Winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Locarno 2019 with A Febre, brazilian filmmaker Maya Da-Rin has been exploring different aspects of Latin American identity towards post-colonial influence, and the intimate dynamics of fluid borders between different countries in the region. We spoke to her about her movement inside different genres and formats (installation/documentary/fiction), her ideas on post-colonialism and identity, and the reality of the Bolsonaro Regime in Brazil.
By: José Sarmiento Hinojosa and Mónica Delgado
Desistfilm: It isn’t usual to move from visual art or installation to the realm of no fiction. How was this transition like?
It was the other way round, actually. I’ve started with documentaries, then I’ve made some installations and fiction films. My first film, The Word Tilts to Here, is a short documentary with a family from a rural community in the interior of Brazil. Then I’ve made Margem, which follows a three day boat trip in the Amazon river, and Terras, on the triple border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru. In these films I’ve often worked combining different mediums and supports, like still photography, video, super-8, 35mm; and sound has always played an important role. All of them address issues related to the territory, such as displacement, belonging, translation and oral tradition, liked to historical mechanisms or social-political contexts that seek to control or restrict these experiences. So when I started making the installations, it felt like a continuation of something I was already working on.
Event Horizon is a walk through the city of Marseille monitored by GPS. For Camouflage, I walk in circles in a forest also followed by a GPS tracked camera. The same with my fiction films. In A Febre, Justino’s daily displacement between his work and home is what structures the film, while in French Version, a short I’ve made during a residence at Le Fresnoy, in France, the characters are reflected in the landscape outside the window and what drives the film are issues related to belonging, language and translation again. But I can only see this recurrences nowadays, by looking backwards. It was not something I was really conscientious of when developing these projects.
Desistfilm: You’re a filmmaker born in Rio, and you haved live in Paris. How did this interest of approaching your documentaries and then your fiction in an area where three countries converge, in the river, a port, a zone of the jungle was born?
I’ve lived in France between 2010 and 2016. So I’ve shot the documentaries before moving to France and A Febre when I was already back in Brazil. But I usually start a project by a place, often a place unknown to me. Them I try to spend as much time as I can there, walking around, meeting the people and trying to understand how I can or not relate to that place. This allows me to have the time and the freedom to find the film I want to make before I start shooting. And often it takes me some time before I feel that I can turn on the camera.
My first films in the Amazon came out of an interest in the borders between Brazil and other Latin America’s countries, which are regions relatively sparsely populated and unknown by the Brazilian population, historically concentrated on the coast. This was back in 2005 and by researching I got to the triple border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, where the twin cities Leticia and Tabatinga are located. I then went by myself to Leticia, where I stayed for around two months. Most of the time I spent walking around the city and its surroundings, without a clear idea of what I was looking for, before I could come back with a small crew to shot. This period has marked a cut in my comprehension of things. Until today, the projects I develop are somehow related with what I have experienced and the people I’ve met during these months.
Desistfilm: Both Margem and Terras occur in an area of convergence, an area which seems to belong to different countries but also to no country in particular. This idea of open borders, of a location that belong to its people before it was conquered, is central in your approach, and it returns on this idea of the “heavy industrialized” zone in the middle of the jungle in A febre. Can you talk a little more about this particular idea and how important is it for you?
The history of Latin America, as we know it, began with the destruction of some of the most complex civilizations in the history of our species and probably with the greatest genocide of which we are aware. It is estimated that more than one hundred million people lived here before the arrival of Europeans and half of that population was wiped out in just over three decades. As we know, those who survived were subjected to the greatest atrocities, relegated to the condition of primitive, soulless, and therefore non-human beings, being forced to abandon their socio-cultural and symbolic systems to enter the base of the pyramid established with the new system of domination and colonial exploitation.
To justify these new power relations, as your countryman Aníbal Quijano explains, they forged the idea of race, and a racial identity was imposed on the peoples of the Americas: “Indians”. As European colonialism advanced, this idea of race was imposed on other populations in the world. At the same time, a new geography of world power is created, naming and establishing the boundaries between what we have come to know, on one hand, as Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania and, on the other, as the West, East, Western Europe, Far East, etc. Thus emerged the first global system of social domination and exploitation of resources: capitalism. This new organization of the world with its different borders, something that seems so natural to us nowadays, as it had always been like that, is a product of this new system.
In the same way that the idea of race and capitalism arose with the colonization of the Americas, humanism and modernity could only be possible in function of it. While meeting the people they had named savages, the Europeans could realize how human they were and, for centuries, the concept of humanism would bear all kinds of usurpation, exploitation, prejudice and violence, as it continues to do nowadays. These concepts became so constitutive of the Western mentality that we, Latin Americans, remain the “others”, that is, savages. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, depending on how passively we accept to occupy the position given to us in that system of power.
Returning to your question, when I arrived at Leticia and Tabatinga, I came across a territory traversed by different manifestations of the borders that often overlapped its physical demarcations. Not that there were no borders for the native peoples of this region – societies that spoke different languages, with its own cosmologies and cultures – but they were mobile and relational concepts, not lines drawn on an inaccurate map that did not reflect the local geography and ignored the previous history of its occupation. The fact that the national borders of modern states overlapped the territorial organization of those peoples – crossing the land where the same people lived or cornering enemy peoples in the same area – made that region especially revealing of the history of the continent; a story of which we (barely) know the past 500 years.
