The Violence of Power Relations: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on Bacurau
Bacurau is the name of an angry night bird that exists in many different parts of Brazil, but that is only called bacurau in the Brazilian Northeast. Bacurau, the latest film by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles—which gets a US release this weekend—uses the motif of the night bird to tell the story of a small village in the Brazilian Northeast that is facing imminent erasure, targeted by international hunting tourists that have teamed up with domestic predators. The film reprocesses motifs from Hollywood genre movies and Italian westerns in the landscape of the sertão, the drylands of formal experimentation and political confrontations in the Cinema Novo canon. This interview took place over Skype on an early Sunday morning, before the Carnival parades took Recife by storm, and the music became too loud for me to hear them from New York. In that interval, we spoke of the film’s many journeys through space and time, and the contradictions of this process.
Filmmaker: Bacurau is a film that combines many different elements in a way that is often counterintuitive. What was the first image or sound that came to you during the conception of the film that made you feel like you could picture the film that you wanted to make?
Filho: We were at the Brasília Film Festival in 2009 [the most traditional festival devoted to Brazilian cinema in the country, founded in 1965] with my short film Recife Frio, and often sat together in the theater to watch the films. And there were moments in many of the films screening that year, including some good ones, that would make us look at each other in awe, as if we couldn’t believe our eyes. They were always films made by a crew from a big city, with good or bad intentions, that would travel to a small, far-away place to interview “simple people”—a term that is still very common in Brazil, unfortunately. Whether it was because of good manners or intensive training by the corporate media, these characters were always very polite, and ended up being used or reprocessed by the standards that these filmmakers were projecting on them. And before we got to the festival Juliano had already had an experience that was important for us to start thinking about the character of Damiano (Carlos Francisco).
Dornelles: Yesterday it was the Cariri parade—the longest-running carnival parade in Olinda, so it’s likely that it’s the longest-running in the world. In 2007, maybe 2008, I was commissioned to direct a few short videos about Carnival in Pernambuco, so I went to the Cariri headquarters. Their president was there, sewing a costume or a flag, and he was not wearing a shirt. I saw that, immediately pulled the camera and started shooting. He asked me, “Brother, are you recording?” I said yes, because the light was very beautiful, and the image looked really good. And he said: “Buddy, hold on, so that I can at least put a shirt on.” I was so embarrassed by that moment. So we had been thinking about matters of representation for a while.
Filho: One scene that we already imagined at the Brasília Film Festival was of an older man about to be interviewed by one of these crews coming from the city. The light is good, the sound is running, and they ask him a question. And the shot is just this man in silence, looking at the person who asked the question off-screen. No answer. Because that would generate a very basic tension, right? You ask a question and you expect an answer, but the answer does not come. That was the genesis of Damiano, which was probably inspired by this man Juliano met during Carnival. It’s funny to think about it, because the film gets born in one way, but it eventually becomes something else. But the feeling is still the same of November 2009, which is the desire to deny an image that has been spread about this region and about us, who live here. Maybe the least discussed aspect of Bacurau is the one that really resonated with people in Brazil, because the image of the nordestino [the people from the Northeast] is widely circulated in a very specific way, and we present a different image which, paradoxically, is much closer to the real thing. Subalternity is completely absent in the place where we shot the movie.
Filmmaker: When I started paying attention to film criticism in Brazil in the early 2000s, there was a term that was often used as derogatory, which was “sociological.” If one called a film “sociological,” you could tell it was meant as the kiss of death. Bacurau brings the social body center stage with a new approach, and I think that’s something that’s been happening more and more in Brazilian cinema. Where does that come from?
Dornelles: From the very beginning, we were thinking about a group of people, the so-called “simple people.” The desire to speak of something that was collective got stronger as we observed what was happening around us, and started bringing that into the script. Because in our immediate circles, we saw people who wanted to engage and get to know others, but outside there was a very different movement happening in the opposite direction.
