Once There Was Brasilia: An Interview with Adirley Queirós (Web Exclusive)
by Ela Bittencourt
Adirley Queirós is one of Brazil’s most prominent filmmakers, a fiery, uncompromising voice on the country’s independent scene, which for some twenty years has championed uniqueness of aesthetics, as well the merging of divergent styles. Queirós’s own work ranges from early documentaries, to his breakthrough hybrid film, White Out, Black In (2014), that addressed police violence against Brazil’s poor urban blacks, and now, to Once There Was Brasilia (2017), a film that premiered at the Locarno Film Festival, and which Queirós likes to call, usually with an ironic, playful smile, “an ethnographic sci-fi,” or “maybe futurist ethnography.”
It isn’t just that the action of Once There Was Brasilia takes places partly in Ceilândia, where Queirós lives and which he has filmed extensively, or that it includes the area’s inhabitants as its protagonists, in addition to professional actors. It’s also that Queirós uses a much more collaborative process, in which ideas come from all of his collaborators, in an attempt to find a common language. It is, more crucially, a language that can break out of the more constrictive understanding of narrative, plot, or character. Indeed, the film could be described as a series of loosely connected interventions. An intergalactic traveler ends up on Earth, sent back from a distant future to murder Brazil’s former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Yet the present that he encounters is not so much Brazil of the 1960s as it is the nightmarish, grotesque present of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. With the traveler’s help, a group of hastily formed warriors trains for the final battle that they plan to stage against Brasilia’s powerful. From a distance, they watch and listen as the Brazilian congressmen vote, one by one, to impeach (Queirós filmed on location and uses the actual footage and sound from the voting procedures). The effect is chilling, and creates a sense of having fallen down the infernal rabbit hole of history, in which democracy isn’t so much a political system of governance as it is a poor excuse for the constant policing, and violent suppression, of Ceilândia’s disenfranchised, angered voters. The night scenes—and there are many of these, as Queirós and his cinematographer, filmmaker Joana Pimenta, utilize the city’s existing lights—create a macabre, prisonlike ambiance. The sequence with prisoners being shuffled on the city’s metro system, their frozen faces robotic and distant, is more visceral, and more sobering than anything that Brazilian cinema produced in the past year.
This interview with Queirós took place in Locarno, shortly after the film’s premiere.—Ela Bittencourt
Cineaste: Your film conveys the sense of space, of geographic and urban location, which is Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, very strongly. What does Brasilia represent?
Adirley Queirós: Brasilia’s relationship with the peripheries that I depict has always been very tense, because when the satellite city was created, the people were expelled to it from the city center. We are talking about the fact that, for the most part, the workers who constructed Brasilia didn’t get to actually live there. They were all pushed out. In this sense, Brasilia is a city that doesn’t exist—it doesn’t exist because we, the residents from the periphery, can’t relate to it, we have no access to its everyday life. For us, Brasilia is a postcard city, a holographic projection. We don’t get to occupy its public spaces, even if some of us actually work there. And so it represents to us the power with which we aren’t able to interact.
We also must remember that the population of the periphery, of Ceilândia and other areas, is far, far bigger than of the center, but Brasilia, the city, is the Brazilian elite.
Cineaste: Could you talk about how you’ve arrived at this vision of a future city—a mix of sci-fi and ethnography—that in the end is actually completely retrograde? I’m thinking of references such as Blade Runner as a vision of a decadent future.
Queirós: Our vision is not the future that arrives, but the past that returns. This past, from the 1960s, comes back via an inter-planetary traveler, who arrives in Brazil and, as we imagined, is fascinated with Brazilian culture.
In a way, the film mirrors my own readings of absurdist literature. I spent some time reading Albert Camus, even though in the end he’s not a direct reference. My direct reference was an Argentine writer, Ernesto Sabato, who was first a physicist, and worked on the development of the atomic bomb, and only then, upon his return to Argentina, began to write literature. I was very inspired by his sense of the absurd.
But, even more directly, the film is a result of the conversation I had with Joana Pimenta, my collaborator and the film’s cinematographer, which we had in Mar del Plata, when I was showing White Out, Black In at the festival there, and Joana was showing her short film, As Figuras Gravadas na Faca Com a Selva das Bananeiras (2014). Like her last film, An Aviation Film (2016), the first is a sci-fi film with an avant-gardist aesthetic. That’s what I was searching for. We could have made a much more linear or a more didactic film. But in Mar del Plata, we spoke of hallucinations, of Argentine literature, of the impossibility of showing via simple storytelling the reality of places such as Ceilândia, or Brasilia, or about the sheer impossibility of representing Brazilian politics.
In the past, I’ve participated in a lot of political street protests, yet I’ve since been rejected by Brazil’s left. That’s because, even though I respect it greatly, as a filmmaker I want my films to be politically incorrect. I can’t work in the service of anyone. We are all against the right, yet we don’t see ourselves reflected in leftist politics. That’s why I needed to create a place that’s completely out of place. That was the only way to do it. To exist.
What I also thought about is that cinema, in the end, is a system of codes. And in our time, those cinema codes are predominantly European. So, if we follow such tropes, we’ll never have a chance to actually find our own selves in the film.
Cineaste: Would you say that most Brazilian films follow those codes?
Queirós: Yes, but I don’t wish to speak in terms of “good” or “bad” cinema. I’m speaking about the fact that most of what we see in cinema is given, predetermined. And more than this, many codes already dictate how Latin America ends up being shown. We are often portrayed as somehow lowly, as people who curse, or are somehow “dirty.” Yet beauty is primordial. And so is ritual and, after all, we have our own rituals.
Cineaste: How did the film actually come about, on the set?
Queirós: It was really important for us to work organically. For example, one of the actors is a mechanic who happened to be at the place where we started filming. He was always there, fixing cars, working. And so he became a part of our film—he never knew what film we were making, but he loved the idea of what we seemed to be doing, and seeing our improvised galactic spaceship. That is to say, the film came out of our actual interactions and real relationships. We all talked a lot about how we could make a film together that wouldn’t be “closed off,” beholden to the usual film grammar, according to which we feel that we need to explain Brazil to others, or to make a film about the periphery that shows it in predictable, easily discernible ways, or somehow induces our viewers to feel pity. I find this kind of moving-to-tears construction of the periphery to be particularly cowardly. And many Brazilian films follow precisely this construct.
Of course, all films are political, in the sense that they embody their own politics. A film’s sensibility comes from some place. But what bothers me is the pamphleteering of Brazilian political cinema. We want a cinema that is playful and not just didactic. We wanted to make a film of complete immersion, inspired by the work of [Brazilian filmmaker] Andrea Tonacci—a film as an experience that you must simply enter, an adventure that we, as a team, want to have with that particular person, with that particular actor. That’s what Tonacci was all about. He was profoundly human.
Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and programmer in the United States and Latin America. She publishes in international magazines, including Film Comment, Frieze, Artforum, and The Village Voice, and also runs a film site, Lyssaria.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2