These different frontiers are also very present in A Febre: narrative, image and sound. On the one hand, there is the physical boundaries between the city and the forest. The installation of the Manaus Industrial Pole during the military dictatorship is a continuation of the same colonialist project of occupation and extraction of wealth, from which the multinational conglomerates benefit. We then have a huge industrial pole built in the middle of the largest tropical forest in the world, in a place of difficult access, without roads that connect it to the rest of the country; in the same way that the demarcations of national borders were drawn arbitrarily, ignoring the different forms of existence, human and non-human, that inhabited there.
On the other hand, there is the boundaries between different cultures, languages, ways of life and forms of knowledge. But these are not rigid concepts, they cross over each other. That’s why I like to think of them more as ramifications or branches than as border lines. I was interested in how those natural and industrial environments affected Justino’s physically and psychologically. And there is also a political and historical dimension. Justino is being chased and chasing an invisible creature at the same time. So there is a set of mirrors about what we consider wild; about what forces threaten each one of us depending on the social and historical position we occupy.
Desistfilm: We can also talk about the deeper connections man had with nature and its rituals through your documentaries and certain ideas in A febre, like the use of the native language and some shared myths. Why is this hermeneutics of myth, magic and land so important for you?
I am interested in epistemologies that postulate a more intelligent and promising relationship between our species, other living beings and the world where we all live in. I suspect that we urgently need to start questioning the Eurocentric forms of knowledge we have inherited, because they have not been very efficient for maintaining life, not even for our own species. When I say that, I don’t mean denying western science and technology, but I am sure that there are ways to produce knowledge without so much exploitation and destruction. But for that, as Emilie Hache proposes, we need to deconstruct the modern and patriarchal myth of the conquest of nature by man and populate our imaginary, taken by so many dreams of domination and accumulation, with other narratives.
What we call myth, magic and ritual, terms often associated with primitive beliefs as opposed to the true and universal knowledge from the Western societies, are complex and ancient practices that understand nature as a living organism and an interrelational system, from which humans are neither excluded nor superior. These different practices not only originate in the relationship between humans and the land, but also determine the future of that relationship; the way we care for and cultivate it. What I am trying to say is not that the social systems of Amerindian populations should be taken as a model for non-indigenous societies, this would be a utopian way of instrumentalizing this relationship, but they are the clear proof that other forms of social organization are possible and necessary. I am not proposing neither that we should live like them, there is nothing idyllic about living in the forest. But I believe that some kind of return is necessary, especially the resumption of certain bonds we have lost between humans, other species and the land.
Desistfilm: French Version is a fascinating short film which sort of escapes from your usual themes to create this parallel path in time where both the day dies and so the particular connection between this couple. This being reinforced by our gaze behind a mirror. How did you develop this idea?
Although French Version has a particular format, as it’s made of a single shot, it revolves around the same issues that are also present in my other films. We have two foreigners, a Russian and a Portuguese, who meet in a hotel room in Paris. It is also a film spoken in a foreign language, for me as well as for the characters and the actors, and again it is a film about belonging, language, translation and also about colonialism, our cultural matrices and references. But the film deals with this with a certain irony and humor.
The shooting took place at a time when these issues were very present for me personally, when I moved to France to take part at Le Fresnoy’s residency. It didn’t make sense to me to go to France and develop a project to be shot in Brazil. But, at the time, I spoke French very badly and it can be a certain challenge to live in France when you don’t know the codes of that culture. It took me a while to understand what film I could make in that context. On the one hand, it was clear that I could only shoot from my perspective as a foreigner. On the other, I was in one of those temples of French culture that are the “grad écoles” like Le Fresnoy, with a highly privileged access to the means of production but, mainly, within a disciplinary body in which our projects were developed under the guidance of European and, sometimes, North American’s intellectuals and artists. Naturally, the references that circulated in these conversations were those of the high cultures of the north. And not by chance, many of them had also been references for me. But there was always a boundary in these conversations, making it clear that I did not belong to that world.
I understood that I could only make a film out of this paradox in which I found myself. I decided to create a script out of dialogues appropriated from iconic French films that had somehow built the imaginary I had of France, a clearly exotic and manufactured imaginary that was created mainly by cinema. So we had the memory of these films, incorporated by non-French, foreign actors, who repeated those dialogues with the accent of their native languages. What interested me most was the sound friction and the displacement it could produce in the apprehension of those texts when recited by foreigners. The camera is not behind a mirror but framing a window pane. As the night falls, the landscape of Paris is overlapped by the reflection of the room where the characters are. So it’s less about a voyeur look and more about a foreign presence in that landscape. They are clearly not comfortable and there is a certain malaise that takes over the film. At the same time, everything is a construct: the landscape is a projection on a screen, the bedroom is a scenario set up in a studio and what we see are reflections. But the film was very badly received in France. It has been show only in Brazil and at some other peripheral countries.