Filho: I really believe that there is a diet in culture that is established by the market and by society. This diet is very clear in Brazil, especially if you’re from the Northeast and from Recife. So, I grew up hearing things that I could never agree with, because there was always an effort to separate us from the rest of the country. We were “you.” And I didn’t think we were “you”—I thought we were “us,” all of us, together. So this sociological component comes to the surface when you’re talking about a community that goes through situations shaped by power relations. The moment you show a mayor entering a small town with a sound truck, the film automatically becomes political, when in fact it is showing what’s been happening in places like that for centuries that says something about power.
Filmmaker: And these power relations are also violent.
Filho: Many people consider the film hyper-violent, because the violence that comes out as a reaction in the film breaks with the model of action-and-reaction established by the market as part of this diet. So it seems much more shocking. Since the movie is breaking with that model, people end up perceiving it as way more violent than we thought it was going to be.
Dornelles: I still feel that way, because the amount of violence in this movie is not comparable to what people are used to seeing in theaters every week. But to go back to the sociological aspect, I think that was not a deliberate direction. The film always came out from our disagreement with dominant modes of representation of a specific social group, which is the Brazilian Northeast. So we watched the world around us and started folding some of our experiences into the script. I remember Kleber was once about to interview a Hollywood big shot during a festival in São Paulo, and when the press contact learned that the journalist was from Recife they said they were getting a translator. When Kleber said he didn’t need a translator, they reacted: “Wow, how cool, folks from Pernambuco speaking English!”
Filho: That was nice. (laughter). This is one of hundreds of stories, right? But I don’t see the film as a revenge story against that. I see it as an observation of how society works. These things keep happening all the time. It had stopped in Brazil for about a decade or so, but it started coming back with Dilma’s reelection, when Northeastern votes played a decisive part. Suddenly, these derogatory comments that had disappeared became normal again.
Filmmaker: But the film adds another fold to that, because there is the relation between the nordestinos and the sudestinos [the characters who arrive on motorcycles, played by Karine Telles and Antonio Saboia], but there are also the characters coming from abroad.
Filho: At the Alice Tully Hall premiere of Bacurau at the New York Film Festival, a white American man in the audience asked us, “Why are the Americans the heavies?” I asked him back, “Why not?,” and everybody laughed. We’re not anti-American, we love American cinema and I think that’s very clear in the movie, but we were interested in reversing the usual paradigm of the industrial film. Because this is a confrontation with 124 years of cinema, right? If we think of Die Hard, for example, which I think is the great American commercial film, the heavies are the nastiest German men in film history, even considering all the films about World War II, and their leader is a man named Hans Gruber. So, the issue of representing foreigners is seen as uncomplicated by industrial cinema, yet when we reverse that paradigm it becomes very uncomfortable. I love that. There’s an irony to this, because we’re not reversing this with the absurd, but with realism. It is a genre film, so OK, there might be a level of absurdity, but the dialogues are realistic, and I have heard them in my daily life. Every Brazilian who’s travelled abroad has been asked at least once: “How do you say that in Brazilian?” You collect these experiences over time, then you put them in a movie.
Dornelles: It’s important to recall the moment in the film where Michael (Udo Kier) tells Terry (Jonny Mars) that he has lived in the U.S. for over forty years, therefore he is more American than any American who is now 37. That is a very realistic remark for anybody who has experienced life in the US.
Filho: The US is the only country I know where a foreigner who lives there naturally claims to be American. I don’t see that anywhere else, but you can see that in West Side Story, in the opening of The Godfather.
Dornelles: “I believe in America!” His identity is connected to this mythology of America as the land of the free.
Filmmaker: It’s a country of hyphenated identities. You get to be “something”-american. And that creates an interesting dynamic, because you’re both part of it, but not the whole of it, at the same time.
