Paint It Black, Say It Loud: An Interview with Tata Amaral
by Pablo Goldbarg
The most recent film directed by Tata Amaral is Antônia, the third part of a trilogy that explores archetypal aspects of the representation of women. In 1996, A Sky of Stars (aka Um Céu de Estrelas), depicted the lives of adult women. In 2000, Through the Window (aka A Través da Janela), spoke about elderly women. Antônia, as a story about young women, closed the trilogy in 2006. Tata Amaral took a risk telling the story of young black women from the outskirts of São Paulo, the largest South American city, living in daily contact with violence, racism, and sexism. Preta (Negra Li), Lena (Cindy Mendes), Barbarah (Leilah Moreno), and Mayah (Jacqueline Simão) are friends who live in a very poor neighborhood. Undaunted by the odds against them, they try to realize their dream of succeeding with their own hip hop band, called Antonia. Inspired by her previous work, a documentary about hip-hop (Vinte Dez, 2001), Amaral came up with a premise that runs counter to audience expectations. When she worked in the favela of Santo André, Amaral perceived that, unlike what is generally believed, people in the favelas do not want to get out of them as soon as possible; in fact, favela residents want to improve their neighborhoods and build up better communities. This is an underlying theme of Antonia.
At the time that Antônia was shown as part of the film series Premiere Brazil at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in July 2007, I had the pleasure of meeting Tata Amaral, its writer and director, for the second time. The first time had been during the Havana International Film Festival in Cuba, where the film won an award for the Best Music Score (João Godoy and Eduardo Santos) and the "Roque Dalton" collateral award from Radio Habana Cuba. This time, I met her in New York. We spoke before she and the rest of the Brazilian filmmakers headed to the JFK Airport. One day before our meeting, Brazil defeated Argentina in soccer in a final match and won the Copa América (American Cup). Although I am Argentinian, we didn't let sports rivalry distract us; we focused on cinema.
Amaral is a white woman moved by the unfair depiction of blacks in today's society. Thus, Antônia only seems to be a film about music and youth; it also contains a deeper meaning about many fundamental social issues. A cinephile for years, influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and Martin Scorsese among others, Amaral explores emotions in a very particular way. Sensitive, displaying a great sense of humor, always positive, humble and frequently smiling, she has the same simplicity as her films, and a similarly generous view about daily and intimate things and situations. She was kind enough to allow me to follow up our interview with several e-mail inquiries.
Anywhere Road and Red Envelope Entertainment have acquired U.S. and Canadian distribution rights to Antônia. The film opened on September 21st in New York and Los Angeles, and was released in additional cities on October 5th.
Cineaste: Why did it take so long—around five years—for you to make each of your films?
Tata Amaral: Well... economics [laughs], basically, because it's not so easy to find funds to shoot in Brazil. All this time I was looking for money. Now, I've just released Antônia in Brazil, and I've started to get my first monies for the next project. So, for the first time it doesn't look like the time between films will be so long. And I hope it doesn't take too long to complete the budget. I always try to have new ideas and scripts ready for investors when I release a film. Screenings are the best times for me to ask for money. That's the way it is in Brazil. But there are some advantages to the long wait for money. [laughs] It gives me the time I need to research the subjects, people, places that I want to shoot.
Cineaste: Can you tell me about the process of releasing Antônia on television and in commercial theaters?
Amaral: We decided to release the film after it was shown on television. Globo, one of the biggest media groups in Brazil, acquired the rights on December 2005 and set a television release date for September 2006. We wanted to release the film on May 2006, before the television release, but we didn't have enough money to finish the film. So, we let it go public first as a television series—totally sponsored by TV Globo.
Cineaste: What happened next?
Amaral: We tried to take advantage of the exposure we would get from television. Before the series went on air, I needed to explain that Antônia was the story of four young girls that live in the outskirts of Sao Paulo; they want to sing, etc. After the television series, Antônia spoke for itself. The series was a huge success. Almost fifty million people watched it. The ratings were much higher than those of the other programs broadcast at the same time. The first episode was shown on a Friday night at 11:00 p.m.—not the best time. But on the next Monday Globo signed for the second season.
I think the popularity of Antonia was based on its originality. For the first time we have four black women on television, portrayed in a positive way. They are protagonists. All the people living marginalized lives saw themselves for the first time on screen. It was very, very important. Everybody in Brazil identifies with Antônia.
