Since its premiere in the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Hivos Tiger competition in 2017, Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’ Araby has become a sleeper festival hit, welcomed at prestigious series such as New Directors/New Films, FID Marseille, Karlovy Vary, Viennale, San Sebastian, London and BAFICI. Focusing on the life experiences of a journeyman laborer (Aristides de Sousa) in the inland states of Brazil as seen through his own autobiographical journal, it’s another small, unassuming jewel in the current outpouring of great cinema from that country; a look at the daily lives of the rural and suburban disenfranchised that inspire so many of these directors interested in telling real stories of the real country. But Dumans and Uchoa, while solidly anchored in a (reasonably conventional) narrative, also borrow from the playbook of documentary, with a non-professional cast enacting scenes from everyday life that are not a million miles away from their own hard-scrabble existence.
While this is Uchoa’s third feature after Afternoon Woman (2010) and The Hidden Tiger (2016); Araby is Dumans’ feature debut as a director and the pair’s first joint credit as directors. But their connection goes back to Uchoa’s previous film, The Hidden Tiger, an out-and-out documentary where Dumans worked as editor, screenwriter, assistant director and co-producer; and it has projected beyond Araby as well, with Uchoa recently serving as editor on Juliana Antunes’ acclaimed Baronesa, where Dumans was associate producer—another sign of the current esprit de corps running through Brazilian cinema (on that note, Araby was co-edited by Luiz Pretti, from the Alumbramento collective, and regular Júlio Bressane collaborator Rodrigo Lima, both of them directors in their own right).
We met up with Affonso Uchoa after Araby won the Special Jury Prize at IndieLisboa, to speak about the "James Dean" of Brazilian cinema, moving from documentary to fiction, and emergence of new regional cinema in his country.
NOTEBOOK: Araby is directly connected to your previous film, The Hidden Tiger, in that you’ve kept one of the non-professional actors in that film, Aristides de Sousa, and developed the project with him in mind.
AFFONSO UCHOA: Yes, especially since the idea came up during the very long process of doing The Hidden Tiger. We shot it over four years, ended up with 130 hours of material, and that required an incredibly intense editing process that took a whole year. That process was also very transformative, in the sense of an experience that transforms your life and opens new paths for you to follow. At the same time, it was also very foundational, in that it gave me a lot of ideas, suggested themes that interest me in filmmaking, as well as giving me an opportunity to find out more about what film language is closest to me and gives me a sense of my identity. And the great legacy of that process was our desire to continue looking at the exurban, peripheral universe of the Brazilian poor, as well as continuing to work with Aristides. We realized that, although he had no formal training or education, he had an impressive natural talent. We usually say as a joke that he is our James Dean, one of those people who seem like they’re always living in a movie. That kind of seduction is amazing and very hard to find. So yes, we wanted to continue working with him, but in a more fictional way, since The Hidden Tiger was much more of a documentary. Here we wanted to use him as an actor to create a story, a mainly fictional character.
NOTEBOOK: Though the main story is framed as a diary being read by someone else, pointing out that what comes next is fiction, you’re asking Aristides to act in a story that may be close to his own life experiences. You’re not asking him to play someone very different from himself.
UCHOA: In the end, for us, the film is a fiction, in that the scenes, the dialogue, were mostly written by us. They’re propositions we made to the people on-screen, regardless of them being actors or just people passing by that we invited to participate in the shoot; they’re doing stuff we asked them to do, and that makes it a fiction. But we did create based on reality. We’ve created this story from real observations, real stories, real people. For instance: in pre-production, we asked Aristides to write a journal, just like his character Cristiano does, as if he were the character, writing down his experiences, his memories, his tales. None of what he wrote ended up making it into the film, but it was crucial for us, so we could find the voice of the character, create the feelings we needed to bring Cristiano and Aristides closer. We wanted to create a character for him that wasn’t him but that could have been him, a little dream of what his life could have been. Nothing that his character does in the film is alien to him. He may not have necessarily had those jobs but he knew what they were all about and he knew people who did them for a living. It was a way for us to impregnate the movie with his own knowledge, his own wisdom and intelligence and bodily posture, with feelings that come from a universe he can access more directly. It was not directly autobiographical.
NOTEBOOK: That look at the socially disenfranchised is very relevant at the moment in Brazilian cinema, which is also a very regional, decentralized cinema that comes out of the country’s many states. Do you feel part of that current movement?