Desistfilm: More than a dichotomy of tradition and modernity, what is shown in A febre is a kind of immolation, of a father who steps out his family and community surroundings to be able to work and help his family. The film proposes a return to community, at the end of the day. How was this story of the man in an industrial environment born?
The first ideas for the script came up in 2006, while I was shooting the documentaries, when I met some families who had left their traditional territories in the forest to live in the city. I therefore decided to settle the movie in Manaus, a city that I had previously visited a couple of times and which had always intrigued me as being an industrial hub located in the middle of the rain forest. I was interested by how these different projects of society – the western and the ones from the indigenous groups – affected the lives of people and also of non-humans beings.
I’ve then written the script during the seasons that I and one of my co-writers, Miguel Seabra Lopes, spent in Manaus, when we visited some indigenous communities on the outskirts of the city, followed the journeys of the cargo port workers and nurses of a health center. It is very difficult for me to think of a movie sitting in front of the computer, I need to be in the place where I am going to shoot.
About A Febre being a film about a type of immolation, I’m not sure … I think that in a certain way this the life of most of the people around the world: having to leave home every day to work and returning home at the end of the day. Perhaps this is one of the great problems of today. Almost everyone lives the same life, with the exception of a very few who have the privilege to choose not to do so.
Desistfilm: How did you encounter the lead characters on your film? And which kind of research did you use, was it an ethnographic, anthropological process or something different?
Casting research was a long process that lasted more than a year. We visited the indigenous communities around Manaus and São Gabriel da Cachoeira inviting who wanted to take part in the film for a talk. I have been with more than 500 people before meeting the actors of the film. Reginaldo caught my attention because of his presence and the precision of his movements. In Rosa, there was something I couldn’t access, like a secret, which was what I was looking for for Vanessa’s character.
Then we had two intense months of rehearsal with the people who play the characters of Justino’s family. During these encounters, we mostly told stories to each other. It was a way to get to know one another, to activate memory and the idea that we were there to tell a story together. Cinema is this place, where stories are told, and Amerindian cultures have an oral tradition in which knowledge is transmitted through the stories told from one generation to the next. I believe that to tell a good story is essential to know how to listen. Acting is above all knowing how to actively listen the other and a good narrator is one who is able to make us see through words.
Desistfilm: What made you inquire into the male gaze in your last film?
For the peoples of the Upper Rio Negro, illnesses such as the one that affects Justino tend to be more frequent among men. As Justino tells his grandson in the story about the greedy hunter who went out to hunt even though he had enough food at home, these diseases originating from non-biological causes are often related to the relationship between humans and non-humans, such as the predatory action of hunters towards other animal species, who take revenge by making humans sick. Since men are the ones responsible for hunting in these societies, they are often more vulnerable to these kind of disease.
But A Febre also has a female protagonist: Vanessa. I was especially interested in how this two generations of different genres related to the city and to the non-indigenous society. But beyond narratives that focuses on women characters and their struggles, I am more interested in thinking about how we can structurally transform the stories we tell. The Sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin has a very interesting text in which she comments on how the stories in the West are dominated by the narrative of the hero’s triumph, by his conquests and victories, full of weapons and wars, which penetrate, pierce, kill. According to Le Guin, the problem is that, by virtue of repetition, we have all become part of this story and perhaps, for that very reason, we will all end with it. Instead of continuing to replicate the hunter’s tale, as she calls these narratives, referring to the stories that mammoth hunters narrated when returning home with their prey, she proposes a collecting narrative that is not necessarily conflict-oriented, that has no heroes but people, that is also formed by weaknesses, irresolutions, gaps, instead of advancing as sure as an arrow to reach the final destination before we can even realize that the arrow had been launched. It is a broader and more complex gesture, and it takes time and the work of many of us to make these changes happen.
Desistfilm: What do you think about the new measurements given by president Bolsonaro for the audiovisual sector in Brazil? What expectations do you have towards this situation that is affecting the sector?
Since Bolsonaro took office, his government has been disrupting not only the audiovisual sector but the entire Brazilian culture, with the closure of the Ministry of Culture, the dismantling of the Brazilian Cinematheque, the drastic reduction of resources and the ideological pairing of public institutions. Cinema has always had privileged access to public incentives when compared to other artistic areas but, nowadays, a series of political obstacles ended up practically paralyzing the activity in the country and all actions aimed at films with less market impact have been discontinued. Alongside this, there is an ideological control’s attempt by the government, which believes has the power to define which themes should or should not be filmed and distributed.
But there is something even more serious happening in Brazil: the non-safeguarding of minority rights and the discontinuation of Environmental policies which that took decades to be conquered and are today part of the Brazilian constitution. In addition to Bolsonaro well-known racist and misogynistic declarations, his government has adopted a strategy based on the omission of the state’s duties that has been directly affecting the population with less income and leading to a great environmental destruction in the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government ‘s suicidal stance and the absence of measures to contain the virus, have so far led to the death of over 100 thousand people, resulting in a genuine genocide in Brazil, especially among the most vulnerable populations, such as the indigenous, black and poor people.