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The Study of Bodies in Space: Talking with Gabriel Mascaro

In “Neon Bull,” the Brazilian artist and filmmaker hones his signature poetics of lyrical realism on the verge of documentary and fiction.
Gabriel Mascaro. Photo by Beto Figueiroa.
Similarly to the “slow cinema” fad of international art-house cinema, the docufiction format and variations of the fiction and documentary marriage seem to be in high demand by festival programmers, judging by last year´s Locarno  and this year´s Rotterdam programs. The plethora of films at the intersection of both realms, resulting in a blending of cinematic strategies, styles and codes of both formats, span a wide spectrum of options from audience-pleasers like Kaweh Modiri´s Bodkin Ras to avangardishly-tuned Pietro Marcello´s Lost and Beautiful
Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro also fits the label, currently dominating the festival circuit with award-reaping Neon Bull, which sees its release in the US cinemas on April 8, followed by a retrospective devoted to the director at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center. Mascaro was born in north-eastern region of Brazil in Recife, the capital and the largest city of the state of Pernambuco where he resides and works. He graduated in Social Communications at the Federal University of Pernambuco and became engaged in visual arts, mostly photography and video-art installations, with which he travelled some of world´s famed gallery spaces including Guggenheim, MoMa, and the São Paolo Biennale. Mascaro is no stranger to experiments with form, for example creating a collage with 80 web videos based on Amazon´s interactive application Amazon Mechanical Turks, and The Adventures of Paulo Bruscky, for which the Brazilian virtual artist Paulo Bruscky hired Gabriel Mascaro to shoot a documentary about him never leaving the territory of the virtual world of Second Life in machinima documentary video.
In Neon Bull, Mascaro attentively observes a rag-tag group of travelling vaquejada rodeo, local sport. The film has a kind of attentive observation verging on the scrutiny of a prison guard: the more dull or mundane a detail of life it is, the more valuable it is for Mascaro who rigorously keeps each in his cinematic reproduction of the real world,  biological routines and hygienic rituals included. The preoccupation with characters performing nearly unexciting or humdrum acts exorcise plotting in the conventional sense of a story. The plot as a succession of events enacted by characters makes way for Mascar's accessible yet multi-layered portraits from a specific subculture, portraits which paint an expansive image of the social group. The director introduces a batch of ambiguous figures, led by protagonist Iremar, a rodeo cowhand by day and fashion designer by night and dilating the conventional notions of gender. Opposite Iremar is Galega, a female truck driver and mechanic who performs seductive dances by night under a horse mask dressed in Iremar´s latest creations. Their daily routines at the rodeo channel the director’s mission of revealing a carefully chosen place and people’s functions through mundane means.
Mascaro becomes a chronicler of Brazilian society, employing the poetics and aesthetics as a signature style of docu-fiction amalgam. He blends reality and fiction into seamless plane under lyrical realism coating. The homogeneous blend of magical and prosaic was also the director’s signature style in his first feature film, August Winds (Ventos de Agosto, 2014), where nothing in its first twenty minutes would indicate a fiction story, and the plot starts about halfway through the film. An intriguing formal experiment packing a handful of memorable compositions lensed by the director himself, that film follows Shirley, living in a small coastal community and a tractor driver on a coconut farm, and Jeison, who work on the same farm and is cultivating a romance with Shirley. The routine of their day-to-day lives is invaded by the discovery of human remains washed out of a cemetery on the coast, and handling the cadaver soon dominates Jeison’s mind and daily occupation.
Mascaro´s fiction features dispose of compelling cinematography choices, the lyricism of August Winds being based on meticulously composed wide-angle shots of characters in nature, whereas the viewfinder of Neon Bull centres predominantly on characters, leaving the urban environment they inhabit at the edges, becoming a study of bodies in space. The study of bodies belongs to Mascaro's ongoing project and a theme he researches further collective documentary effort Housemaids (Doméstica, 2012). The filmmaker received a footage made by teenagers about their housemaids in a series of portraits and self-portraits scrutinizing the relationship between upper and lower social class in Brazil. His previous documentary High-Rise (2009) is based on a string of interviews,  talking head style, about people’s opinions on living in high-rises, thus more about Brazilian society than just social inequalities.
I spoke with Gabriel Mascaro at the Warsaw Film Festival, where he netted the Warsaw Grand Prix for Neon Bull, and later continued the interview at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: You made Neon Bull in an era where the cinema of Latin America is flourishing, Brazil including.
GABRIEL MASCARO: I think the main point about this recent wave of cinema development is the possibility of democratization of different regions that previously would not be able to make films continuously and hold opportunities for budding and new filmmakers to shine.
