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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Twenty Years Later, The Songs, & Sleepless Night Stories

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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: <em>Twenty Years Later</em>, <em>The Songs</em>, & <em>Sleepless Night Stories</em>

[Editor’s Note: Although the São Paulo International Film Festival (Mostra) officially concluded November 3, the festival extended its programming until November 10. This is the first of two concluding pieces about this year’s Mostra.]

Twenty Years Later is a film about a film. Sort of. It begins with the story of João Pedro Teixeira, a political activist in a small tropical town murdered by police in 1962. Two years later, we learn, he had become a folk hero, rechristened João Pessoa (Portuguese for “person”) and held up as a symbol of resistance against Brazil’s military dictatorship. A film crew came to his town and began dramatizing his life, casting his wife Elizabeth and their children as themselves. But the police stopped the shooting, and the film wasn’t finished.

The clean, clear, black-and-white images of the aborted former film mingle with the bright greens and browns of the present one, in which the same film crew returns to the town to see how the locals are. One night they screen their old footage publicly. You realize that the film is being finished as you’re watching it, and that together the older and newer footage form a record of peoples’ lives. Elizabeth, an activist herself, left the town to avoid her husband’s fate, and the narrations of former political struggles give way to present-day scenes of an older Elizabeth reconnecting with the children she left behind. The more she tells about her life to the director, Eduardo Coutinho, the more they come to understand each other, and the more she becomes not a film character, but a person in her own right. The film ends with them shaking hands, the crew leaving, and her waving goodbye to the filmmakers, surrounded by her own family. The movie is over. Life will go on.

Twenty Years Later, finished in 1984 and screened in a beautiful digital restoration at this year’s Mostra, is a marvelously human affront to dictatorship, showing a person’s spirit can’t be censored. It’s also a high point in the great Coutinho’s career. His films focus on people bursting with talk, often performers of one kind or another, but so full of hopes and aspirations that the naked self keeps bleeding through. He mixes fiction and documentary to give you real people that can’t be dismissed as either, building everyday life out of dreams. The filmmaker challenges them—sometimes onscreen, sometimes off—in a blunt, raspy voice, and when they push back their dreams grow stronger. His 2007 film Jogo de Cena begins with a newspaper notice inviting women to tell their life stories, then goes on to mix monologues by professional actresses in with the untrained, off-the-cuff speakers. Sometimes an actress gives the same speech as one of the film’s other women, and we consider how much more natural a person can sound when they tell their own story rather than someone else’s; sometimes the actresses share with Coutinho how they’re acting, and we consider how much more natural they sound than when they’re reciting lines.

A moment late in Jogo de Cena shows an older woman tearing up as she sings a song from her childhood. Coutinho’s new film, The Songs, plays like a film-length expansion of this scene. As in Jogo de Cena, humanity fights with formalism—a succession of shots of people filling a large black chair, sharing their stories, singing a song from memory, then making way for the next guest. The Songs differs from his other films in at least two major ways. One, while his work usually shocks you with the free range of its humor (he’s great at catching people surprising themselves, and so surprising the viewer), this one’s more tragic than comic; many guests recount personal losses, and shed tears. Two, unlike with his films’ usual uninterrupted speech explosions, it’s clear that Coutinho is editing within his subjects’ monologues here, reducing the privilege he usually grants people and giving you a greater feeling of the filmmaker’s control. The film, as a result, feels disappointingly controlled. In the best Coutinho films, innumerable inner and outer lives grapple for screen time. He shows you the world through a camera to capture the freedom and near-endless creativity of real life.

The same could be said of Jonas Mekas, whose new film, Sleepless Night Stories, screened at the Mostra. The Lithuanian poet and founder of Anthology Film Archives has been filming himself since the 1940s with nearly every kind of portable camera imaginable, from Bolex to digital, then editing the results into impressionistic film diaries. The results become records of himself, his family, and his friends, some of whom have since died, all of whom have changed. As with Coutinho, you watch the films not with a double or triple, but quadruple awareness of time—the sense of events having happened in the past, the sense of the filmmaker registering them as he films (including registering the act of remembering), the sense of your watching the film in the present moment as part of your own personal, larger life, and the sense that you will continue to simultaneously live and remember that life longer after leaving the theater.

Mekas invites you to share your life with him by freely sharing his with you. This doesn’t mean that the film is a series of random scenes slapped sloppily together, but rather that it’s presented as a journey in which seemingly anything is possible. Sleepless Night Stories begins with the old man in his Brooklyn apartment, unable to slumber, and he searches the world for a remedy before returning home. It’s that simple, seemingly. Title cards reading haikus and “Praise be to Allah” transition between scenes of people simply sitting and talking, whether it’s Björk pointing her house out or Phong Bui sighing over how tired he is of being called an artist. Like Coutinho, Mekas gives full attention to whomever he’s talking to, and so the film’s people register indelibly regardless of screen time. Harmony Korine excitedly introduces his fiancée, Rachel, to Mekas; two years later, we see him excitedly married; a little later, we see the couple excitedly holding their baby. The film never shows them again, but they stay with us.

Because Mekas is generous with himself in seeking beauty, he gives it to us too. Mekas’s long, camera-directed monologue in praise of the filmmaker Marie Menken gives way to a few young men playing a sweet Lithuanian folk song, and in the effort to catch them the film also looks out the window, reveling in the light outside. He captures his memories of fields from his birth town by showing bright leaves in present-day parks. “Life is full of/suffering/& life is full/beauty and joy,” a card reads, and in this film you believe it. He’s dreaming life into being, just as every Coutinho person does. The gift of dreaming is granted to all people in their films, rich or poor, unknown or famous. Both Coutinho and Mekas are master chroniclers of life, and I can’t imagine life without either one.

The São Paulo International Film Festival ran through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.