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The Future Is Burning: Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós on Dry Ground Burning

A group of young people ride their motorcycles through damp streets in a Brazilian town.Dry Ground Burning, courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Beginning with 2011’s Is the City Only One?, Brazilian filmmaker Adirley Queirós has considered the history of his hometown of Ceilândia in sci-fi and western-inflected narratives made in close collaboration with nonprofessional performers. Dry Ground Burning, co-directed by the former soccer player-turned-filmmaker with Joana Pimenta (the DP of his 2017 Once There Was Brasilia), was shot over 18 months and took two years of post-production to complete, and that labor shows in the most expansive and ambitious of these films yet, each of which builds on and echoes its predecessors.

Is the City Only One? foregrounds the experiences of workers who built the city of Brasilia in the 1960s, then were relocated and shunted out of political sight and mind to nearby Ceilândia once it was completed. City’s protagonists include Dildu (Dilmar Durães), who runs a scrappy campaign for office by riding through the city in his barely running compact car, speakers attached to the roof while he spreads his party platform. His plans include building a movie theater where none exists. “Let’s live a little,” he declares. “Movies should cost one real [about 60 cents in 2011 currency]. To relax: love stories, western stories, action films […] and draft beer.” 

Durães is among the core nonprofessional performers who have repeatedly appeared in Queirós’s films. White Out, Black In (2014) co-stars wheelchair-bound actor Marquim do Tropa, who appeared in Is the City Only One? as the jingle writer for Dildu’s campaign; in White Out, the story of how he wound up in a wheelchair—a horrific police raid at a club where he was subjected to disability-inducing violence from the authorities—takes center stage. Likewise, Once There Was Brasilia brings back Is the City Only One’s Wellington Abreu. A real estate agent in that film, in Brasilia he’s an alien who crashlands in the title city a few decades after his intended ’60s landing time. Instead, he arrives at the present, thereby derailing a mission to assassinate Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president who presided over Brasilia’s construction. 

In Dry Ground Burning, Dildu’s one-car campaign is upgraded to a whole truck with a proper sound system, on top of which Andreia (Andreia Vieira, an ex-con and would-be revolutionary leader in Brasilia) and supporters rap out the Prison People Party platform, which is as aggressively populist as the fictitious group’s name. Andreia’s political campaign forms one line of dissident political activity; the underground gasoline business run by Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) with her fresh-out-of-jail sister Léa (Léa Alves da Silva) forms another. Tapping illegally into a pipeline, Chitara’s network sells the fuel at cut-rate prices to the motorcycle gangs seen in magisterial formations glowing like Tron vehicles against a Michael Mann digital night. Brasilia indicated its low-budget-but-epic scope with the title’s Leone reference. Burning extends that connection by ending with the motorcyclists driving around to Brazilian rapper Mente Consciente’s “DF Faroeste”—a personal favorite of Léa’s that reiterates Ennio Morricone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” theme via a dinkier piano. The visual scale and equally enveloping sounds—the roar of constant fires and vehicles in transit or simply extended conversations between the characters—render the everyday lives of the dispossessed at an epic scale, directing the traditional rigors of slow cinema to directly politically confrontational ends.

The first of Queirós’s films to receive American distribution, Dry Ground Burning premiered at last year’s Berlinale. I spoke with Queirós and Pimenta when they presented the film at New York Film Festival. The latter spoke on behalf of herself as well as translating for Queirós, who doesn’t speak English. Dry Ground Burning enters limited release from Grasshopper Film beginning April 21.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about how you met and what the conversation was like when you decided that you would benefit from working with each other?

Pimenta: We met in Mar del Plata, in Argentina, about eight years ago, by chance. We hadn’t seen each other’s films; he didn’t speak English, I was around and spoke Portuguese. We started talking that night about literature, CDs, science fiction, and ended at 11 a.m. the next morning. Then, we watched each other’s films. Adirley asked me to be the cinematographer for Once There Was Brasilia, and I said no because I’d shot my own films and didn’t think I would be able to shoot with a crew or what I imagined a fiction shoot would look like. I’d never been to Brazil before, and he proposed [for] me to go to Brasilia for a week. I spent a week there: I would write in a diary and take photographs as if I was an alien from the past [that] had left in the ’60s and landed in Brasilia today. That’s when we started thinking about cinematography and working together, and it ended up working out well for both of us. 