Cineaste: What motivated you to make this film? How did it come about?
Amaral: Since my first feature, I knew that my third film would be Antônia. Antonia came out of my involvement in my trilogy about female archetypes. In 2001, I was invited to make a documentary about youth in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, involving hip-hop culture. At that moment I decided that Antônia would be a story of young girls on the fringes of the city who were involved with hip hop. I had the storyline in my head from the beginning. It's my story. I was very young, my husband had died, I had a three-month-old daughter, and I had to take care of her alone. Against the odds, I started making movies. That's also the story of Preta in the film, a single woman who has a child and wants to have a singing career, despite her responsibilities.
Cineaste: How does cinema help to communicate the issues involved in the success of women in a "macho" society, or other problems you find interesting?
Amaral: In Brazil we have a special situation, because we don't have a positive representation of black people there. When I made my documentary in 2001, I was really touched by the hip-hop people in Brazil. Some of them are very involved in the reconstruction of the image of poor black people. I wanted to help, so I made the documentary in that spirit. I've tried many things, but what's most important to me is to try to change the way black people are portrayed.
One of the most moving testimonials of my success in building a more positive black image was from a seventeen-year-old girl. She told me she grew up with a feeling of inferiority, which I can understand since, for many years, the model for all children used to be Xuxa, a famous tall, beautiful, and blonde woman who had a television show for kids. This girl was not tall at all; she was a little overweight, black, and had curly hair. I'm proud that today many, many children have Antônia as a model. I think I got it...
Cineaste: In Ricardo Elias's The 12 Labors—also screened at Premiere Brazil—we saw that being a black hero in Brazil—and probably in many other countries—is still almost impossible. Why?
Amaral: I think that, unfortunately, we live in a racist society. Of course, in Brazil there is a concept of mixed races and, in fact, Brazil is a mixed country. But it's full of negative preconceptions about people of color. Nevertheless, there is good news. In a 2005/2006 study made by IBGE, a prominent group that conducts statistical surveys, it recorded a dramatic increase in the black population of Brazil. This means that more people of mixed race are identifying themselves as black, which means that the fear of being identified as black is decreasing, fear that has been caused by discrimination against blacks in our society. However, this discrimination is not only the result of skin color, but also of the depressed economic situation of young, poor people from the fringe areas around cities.
Cineaste: What were the most important things you learned while shooting Antônia?
Amaral: Well, I don't know. We have a film here that is about youth—I became younger myself. The film is also about music... Music was what really convinced Globo to buy it. But there is also something there about the excitement of the improvisation techniques I used. I really made the film together with the girls. Before Antônia, I decided that the film would be made with improvisations. When I first got into hip-hop culture I learned that in traditional hip hop you don't sing a song for anyone other than yourself, so you have to write your own poems. It was very appropriate to have improvisations in the original proposal. We worked on the screenplay and with the improvisations of the actors for five months.
Cineaste: But we are used to seeing more comedy and less drama for young audiences.
Amaral: Yes, but my first idea wasn't to make a film for youth. In Brazil we don't work as an industry like "you have to make a film about youth... it must be comedy..." Antônia is a film I made for my soul. It happened like that. It wasn't easy, but I didn't have to profile my audience. I could let things happen.
Cineaste: Why do you think so many Latin American films persistently depict poverty and struggle?
Amaral: Because poverty is such a problem for us. Also poverty sells. For example, our first agent for Antônia , who worked a little bit with the film, told me, "This kind of film won't sell." I asked why, and she replied, "The only thing that sells is Nine Queens, or City of God, etc." She believed that what sells is poverty associated with violence, or a good adventure or action story. But that's her. Antônia is a little different, because we talk about people that are poor but I tried to humanize it and change this association with poverty and violence, although in the film we have a little violence. They are poor but not miserable.
Cineaste: Do you think that Latin American filmmakers feel some kind of responsibility to advocate? Most of the Latin American films in the last few years are an urgent call for social justice.
Amaral: Yes, I think so. Social issues are very urgent. It's part of daily life. It's impossible not to talk about it. Generally speaking, most of the artists come from the middle class and they are touched by social urgency.
Cineaste: Tell me about your experience working with these amateur actresses.
