Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
The news from Sundance this year was that it’s been a year of women filmmakers. But that early optimism was quickly cut short. Alison Wilmore reported for Buzzfeed that the grumblings by the industry about no clear discoveries at this year’s festival seemed directly related to the larger representation by women. In Wilmore’s words, the buyers were asking, “Who are these films for?” “As mindblowing a concept as this may be, for women,” was Wilmore’re answer in the article. Some critics, such as Eric Hynes, retweeted Wilmore’s repartee on Twitter to voice criticism of the industry’s response. Others, like me, reacted to the industry comments with even more chagrin, wondering if indeed only women were the intended viewer.
Meanwhile in Latin America, women encounter similar challenges. Brazil is a case in point. Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, in the state of Minas Gerais, has grown a local name for having some of the most heated debates about cinema in the country. Its longtime artistic director, Cleber Eduardo, is known for selecting films that are not only formally ambitious or adventurous, but also at times divisive, stirring heated polemics. This past January, you could feel the tension growing as the festival progressed over its ten-day stretch.
Most international viewers will not have heard of Tiradentes. In fact, even Brazilians, whose movie viewing on average continues to be monopolized by such big media players as Globo and Netflix, or the multiplexes, may be equally surprised to hear how vibrant their country’s indie filmmaking has become. Yet Mostra de Tiradentes, and its main competition, Aurora, that Eduardo and his team curate, has contributed greatly to the bold Brazilian cinema we watch today: Affonso Uchoa, whose second feature, Arabia, opened in Rotterdam last year, and Adirley Quierós, whose ethnographic sci-fi, There Was Once Brasilia, opened in Locarno, are but two filmmakers supported by the festival early on in their careers (both were present this year to show their latest films and to participate in panel discussions). On their heels comes the next generation, including Marco Antônio Pereita, whose short film will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.
All men, you will note. But the news isn’t all bleak for women. Juliana Antunes, whose audacious hybrid film, Baronesa, won the main competition in Tiradentes last year, has toured extensively with it since. When I interviewed Antunes at the festival in 2017, both she and her young all-women crew seemed stunned by their success, yet assertive and thoughtful about their artistic choices. These included narrowing the prism through which to tell a story of a Brazilian favela almost entirely to a tight group of women, and focusing on their intimacy, with equal measure playfulness and resilience. Antunes had not traveled much beyond her native state of Minas Gerais. Since then, she has collected top prizes at FICValdivia in Chile, at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina, and at the New Latin American Festival in Havana. And Ventura, the company that Antunes created in 2016, with freelance producers from her native Belo Horizonte, Marcella Jacques and Laura Godoy, has been selected for the Berlinale Talents, an annual networking platform that each year joins a selective group of industry and creatives (as Jacques wrote me on Facebook, she was selected to attend the Berlinale Talents for Ventura’s work promoting gender equality). Meanwhile, the company is also gearing up for Antunes’s second feature, hoping to raise the necessary funds.
To some extent, the positive trend continued in Tiradentes this year. The festival opening film, Café com Canela (Coffee with Cinnamon), by filmmakers Ary Rosa and Glenda Nicácio, has been a small indie sensation. While some critics treated it more as a middle-brow crowd-pleaser, it is clear that the film, about a middle-class neighborhood in Salvador, Bahia, has been embraced by audiences as a rare Brazilian fiction that tells stories of Afro-Brazilians’ ordinary lives, without an emphasis on poverty, crime, or drug trafficking that has been notorious in national cinema. (Much of the heat that a television series cum film, Nois por nois, by Aly Muritiba and Jandir Santin, got at the festival came from Afro-Brazilian viewers who fiercely questioned the fact that it’s still predominantly white filmmakers who write and direct the stories about the black population.) Thus the importance of Café com canela is not to be underestimated. Before Tiradentes, the film won the audience award at the Brasilia Film Festival, and was warmly received at the Festival Semana de Cinema (formerly Semana dos Realizadores) in Rio de Janeiro, where I first saw it, and where it played to sold-out houses.
Perhaps the most promising sign this year in Tiradentes was Imo, a film by young filmmaker Bruna Schelb Corrêa, which played in the main competition. Corrêa’s film isn’t so much a narrative with clear character arcs or story denouement as an episodic compilation. In three distinct stories, we follow women in seemingly ordinary surroundings that quickly turn bizarre. In the first, a trans woman in what looks like an early 20th century apothecary sits at a table chopping fruit. A pair of additional hands appears, interrupting her work until she chops them off. In the next episode, a beautiful housewife buries her eyeballs in her garden’s dirt. And in the third, a young woman whose body is laid out on top of a tavern table, as if she were part of an elaborate dish, ends up poisoning male diners with her own blood. While Corrêa’s work has been likened to the Czech animation director Jan Svankmajer, she sees her precedents more in Maya Deren. Still, Corrêa’s aesthetic, with mutilated bodies and language that is more explicitly Freudian and sexual, indeed recalls the Czech animation master more than Deren’s illusive experimental films. Where Deren stresses the subliminal, associative and rhythmic aspects, Corrêa is more on the narrative, explicitly surrealist and grotesque end of the spectrum. Vera Chytilová is perhaps closest, with Daisies’ similar feminist slant but greater fragmentation. Whatever the comparisons, or the small pitfalls of Corrêa’s storytelling that leans at the very end towards the obvious, she is a promising, fearsome voice.
