist of the Cinema Novo movement spearheaded by Glauber Rocha. The 47-year-old Safatle, meanwhile, cuts a rather different figure: a philosopher of a newer generation, public-facing and cosmopolitan, attentive to micropolitical details, and eager to connect with the energies of Brazil’s disenfranchised peripheries.
In the very first scene of the film, Bernadet sees a girl playing an extremely violent video game. He asks her if she likes killing people. Quite candidly, she replies: ‘Yeah.’ Afterwards, we see Bernadet practicing marksmanship and then singing the Internationale in the shower. He ends up wounding himself in the breast with a knife. Safatle, meanwhile, against the backdrop of a shelf stacked with books in French, Greek, Latin and English, explains to his daughter that people’s assemblies are a kind of mechanistic political theatre, but nonetheless an indispensable element of revolution. Without missing a beat, the girl asks him: ‘How do you want to make a revolution without listening to other people?’
The film is full of philosophical exchanges between Bernadet and Safatle, but these frequently become the object of ridicule or contestation. In two of them, for instance, the interlocutors are inconvenienced by the intrusion of poor people: a cleaner vacuuming, and a waitress who serves them coffee. These women exemplify a different species of ‘alienation’ from that which the two intellectuals are fond of discussing. A simple device, but effective.
Equally effective are the snippets of dialogue from various popular Brazilian figures hailing from both the academy and the favelas, including the rapper Mano Brown (‘what’s killing people is blindness and fanaticism: you don’t understand the people anymore, you’ve lost it’) and the leader of the homeless workers’ movement, Guilherme Boulos (‘the people who were holding that space nine years ago have all got themselves a nice little place by now’). But the most damning line of the film is an inadvertent one delivered by the philosopher Marilena Chauí to an assembly of thousands of anti-Bolsonaro students: ‘Goodnight, USP!’ The line brings home that the scene is taking place within a bubble at the University of São Paulo, isolated from the lives of the mass of impoverished Brazilians.
The disorientating alternation between skits and non-fiction sequences underlines the fact that Rewald, the director, aims to foreground contradictions rather than to provide ready answers. Leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions, #eagoraoque sometimes seems to flail without direction – and may itself provoke some murmurings about the gulf that separates middle-class intellectuals from the masses. Indeed, this is a classic subject of discussion in Brazilian culture, which Rewald, Safatle and Bernadet are seeking to exhibit in its contemporary form. They are principally committed to noting the differences in the language used by the two social strata. As in Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth), the great Brazilian film of the 1960s, the ‘trance’ of rhetoric supplants the firm ground of the real for many of the intellectuals depicted.
The third film, Babenco – Alguém Tem Que Ouvir o Coração e Dizer: Parou, is directed by the actress, Bárbara Paz. (The subtitle has been translated for Anglophone viewers as Tell Me When I Die, but a closer rendering would be, Someone Has to Listen to the Heart and Say: Stopped.) Although its apparent subject is Paz’s late husband, the film director Héctor Babenco (1946-2016), this is no straightforward biography; and though it has been selected to represent Brazil in the documentary category at the next Oscars, it is far from conventional Hollywood fare. Babenco does not concern itself with didactically imparting knowledge. Though the film reproduces scenes from Babenco’s films – Pixote, Ironweed, Carandiru, At Play in the Fields of the Lord – it does not identify them. It doesn’t proceed chronologically, nor give the names of those who speak about Babenco.
The film is deeply unconventional, just like its subject. Born in Argentina to a family of Jewish heritage, Babenco left the country in his youth and spent years wandering penniless in Europe. He read the Beats, worked as an extra in Italian films, frequented the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, before going to live in Madrid. Imprisoned in Spain for theft, he was convicted and served a sentence – an experience that he would draw on when filming Carandiru, his portrait of the Carandiru Penitentiary in São Paulo, Latin America’s largest prison, in 2003.
Eventually settling in São Paulo, Babenco began to sell cemetery tombstones and, for the first time, found himself with some money to spend. He fell in with people in the film industry, and started helping out on set as a lighting technician, a cameraman, a continuity supervisor. Eventually he got the chance to direct, and revealed himself to be a great talent. In 1980 he made Pixote, a powerful denunciation of the plight of impoverished children in Brazil. Hollywood opened its doors after he made Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), based on the novel of Manuel Puig, which won William Hurt the Oscar for Best Actor. Around the same time, at 37, he discovered he had lymphatic cancer, which would afflict him for the rest of his life.
The film, though, refuses to transform Babenco into a celebrity or a cult icon. As a narrator, he is aloof and elusive: he sees himself neither as Argentinian nor as Brazilian; he is not religious; he doesn’t believe in collective solutions to the oppression and poverty in Latin America. He appears – young, hirsute and robust – and discourses on the past and present. He appears – old, bald and with one foot in the grave – and continues dreaming of the future. When we hear him idly humming ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, we feel his presence in the here and now, yet we also feel that he is nowhere, a slippery and timeless figure.
The images from Babenco’s films ultimately acquire a distinct value of their own in the documentary: that of laying bare this stateless man, this ‘wandering Jew’, this most rootless of artists. The film also lays him bare in a very literal sense – spotlighting the irreducible reality of his naked body. Paz’s camerawork roams freely across Babenco’s fragile form. With no sense of morbidity, she discovers his beauty as he rests on the verge of death. She has composed an elegy, which almost seems to be grabbing her lover by the shoulders, looking him dead in the eyes, and saying: ‘You’re over.’ Héctor Babenco might indeed be ‘over’, but this powerful film proves that – despite the best efforts of Bolsonaro – radical Brazilian cinema is not finished yet.
Translated by Lisa Leak.
Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Political Iridescence’, NLR 75.