I went to Harvard—I did my PhD there—on a scholarship in 2010. I started working with the Sensory Ethnography Lab from a different perspective. Most of the people at the SEL are anthropologists; I come from film and have no background in anthropology whatsoever. So, my process within the SEL was always one of tension: It’s the place that informs everything I do, that I feel so much love about, but I never felt like I could quite understand what ethnography was. For a while, I didn’t want to work with people. I was trying to make films where the human subject was present without being filmed. I was searching for ethnography that could be approached through science fiction, that wouldn’t be bound to the disciplinary grounding of anthropology. So, even if we come from very distinct backgrounds, we find each other through this idea of having an interest in ethnography in the wider sense but coming at it a different way: spending a lot of time in a place, thinking about the camera as something that can estrange the reality you’re shooting—your technological sensorium, if you want to call it that. For Dry Ground Burning, we shot for 18 months, filming people’s lives in a fiction we constructed together. Our crew is really small—five people on the set. There are other people around building sets during the day, but when we shoot it’s just five of us. If the neighbor is making noise, we don’t shoot; we come back the next day. We never know where we’re going to shoot the day after.

Maybe this was innocent or naïve, but very early on we decided that if we made concessions to each other, we would lose the film. So, we would never shoot what he wanted or what I wanted but would fight our brains out to get to a place where we would both agree on what we were doing. We were such a small crew, so we’d drive everyone home at 2 a.m., then fight each other until five and shoot the next day. Both of us completely stand by every single decision. There was no moment we just delegated decisions to each other. What we did, though, is that I’m better with making images and he’s better with directing actors. So, when we got to set, I would immediately assemble the camera, start thinking about the shot, and he would stay with the actors. Working with nonprofessional actors, obviously we talk with them all the time, so having two of us became very useful.

Filmmaker: What kind of structures are set up in advance to allow 18 months for production from start to finish? 

Queirós: This is the longest shoot we’ve done. We believe that there is the possibility of a different production model for the work we make, and public funding makes that possible. The films have become relatively popular, not only in schools and universities in Ceilândia and Brasilia, but they are also accepted outside of Brazil in festivals and get distribution. If that had not been the case, it would’ve prevented us from winning public funding because we represent exactly what they fight against—they want to institute an industry model that never existed in Brazil, and we fight very publicly and politically for the opposite. In Brazil, there are 1,200 films per year, financed either by the state or local government. There’s no obligation in terms of what film you deliver—the state functions as someone who pays you to make your work, and I’m my own producer. Brazilian state competitions for film require you to submit an industry model for production when you apply, and that industry doesn’t exist. It’s not just that we don’t want to be part of it, it’s that it doesn’t exist within the country. So, we fragment that idea of industry: We hire fewer people and try to hire everyone locally and extend the time they’re employed by the film. We can do this because we established this idea of cinema as a form of labor. That changes the way of working and filming. It’s our daily job for 18 months—we’re always there on the streets. The people who work on the film also live there, so filming in that place becomes a rule and not the exception to the rule.

Pimenta: The state funders would like us to hire an extras company and, through that company, hire the same extras that work in all the films. We employed, I think, [more than] 100 motorcycle workers as extras in the film. The delivery workers worked on Uber Eats or whatever until 1 a.m., so we could only start shooting after that. They would line up, we would shoot the film and then, at 6 a.m., pay everyone—they would sign a receipt, and we would give them cash. That institution of labor within the city became very important to us, as did eating. The people who do the catering for the film are the local bakery or whatever. We would just go there, sit down and eat. So, the film becomes just another form of labor within the town. 

Adirley had a really old car that has been in all these films that we burned in Once There Was Brasilia. They invited him to come talk at the biggest public school in Ceilândia, and he rented the fanciest imported car and the kids were like, “Oh my god.” He wanted them to understand that he could make money. This could be a way of earning your living. Once the actors are employed for 18 months and coming home able to put food on the table and pay the rent with the money that they make from film, that’s the only thing that can convince people that film is a form of labor. So, financing does become monetary at this larger level of the production model, but also at the level of the local economy, and we try to play with both within the film.

Filmmaker: There’s a side question about whether having previous films to show people makes it easier to convince them to be in the film because they know what’s about to happen. Even if they don’t like it, at least they know what it is.

Queirós: Of course having previous films influences a lot. The other thing that was helpful, at least in the case of this film, is that we never filmed the script we had written, but having it and being able to read it with the actors was useful, just because it made very clear what kind of film it was, even if we never fed a line to anyone: There’s going to be oil, it’s going to be political, there’s going to be guns. So, they knew what kind of film they were getting on board with from the start, and because there are previous films, in Ceilândia they know us and believe in the stories we tell. 

