This article appeared in the April 13, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Dry Ground Burning (Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, 2022)
“The Oil Is Ours,” reads the slogan emblazoned on a flag flying above the pirate oil refinery at the heart of Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s Dry Ground Burning. Recalling the words on the ironically misinterpreted billboard in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932)—“The World Is Yours”—this brazen declaration of ownership rails against the intertwined history of cinema and resource extraction in Brazil, where the film is set. For decades, the country’s state-controlled oil monopoly, Petrobras, has supported Brazilian cinema, directly funding motion pictures, festivals, and even its own film museum, located in a building designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the shape of a roll of film. During the recent presidential tenure of far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro, this (for some, uneasy) compromise between culture and fossil capital was unsettled, in what was a bonanza for extractive industries of all kinds. Bolsonaro’s government enabled illegal gold-mining and violence in the ancestral lands of the Yanomami people of the Amazon, sold off pre-salt oil reserves to private multinational corporations, and effectively terminated the allocation of public oil profits for education and the arts, specifically singling out the film industry, which the cultural right views as dangerously pro-diversity.
The slogan on the refinery’s flag in Dry Ground Burning mounts a protest against these recent developments, asserting the nation’s right to profit from its own supply of crude, which was first discovered in the region in the 1930s. But the “Ours” on the flag disavows the country’s corrupt, violent state, instead claiming its resources for the people—the women, the poor, indigenous communities, and people of color—whom it pushes to its social and economic margins. True to its title, Dry Ground Burning depicts a place on the verge of bursting into flames. A hybrid work that incorporates elements of science fiction and gangster movies into a documentary mode, the film locates its action in Sol Nascente, an administrative region in the Federal District in central Brazil. Here, in a parallel 2019—the film is set in a present inflected with subtle dystopian details—Queirós and Pimenta unfold a kind of cinematic corrido about Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), a local gas hustler, and the illegal operation she runs with her all-female gang and a mini-army of “motoboys,” siphoning crude from Brazil’s western pipelines and refining it for sale on the black market.
At the start of the film, Chitara’s half-sister, Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), returns home after a lengthy prison term to find that her town, too, is now a kind of prison. An occupied territory where militarized police drones, armored vehicles, and helicopters surveil the local population around the clock, the informal cinder-block favela of Sol Nascente and its surrounding lands are slowly being appropriated to build a massive prison using the enforced labor of the incarcerated. This bizarro vision of a volatile, near-future Brazil—only slightly askew from present-day realities—begs to be disrupted, if not burned to the ground. Pimenta, who is also the film’s cinematographer, teases imminent conflagration in every frame: her vivid, spacious compositions alternately depict a sunbaked landscape of rust and orange dirt and a nightworld of black and gold, lit by open flames, burning cigarettes, and yellow sodium-vapor lamps. The film’s soundtrack, too, feels pyrotechnic, with its hip-hop, forró eletrônico, and funk-carioca hits mixed with sounds of gunfire, roaring engines, fireworks, and sloshing oil.
Dry Ground Burning is not only about expropriating the expropriators, but also about about “fuck[ing] things up” more generally, as Léa boasts at one point about her and her gang’s doings. It isn’t simply a film about insurrection, either; it performs those gestures at the level of its form. Eschewing any fidelity to genre and narrative conventions, Queirós and Pimenta blur the chronology of the film’s events and hybridize the fabric of its reality through collaborative filmmaking, elaborating on the style of Queirós’s previous works, 2014’s White Out, Black In and 2017’s Once There Was Brasilia (the latter also shot by Pimenta). In each of these films, participants portray semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. In Dry Ground Burning, there’s the raven-haired, gun-toting Léa, constantly brandishing a cigarette and boasting of all the women she slept with in prison. There’s Chitara—less intimidating than her half-sister, until she’s clad in a black leather jacket—with whom Léa shares memories of their late father, himself a legendary hustler. And then there’s their compatriot Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who begins the film as a devotee of one of Brazil’s neo-pentecostal storefront churches (peddlers of a southern analog to the “prosperity gospel” of U.S. televangelists like Joel Osteen), and later, with the help of the motoboys, runs against a Bolsonarian pro-cop candidate under the banner of the “Prison People Party.” These scenes are occasionally interrupted by interview sequences in which the (non)actors discuss their lives—and the making of the film itself—with off-screen interlocutors.
Episodes depicting the gang’s work at the refinery also lend the film a feeling of documentary realism, while a lengthy sequence devoted to the pop group Banda Muleka 100 Calcinha—who provide the film’s title track—functions as a kind of mini-documentary of a touring band. The subdued debauchery of these scenes, which feature revelers dancing, drinking, and making out, contrast with a sequence shot on the sly at a real-life pro-Bolsonaro rally—a much grimmer affair, where the participants, all clad in tacky merch bearing their candidate’s face, rattle off rote nationalistic chants while gazing distractedly at their phones. But the nonfiction trappings of these scenes are destabilized by touches of science fiction in the mise en scène: wearable tech, cyberpunk gear, souped-up police vans, the semi-functional oil-derrick set. Where Once There Was Brasilia was a kind of Afrofuturist Mad Max, Dry Ground Burning blends elements of the spaghetti western with the dystopian police-state aesthetics of Judge Dredd and RoboCop. In this regard, the film joins Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) and Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s Empty Metal (2018) in the small but venerable canon of lo-fi insurrectionary speculative fables.
All of this is the result of a unique production method that Queirós has been developing over the course of the last decade—an approach based in “disorder and cachaça,” as he stated in a Q&A following the film’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last autumn. More precisely, he and Pimenta developed Dry Ground Burning through collaboration and constant evolution. Shooting over a number of years, with participants paid monthly on yearlong contracts, the filmmakers worked with only a provisional script and allowed the film to take shape through ongoing discussions with all involved. Da Silva, for example, joined only after she was released from prison, when the film was well into production, but she eventually became one of the lead “characters.” The motoboys are played by local food-delivery workers, and night shoots were scheduled to accommodate their evening shifts. As such, the film is an attempt to restructure production into a less hierarchical process that organizes itself around its participants’ lives rather than the other way around. Pimenta and Queirós have called this form of collective fabulation an “ethnography of fiction,” a mode that draws on shared cultural memory.
The practice of collaborative reenactment has deep, complicated roots in ethnography, from the early nonfiction of Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, and Jean Rouch to the TV docudrama of Unsolved Mysteries and the like, not to mention the more radical, self-reflexive work of Peter Watkins, Pedro Costa, and the Karrabing Film Collective. In the history of Brazilian cinema, this tradition has still more specific antecedents, such as Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (1984) and Andrea Tonacci’s Hills of Disorder (2006), both of which cast nonprofessional actors in reenactments of their own lives, blurring distinctions between testimony and performance. Each of these examples lives within uneasy ethical and hierarchical compromises of its own, but together they constitute an alternative mode of filmmaking that seeks to upend not only documentary’s authoritative truth claims but also its tendency to exploit those it claims to represent, in another form of extraction. As Queirós and Pimenta have stated: “Cinema empowers us—us and them—with a living material that is the power of our collective imagination.” For the makers, participants and audiences of Dry Ground Burning, this collective imagination is a way of fucking things up—in Brazil, in the cinema, and in their shared image of the future.
Leo Goldsmith is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School, and a programming advisor for the New York Film Festival.