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Freedom Has Its Price: An Interview with Juliana Antunes

The Brazilian filmmaker discusses making her prize-winning debut "Baronesa" and the difficulties in being a woman wanting to direct.
MUBI is exclusively showing Juliana Antunes' Baronesa (2017) as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their Art of the Real showcase of innovative voices in nonfiction and hybrid filmmaking. The film is playing May 8 - June 7, 2018 in the United States and May 24 - June 23, 2018 in most other countries in the world.
Juliana Antunes
Juliana Antunes is still doing a road tour with her debut feature, Baronesa, which has played at film festivals from Tiradentes, Brazil, to FIDMarseille and Art of the Real at Lincoln Center, to name a few, and won for best film at FICValdivia, the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano in Havana, and at the Festival of Mar del Plata. This string of successes didn’t necessarily make the road to a second film easy, as the situation of indie filmmakers in Brazil, and in Latin America in general, continues to be fragile. But since Antunes, and her producer Marcella Jacques, have won the Mar del Plata’s LoboLab for co-production, it seems that the second feature, Hit and Back Copacabana, will now see the light.
Speaking to Variety, Antunes mentioned that her new film, like the first, will explore how women suffer financial and social limitations, merely for being women. Unlike Baronesa, it will be, at least partly, a road movie, taking us from Antunes’s native Belo Horizonte, to Rio de Janeiro, on a ride that some Brazilians who dream of getting to know the city take in a single night (hence, “hit and back,” “bate e volta”).
That’s already a great contrast to Baronesa, a film notable for its microcosmic and, in many ways, deliberately claustrophobic yet also larger-than-life, performative universe. Some of the film’s incantatory power lies precisely in this paradox, of two women, Andreia and Leid, finding ways to open up the spaces that constrain them, and to grow within, to connect, redeploy, subvert. In this sense, although the film itself suggests very little outward motion, we are made aware of the many journeys, and schisms, that the women’s lives contain.
Having spoken to Antunes on various occasions, first in 2017, at the Festival Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes (a key Brazilian indie film festival that I’ve recently profiled in my Latin American film column in the Notebook), where Baronesa took the prize for best film, I interviewed Antunes again, via email and recorded messages.

