Affonso Uchoa's Seven Years in May is showing on MUBI starting September, 2020 in the series New Brazilian Cinema.
After the outstanding international success of his poetic, political and epistolary feature, Araby (2017), jointly directed with João Dumans, the young Brazilian filmmaker Affonso Uchoa returned to his hometown, Contagem, a municipality located in the Mina Gerais region of Brazil, where he worked on his three previous films, to restart an old project focused on the story of Rafael dos Santos Rocha, a man that was kidnapped one night and violently beaten by police forces for no apparent reason. This new film, Seven Years in May, is a hybrid work, at once a document of testimony about a specific event and also a statement about a region submerged in the terrifying darkness of poverty, repression, and violence.
During the festival tour of this new film, we spoke with Uchoa about the creative process working on the production, Seven Years in May’s diverse mechanisms to approach the representation of an atrocious event, and how it questions classical modes of representation by giving voice to the oppressed.
NOTEBOOK: When was your first contact with Rafael’s story, and how did it take place?
AFFONSO UCHOA: Rafael was my neighbor. I have known him since 2005, thanks to a common friend, who was also someone from our neighborhood—a great visual artist named Desali, with whom I worked on an amazing photograph series. One day, while we were working, he told me, “Hey, let’s go hang with this friend of mine”—that friend was Rafael, whom he had known since they were kids. Then, in time, we became friends by going out often, going for beers and things like that. Every one of our encounters was playing to that rhythm, until one day when he abruptly disappeared. This was in 2007. No one knew anything, people just started to say that "Rafael is no longer here." Talking with friends was the way that I started to learn, little by little, about the situation: that the police had captured and beaten Rafael. I could not believe it.
After four years, Rafael returned to town. He told me the story of his capture and about the places where he had been all those years. To me, it was a shock to hear what happened on his last night in town and everything that happened afterward. The details of that night of torture and all of its consequences, all of that was very surprising to me since I found out everything in one afternoon.
The surprise grew more when he suddenly disappeared again, in 2012. I would only find him again when I was about to finish my first film, The Hidden Tiger . When I saw him, I immediately told him that I wanted to make a movie with him. He was very surprised, but he accepted and we immediately started to work. The first thing we did was to record an interview, in order to know more about the event.
NOTEBOOK: Was it on camera?
UCHOA: Yes, it was on camera. We recorded the interview but then, he disappeared again. I left town and returned in 2016 when I was working on editing Araby. And then we got the chance to meet again.
NOTEBOOK: This is a story of convergence and divergence...
UCHOA: Yes… And by that time, I met with a very different person. Someone with a completely different energy, who was more mature. With a peace that I found strange, and that I imagine came from the distance in time that had passed from the event. I talked to him again about my interest in making a film together. And he accepted again, to my surprise.
Finding the time, money and the camera to be able to start shooting what became the first part of the movie.
NOTEBOOK: Was the structure of the film, as you had imagined it, always the same from the beginning?
UCHOA: No, at first it was different. It was designed according to a more documentary structure. The interview format was a presentation, an introduction. And in the middle of the process, it became a dialogue, because I needed to include the idea of listening to what he was saying, more than just the testimony.
NOTEBOOK: I think that’s the most important moment of the film, in which by simply using a shot /reverse-shot you manage to change the entire situation. First, Rafael’s monologue is about the importance of being able to register expression and to give space and voice to someone else. But when you reveal he’s actually talking to someone, the scene is also about the importance of listening and reflecting. It shapes this idea of cinema as being not just a simple medium of expression, but one that is built by a type of communication that is not just unidirectional, on dialogue.
UCHOA: The fact that Rafael is being listened to by someone in the film manages to create a collective concept. As you said, this is how I think that cinema works. Its language appropriates this story, transforming it into a fictional universe. Every time I recorded and listened to Rafael, the need for listening was very clear to me. Because what he speaks about is not just his own thing, but something that belongs to many people. I was also worried that leaving this story by itself would turn the film into a form of emotional blackmailing. With listening, with dialogue, you have an invitation to reflect. Cinema is not just an exhibition, it is something else.
NOTEBOOK: Now that you mention the notion of cinematic language appropriating stories, I would like to ask you about the long testimony which Rafael gives in the film, about his terrifying torture experience. As I understand, it is something that you recorded on video many times, something you practiced.. Did you work on what he said on camera together with him, did you write it all by yourself as a script, or was it as pure as he was remembering?
