Interview: João Dumans & Affonso Uchoa
Brazilian filmmakers João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa came to international attention with The Hidden Tiger, a 2014 feature about five young men in the hardscrabble suburbs of Contagem, in the province of Minas Gerais. Directed by Uchoa and co-written and edited by Dumans, The Hidden Tiger featured some of the tropes of the documentary-fiction hybrids that have proliferated in festivals over the last decade, notably by using non-actors performing in their own surroundings and compiling closely observed moments of everyday life. Yet the film stood out by channeling its fragments into a strong story and treating its protagonists’ lives in a non-sensational manner. With Arábia—opening next week as Araby at the Film Society of Lincoln Center—the two filmmakers team up and reunite with Aristides de Sousa, a standout in the previous film, and take a major step forward in developing a blend of lyricism and social realism focused on working-class experience.
Arábia begins by introducing the viewer to André, a teenager living near a factory in the outskirts of Ouro Preto. The film’s first 15 minutes describes André’s daily life, apparently setting the stage for a socially conscious coming-of-age tale. But when André finds a notebook belonging to the recently hospitalized factory worker Cristiano (played by de Sousa), the film takes a radical turn away from the factory town and onto the roads of rough-hewn Minas Gerais, following Cristiano from one menial job to another, from one makeshift bed to the next. Like the Townes Van Zandt song that originally opened the film and its replacement “Blues Run the Game” by Jackson C. Frank,* Arábia becomes a deeply felt ballad of the drifting life, devoid of sentimentality but long on empathy. Most importantly, the story is told through Cristiano’s words, with voiceover from the notebook providing an utterly convincing record of a young worker discovering himself through writing. While many filmmakers claim to give voice to the marginal, few have done so with the artistic and political sensitivity displayed in Arábia. I spoke to its directors by Skype before its North American premiere on March 18 and 19 in New Directors/New Films.
Arábia seems to be a culmination of your previous work in that you’re still focusing on people who could be referred to as marginal and paying attention to apparently insignificant moments in day-to-day life, but your approach seems to have shifted, with the addition of a distinctive fictional construction. What is the film’s background?
João Dumans: We first submitted the project for financing from the government in 2012. At the time, we were still filming The Hidden Tiger. We finished that film in 2014 and came back to the 2012 project, but we had been completely transformed. The process of doing The Hidden Tiger changed our way of thinking about what we wanted to do and the possibilities of our cinema. After we finished The Hidden Tiger, we thought we could do more with the things we had been working on. We came back to the first project and changed it a lot. We really wanted to work with Aristides de Sousa again, but this time we wanted to write something for him. We wanted to see him act. We were doing a lot of research, reading Brazilian authors who deal with the workers’ reality, and visiting places in Ouro Preto, which was a major colonial city and has a very touristic historical city center. The initial project was conceived for Ouro Preto, that’s the only thing we kept. The desire to do a film in Ouro Preto, a city that has a past of slavery and oppression, came together with our idea to write a fictional role for Aristides. We decided to set the film not in the city center but in a nearby factory area, and the factory brought us a lot of ideas. I like to say that Arábia is a film that has lots of different origins, because the process was very long. Lots of things came together during the process and the film was built from these different origins. We wrote the film for Aristides by imagining a life that he could have lived, but didn’t. What you said about fiction is important: in fact, it was important for us to do something related to literature and not to see this life with the documentary feel. We wanted to see his life as the life of a character in a Joseph Conrad or John Dos Passos novel, to project his life in another dimension.
The act of writing is important in your films. In The Hidden Tiger, the two young men make up their own words to pop songs, while in Arábia much of the story is told through a voiceover memoir written by the protagonist. Is it important for you to let people speak for themselves?
