At the Reel Brazil Film Festival, two films address the political tumult of their country’s dictatorial past.
Brazil is about to be the centre of attention with the Football World Cup just a month away, so it seems opportune for country’s cultural output to also share the spotlight. The annual Reel Brazil Film Festival arrives in Wellington this week (May 8-18, followed by Nelson on May 21-15) having previously touched down in Auckland, however unlike the party atmosphere that everybody is expecting to accompany the football, a number of this year’s films are, by contrast, more downbeat, if not more political and serious-minded in approach. Brazil is undoubtedly following the trend of other Latin American national cinemas insofar as exploring the dark days of latter 20th century right-wing military dictatorships, and in the process, putting unique slants on memory and the role of nostalgia. Two films in this year’s programme, Elena and Tattoo, investigate this milieu in very different, but equally compelling ways.
Elena, directed by Petra Costa, is a documentary/essay film based on the life of her older sister, Elena Andrade. Elena grew up during Brazil’s dictatorship, while her sister Petra (considerably younger) grew up on the cusp of democratic change. Elena wanted to be an actor and moved to New York to pursue her dream. 20 years on, and Petra retraces her sister’s footsteps to try to search for her. While not explicitly political, the generational gap between the sisters works as an effective metaphor for the trauma suffered by the generations who came to adulthood during and after the dictatorship.
But to focus on the political side undersells the personal sadness underpinning the film. Swirling around New York, Brazil, the past, the present, and various protagonists—until they all become hard to differentiate for the viewer—the traces and the shadows (both literal with the camera and figurative) of each clearly affect the others in their own individual way. The primary relationship is the sisterly one, and Costa makes considerable use of Elena’s home videos, voice messages, and recollections to try to recreate her sister. The joy, the recollections, and the warm memories simply slip through as if through a sieve, remaining elusive for Costa and for the viewer. It’s a mood that Costa is trying to capture, and the ultimate feeling is that the past can be confronted, and yet isn’t something that should necessarily be glorified. Costa matches this feeling with her visual style, a style that remains hazy, half-formed, and tormented. It’s a deeply affecting film, idiosyncratic in a way that isn’t always easy to grasp, but certainly hard to shake—a powerful account of the ghosts of others we carry with us.
Hilton Lacerda’s Tattoo (Tatuagem) is ostensibly a more exuberant film, but its account of the era is also just as political and pointed. It centres on The Star-Spangled Floor, an anarchist, Situationist-influenced collective, depicted here as being active in the late ’70s during the height of the dictatorship. It’s clear who the collective are targeting politically, with its work having the potential to be severely punished during the time.
In the middle of this, the leader of the troupe falls for a young soldier, a love affair that is at once bucolic and torrid, and results in a blurring of personal desires with political challenges. Their relationship leads to petty jealousies and betrayals—an injection of bourgeois morality into their group’s supposedly anarchist leanings—and the film follows the tensions the relationship creates in the collective’s future. While there’s an undeniable energy (particularly during the collective’s performances, and the throes of the relationship), the film is a slow-burning one. The final call to arms feels almost like a hangover. It’s composed of relatively long takes, characters who don’t say much, and restraint in the performances. But underneath the cool, collected characters, there is considerable turmoil. And in the fringes, away from the mainstream society that supported the regime, there is also much frustration and ideological tumult. On those terms, Tattoo is almost like a tribute and a lament at the same time.