UCHOA: The text is a mixture between my writing and Rafael's. In the beginning, I only mentioned to him some elements that for me seemed essential for the narration, and that would serve as a starting point for him to freely develop the text, especially over this many experiences he was constantly remembering. But the first text was very long and without a clear focus, left at the mercy of memory. I felt it was too documentary, that it was lacking some energy. An energy that I believe relies on what's between documentary and fiction. So, that’s when I proposed him to write together a script about these experiences, which he gladly accepted delighted. He believed that this script, which was more like a guide, would help him a lot for his acting work, something that he had taken very seriously..
NOTEBOOK: How was this guide/script composed?
UCHOA: Well, in a notebook, we ordered the events chronologically and then define them in a line, a simple phrase, where the underlying idea was that it would work as an indication. Then, we decided to create ellipses, omissions of certain moments and structure them in a specific way, but giving him absolute freedom to choose the words. Then, we started rehearsing with these ideas and working directly with specific indications. Regarding intonation, maybe sometimes I suggested he should exchange some words. We rehearsed a lot to fix the story.
NOTEBOOK: How many takes did you record?
UCHOA: About 50.
NOTEBOOK: Including rehearsals?
UCHOA: Yes. Because with the takes, we also worked on corrections. We saw the rushes and made more corrections. Especially about details like his posture, his look. Simple, but important details that are hard to find and work with.
NOTEBOOK: I can imagine. A detail, like a look, for example, in a register like this, which is a single shot over twenty minutes long, becomes extremely relevant when it comes to aspects such as discourse and composition.
UCHOA: Yes. Sometimes during shooting, I focused on the position of his eyes and immediately I felt that it did not belong to what we were looking for. I was really worried about turning this into an absolute documentary and forgetting the fictional aspects. That's why we worked a lot on the construction: rhythm, intonation.
NOTEBOOK: So these rehearsals worked as well as a sort of live editing process.
UCHOA: Yes, we took a lot of shots before 2018. That year we arrived at the final version of the monologue and posture and we shot this final draft around 11 times.
NOTEBOOK: But were there rehearsals that weren’t filmed?
UCHOA: Not at all. For me, Rafael's encounter with the camera was the most important thing. Because in this meeting, considering his awareness of being filmed, that he knew that he was performing was something we needed to work on. Especially since I never sought to find a natural representation. There is probably something that belongs to naturalism in the movie, but I needed that his performance that his body, that his voice would come from the fictional awareness of the cinematographic representation.
NOTEBOOK: Were all your meetings and encounters with Rafael on camera?
I was looking to spend most of our time together by recording it, yes. I filmed it with his friends, we walked together looking for locations and also recorded that.
NOTEBOOK: So you have more images about Rafael's daily life on video?
NOTEBOOK: How did you decide to not use any of this material about his “ordinary life,” if I can call it like that? I guess you had some ideas about what to do with that material if you shot it. In the film, you manage to remove Rafael from his daily life by not giving any context about him or his life, but only about this violent situation that he was a victim of. With this, his individuality is kind of eroded, but it's the way you manage to turn this tale into something universal.
UCHOA: The creative process was what told me what was the best for the movie. I think movies are always everything that survives a process where situations evaporate.
NOTEBOOK: It's like a process of decantation...
UCHOA: Yes, absolutely. This is when we returned to the initial structure. At first, in my head, the project was a documentary close to something like the films of Maya Deren. Where the story began with the interview, and later the images are being positioned in various spaces that had to do with what was mentioned in the voice-over, in the sense of an allusion, not literally. It was when I was editing the material that I noticed my error. I was aware of my mistake, which was the fact that the formal aspect was becoming a sort of obstacle to Rafael's story.
NOTEBOOK: It must be an extremely complicated mediation process, to seek the specific formal tone that does not intervene, or oppose such a delicate issue.
UCHOA: Especially because I wanted to make a movie so that Rafael could be heard. To give a voice to the Latin American and Brazilian reality. So at that moment, I had a sort of certainty about my error, which I tried to correct over the following recordings.
NOTEBOOK: When was the next shooting?
UCHOA: The following year.
NOTEBOOK: So you recorded for over two years?
UCHOA: Yes, two years, intermittently.
NOTEBOOK: So, a long process that allowed you to transform the work quite a lot.
UCHOA: Yes, it permitted me to find that the initial plan did not have the strength that it needed. As we already said, it was a process of decanting the work and to come to a form where the viewer could use their imagination in relation to what is said on screen. Which, at the beginning, by being so illustrative from a formal standpoint, the initial film did not allow it.
Latin American cinema is very close to the concept of pornomiseria. I think that images about violence already exist and these images have been sufficiently reproduced. The images I was creating in the first part of the process do not completely escape pornomiseria. But I couldn’t allow myself to do that. Rafael's story is so common in Brazil and in Brazilian cinema—why would I want (or like) to make more images about this if they already exist in newspapers, on television? These images no longer mean anything. What we need is feelings, to generate them.
