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Reinventing Space: An Interview with Karim Aïnouz

The director discusses his new documentary, "Central Airport THF," working in Brazil, filming refugees, and his fascination with airports.
Central Airport THF
Karim Aïnouz became a household name in Brazilian cinema and then shortly internationally in 2002, with his explosive feature debut, Madame Satã, so it's somewhat appropriate that when I catch Aïnouz on the road for this interview, as he is about a week away from beginning to shoot his new film, he tells me an anecdote of how one night, when Aïnouz's publicist rented the Beacon Theatre for the film's opening in New York City, the film somehow mysteriously "refused to play" at one of the screenings. There was a problem with the sound, apparently. "Some Madame Satã entity didn't want to be seen," Aïnouz jokes. This seems appropriate for a film that had a mad and scintillating energy, based on the story of one of the country's earliest transvestite performers, a young black Carioca whose character is forged, in the early 20th century, as part ruthless petty-crime street hustler, part passionate lover cum ingenious performer. Madame Satã captured Rio de Janeiro's squalid splendor and uncanny energy, but also a desire to break through, of profound frustration in the face of persistent prejudice, hatred and suffocating violence, whose reciprocation quickly becomes the only means of survival.
Aïnouz would go on to write a number of memorable women characters that related to such feelings of suffocation, from Suely in Céu de Suely (literally The Sky of Suely, with Suely played by the talented Hermila Guedes, also notable for her role in Marcelo Gomes' Once Upon a Time Veronica) to Violeta in O Abismo Prateado (literally, Silver-Coated Abyss, with Alessandra Negrini, who counts among her latest credits Júlio Bressane's Beduino, which premiered in Locarno in 2016). Aïnouz would also open up the possibilities for his homosexual protagonists, particularly in the Fortaleza-Berlin set contemporary melodrama A Praia do Futuro (The Beach of the Future), with one of Brazil's most popular actors in the title role, Wagner Moura (known from Elite Squad to Narcos' infamous Pablo Escobar).
This interview was taped while I spoke with Aïnouz on the phone, on the occasion of his latest hybrid film, Central Airport THF, which premiered in the Panorama section at the 68th Berlinale, screening in the Art of the Real program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