And now, after ten years of democratization and cultural renovation and the access to filmmaking tools, we are seeing our cinema to boom in various parts of Brazil which, prior to these events, were not recognized for cinema, for example Resife, Fortaleza, Belo Horizonte—cities different from the region of São Paulo, which is more industrial, more commercial.
This is very positive transformation. The democratization of the Brazilian society brought this new experience of different points of view on Brazilian society. This new wave of development is also about attempts to reflect and discuss the ambiguity of the rapid and unsustainable development that can propel society to transform but simultaneously can build up contradictions.
That´s why I brought these multi-skilled characters with different layers with different gender roles into the story of Neon Bull—and also with the expanded notion of the fluid gender experience of the life.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have any problems in the development or pre-production stage of your film?
MASCARO: I was trying to make this film for over five years and it´s a co-production between Brazil, Uruguay and Netherlands. The fund from Netherlands, Hubert Bals Fund, helped me to get recognized in front of the Brazilian government because nowadays it´s really difficult for filmmaker to start his career.
They helped me a bit with the script development and they helped me to benefit from the Brazilian cultural fund. We are witnessing a very special moment where we can see different point of views on Brazilian life to emerge into the film scene.
NOTEBOOK: How did Uruguay get involved in the production?
MASCARO: Brazil has some kind of bilateral agreement with neighbouring countries like Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and even Portugal. And Brazil managed to establish annually new agreements to push the co-productions and new arrangements.
They also offer mobilities. That´s why this co-production was for me especially interesting. I could work with different crews from different regions. We had Uruguayan sound technician, Argentinean sound technician, Mexican cinematographer, Dutch sound mixer and colour graders... It was very special to meet different people from different cultural backgrounds and to see how they could bring different points of view to this experience of making films.
NOTEBOOK: Did the Brazilian cultural fund exist before the development boom?
MASCARO: No, this is something very recent, like about ten or seven years, so it´s really a new public policy in supporting different voices speaking about Brazilian society. They also started international co-productions. They used to support domestic films but only the commercial ones and it was very difficult to get access to these funds and the films made from those funds were intended solely for Brazilian market.
And only now we can see a change of perspective in supporting independent filmmakers. So it´s pretty interesting and exciting to be in Brazil and see it. I do not live in São Paolo; I am residing in my city where I can see growing important community of filmmakers from different small cities, some of them coming also from my hometown.
NOTEBOOK: What about independent scene in Brazil?
MASCARO: Brazil has always had underground films and they did not cease to exist even nowadays. However, the independent filmmakers started getting funding to make films just recently.
NOTEBOOK: How did people react to Neon Bull in Brazil?
MASCARO:  It premiered at Rio de Janeiro Film Festival and the reception was very special.  The main actor is well-known in Brazil since he stars in soap operas, so it was interesting to observe this kind of displacement from his usual environment in television to art-house cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you decide to cast him?
MASCARO: I was looking for good actors, but also ones that embody rawness which I could deconstruct into different layers later in the film, to de- or re-construct the rawness into sensitivity. That was one of the factors. And naturally, the fact that he is really amazing actor.
NOTEBOOK: Did you explain to him what are you going to do before the shooting?
MASCARO: Yes, he was a bit nervous when he was reading the script for the first time. He was like “Oh my God, it will be very intense, visceral...,” but he was very generous to accept the role and to go deep into the character.
The whole process was such amazing journey of discovery of the character, his motives... But naturally, it was difficult. For him, it was certainly not easy. Also, the process triggered many hilarious situations.
While reading the script, he did not realize that the scene where they are stealing horse semen by manually stimulating the horse will be actually unsimulated, that we will shoot it for real. He expected prophylactic and then they brought the horse and I said, “Okay, let´s start,” and he goes like, “But where is the fake penis?” and I am saying, “There won´t be any. We are doing it for real.” He resisted it and then said he will do it but under one condition, if I go first. So I had to do the first round.
NOTEBOOK: You had to show him how to do it.
MASCARO: Yeah, it´s a part of the job being film director.
NOTEBOOK: How did you research the film?
MASCARO:  Because of the fund, I had the opportunity to spend three years developing the script and travel around the vaquejada rodeos; it really helped me to become a part of that world, it´s very specific, almost surreal world. I always tried to look for these kind of weird worlds through a very human approach which eventually enabled me to access another layer.
NOTEBOOK: The rodeos are part of the local folklore?
MASCARO: The vaquejada rodeos were popular in the past, at the beginning of the 20th century among the farmers. They had the bulls roaming wild and when they sold the bulls they made this huge party to catch them—which is the root of vaquejada rodeo.