Filho: It’s a power affirmation that comes especially from the WASP. They position themselves as more American than the Native Americans, the Jewish-Americans, the African-Americans. That’s not written in the constitution, but if you observe the US and visit the US, it becomes very clear. That is fascinating, and that is part of the film.
Identity is a very important part of the movie. The two foragers come from São Paulo in those motorcycles, and that immediately triggers a conflict of identities. When the conflict becomes verbal, it becomes even more layered. Then they meet with the foreigners, and the social positions change, because now they’re at the bottom. Then there is that scene with the local woman who mistakes them for Americans, so she offers them water through pantomime. And, of course, when they sit at the table with the foreigners, the differences determined by the marked are more accentuated, because they are collaborating with this production, and they try to deny their identity, but the Americans do not accept that. So there is a discrepancy between the market, which shapes common sense, and reality, which is the way things actually happen.
This discrepancy is one of the things that fascinate me most today. Because politics are also part of the market. And today, both Brazil and the US are submerged in a sense of the absurd that is terrifying. You might be holding a mug in your hand, and someone will come to you and say “that’s not a mug, it’s a pen,” and you may show them the mug and drink coffee from it, but they won’t believe that it’s not a pen. We talked a lot about this during the entire process of the film, and this gap between what things are and what people say they are has been responsible for much of the impact of the film.
Filmmaker: I know you have spent a decade working on this film together, and I’m sure that it has changed substantially throughout the years. But the film also interacts with the political moment of its release, and I imagine there are also formal reasons that allowed for that. How do you create that kind of space in a movie so that it can interact with a world that is yet to come, considering there is always a gap between the conception and the release of a film like this?
Dornelles: I still don’t think I fully grasp it, but I have a few informed guesses. I was recently revisiting Twenty Years Later when we were programming films for “Mapping Bacurau,” a program Lincoln Center is doing around the film. I did not remember that the film included all these examples of fake news printed during the military coup against the Peasant League [Twenty Years Later started being filmed in 1964 with a peasant workers’ union, and was interrupted with the military coup, when army troops raided the film set]. They were fake news just like the ones we have now, circulating on social media. So that reinforces the impression that history repeats itself, only with updated formats. I am 39, and I thought fake news was a recent development, but it’s really not, and it was already a political strategy in the 1960s.
Obviously, there are other things that we cannot explain. The erasure of the map, for example, was a commentary about power and technology. When we were mixing the film in France, Bolsonaro was already president, and we heard the news that the official agencies of environmental preservation were erasing parts of indigenous reserves from the map. They were being deforested, so in order to not include that in official statistics, they simply erased them from the map. That was new when we wrote the film, but then life imitates art even before anyone had had a chance to watch the film!
Filho: The films I have made come out of observing two things: our current experience of reality, and history. History is a series of repetitions of cycles, and I believe that’s in the films I have made so far. With Bacurau, perhaps because it is a future-forward film, people often pay more attention to the futuristic elements than to this centuries-long history that also shapes the film. Juliano and I were very much connected to the world when we wrote the film. We were always online and on social media, and fed off that, and at a certain point we noticed the climate was changing. That made its way into the film over ten years, but I think the past four years have been really decisive, and have altered the film significantly.
I always think of David Lean, a great filmmaker, who released Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. I think it’s a great film, but the timing was awful, because it was as if Lean was completely disconnected from what was happening around him, and was isolated in this romantic bubble. You don’t feel Vietnam in the movie, nor the civil rights movement. Everything that was important, violent, and bloody that was happening at the time has no place in that movie. And the backlash was so violent that he didn’t make another film for the next fourteen years. I don’t think there’s any problem in choosing to make films that are not connected to the pulse of the present, but it is something that matters to me, and Juliano and I were often writing scenes that reacted to what was happening in the world at the time. And it’s funny that Ryan’s Daughter was released in 1970, because that same year Sergio Corbucci made Companeros, which we watched when we were writing the film, and it is a spaghetti western that is completely connected to what was happening in Cuba and Vietnam. Everything is on fire in that movie, and it is highly political in a way that feels very organic. I think even Che Guevara is part of that movie…
Dornelles: Of course he is. Tomas Millian, who plays El Vasco, wears a bonnet and all!