One can only imagine that it was partly this fearsomeness, and the surrealist aesthetic, that led Luiz Carlos Merten, a prominent critic from the major Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo (Estadão), to criticize the film in a post-screening discussion. His comments reverberated later, during another panel, when other critics and members of the audience questioned Merten’s assertion that Imo and similar films made by women were intended for a narrow niche (whereas, by implication, a male perspective on womanhood is often taken to be of more general interest, even when men use women’s suffering as convenient vehicles for metaphysical themes—as was partly the case with a visually striking but somewhat stolid Rebento, a film by André Morais that Merten fiercely defended).
It is easy to see how, in Brazil’s increasingly politicized cultural climate, the assertions about “niche” themes or directors come out as either willfully tone-deaf or a direct provocation to many women filmmakers, even more so to black women filmmakers, who are routinely marginalized. A group of Brazilian industry women present in Tiradentes, composed of various professions, including filmmakers, screenwriters, actresses, editors, producers and researchers, met during the festival and followed up with an open letter calling for more space for women and women of color in programming, and for more awareness and sensitivity in public discussions.
In the Tiradentes program itself, women were mostly excluded from the major awards. Julia Katharine, the charismatic trans woman in Gustavo Vinagre’s documentary I Remember the Crows, won the “feminine highlight” trophy, a rather enigmatic prize title. Katharine received it to a standing ovation from the hands of Brazilian Marginal Cinema icon, Helena Ignez. Ignez, a close collaborator of filmmakers such as Glauber Rocha, Rogério Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane, has been a revolutionizing feminist figure. (Although contextualizing Cinema Marginal today, it’s hard not to note its all male direction and at times heavily misogynist aesthetic. It also goes without saying that the roles for women of color were even more severely limited in the 1960s and 70s, when Ignez first came on the scene, Ozualdo Candeias’s recently restored, A Margem, being one of the notable exceptions.)
In Tiradentes, another trans woman, Rosa Luz, who plays a protagonist by the same name in a short film We Are All Here (Estamos Todos Aqui), by Chico Santos and Rafael Mellim, mesmerized the audience with her lithe and forceful performance as a rebellious outsider determined to fight for her rights (the short won the Brazil Channel prize). Meanwhile, young filmmaker Jessica Queiroz, almost straight out of a São Paulo film school, produced a short film-manifesto, Peripatetic. One could say the film is about the necessity of racial quotas at Brazilian universities. But this makes Queiroz’s work sound earnest and driven solely by a political message, when in fact its construction is both more artful and playful. In the film’s opening sequence, young people at a job interview are asked why they should be hired (a global generational anguish as job market shrank and hasn’t recovered in many parts of the world). What follows is a mix of naturalist and oneiric narration, in a story of a young woman, Simone, who loses a close friend to police fire, as she’s about to start college.
Although Queiroz’s message is much more explicit, the celebration of black women’s self-awareness and creative power gives her short a touch comparable to that of Antunes’s epic drive. Both films suggest that Brazilian women are ready to tell stories in which they are not passive sideliners, but are rather agents of change, with all the complexity that this entails. No small feat when one considers that only in 2013 a movie such as A Wolf at the Door, by Fernando Coimbra, which uses the theme of feminine monstrosity for its ultimately banal and overwrought thriller formula, swept prizes at the national film festival in Brasilia, and then went on to Toronto and other international festivals, garnering the Latinos Horizontes prize for best in Latin film at San Sebastian Festival. It’s partly in contrast to facile, oftentimes over-eroticized, portrayals of violence in mainstream Latin American cinema, and their ready embrace at home and abroad, that Antunes’s Baronesa leaves violent acts off-screen, while she makes clear the real-life sexual abuse her main protagonist, Andreia, suffered, and its lasting effects. It’s also in response that a thoughtful filmmaker like Corrêa stages disturbing acts with a cool reserve, suggesting that self-mutilation and sacrifice, real or symbolic, is still suffered by Latin women mostly in silence, far from the public eye. It’s ultimately the casualness with which it happens—not the tabloid attention showered on most extreme cases—that makes it so heartbreaking.
The most powerful implication in Baronesa, in which Andreia leaves her neighborhood to construct a new home, is that the public imaginary space must be conquered and reconfigured, so that viewers and filmmakers alike can think of women in more complex, proactive, and ultimately, more plausible ways. A similar conclusion can be reached from We Are All Here, which, like Peripatetic, carries in its heart a call to action: Rosa rebels against the state agents who try to push her, and other marginalized impoverished women, off the land they have occupied. But again, what’s so compelling about Rosa and the film is how the collaboration between the nonprofessional actress and the filmmakers generates exciting visual language. The real Rosa’s experience as a music performer and YouTuber is channeled into a film that pulsates with rhythmic alertness, full of anger, beauty and poise.
One can only hope that having more women directors like Antunes, Corrêa and Queiroz, and actresses like Katharine and Luz, helps diversify the still entrenched Brazilian—also Latin American and global—film industry, making further room for women of color, who continue to be underrepresented. For now, the sheer force of the few outliners is encouraging, though their full acceptance by the industry players—as this year’s Sundance case shows—is not yet guaranteed.