The colonial town of Tiradentes, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, is nothing if not quaint. With baroque churches, cobbled streets, and pristine historical homes, Tiradentes seems immune to the present, and thus to the country’s deep turmoil, including the impeachment of populist president Dilma Rousseff and the ongoing massive corruption scandals. And yet, it’s here, at the Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, that a major artistic shakeup takes place, reflecting Brazil’s contemporary zeitgeist.
Now in its 20th year, the Tiradentes film festival has given a start to filmmakers as varied, and, by now, as critically acclaimed as Kleber Mendonça Filho, Gabriel Mascaro, Adirley Queirós, and Affonso Uchoa (whose Arabia just premiered at the Rotterdam Film Estival). More importantly, it’s created an ambitious network of young programmers, filmgoers and critics, who look to the festival to set the pace for where Brazil’s cinema goes next.
The festival’s artistic director, Cleber Eduardo, loves to defy expectations. “There is no such thing as a Tiradentes style or theme,” Eduardo said at one of the festival’s panel discussions. Eduardo, who joined the festival 10 years ago, created its main competition, Aurora. Argentine critic and programmer Roger Koza—the festival’s guest this year and a repeat visitor—has spoken about Aurora’s status as a rare gem in the Brazil and international festival circuits: continuously delivering surprises, where some of the more established festivals may have become stale. Indeed, Aurora is incredibly diverse, with an inspiring penchant for reinvention.
This year, the Aurora’s seven features included Juliana Antunes’s bold and bracing Baronesa, which touts the power of black women and single mothers; Fernanda Pessoa’s essay film Histórias Que Nosso Cinema (Não) Contava, which re-contextualizes Brazil’s military dictatorship through the lens of pornochanchadas, or slapstick porn; and a gutsy dissection of feminist film criticism, Leo Pyrata’s Subybaya. Most selections were followed by panel discussions, some heated, particularly the ones for Baronesa and Subibaya.
Even the more “senior” fare at the festival, represented by veteran filmmakers Luiz Rosenberg Jr. and Paula Gaitán, was eye-opening. The unabashedly Brechtian theatricality on display throughout Rochenbach’s Jr.’s Guerra do Paraguay and Gaitán’s playful editing and use of mono sound throughout Sutis Interferências, a film on American experimental musician Arto Lindsay, proved that risk need not be the sole privilege of the young.
The festival’s official theme was “cinema of resistance, cinema of reinvention.” Indeed, young Brazilians have much to resist these days. In Brazil, multiple social, educational, and art programs are at risk, censorship is on the rise, and the tensions between artists and the government remain high, since, if not before, Mendonça Filho’s “Out Temer” protest on Cannes’s red carpet last year. Yet, in the face of hardship, Tiradentes bets on slyness of the ingenious kind. A political stance isn’t enough, as the films presented this year didn’t just highlight under-reported stories (particularly of Afro-Brazilians, especially black women, and the LGBT community), but do so with undeniable aesthetic hutzpah. To put it simply, Tiradentes proves that art is political art per excellence when it’s so good that you simply can’t ignore it.
This couldn’t be truer than in the case of Baronesa, a hybrid nonfiction film that won the festival’s Aurora prize. The 29-year-old Antunes, along with her all-women crew, spent five years embedded in the shantytown neighborhood of Belo Horizonte in Southeastern Brazil, often living and sleeping in the same house as the women she filmed. In the film, two friends, Leid and Andreia, navigate perilous daily grind: Leid raises small children while her husband is in jail, and Andreia dreams of moving to a safer neighborhood, Baronesa, while she earns her living as a beauty stylist to the poor.
Baronesa’s artistic economy runs deep, conjuring up maximum magic on a shoestring budget, and never forgetting the grit of its subject. This is in large part to Antunes’s strong sense of storytelling, and to the brilliant editing by Affonso Uchoa and Rita Pestana. We’re seduced by Andreia’s strong-willed personality as she eggs her girlfriends on, speaks bawdily of female orgasm, warns against marriage, and bonds with her buddy, Felipe, a handsome and lost young man whose life is marked by gang violence. (Fernanda de Sena’s intimate cinematography bolsters the film’s depiction of the women’s love being as precious, but also as rough, as their lives.)
Yet the tiniest flickers—Felipe’s flashlight that projects nude girls, the careless casual bath in a plastic tub on a hot day, or a freewheeling dance—show the freedom to dream and to dare. And while, as Antunes says in reference to Brazil’s poverty and violence, “the cycle never ends,” the indelible image she constructs—of Andreia finally building her new home by film’s end, brick by brick and with her own hands—is a projection that makes her protagonist larger than the meager context that contains her.
In the shorts section, the film that came closest to Baronesa’s emotional resonance was Ana Carolina Soares’s Estado Itinerante, in which a young female bus driver finds an escape from domestic violence among fellow coworkers. As in Baronesa, in which we hear gunshots but don’t see violence on screen, the film suggests fear and aggression but doesn’t reproduce it—a rebuke to works like Fernando Meirelles’s City of God that turn violence into dehumanizing spectacle. A cathartic scene, in which the abused woman finally breaks down and expresses her terror, comes during a dance—at first, sensuous and playful—with a young cross-dresser at a local boteco. The unexpected darkening of the dance, not to mention the unspoken understanding that the two dancers share, is electrifying and frightening for the way the filmmakers suggests the prevalence of sexual violence.
In some ways, the film that won the shorts section couldn’t be more different. Where Baronesa and Estado Itinerante are confined to the domestic, Leonardo Mouramateus and Andréia Pires’s Vando Vulgo Vedita takes Brazi’s broader urban landscape, public activism, and street violence as its canvas. A group of young men—dancers from a real dance group in the coastal city of Fortaleza—get their hair bleached at a beauty parlor. Pires, who makes her directorial debut with this film, previously worked as a choreographer with the dance group. This explains the great intimacy that she and Mouramateus create, lending the film a breathless rhythm, in spite of the events being heavily staged. Once the action moves to a beach, men and women’s bodies—lithe, androgynous—intertwine on the sand, and in the water.
Throughout the film, the young sing of sexual desire, yet underneath their sensual enjoyment runs a darker, perilous current, hinted by a song about sexual vampires. Then the scene changes again, to a young gay man being stopped by the police, and brutalized, having his face sprayed with graffiti paint—reflecting the police aggression that’s all too common in the region.
Unlike Baronesa, Vando Vulgo Vedita reduces persons to bodies in order make its points. Its operatic, fluid form blurs the lines of sexual difference. And much like Baronesa and Estado Itinerante, the film proves that while Brazil is being swept by a tide of conservatism and intolerance, affecting profoundly the poor and the marginalized, the country’s young filmmakers are bold and mature enough to face this threat head-on.
The Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes ran from January 20—28.