Affonso Uchoa: Yes, this is a statement on our part. It’s a political statement: in our movies the people that are usually invisible can leave their trace on the image. And we don’t do that out of some kind of generosity but because we believe in the greatness and strength of the ordinary people. While they’re usually in a dark corner of real life, it’s cinema’s duty to record some memory of them. But of course, it’s necessary to find the right way to portray them, and our goal is to avoid being paternalistic. We don’t want to represent the poor and marginal people as if their lives were only determined by violence or social conditions. We truly believe that these people can create something and think about more than mere survival. Of course reality can be shitty. We live in a world that make things difficult for poor people, but I believe that as filmmakers, we can sometimes reinvent reality and discover other possibilities. Is it impossible for a worker to write? I don’t think so. If it doesn’t happens much in reality it’s a problem of the world, which reserves some things to the privileged. Are the creativity and messages of the poor as visible as they could be? No, theses lives are covered by the fog of invisibility from birth. What can a movie do in that situation? Forgive me for being poetic: movies can dream of other realities, of a fairer reality, for example. That’s what we wanted in Arábia when we decided to portray this worker as a writer: to conceive of a world in which people like Cristiano could write about themselves, and imagine what would happen if that came true.
Part of how you succeed in doing that is through the film’s unusual construction. The first 20 minutes of Arábia are devoted to the teenager Andre, who eventually discovers Cristiano’s manuscript, at which point the film shifts to tell his story. What led to that structural decision?
JD: Both The Hidden Tiger and Arábia have unusual structures. When we did The Hidden Tiger, Affonso talked a lot about Dos Passos. In his work, different stories have different weight: an important hero of the left will have one page and the story of the common man will have three chapters. So in The Hidden Tiger it was already important to have this idea that you can see one life for one minute and another for a whole hour and understand that they have something in common. That’s also a statement, as Affonso said. We encounter these lives in our daily routine, but don’t stop to think how deep they are, how many stories they have behind them, we just deal with them in a very mechanical way. Arábia was similar: usually, you would see this worker for five minutes and then your life would go on. But here, by some chance, you fall into this life and when you go deep inside it, you see it is bottomless. All these people we see in our daily lives, they seem very unimportant or common, but if you go inside, a whole world opens. We wanted the viewer to think Cristiano was no one, but then when Andre goes into the life of this no one, a whole world opens before him.
With Andre and Cristiano, it’s also a way of putting people from two classes together. We didn’t want to do something like Andre meets Cristiano and is transformed by his diary. That would be weak. They almost meet, but they don’t actually meet. Maybe something comes from that. That’s also important, the abyss between the classes.
AU: The decision to have the protagonist’s story told through his notebook was a determining factor on the film’s structure. For us, people like Cristiano—and of course Aristides de Souza, the actor—are just like the heroes of the literature of the past: their lives are simply amazing in their greatness and strength. We wanted to see Cristiano’s story with this literary quality, but at the same time the notebook seemed to be a more plausible, “non-noble” type of writing: it’s not a book, it’s not a novel, it’s a kind of private journal. It’s the work of a regular guy, not a scholar. When we started writing the script, we talked about the title of the Jem Cohen film Lost Book Found. It was important to us that Cristiano’s notebook be like a lost book found, something that was taken out from invisibility. André is just like us—or the viewer watching the movie—in that sense: he has the opportunity to find something really special, the life of Cristiano. For us, this discovery is a truly significant moment.
From a practical point of view, how do you figure out how to tell the workers’ stories? Are they your friends? Do you do research like documentarians?
JD: There are different sources. We like to do a lot of research. For example, Aristides is one of these guys. He knew things, his body knows the work. So when we were writing, if we said something to him, he could say: “You’re wrong, I don’t do it that way.” The research Affonso did for The Hidden Tiger was also important in getting to know this world. He filmed more than 200 hours, which was like four years of research on people working. We also read a lot of books in which workers talk about themselves. Brazilian authors who made the effort to write in the voice of the worker were a great inspiration: João Antônio, Oswaldo França Júnior, João Guimarães Rosa, and Graciliano Ramos. Brazilian literature wrestles with how to approach the reality of the common people, the poor and the workers, in a way that shows desire, imagination, love, and not only work. It’s a major issue we face in our art.