But in the last ten years, huge development also happened in the agro-business in Brazil. Some statistics even say that this is the second most popular sport in Brazil after football. It is a huge event happening in different cities every week-end and people are travelling to see it.
For me, it was also very special to look at Brazil from this perspective because before, Brazil was depicted as dry land where people were observed very monochromatically and I wanted to bring forth the colours but not only in the sense of beauty, but the ambiguity of beauty. I tried to localize this kind of beauty in every shot with the ambiguity.
NOTEBOOK: Was the subverting of gender normativity the core idea behind the film?
MASCARO: No, the first treatment of the film was originally based on farmers. And when I was researching this subject, I met a real cowhand that led this double life living between being cowboy and sitting by a sewing machine.
The idea of gender expansion is based really on my contact with this guy and the way he ritualized the cleaning in rodeo and then he would go to the factory to operate a sewing machine. In this region of Brazil, the government had invested a lot to create the most important Brazilian textile factories to make clothes for the whole country. Especially surfer style or jeans in a place that´s very monochromatic, so it builds this kind of contradiction in the way how people dress. Surfer fashion was suddenly everywhere, even if it´s a far away from the sea. So I met the real character and I became very intrigued by him and then I started to develop the film from another angle, from the backstage of the rodeo and not anymore through the eyes of a farmer.
NOTEBOOK: And then you expanded the gender subject on other characters?
MASCARO: Once I discovered it, I could do something to reshape this Latin American perception of machismo. When we think about cowboys, the first association is macho, and I thought it would be very important to bring these suspended characters to this North Eastern Brazilian way of life.
NOTEBOOK: You have a character of little girl among the central group that also creates a kind of contradiction, being the only child in the group. How did you come up with the character of Cacá?
MASCARO: Good question. In the script, the character was written as a boy and I spent almost four months looking for the perfect actor or a boy that I could transform into an actor. And I could not find anybody and this fact almost jeopardized the schedule of shooting. I even thought that we will have to delay the principal photography.
I was doing the casting in different cities close to vaquejada rodeos to find somebody close to that reality. So the casting was for boys and now this girl shows up and she asks even if it´s just for the boys, can she do camera test. And this just opened fresh perspective when something that was part of our project, the expansion of the notion of gender, was confronted by the reality. One girl read the casting call and asked for a casting shot.
NOTEBOOK: This was the only major change?
MASCARO: Change is for me constant, I am always changing things, the script is not for me something rigorous. I am always writing and rewriting.
NOTEBOOK: Is there any reason why she is fatherless?
MASCARO: The intention was to create a kind of odd family where they are not blood relatives but living together as a family, and anybody who arrives can be part of this family and anybody can also leave anytime. It should create an intense human experience when they are together that´s why I dropped this motif of paternity into the film. And Cacá builds this daughter-father bond as men come and go looking for father figure.
NOTEBOOK: Having a female character which sells perfume during the day and wears a gun as a guard in factory during nights in higher stage of pregnancy was an intriguing choice for a character. What was the process in constructing her?
MASCARO: I always like to combine diverse skills in characters. You know, you can be a journalist during the day and maybe engineer in the night. So for me, it is interesting to meet such people. I intended to create these multi-layered characters where you are not necessary interested in their background or the story of their life but firstly in the fact how they are managing their life.
NOTEBOOK: Is a reflection of the socio-economical situation in Brazil?
MASCARO: Sure. This comes up from my experience of meeting such people. You know, in Brazil we have policemen who in order to survive are taking up various side jobs, for example as taxi drivers. The people are not dedicated to just one job, they need to juggle several at the same time.
This multitasking is really part of Brazilian culture and naturally a result of struggle to survive. And I hyperbolized the situation in the film. The girl sells perfume, which is a widespread way to make extra money. You see, she is also very clever because she went to sell perfumes to place were men smell from bulls [laughs].
Coming back to her pregnancy, it´s was very important to show this kind of empowerment but also in terms of empowering the pleasure in a body that could be considered very fragile. But it´s the opposite: she is not fragile, she wears gun and boots and she is also looking for pleasure, as you see her being in the controlling position during sex. You know, nothing depends on gender in my film, people are not judging themselves based on sex or established gender roles. It´s very non-judgmental approach.
NOTEBOOK: The style of Neon Bull is a combination of observational distance and poetical stylization.
MASCARO: I wanted to blend the naturalistic acting and the camera, in a way creating a ritual. So the result is blend of ritualization of daily routine with naturalistic performance and sophisticated cinematography regarding movement.
