Thursday, 6/27/2019

The Power of Antithesis

Latin American Cinema at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

The Power of Antithesis



Latin America is undergoing political change at an alarming rate. As if wanting once again to do justice to its historical role as imitator and "backyard" of the United States, a neoliberal and right-wing populist rollback is sweeping the continent. This phenomenon is most striking in Brazil, but in nearby countries such as Chile and Argentina, an era of left-leaning government has also suddenly given way to thriving platforms of solidly right-wing politics. The effects have been felt immediately in the cultural realm and in cinema in particular. This is distressing news, but it's also good news, since the continent's filmmakers are coming together to form an effective counterforce that instills fear in the powerful.

Brazil: Countering 21st-century fascism
"Let's create a machine of cultural warfare!" wrote well-known theater director Roberto Alvim, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's new cultural czar, who is known for his far-right views. In a Facebook post, he appealed to all right-leaning artists to contact him in order to be included in a database that would be the basis for distributing cultural subsidies. Author Luiz Ruffato commented recently that a newly created "21st-century fascism" is taking hold.


Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho is experiencing firsthand what this means. In Cannes, he received the Jury Prize for his work with Juliano Donelles on the film BACURAU. But instead of recognizing his achievement, the Brazilian government sued him to demand repayment of a half-million-euro subsidy for his first film, NEIGHBOURING SOUNDS (FILMFEST MÜNCHEN 2012). The reason: a technicality in the bookkeeping. The real aim might, however, be to prevent Mendonça, a critic of Bolsonaro, from making further inconvenient films. His last one, AQUARIUS, was a statement on the red carpet in Cannes against the way social democratic president Dilma Rousseff was forced out of office. His latest work, BACURAU, has raised the ire of the right even before it's been shown in Brazil. In this science-fiction western set in a near-future dystopian Brazil, a village community in the northeastern part of the country is stirred to asymmetric collective resistance.

The other major filmmakers of the moment must also be prepared for reprisals to occur and subsidies to be canceled — Karim Aïnouz in particular. His historical melodrama THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF EURÍDICE GUSMÃO, which recently earned the Directors' Fortnight award in Cannes, is a gripping portrait of 1950s Rio de Janeiro from the perspective of two disparate sisters. This deeply poignant story is also an outcry against the patriarchal, racist, and class-driven structures of Brazilian society. Things are not much different with UNREMEMBER by Flávia Castro. This is a delicate coming-of-age drama about the daughter of a couple persecuted under the military dictatorship who grows up in exile and returns to her birthplace in the early 1980s in order to confront the horrors she experienced there and her own memories of them. This film is certainly a thorn in the side of a president who glorifies Brazil's period of dictatorship.


A similar view that goes against the discourse of the ruling class is seen in the family drama DOMINGO by Clara Linhart and Fellipe Barbosa. This is the third film of Barbosa's to be shown at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, following CASA GRANDE and GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN. In this latest work, an upper-class family worries about losing its status while holding a barbecue on their dilapidating estate in southern Brazil as Luiz Lula da Silva is elected president in 2003. Lula's promise of a better life, particularly for the poorest members of society, stirs up anger and resentment among the privileged. A film such as LONG WAY HOME by André Novais Oliveira, which carves out, lovingly and precisely, a space on screen for the concerns, dreams, and survival strategies of simple working people is doubtless also unacceptable from the point of view of Brazil's new political rulers. Particularly as this film is a rare example of "black cinema" (to which FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is devoting a special focus this year), since black filmmakers like André Novais Oliveira still have to fight for a place in Brazil's film industry.

Taken together, the five Brazilian films at this year's festival offer a portrait of a cinematic culture in full bloom, nurtured by intelligent subsidies to become perhaps the most significant in Latin America and one whose style is influential far beyond the country's borders. At the same time, there is a risk that these films might be the last such specimens. All of them are the enemy in this state-declared culture war.

Florian Borchmeyer