UCHOA: We are indeed a part of that movement, in the sense that what I find most interesting at the moment in Brazilian cinema is our heterogeneity. Since we’ve started traveling with Araby, I can sense a dangerous homogeneity of form and style: the connections between film funding, film labs and festivals create a sort of flattened cinema, where everything is similar to everything else and most filmmakers create these amorphous versions of whatever filmmakers are hot right now. So right now we’re in a moment where Matías Piñeiro and Hong Sang-soo are the “models,” in two years who knows… But in Brazil all of us are different. We’re kind of saved by our own failure to be similar! Look at Argentina—when we were in the Cartagena festival there were ten films from Latin American countries and six or seven were Argentine! They have a big international presence and a remarkable level of quality, where we in Brazil have a harder time breaking through. It’s only now, on my third film, that we managed to get on international festivals, whereas strong filmmakers like Caetano Gotardo haven’t broken out yet. So, since we’re not as present internationally, we come up with stuff that is a little less formulaic, like a series of anomalies, some very strange pictures…
NOTEBOOK: Yet there are a series of connections between your generation. There’s a strong desire of making film, as well as an energy similar that what happened in the 1960s and 1970s with Cinema Novo.
UCHOA: Well, we are living a very special moment and we do feel part of it. We have a very strong state investment that didn’t exist beforehand, and a lot of decentralization, a democratization of the access to cinema. We have a lot of filmmakers coming from the different states, from the south, from the suburbs, whereas Brazilian film was always very much centered in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. One of the things that I’m most interested in are those peripheral, suburban creations—people from the suburbs that get to study film and make movies from an insider point of view. That was very rare: in Brazil the suburbs were always the object of social studies, and whoever made the movies came from the middle-class or the elites and had this sociological vision of things, like they were studying something they could not relate to, that they had never lived through. That’s why I’m particularly inspired by the work of André Novais de Oliveira and Adirley Queirós, that’s very much what I’m trying to get to since The Hidden Tiger.
NOTEBOOK: I was also very much reminded of the Dust Bowl films of the 1930s and also of the 1970s New Hollywood filmmaking, with its burned-out quality and its look at desolate, deserted places…
UCHOA: We weren’t aware of that when we started, but it makes sense, and we did see a number of connections to that seventies Hollywood cinema while editing. We hadn’t really made the connection; but in pre-production we did see something whose spirit stayed with us, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. It’s a film we admire a lot, but whose only direct connection to Araby is that in our film Barreto is a little bit like Sam the Lion, the old man who is admired by everybody and who leaves a trace of sadness when he leaves… And there was another film we saw in the editing, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, a biopic of Woody Guthrie that is a kind of beacon for us. But that spirit of the Great Depression and a little of that desolate Americana came to us more through literature than through film. Araby was very much influenced, from the beginning, by American literature and especially John dos Passos, because of his narrative structure of stories that build into something bigger. He may have a character whose story is reduced to a page and a half, then another runs 50 or 60 pages, and that poetic irregularity, that mosaic narrative structure, always fascinated us. Plus of course his combative spirit, his left-leaning worldview, particularly in something like the USA trilogy.
NOTEBOOK: For all that classicism, Araby is extremely modern in many ways, especially in its choice of very long takes.
UCHOA: We’ve always tried to create a balance between different desires and influences, while doing things that interested us, politically or aesthetically, and finding our own voice and our own path, without repeating something somebody else had done before. In that sense we deliberately wanted to make a classically narrative film—something that is in itself a bit strange in current Brazilian cinema, because it’s the kind of thing that only big-budget, old-fashioned films aim for… But we didn’t want to make a classically narrative film in the banal sense of just telling a story. We wanted there to be a degree of invention, a different form of narrative construction. Through the idea of the journal, we found a roundabout way to do it, as apparently random stories find a through line and connect into something bigger. So some of the modernity you speak of can come from there.
NOTEBOOK: Like the connection between Townes van Zandt and Brazilian pop superstar Maria Bethânia—and again there’s a strong American connection… [Note: due to rights clearances reasons, Townes van Zandt’s I’ll Be Here in the Morning, used to great effect in the film’s original festival version, was replaced by Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run the Game in the US release version, in a choice approved by the filmmakers.]
UCHOA: Funnily enough, the music was another challenge. The Brazilian inland is a sort of mystical space in that it’s essentially nothing—it’s not the Amazon, it’s not the coastal areas, it’s not the big city, it’s not the Europeanized South, it’s not the dry Northeast… It’s nothing, it’s a non-place, a non-entity. But there is music in there, the music from the day laborers, the travelers, the isolated people—it’s a kind of working-man music, of farmers, peasants, laborers, with a tradition all its own and a connection to the country’s history. Someone like Renato Teixeira, a singer-songwriter inspired by roots music, is perfect because the music itself evokes the locale immediately. But we didn’t want to be purely illustrative; we wanted to suggest other connections, create our own look at those little deserts where everything is temporary, landscapes, building sites, the character itself…
NOTEBOOK: In that sense, Cristiano is always a passenger in his own life.
UCHOA: Yes, certainly. So the music was for us a way to remind audiences that these places exist everywhere and people like Cristiano exist everywhere. There will always be people looking for a better life, shooting themselves in the foot at a given moment, caught in the world’s social demands. And Townes van Zandt was a way for us to say that there was also something of Texas in here. The American Midwest wasn’t that different from the Brazilian inland, and Cristiano himself could have been a hobo riding the rails in the 1930s.