Most importantly, we asked Aristides to write a notebook about his own life. We didn’t use his stories, but we tried to understand how he tells them—his accent, his voice, how he describes his experiences and his loves. It helped us to know we were talking about reality, about things that exist, because we had this central point of Aristides and his own life. Then we invented stories. It’s not a single type of research, but a process that we are living, and that we started living with The Hidden Tiger.
AU: I should also mention that we are open to let the places that we film dictate how things will be. We frequently write the script during the shoot. Sometimes we write something but we don’t know the locations. Once we get there, we see how the people are working, how things are going, and we change the script on the day of the shoot. We’re open to changing the script every time we shoot, whether it’s because of the people, the place, or the world.
Tell me more about Minas Gerais, the state where the film takes place. Is there an active cinema scene there?
JD: There are two answers to your question. The one that concerns us most is that Minas Gerais, which is very close to Rio and São Paulo, is historically the state where colonization by the Portuguese for minerals was most intense. Nowadays, it’s still very hard: companies are destroying everything. Two years ago we had an enormous environmental disaster when a mining company broke a dam and mineral waste covered an entire river and city. That’s something very strong here and everywhere we go. It’s important to say that about Minas Gerais because our story is closely tied to the land and the work. It’s the background for the film.
Regarding filmmaking here, we mostly have a history of video art and experimental film. The capital Belo Horizonte has been known for that since the ’80s and ’90s. Unlike Rio and São Paulo, people in Minas were experimenting with video and essays. But for the last 10 years people have been trying to tell their own stories in film: there’s more financing now, so people are taking chances, trying to write stories, but it’s not very organized, institutionalized, or professional. In a sense that’s good because it allows people to try different methods of filming and forms of conceiving narratives. This year there will be about six or seven features from Belo Horizonte and they’re completely different from each other. The financing that started with Lula and the left-wing government in the last decade enabled people who aren’t professionals and aren’t known in the market to do their own films. When we originally submitted this project for financing, Affonso had made a feature and I had made absolutely nothing, but we could do it anyway.
AU: An important thing for us here in Minas Gerais in these last years is that it isn’t only the people who usually get to make things that have been making films. People from working-class backgrounds are also getting the chance to be in cinema and tell their own stories. João is a teacher in a private school here in Belo Horizonte. Some of our friends have studied there. Twenty years ago, many people our age didn’t have the money to pay for schools. Thanks to governmental programs, many people were able to go to school and had the chance to make their first short films. Many of these people are poor, and come from distant places, for example from my city, Contagem.
Another important thing about our province is that it’s very Catholic. Hard work and sacrifice are important to the idea of living life in a correct way here. It’s different from Rio, which has a culture of pleasure and enjoying life. In Minas Gerais, we have a culture of sacrifice and doing things the hard way. I think you can feel this in the film. The story of Cristiano can be interpreted as a sacrifice.
Tell me about the role of music in the film. I’m curious in particular about your choice of the Townes Van Zandt song “I’ll Be There in the Morning,” which we hear twice.
JD: I think we’re also saying something about the United States. Here in Brazil we hear and see a lot of things from the United States. John Ford, John Dos Passos, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie were all important to us, along with other artists with whom we feel we have something in common. We thought these artists were also talking about our characters, people who we also have in our reality. American culture is a huge influence with its hobos and wanderers and people who are traveling from city to city. We think the film is universal in a lot of ways, but perhaps the relationship is even closer with the United States, in the sense that we were inspired by things that Americans wrote and filmed. But we wanted to do it in our own way. We also thought of the music as something that would bring a little bit of happiness and some lyricism and poetry to these lives.
