Affonso Uchoa (right) and João Dumans (left)

By Mónica Delgado

Araby (Arábia), Affonso Uchoa’s second feature (the first one directed with João Dumans –both in photo) is an experience on the work field, through the gaze of a man who travels around a Brazil of fields, factories and industries. Using the form of the “tale inside the tale” and the subtle appearance of the “road movie”, we follow part of the life of Cristiano (the remarkable non-professional actor Aristides de Sousa), an opaque, quiet character, who complies with the work dialectics, something that absorbs him, sharing with other characters like him the routine, the relief of music, and the necessity of leaving poverty in a country in crisis. As if the times haven’t changed, the Brazilian Sertao still looks in urgency of men who work too many hours for ludicrous payment, where the cheap and silent labor is a synonym of progress for ones and numbing for others. And it’s from a narrative style of silences, long shots and music as a metaphor for freedom, that Uchoa and Dumans construct a powerful film about labor alienation and its dependency, freely inspired in a James Joyce tale.

Winner of Best film on the “Hoy” Ibero-american Competition in Lima Independiente Film Festival, and premiered in BAFICI, Araby affirms Uchoa as one of the most careful and original filmmakers in Brazil, and now with Dumans, with whom he had worked in his previous film (the excellent A Hidden Tiger), they promise more upcoming works of an esteemed universe. We talked with Affonso Uchoa on his work in Araby.

Desistfilm: Araby is a film that doesn’t focus on localisms, in just one place, and in that it’s already different of A Hidden Tiger), since there’s a more universal approach to it. The film shows Brazil, Ouro Preto, but not with the intention of relating it to the place itself, like a mirror of reality but to show it as an space serving the story.

Affonso Uchoa: To me this is related to a fundamental difference between the two films. A Hidden Tiger has a strong documentary feeling, and Araby is a completely fictional movie. In A Hidden Tiger (Brazil, 2014) I had a very strong commitment with the community, the neighborhood, the life of the actors in the place. The film originated from a very strong will of respecting the reality of people and places where I recorded, and for me that’s almost a principal of documentary. However, in Araby, which was made by João Dumans and myself, and however being rooted deeply in reality, the invention of passages, episodes, everything is invented. In Araby, the persons and places have different names in screen than in real life. For me that’s a fundamental factor for fiction: the liberty of changing the names of things. There’s another thing that for me has to do with what you say there is in A Hidden Tiger, since the oppression has to do with the space, the local: we sense it in the houses, in the streets, you can see that’s a place of poor people, that that neighborhood shows the conditions in which people are living there. It’s a way of oppression very common in the big cities of Brazil now: the poor are isolated, alone, without contact with other parts of the city. That’s why, to show this oppression, the film stays with the characters, totally prisoners of the barrio. In Araby, the oppression is no longer perceived in one place only; it’s all over the world. The character of Arístides is a traveler that goes around many places, but he’s still in the same shit, always. The oppression is not a place, it’s a social condition. To show that kind of oppression, our history must follow it without being locked in any specific place.

Desistfilm: Now that you’ve mentioned oppression as a condition that appears in the characters, in Araby you use a type of expressiveness to translate this: close shots which are concentrated in delimited spaces by doors, windows, which somehow show this cloister.

Affonso Uchoa: I think that this way of doing scenes and shots has also something to do with our desire of showing a poor reality in a way which isn’t always naturalistic. In Araby, we were interested to get out of a commonplace in Brazilian cinema, which is always showing people in vulnerable condition from realism. We wanted a different thing, something more theatrical, and that’s why we used scenes of this type in the film, as a more risky way of representation. When we work in this way, we do it through the posture of the body, from the spaces, in the same scenes, and those are our weapons to create significates. In the scene with Cristiano (Arístides de Souza) and the employer, when the protagonist is sacked in the plantation of mandarins, for example, they asked why we filmed in a faraway zone. And it’s just that this space so big, powerful, is where the money of the landlord is perceived. The space is not only a place, it’s also power. And Cristiano looks very small in the scene, almost minuscule as he asks for his rights to the hacienda owner. That’s how we scape realism and utilize other resource, where the space and the bodies have a preponderant role.

Araby (2017)

Desistfilm: There’s also a special use of music in Araby. If the images scape from naturalism or realism, the songs also give a different dimension to the film, that could be seen as a musical or a road movie.