Filho: The films that have attracted me all have that kind of connection. I think Uncut Gems is very important at this moment. It might as well have been made in the 1970s, because greed was already part of the 1970s, but I find it moving that such a film exists today with that specific tone.
Filmmaker: You’ve been talking about the writing process, and when I revisited Bacurau it occurred to me that the structure of the film is heavily shaped by sound. There are rhythms and volume-shifts between scenes that feel connected to the writing. When do you start thinking about sound, and what’s the effect it has on the mise-en-scène?
Filho: Sound plays a decisive role in all three stages—writing, production, and post-production. Many elements are already present in the film. For Carmelita’s [Lia de Itamaracá] funeral, we wrote something like “they pull handkerchiefs and wave them, and it sounds like pigeons flying.” But we’d also pay a lot of attention to the sounds on location, and often point them out to the sound recordist, Nicolas Hallet. It could be the creak of a door, for example. Or the scene with the horses, where I was adamant to not use anything pulled from soundbanks. We used eleven microphones to capture everything, from the low rumble to the higher frequencies, and the horses already come mixed with the sound of the night, which was wonderful in that location.
Dornelles: I also remember Nicolas brought a Nagra to set, and we used in some specific scenes, to add an analog quality to the sound. The gunshot, for example, was recorded with the Nagra.
Filmmaker: And what about the song choices?
Filho: It was a similar process. We had two of them in the screenplay: “Night,” by John Carpenter, and “Bichos da Noite,” by Sérgio Ricardo.
Dornelles: “Night” was originally for the opening of the film, and it would come with a scroll text bringing some backstory. A bit like the Star Wars opening.
Filho: Like Escape from New York too.
Dornelles: And Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In fact, that was the main reference. And we also considered having [Brazilian anchorman] Cid Moreira record a voice-over narration. (laughter)
Filho: But what’s interesting for us is the juxtaposition of different cultures. When we used “Night” alongside the expensive CGI sequence that opens the film, it just looked too much like an industrial American film. It was not interesting. But then you add Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso to the expensive CGI, and all of a sudden you get something powerful. The same happens with the capoeira scene. When the chanting fades out, and you can only hear the sounds of the body on dirt and the John Carpenter song, then you get something! I would never have a capoeira scene in one of my movies, but when you have “Night” steamrolling it, representing that industrial machine, then you get something great.
Dornelles: It’s a summary of the film, because it’s the clash between different cultures. And if we follow that to the extreme, there’s that scene with the cell phone translator, where the wounded American is asking for help, trying to communicate with the locals through this advanced technology.
Filmmaker: I know both of you have been working on other projects, so what can we expect from you after Bacurau?
Dornelles: I have a difficult project, because it was a genre film shot with very limited resources in 2015, that I stepped away from to make Bacurau. So now the film is like this girlfriend that moved abroad to do a PhD, and we’re in the phase of figuring out if we’re still in love with each other. And that might take some time, because we’re also still waiting for Ancine [the Brazilian film agency] to release part of the funding, but I’ll take as long as its necessary for the film to find its final shape.
Filho: Juliano, the crew, and I had a paradoxically wonderful time this year with Bacurau, despite the current situation in Brazil being very bad for the working class—and we are part of the cultural working class. But I realized that the best thing for me at this moment was to not have any idle time, because working would be good for me. So I’ve been working on an archeological film on Downtown Recife, using the old film theaters—all of which have been extinct, with the exception of São Luiz, which is an unanimous treasure for the city.