NOTEBOOK: Your film opens with a woman dancing funk, a music style that’s increasingly popular in Brazil, in cities like Recife, but also Belo Horizonte, where you’re from. I wonder, is funk democratizing in any way? Why was it important to start the film with this scene? 
JULIANA ANTUNES: It’s a delicate question. Funk as a market continues to be dominated by men. When you think of the larger music producers, they produce women singers like MC Rita, but that’s really much more pop than funk. There are some styles these days by women that are more political, such as MC Carol’s. MC Carol, however, has not yet arrived on the scene in Belo Horizonte’s periphery. The funk that’s most prevalent there is still performed by men.  
I began with the dance because of the body’s force, which is like any other right we may have, or lack. The opening scene depicts a house with no formal registration, no zip code, but with a body, its presence.  
The body can also affirm its presence in other social contexts, but on the periphery, this gesture is even more political. Leid once told me something I recall quite clearly, “In the best-case scenario, if I ever left this place, it’d be to clean your house.” A number of times I’d also overhear women calling prostitution by the term, “making a living” (literally, “making a life,” “fazendo a vida”). And so, a Brazilian woman unwilling to work as a poorly paid housecleaner or supermarket cashier may be forced into a relationship with her body that’s almost medieval: Having to prostitute herself, or being stuck fin the favela. The body in this situation has very few avenues of escape.
But secondly, body means desire. I wanted the film to express the desire of women who were part of my film crew. The film crew that’s all female, with women who are LGBT, who film, sleep and go hungry together, while working in one confined space for a very long time. This scene then, this desire, is a type of prologue for the entire film that deals precisely with women’s bodies, and how these bodies act in the world—the body that is violated, that is present in the daily war, that’s consumed by it. There’s desire, power, and also the doubts inherent in the question of funk music, which is all about liberty and expression on one hand, but is also very misogynist, on the other.
NOTEBOOK: The construction of Baronesa is very nuanced. We are seduced by its re-enactments, but there are distinct moments, such as the black ribbons, when you present deliberate visual constructs. You pull back, distance us from the illusion. Can you say why it was important to create in this dual, dialectical mode? 
ANTUNES: I’ve always wanted to make fiction cinema, so it was important for me to construct a narrative. The idea is to offer my protagonists, who aren’t professional actresses, real possibilities of actualization.
You have to remember that, even on days when no husband was present on the set, you could sense the women’s ongoing battles. We needed to show that there existed a way to be okay in this scenario—okay, in a sense of having the freedom to act. Although freedom naturally has its price, and its consequences. For example, Leid’s freedom lies in her ability to invade an empty lot.
Our construction then is deliberately a world that's completely inhabited by women, and which isn’t real, isn’t factual. In reality, a woman like Leid has to keep her head low, acquiescing to a husband. We also drew on some references from personal life. For example, the black ribbons, which I remembered seeing as a child whenever there was a gang war [gang members got killed]. This leitmotif came up again when we were doing research. Still other moments, or elements, allowed us to avoid making just one more “panoramic view” of the periphery that would have added nothing new. The cinema I want to make must go beyond the gesture of merely cataloguing women or their experiences. That is why we have included strong narrative elements, such as Felipe getting killed in a gang war.
NOTEBOOK: You didn’t begin your studies thinking of becoming a film director, but the hostility or difficulties of the environment made you change your mind. How did it all come about? 
ANTUNES: I began my studies in cinema with first the idea to be an editor. I then did other technical courses, such as cinematography. From what I recall, the courses themselves, the way they were structured, basically already steered women towards sticking to art direction, editing, and so on.  
The first internship I got was still while thinking I wanted to be an editor. But it was quite complicated—they took me on to train as an editor, but my supervisor actually just wanted me to make coffee. After one year and a half I finally denounced the situation, making my university aware of what was happening, and that I wasn’t learning.  
Then things started to change a bit, over time, women started to have a few more options. I worked on all kinds of sets. But I have to say, a very young male filmmaker in Brazil will find male colleagues willing to help him make a film, to pitch in with their talents, for free. Meanwhile, when I was making Baronesa, and had very little money, no one was rushing to work with me, or help me, for free. In the end, a girlfriend of a friend helped me to do some work on my film at another university, working with other women, because unfortunately, at my own university, the idea that a film director had to be a man was so ingrained I had no luck finding collaborators.
While filming Baronesa, I continued to work on film sets, making coffee, lunch, and so on. It was a way in, but you must keep in mind that, as a woman from the periphery, I had grown up watching women serving men. The last thing I wanted to do was to repeat this pattern. That’s why I actually looked outside art cinema, and worked for a company that filmed cars and trucks, to finally have my first experience in directing. That’s what I saved me.
NOTEBOOK: Given Baronesa’s intimacy and its formal sophistication, I find it rather curious how it gets reviewed, at times. The Brazilian film publication, Revista Cinética, compared it to Jean Rouch’s work in Africa, emphasizing the distance between you and the black women protagonists, and then went on to call it, in parts, a “women empowerment” movie. No one talks of “men empowerment” movies. 
ANTUNES: Precisely. It’s worth mentioning that, in this type of analysis, the talents of Andreia and Leid are completely forgotten. As if they weren’t incredible actresses, but rather were there to fulfill some political agenda, for example, of feminist activism. 
No one makes cinema to save the world, yet it’s hard for some to accept that Baronesa is like any other film that could have been directed by a man who studied cinema. It was made with each take and frame in mind, since conception to the final shot. Of course, the film is political, but it astonishes me that critics continue to discuss women filmmakers’ work in terms other than their artistic merit. 

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