Affonso Uchoa: The way the music is presented in Araby was made as we did the film. In a first moment, while we were writing the script or in the moment of recording, we thought the music as a way of showing the interior and the feelings of the characters, and also as a way of translating reality and the spaces of our history. In other words, we wanted to play songs that moved the heart of the Brazilian workers, specially our worker, Cristiano. In the scene of Renan and Cristiano, in that part of the mandarins, two trucker songs are conjugated, a song of 1958, Caminheiro, which talks about a person living far away from his land, and another, a rap song from 1989, O Homem na estrada, about a person that returns to the street after years in prison. Both are “estraderos” songs. In this scene we remember the past of the character, himself, in real life, a man who went out of prison. And we also listen a little of the “sertanejo”, a kind of Country music from brazil, that is heard a lot in the interior, in spaces like that hacienda of mandarins. So this songs show the memories of our characters and also the culture of a space of Brazil. This is what we wanted with the music in a first moment. But, while we were editing, we wanted to have another intention as using the music: to focus the relation of these songs also with other cultures, so in some way, we could show that the reality of Cristiano is universal, it can happen in Peru, Germany and Brazil, since there’s Cristianos all over those places. That’s why we use music from Syria, the United States… it was a way of doing this story more universal.

Desistfilm: How did you choose this process of the workers’ work? They go from plantations to factories; there are passages of very manual labor and very sophisticated work.

Affonso Uchoa: Yes, there is that progression, but it’s a little subtler. Something we decided to do is visiting factories, different workplaces and extracts some elements of our investigation. And in some way there’s something subtle in all the film, since Cristiano starts working in jobs that no longer are manual labor, up to his way as a supervisor, where his actions are no longer manual but things like supervising the work of others, something more specialized. This is something that is even in the end of the film, returning to Ouro Preto, where Cristiano goes back to the manual labor, like a returning to the beginning. But there is something also that isn’t deliberate, and has to do with the emblematic jobs which respond to activities in certain economic moments in Brazil, like working with the land, in the field, in the interior, in the “estradas” and jobs where young people started to dedicate their time to have “official” jobs, well paid, in the factories. We had more kind of jobs in the script but we slowly discarded some, and we were left with the most significant ones, in terms of dramatic importance and visual quality. We are very satisfied, since we were talking about the possibilities of work for a poor person in Brazil, inside the industry that is being developed in the country: the construction of roads, the labor with the land. The story of Cristiano’s character (Arístides) merged with this labor reality.

Desistfilm: How was the work among directors, which labors were made by whom? How was this process of working together in Araby?

Affonso Uchoa: We had already worked together in A Hidden Tiger, but not as co-directors. João was the screenwriter, editor and director assistant, and I directed the film. He was essential for this film, without him it couldn’t have happened. To me it was something fantastic, I’m always grateful for his support. When we started working in A Hidden Tiger we had the will of directing something together. In 2011, while we were making Hidden Tiger, we wrote a script and won a contest in our province, so we had some money to do our film. But the process of A Hidden Tiger was prolongued, and ended in 2013. Then we went back to our script and found out that we didn’t like it that much. We had the intention of changing it but while we thought in which direction it had to go, we had the idea of making a short film, so we could get accustomed to work together. This short would be a free adaptation of a James Joyce story, Araby, but recorded in Ouro Preto, in the worker’s barrio, next to the factory. And while this process was ongoing, we slowly oriented our efforts to a story with a greater presence of the factory, and we changed and made the script bigger… So, this project of a short film became a feature film, and that’s how Araby was born.

Working with João was a very nice experience but a very difficult one, since it’s good to be with a good friend, someone I admire and whose ideas about cinema I trust, and at the same time it’s difficult to give in, finding dialogues and not accepting other ideas but your own.

Desistfilm: How did you include femenine characters in Araby? Since it’s almost a film governed by men.

Affonso Uchoa: The most important character is Ana, and we were thinking that since the beginning of the script, since she’s necessary for Cristiano’s trajectory. While we were writing and editing, we had present a phrase which Cristiano said about her: that he valued than she knew how to write and Cristiano didn’t, because there was a social difference, but we also, we were interested in seeing love as an admiration from him to her, who writes, who says things clearly and that had to happen in order not to stay in a love surprised by the social differences. We were interested in her inspiring him. She’s a person that Cristiano admires, who is important in his life, and helps him transform it.

Desistfilm: Do you think Araby could be seen as a pessimistic film? There’s an opposition of light at the beginning, and at the end, darkness is felt.

Affonso Uchoa: Some people think that the movie is optimistic, since Cristiano is a character who always pushes forward despite every adversity on his way…But if someone sees the film as pessimistic I think that might be not wrong. The ending shows a melancholic character that becomes aware of his condition, but doesn’t transform. The reality is proof of this behavior; we live in a world where people like Cristiano have little chance of a dignified life. If someone sees the character from a pessimistic point of view, this is valid.