As is the case with all my films, I’m still not quite sure who this movie is for, but it is about how cities change, sometimes naturally, other times following the desires of specific groups of people. But it’s a film about the 20th century, about 20th century culture, and about how people’s passage is sometimes imprinted on walls. I have been making this movie for the past four years, much like I used to make movies on VHS in the 1990s, except that now I’m using an Alexa, and sometimes I ask Pedro Sotero [cinematographer] and a couple other friends to join me for a day. The film uses a lot of archival material that has never been seen before, and I think that’s very special, because Brazil has so little respect for archives. I grew up without any archival images of Recife around me, and suddenly making this movie I discover very organic things about how we relate to the city in this material, and I think it’ll be important especially for the people who live here to see it.
Filmmaker: We live a very paradoxical moment in Brazilian cinema, because it might be its most fertile moment of the past 40 or 50 years—at Berlinale alone there were 19 Brazilian productions and co-productions this year—but at the same time there is a real institutional terror threatening the continuity of this cinema every single day. What is your perception of this moment?
Dornelles: I still have a hard time imagining what’s going to happen. We had these films in 2019 that, as you say, make the strongest group of films in the past 50 years, and that were made in a very democratic and decentralized way, unlike any other moment in Brazilian history. The country has always directed its resources to the home of the foragers in Bacurau, and now there are local cinemas in Fortaleza, Bahia, Minas Gerais and every other state in Brazil. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know that when there is a locust plague, you only feel the lack of grains in the following year. So, the expectation is that the production will dramatically decrease for a few years. At the same time, international funds that were no longer prioritizing Brazil are once again paying attention to what’s happening in the country. What’s happening in Brazil now doesn’t make sense even from a neoliberal perspective, because, for example, the audiovisual industry in the country is bigger than the pharmaceutical industry. It really doesn’t make any sense to destroy it.
Filho: There’s an expression in Brazil that had thankfully lost all meaning, which is “fora do eixo” [“beyond the axis,” a term that was used for films and art that were not made in Rio or São Paulo, the main production axis in the country]. That expression was part of a fight that dates back to 15, 18 years ago, and it became an identity for everybody who made films in this outsider position. And I have noticed that, very quickly, important decisions concerning the audiovisual industry in Brazil are again being centralized in the Southeast. Important decisions for all of Brazilian cinemas are no longer democratic, because they’re no longer inviting people from Bahia, Tocantins, Porto Alegre and so forth to be at the table, and they’re once again being made in Rio and São Paulo. And I think it’s important to note that the cinema made everywhere else in the country is also missing from the new production conglomerates, like Netflix and Amazon, because those companies are also established in the Southeast.
Everyone from our generation spent many years making films guerilla-style, with the means of production we could find. It’s trickier for people who are past the guerilla model, because we are witnessing the destruction of Brazilian cinema, and this destruction of such a substantial part of Brazilian economy has been perpetrated with joy, with sadism. There is a pleasure in destroying a model that came out of a lot of dialogue, and criteria that, with all the inevitable flaws, worked really well for a long time. Now, we seem to be returning to a model that concentrates the resources and the aesthetics in the Southeast.
When I was making films guerilla-style, it was like fighting against windmills, because I was using VHS, and that created all sorts of problems, because there was still a hierarchy between different formats that limited the circulation of these works. Now, that’s not really the case anymore. Even if you don’t have a camera, a cell phone that records video, or a computer to edit films on, it’s very likely that you can find one not very far from home. So I think it’s an incredible moment for people who are starting to make films, and I’m very curious to see what’s going to come out, because they not only have the entire world ahead of them, and they can approach that even with a certain degree of civil disobedience, but they can also make films that reflect on what’s happening. And I hope they make not only films that are like molotov cocktails, but that turn to reality and ask the question: “Why are you doing this to us?” These films today can reach festivals in the entire world without the mediation of embassies or cultural institutions, and I know there are people out there who will watch them and recognize that something important is going on and should be shared with audiences. This is the good side of what’s happening, and that’s what I prefer to focus on.