Amaral: To make my film happen, I had to cast rappers and people from the fringes of society. I interviewed about six hundred people. I held workshops, arranged second interviews, and whittled the group down to thirty people. I made my casting decisions after the workshops, which gave me an idea about who would be appropriate for which roles. It made a difference that the people I interviewed had never acted before. They didn't have the cultivated approach of the professional, and I wanted them to improvise. Why? Because they come up with fresh dialog that wouldn't have occurred to me. They gave me lines that were the authentic speech of the people I was writing about.
For example, there are some lines that Marcelo Diamante says in the film that I would have never been able to write. He is a rapper; he has the rhyme and the soul. I was also interested in making these improvisations; it was a challenge. And rap was ideal for this. So, even if they had been professional actors, they would have needed to improvise. Of course I did need to teach them: they needed to learn concentration and fast reactions. It wasn't difficult to get this across to them since this is what daily life usually requires of them.
Cineaste: Did you face any problem with them? What was the downside?
Amaral: Well, the difficult part was that I didn't want them to memorize lines and hit their marks, the way directors usually do. My method of working is much harder. Every day, for many months, the cast came to rehearsal without scripts, and I asked them to improvise. Thus, I constructed the characters with them. At the end of the rehearsals I edited the scripts and then I shot the movie. I only gave them the scripts with their own words that I edited one hour before the shooting. Then I said, "Now you can memorize it." When they had the scripts it was easy for them because they had participated in the construction of the character. So I knew what worked and what didn't before I turned on the camera. But it was very tough doing it this way! [laughs]
Cineaste: What is the importance of participating in international film festivals, and how do you select the festivals you submit your films to?
Amaral: First of all, I choose for visibility. I choose festivals where I believe buyers who could distribute my film to audiences will get a good chance to see it. When I go to a festival I work a lot—meetings, interviews, etc. I barely see the other films being screened. This is especially true for some of the most important festivals. Festivals are the primary places that independent filmmakers get a chance to show their works. My second feature wasn't sold during the festivals, but probably it was sold because it became famous while it was out on the circuits.
Cineaste: What does it mean for you to show Antônia at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York during the series Premiere Brazil?
Amaral: Maybe it's a kind of stamp of approval, because MoMA is known all over the world. I don't know exactly what will happen here, but for us [the Brazilian filmmakers participating in the series] it's a good omen. I was very, very happy, because it's New York, because it's MoMA. I think the New York audience will understand Antônia more than other audiences.
Cineaste: Can you talk about future projects?
Amaral: I have many projects. There is one that is already written. It's called Today . There is another one called Baghdad. The first one is a very simple film with four actors and two locations, just to rest a little bit. [laughs] It's a mix of two plays. One of them is the story of a woman who is moving to a new apartment with some money she received as compensation from the Brazilian government—her husband disappeared during the dictatorship—and which the Brazilian government, recognizing its responsibility, paid about ten years ago. The day she moves, her husband appears. The story is told from different perspectives. At the end... hold on, I shouldn't tell the end! [laughs]
The second, Today, is about a young girl who is kicked out of her house because she is homosexual, and she asks her uncle to meet her in a place from the Sixties where intellectuals traditionally gather—and homosexuals do, too. This happens on the day of the Gay Pride Parade. The girl intends to ask her uncle if she can live in his house and to try to get him to recognize that he's also homosexual.
Cineaste: Now I want to know about Baghdad.
Amaral: It's bigger than Today in terms of production. I'm looking for funds to develop the project. It's the story of a young guy, a kind of odyssey in São Paulo. This young guy has to cross the city on the day that a criminal faction stops the city. This plot is based on a real event that happened in May 2006. The city itself is a kind of character, you know, it's not easy to stop São Paulo with eighteen million people. [laughs]
Cineaste: When Sally Fields won the Emmy this year, she said,"If mothers ruled the world, there would be no wars." What would happen if mothers ruled cinema?
Amaral: There would be always money to do films about human, social and moral values. Cinema would be taught in schools from an earlier age. Certainly, if my mother ruled cinema, there would be international distribution for all the good films.
Cineaste: Thank you very much for your time. You're a kind of fifth Antônia and it's great to see that your effort has reached a remarkable point.
Pablo Goldbarg is a writer and filmmaker originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has an M.A. in Media Studies from The New School in New York, where he lives. His works have been selected by international film festivals in Havana and Los Angeles. He was a contributing film writer to Cinema Tropical and NYRemezcla.com. He has a bilingual blog called REALFIC(c/t)ION.
Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1