This combination creates an intense realistic experience despite the fact that some scenes are slightly surreal. So even weird things such as a horse being hair-dressed are possible and realistic in this world—the world of ambiguity where bad taste mixes with luxuriousness.
NOTEBOOK: I meant also the little dancing, almost oneiric intermezzos you inserted into the film.
MASCARO:  Well, as the film is about living experience it is automatically about body and the space it automatically inhabits. There are moments where I created suspension stemming from the performance of body, it comes from their life but goes a bit further in the experience. The performance brings a kind of experience from visual arts into cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Does this study of body in space come from your art?
MASCARO: Kind of. Not necessarily in this form. Take for example Housemaids. I wanted to create an inversion. Usually housemaids observe people they are working for and when I asked the teenagers to shoot them, I asked them to observe the housemaids.
This was in a way also a study of body and its relation to space exposing the contradictions regarding power and power dynamics. The relationship between housemaids and their employers is inter-dependent, there is fondness and affection but also perversion. Because housemaids don´t earn much money, they spend their whole house in somebody´s else house, they have virtually non-existent personal life, always serving to somebody.
The film exposed this contradictory relationship, the insincere love and at times even violent. This was just one example, I have a diverse art projects such as installations where I examine bodies and the notion of power. I also did an installation in São Paolo Biennale from the big Brazilian demonstration of June 2013 from period of big political protests. And I use images that were shot by police while they were intervening. In the installation, I used their point of view.
NOTEBOOK: Rituals play important role in Neon Bull.
MASCARO: Yes, it was very important for me to incorporate common rituals of life and to help the film to feel more connected to the reality, but for me is important to bring these things that are really part of our lives and also could be watched in a very poetic way but usually are avoided...
NOTEBOOK: You mean are considered taboo?
MASCARO: Maybe. It is ugly, but why don´t you see it anywhere?
NOTEBOOK: I would say it is probably because they are not functional for the story.
MASCARO: Yes, it does not tell a story and films in general usually do not have these scenes because they are deemed a loss of time. So I wanted to deal with time in different way. It was crucial for me to have the pissing scene—you are losing time, but what is it for in there? Nothing. You can create an experience of life— of an ordinary life—and blend with it.
NOTEBOOK: How did you come up with the movement of the camera, its compositions and distance?
MASCARO: The central question that preoccupies me nowadays is the distance of bodies and the camera, the apparatus. So if I go close to the characters, I might slip into the stereotypes, the close-ups can play this role as well. Going further away, I am empowering the characters much more compared to being close to them. So I used the distance to provoke more intense experience of the space and time and the takes are very long, so that helps to characters really experience the performance in the time and space.
NOTEBOOK: The semen-stealing scene was done in one take?
MASCARO: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: On the first time?
MASCARO: Do you want another one? [Laughs] No, it was done in one take, the first correct, but the pissing scene was very difficult. The actor spent almost whole day drinking beer and doing wee-wee so that we could get perfectly synchronized movement. It’s a very ordinary experience of life to have to piss and you almost never see that men doing it in films.
NOTEBOOK: This is the same thing with the shower scene.
MASCARO: Exactly, you never see men naked.
NOTEBOOK: The sex scene in the end was simulated?
MASCARO: I did not ask the actors.
NOTEBOOK: What do you mean?
MASCARO: I was standing far from the action, so I could not see and I did not ask them how they performed it.
NOTEBOOK: So, it is the secret of the last scene.
MASCARO: I did not dare to ask them if it was real or not.
NOTEBOOK: The result is very persuasive.
MASCARO: Right, it is very persuasive and done in only one take.
NOTEBOOK: Oh, really?
MASCARO: Yeah, it was brilliant.
NOTEBOOK: Is it the whole thing or did you edit it? Because it is quite long.
MASCARO: It is quite long and I tried to edit it, but it would be just another sex scene in the history of cinema, so I realized if I go with the natural flow of the act. It will be like the real experience and the pleasure of the characters can be shared with the pleasure of the audience.
Lots of people told me how intense it was to watch the scene beyond what was initially expected. This is nice idea thinking about cinema going beyond and sharing the experience of characters with audience. So that is why I left it unedited, long.
NOTEBOOK: The film is very naturalistic, but you use also dreamy, lyrical scenes. Did you want to create a tension of some kind between reality and fiction?
MASCARO: Yes, it is part of the narrative, of the structure, the dialectics of the very naturalistic and oneiric situations, and you can stop thinking about what is real and the fantastic might become very real. In some way, the film is very realistic, but that is also always suspended. There is even something strange about the tangible realism, it is way too natural and it makes you feel fantastic.