AU: We heard these songs we love: Townes Van Zandt, folk music. The music fits, it has something to do with our world, with Aristides and our friends. As far as Brazilian music, we wanted to find songs that would translate the lives of those who work on the roads and in the factories in a profound way. Music that expressed the spirit of those who are working. A key moment was when we found the Renato Teixeira song, the one that says “Dawn is a lesson from the universe, it tells us that we must be reborn.” Teixeira is a very significant Brazilian songwriter who tells us about what happens in this part of Brazil, in the middle of the country. It’s not a beach area, it’s a hard-work culture. We wanted to find songs that gave the feeling of being here. We also wanted to give these people—and especially Aristides—the chance to tell us which songs were important to tell their lives. For the scene in which Aristides and his friend Renan play songs, we only suggested the first song; Aristides chose the second one himself. It was perfect: they were two songs that tell the same story, but in very different ways.
That’s one way we worked with music. The other, like João said, is that we wanted to find the universal content and propose strange relations between our reality, the reality of the film, and other parts of the world. The Anouar Brahem song that plays when Aristides runs over a guy on the road is like Townes Van Zandt. We tried to build a relationship between our universe and other parts of the world. Music is like a very special weapon for us to say that our story is universal, too. What we are describing can happen in Argentina, Colombia, or the United States.
I know the word “Arábia” is mentioned in a joke in the film, but is the title also an invitation for the viewer to think beyond Brazil?
JD: The joke is a coincidence, actually. Arábia comes from the title of James Joyce’s short story “Araby” in Dubliners. The film was originally going to be a short film adapted from the story. It turned into what it is now, but we kept the title because we liked it.
AU: We shot the film over three years: two weeks in 2014, seven or eight weeks in 2015, and another week in 2016. When we started shooting in 2014, we thought we were making a short, but once we started, we realized we were making a feature. And originally the film was supposed to be a free adaptation of Joyce’s Araby set in Ouro Preto! When we were shooting and especially editing, we discovered other ways the title fit the film. We liked that it reminded us of The Thousand and One Nights, because the film is like a story that goes into another story, a story that produces other stories. In the editing room, we also noticed that somehow we had kept the structure of James Joyce’s story: for us, the final sequence is like an epiphany for the character.
JD: The film doesn’t tell the same story as Araby, but it has the spirit of Dubliners, in that it is about regular people, people from poor neighborhoods, people who don’t succeed, but who in the end have this brief enlightenment of something that they foresee. It’s very brief, it doesn’t become an action or a transformation, but it’s something that they realize about their own world or lives. The title was resonating in so many different ways that we couldn’t suppress, so we kept it.
Where will Arábia show in Minas Gerais?
AU: That’s a hard thing for us, because movies like Arábia and The Hidden Tiger have a very small audience in Brazil. They are considered a success if 10,000 people go to see them. The audience for independent cinema is very small. A lot of people go to the movies, but only to see big American productions. We’re waiting to figure out with the festivals where the Brazilian premiere will happen, and after that it will screen in Minas Gerais. But we don’t have a lot of options here.
JD: Yet every time we screened The Hidden Tiger for audiences from poor neighborhoods, it was a huge success. You have this chasm here between people who have the power to show films, the people in TV and radio, and our kind of cinema. The Hidden Tiger is on TV, but it’s cable. If it was on regular TV or showing in theaters outside of bourgeois neighborhoods, I’m sure it would be a huge hit. But in cinemas it sold two- or three-thousand tickets. It’s frustrating to know that with some films you really could do much more if you had more possibilities to show them to people. The distribution problems in Brazil are enormous.
AU: A friend told us that it was important to show Arábia to workers and regular people who go to the cinema. We can’t overcome the chasm João was talking about alone, but if we had an opportunity to bring the film to these people, to real workers, it would be a pleasure. I know that the film is slow, but I think that people would identify with the protagonist.
Addendum, care of João Dumans: “We couldn’t get the rights for the Townes Van Zandt song, ‘I’ll Be There in the Morning,’ so we had to change it. The new song is ‘Blues Run the Game’ by Jackson C. Frank. The song changed but the meaning remains the same.”
Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor for film at BOMB. He recently joined the board of directors of the Flaherty Seminar.