NOTEBOOK: With the absence of literal illustration, you reach a very specific tension that the image itself could not have achieved. As I said previously, by making this narration universal and not just something specifically Brazilian, you allowed this history of violence to have the capacity to be contextualized in other social or geographical spaces. This narrative and image ellipsis works to encourage the process of reflection, of image construction for the spectator, and with their identification with what they have experienced from the material that is on screen. And then this tension rises even more with your formal decisions, such as the long single shot that sustains the film.
UCHOA: That arises from seeking to deprive the viewer of comfort. All of this has only one purpose: seek to approach a critical posture. The omission of illustration is an invitation to work with imagination and personal memory in what concerns Rafael's story. And on how we can relate with his person: with his posture, with his eyes, with his voice.
NOTEBOOK: What interests me a lot about the film is this constant change of form and register. Talking with you about the context of the creative process and its constant transformations, I feel that it is as if the film were aware of its gestation process and that asked itself, through mutations, what the approach: from the cinematography to the story of violence and oppression. To question image, as Harun Farocki would say. But the very second sequence of the film is a “lighter” recreation of the torture that we have discussed. Basically, it’s a literal representation of violent facts. I am curious then about the decision to include a graphic recreation of the violent act.
UCHOA: For me, this scene that you mention is not in a different tone than the rest of the film. This reconstruction is the only sequence that survives the first shooting, the one from 2017. In the first formal construction, it was supposed to be the end of the film, in which it worked like a nightmare. Because they are his friends who act as the police, exercising the violent act. This, by working with the understanding that violence is this figure that can take any face. And the exercise interests me from the perspective in which I asked Rafael's friends, people like him, to represent his image of the police.
When I was editing in Buenos Aires, the scene was no longer in my plans. My producers saw the assembly and asked about that scene. I was unsure of the scene and they suggested trying to put it at the end because it’s very powerful. In this version, the scene found its space before the oral story, so the opposite of the original idea. João [Dumans], the editor, told me something about this scene that I liked very much, that with this specific editing decision we turned the film into a kind of essay on the representation of violence. There are various ways of relating to violence through cinematographic language.
NOTEBOOK: The clearest example of this is the last sequence, which, is another mutation of the representation, a much more abstract, a performance practically.
UCHOA: Yes, they arise from the search to find what could be more correct or effective for those who are portrayed. I feel that these records complement and question at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: This sort of performative game that concludes the film has the only "professional" actor in the film, who is playing the role of the authoritarian police officer.
UCHOA: I needed to represent the police in that scene with an ex-officio actor, as you say. I thought about other options but realized that I couldn't escape it. I needed to make a clear statement about the police figure and its actions. The image of the policeman needed to be strong. And Robson [Vieira] did it just as he wanted, automatically, again, expressing his image of the police, just as Rafael’s friends. But there’s also something else—the powerful image of his uniform, his posture.
NOTEBOOK: With the representations of the police officer and the sequence where you reconstruct torture, you don't work with ellipses or omissions. With the playful performance, I wondered why did not keep the figure off camera, using idea of the faceless evil ...
UCHOA: I thought about it, but I needed to represent power. The role of the police, which plays this game where it decides who lives or dies. The mystery of omission would have been great, it would have been much more elegant, but that did not interest me in these scenes. Abstraction would have made it become very ambiguous, and I need it to make a clear point. The evil, in this case, has a name—and it is the police.
NOTEBOOK: It is the only scene of the film that is not shrouded in darkness...
UCHOA: Yes. It comes to the idea that I needed clarity. I tried other places, other lights. But I needed the public square and the light of the place worked perfectly, to eliminate the mysticism that the structure of the game could offer, by putting this in an obvious, common, public and real place. Because this happens in the streets.
And this was something quite difficult, the whole recording of that scene was quite difficult. We filmed it on the last day, a little unexpectedly, getting all the people we needed and something terrible happened during the shooting. Someone called the police and they arrived at the square. We confronted them a little because of the attitude they had when they approached us, questioning us about what we were doing, about our work. Robson, the actor who plays the police officer, was very affected because as the police officers walked away, one of them said: “You are wearing a police uniform. That uniform is an honor.” They remained at a distance, watching us from their patrol car and watched the madness that we were doing. I imagine they didn't understand anything and they must have said, "These dudes are crazy," and then left.
But, minutes later, this lady arrived on set, completely disoriented and walking straight to Robson. And she told him that the policemen who had just left had just handed her her son's cell phone, who had been missing for three days at that point. She told us that all they said when they gave it to her was "Wait for him." All of this happened just as we were recording a performance about police repression. A few meters away. After the lady left, we talked about what happened and Robson said something that I will never forget: "How can you honor this?"