NOTEBOOK:  How did the rehearsal process go, since besides professional actors there were also non-professional actors on the set?
MASCARO:  We had two months of preparations and I brought very good acting coach who worked on City of God. Her speciality is blending non-actors with actors. We worked together a lot and she was very helpful.
NOTEBOOK: Did actors discover the ambiguity of characters during rehearsals?
MASCARO: Once I finished the script, we developed the methodology to be able to bring up the different layers in characters. We did it like two months before the principal photography.
NOTEBOOK: Why did the lead male and female characters not have sex together during the film?
MASCARO: Maybe they had it before [laughs]. Now seriously, I mean this was an intentional omission. Viewers might naturally expect that they will do something together and when nothing´s happening, they might think that maybe the male protagonist Iremar is gay and this creates a black and white expectation. And when the film does not fulfill your expectation, you just assumed he is gay, and eventually he has sex with a woman.  My film tries to not show the world as black and white, you see, he can be gay or can have sex with a woman, but in the end it does not matter, as the characters are non-judgmental and just experiencing life. It is a way we can present characters experiencing life.
NOTEBOOK: I was implying storytelling conventions which you completely bypassed.
MASCARO: Yeah, you can create some kind of expectations and then you can break them. It´s not a film about storytelling—not a straightforward narrative—but the film deals with traditions of storytelling and tries to bring you another experience not through drama or psychology but day-to-day life.
NOTEBOOK: This only accentuates the documentary style of the film.
MASCARO: Yeah, it could be a documentary, right?
NOTEBOOK: You featured also a scene in communal showers which does not relate to the plot itself, although it expands the daily routine and intimacy of the character, as well as the gender-expansion you mentioned.
MASCARO: Well, I think we are always dealing with some kinds of expectations. The characters of Junior and Iremar provoke you to doubt about gender conventions...each scene deals with expectations...
NOTEBOOK: I meant in the gender terms, since the character of Junior is quite effeminate.
MASCARO: : Yeah, well, the film deals with expectations in general but also in the terms of narrative and gender roles.
NOTEBOOK: Does the constant dealing with expectation and prejudices channel the mindset of Brazil?
MASCARO: Brazilian people are very conservative society and very machista. Neon Bull is going to be an even more intense viewing experience for domestic audience to see, as these expectations broken bit by bit, step by step...
NOTEBOOK: ...do you think it will be controversial...
MASCARO: ...yes, well, it could sound naive in terms of controversiality, but it will surely be intense. It will be exciting to see this kind of displacement, especially if someone from the ordinary world of vaquejada rodeo will come to watch just because the film deals with the vaquejada setting and then he or she will be confronted with something beyond—something that takes him or her to completely another experience of life, of gender perspective, experience of cinema. I am very exciting to see vaquejada people watching the film.
NOTEBOOK: The whole subverting of gender roles, does it have some LGBT undercurrent?
MASCARO: I would say my film goes beyond the LGBT agenda, I can imagine LGBT people being surprised by the film...
NOTEBOOK: ...but as you explained, your characters are non-judgmental and they accept the other as he or she is. That´s why I am asking about minorities.
MASCARO: But I am not talking only about judging but also expectations and the use of them. I have some gay friends and when I showed them the film, they thought the main character is gay and then they were surprised that he is not. The issue is not to be or not to be, it is something beyond formal agenda. I totally agree with the movement and the organized institutions that must fight for the rights of minorities.
NOTEBOOK: The kind of message about being non-judgmental and accepting others could play as LGBT agenda, for example, and people might read your film this way.
MASCARO: Yes, it could be especially when you think about Brazil has now the most conservative congress in the Brazilian history since the dictatorship. It is the first time we are facing a totally conservative government that is taking us directly to the Middle Ages, and it is unbelievable what is happening in the Brazilian politics.
NOTEBOOK: Does this situation affect you directly as a filmmaker, maybe in securing the funds?
MASCARO: It affects whole society but regarding me and funding, it did not yet happen. It is currently mostly affecting the Brazilian economy.
NOTEBOOK: So the government does not interfere in the production process?
MASCARO: Not yet. Filmmakers doing their work with the cultural government are still totally free. We still have our artistic freedom.
NOTEBOOK: Can you make politically-engaged films?
MASCARO: Yes. And the government is creating independent commissions to judge projects. You will probably see a lot of Brazilian films now reflecting on Brazilian contradictions. We do not have these kinds of problems now, but that might change in months to come when we will be facing the new stage of this conservativism at power. In the last ten years, we experienced very important and positive social transformation, but with the recent unpopularity of Dilma Roussef and the rise of conservative power in Brazil—It is being very difficult.

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