NOTEBOOK: Your new film, Central Airport THF, touches on issues of home and space. Where is home these days?
KARIM AÏNOUZ: I have been based in Berlin for eight years now, so it’s home. Of European cities I know I feel most at ease in Berlin, perhaps because of the lack of colonial history, or because of the people who have moved there in the past ten years. But I also teach at a script lab at an arts school, Porto Iracema das Artes, in Fortaleza, a city I’m from in Brazil, so I commute a lot back and forth.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of Fortaleza, it’s impressive how much diverse regional cinema Brazil produces these days.
AÏNOUZ: Yes, there’s a whole new generation of filmmakers, from places other than Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and also cinema being made on the outskirts, which really shows the results of the seeds that have been planted in the past ten years.  
In Fortaleza, we run a yearlong course for professionals, to address some of the frustrations that I saw and experienced at certain international labs, where you meet for only a week. I think it’s particularly important to have a lab like this, where you can really follow someone’s development, since there is still very little screenwriting or story-telling training in Brazil, in general. 
NOTEBOOK: You yourself actually trained in architecture. Can you talk about how that carried over into your interest in cinema?
AÏNOUZ: When I was growing up there were really no film schools. Not that I was thinking of cinema back then. Architecture was basically a great way to go to the university and get a liberal arts education. I had a passion for painting and drawing, and also for mathematics, so architecture was a way of joining all my interests.
The period after the dictatorship ended was a very political and heated time to be in Brasília, where I studied. There was a lot of thinking about how to settle the low-income communities. Before then, the capital’s poor had been essentially renegaded to occupying the slums. My training was then an opportunity to be involved not just in architecture as an architectural object but also in urban planning and dealing with the issue of the housing deficit. It was my political training, in a way. From then on, I began thinking about space, particularly about how public space is re-appropriated, as well as visual composition. This training carried over into my filmmaking as a method, in a sense that a film must be planned and drafted as a project first, and only then built, collaboratively.
In my film about the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, I was intrigued not so much with the place as a striking piece of fascist architecture, but rather with how it was reinvented: A place originally created to store and fix military planes suddenly had a life as something else. Besides, I’ve always been obsessed with airports. I cherish the idea of going home but also of being stuck, with nothing to do.
NOTEBOOK: Did you know the surrounding area before, as a park?
AÏNOUZ: Yes. I actually have this fantasy that, for example, Congonhas Airport in São Paulo, which is a massive space, could some day also become one. It’s a fascination not just with the architectural space but also with how it becomes a public recreational area. So the project did start out with the park. I had been living in Berlin, and followed the closing of Templehof, then began to film in July 2015. And then, coincidentally, the asylum seekers started to arrive. Within one week that November, the hangers were turned into shelters. 
NOTEBOOK: It’s quite haunting how these two worlds—the park and the shelter—almost touch but never quite come together.
AÏNOUZ: This juxtaposition also resonates in some way with the gap in Brazil, between the very rich and the very poor, living side by side. I wanted to capture the friction of seeing this kind of closeness and, at the same time, separateness, in the middle of a European city—not on the outskirts, as it may be in Paris. And seeing a city that is so much in the process of rapidly changing—since Berlin is such a post-war city—and suddenly deals with the newcomers.
Working with the refugees was very delicate, particularly since at that time there was so much press about the place. The persons living in the hangars had had enough of the press. It took me a few months to gain their trust, to convince them I was not yet another journalist, and to see who would be interested in participating.  
I was very careful to show nothing that dealt with the painful, very private moments. I had seen so much footage on television detailing personal tragedies of war. I focused more on how those living in the shelter coped day to day. The filming took a year and a half, quite some time to get to know everyone, and even so, it was always strange, since I got to go back home. My house wasn’t very far from the place, but there was always this odd sensation of suddenly entering a place that had very much to do with war.
At the same time, I did have in common with the men and women I was filming the fact that even though Berlin feels like home, on some level, of course, it isn’t home. There was also a connection of my being half Algerian, and the experience of my family in France. Actually, the young men joked at the end that they had thought that, because of my Arabic name, Karim, I could speak Arabic fluently but just didn’t want to admit it, maybe to keep a distance. So not being originally from Berlin did create a different dynamic.
NOTEBOOK: I was just thinking about what you said about liking airports. And yet, in your film O Abismo Prateado the airport is such a melancholy place, a place where one learns to let go of the past.
AÏNOUZ: Yes, and yet I remember clearly being once stranded at an airport in Jordan, having a very long connection, when I suddenly realized how liberating it was to be alone, completely cut off. There’s nothing better than a Sunday morning in an airport! 
NOTEBOOK: Does being away so much give you some distance?
AÏNOUZ: It puts me at a distance from the frontlines, where you don’t end up normalizing the conflicts of daily life. On the other hand, being Brazilian is never stripped away.
NOTEBOOK: What is it like to be back in Rio de Janeiro, about to make a film in a city that has been lately through so much turmoil?
AÏNOUZ: It’s actually exciting. Fifteen years after Lula [former president Lula Inácio da Silva], a new generation has been forged. Yes, the city has been ravished, and it's rough, but when you look at places like Maré, what has happened there after the execution of [political and gay rights leader] Marielle [Franco], you see that there is a Rio that is very damaged, but that there are also a lot of new voices rising up—in the black community, in the film community. It’s sad and it’s rough and it’s f--up, but on the other hand, there’s a lot happening on the periphery. As a result of the politics of cultural and economic inclusion, the generation between twenty and thirty has really been empowered.
NOTEBOOK: Does this empowerment somehow figure into your film?
AÏNOUZ: Peripherally. I’m making a period film, set in the 1950s, about the condition of women.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve created powerful women roles before, such as in O Céu de Suely—women who are stuck, yet exude strength.
AÏNOUZ: I guess the new film is also about that. Without giving spoilers, it’s about two sisters who were separated, and their journey to find each other. One of the actresses asked me the other day what she should read to think about her role, and I thought of Ibsen, at first, but then I woke up today and put on Pasolini's Mamma Roma, with Anna Magnani, which is such a phenomenal, explosive role. When you think of storytelling, for me—a kid who was raised in the North East by a single mother—to reach for this material feels very natural.

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