Pimenta: When you’re working with nonprofessional actors, it’s not so much the previous films that convince them, but the possibility of having a 12-month contract, because they need to understand how they’re going to survive. For instance, finding Chitarra, one of the main characters, took us about six months. [The character was] this woman who worked at a gas station who smoked a lot. She was always an extension of [the image of] exploding because the cigarette was always too close to her body, [which] was impregnated in gasoline. So, we’re going around bars, bakeries, gas stations, trying to find this woman. And the first question that they always ask, every time we’d find someone who we’d think could work and would approach them, [would] be like, “Oh, is this porn?,” because we’re speaking about a place where the closest cinema is about an hour away. So, there’s no imaginary of making films in the city except what we do and, now, what other people do there. There’s no imaginary even of watching films in a theater. The only cinema that existed for [Adirley’s] generation was a theater years ago called Porno Karate, Porn Kung Fu, which had only one daily screening. It screened a Bruce Lee film, then a porn film. So, as soon as we can convince people to come to a conversation, we can start talking about other works and what we can make together, but there’s always a very clear first obstacle.

We eventually reached Chitarra. She came for a meeting. We told her about the film, we read parts of the script together and she said, “I’ve worked at a gas station. I know how to shoot a gun. I smoke a lot. Let’s do it.” It depends from person to person. Shockito from White Out, Black In, the guy with the mechanical leg, [Adirley knows him]. They played soccer together. Shockito got injured, Adirley tried to convince him to be in the film many times. “I can’t do cinema.” And [Adirley] was like, “Let’s just try.” They went on a set, and he shot a wide shot, a medium shot, a close-up. He put it together on Final Cut, showed it to him and then Shockito was like, “Oh, it’s that simple?” Then he decided to be in the film. Having a previous film certainly helps, but then there’s a lot of these other questions that come up when you’re trying to make work.

Queirós: You would think that having previous films would help us when getting access to things, but it’s actually the opposite. Institutions often block our access to anything because their dream is to frame us within this appeased peripheral body, and the films are everything but that. They want us to tell our sad stories and be these sensitive bodies that are somehow reinserted into society, and our films never tell that story. So, until now, we always film without permission every time we film in institutional spaces, especially outside of Ceilândia. We always try to ask for permission. They watch the previous work and say no. So, we continue having to shoot with this very small crew, and in some marginal way, to get access to places.

Filmmaker: Is there a successful real-world model for the political songs and the type of candidacy shown in the first film and now in this one? Or is this just a construction that’s meant to highlight the stakes for these people versus the dominant political parties?

Queirós: There’s no precedent. We made it for the film; we wanted to actually enact politics through cinema. There’s oppressive politics from the right wing, of course, but also oppressive progressive politics that come from the left. I think that we actually should win public funding to institute a real political party because there’s an energy that cinema can construct. If that would launch into real political campaigns, Dildu and Andreia would win. If we think about what is happening today, and even the last election that happened in Brazil a few days ago, the left has completely lost the energy of creating an imaginary, and the right has captured that energy. In Once There was Brasilia, we had planned the thing with the skulls [in a scene near the end, a group of protesters hold skulls to their mouths while emitting screeching noises] as an attack on the National Congress. About a year later, this woman led this crew of people holding torches and skulls who camped in front of Congress—but it was actually to advance the far right, not the same thing we were defending. The second example is the motorcycle parade. We were doing those for the film, then a few months or a year later, Bolsonaro was doing the same in Brasilia and in Ceilândia, because he comes a lot to Ceilândia and so does his wife. So, right now there’s no precedent for candidates from this periphery to come up using the language of funk, rap and all this. But the energy is there; it is being captured in cinema, whereas in real life the far right has captured that. The left is still theorizing academically about what the popular imaginary could be. So, the political intervention shakes the imaginary of the places we are filming in.

Pimenta: We decided to create a political campaign for Dry Ground Burning because we were shooting for so long that all of a sudden there were elections. And we don’t close the street, so there’s no way around other political campaigns. So, we registered Andreia’s campaign. You have to collect all the signatures and go to Congress to register a campaign; we did all of that. Lula was in jail at the time. Most other people in our film spent time in prison, as did the large majority of people who live in Ceilândia. So, we were trying to create this idea that if Lula’s in jail, Lula is going to campaign for us if we start the party of the prison people. He’s inside already; he’s going to be one of our electorate. We sat and actually mapped like, “How many votes do we need? If we get the preventive prisoners—who haven’t been convicted yet, whose electoral rights haven’t been suspended—to vote, plus one of their family members, we will elect Andreia.”

When we rented that truck, the women were on top and the motorcycles were around, and we went to the main street in Ceilândia, where you have all these Evangelical churches, where 70 percent of the Federal District voted for Bolsonaro [in 2018]. So, it’s not like we’re in friendly territory. We did that parade from beginning to end, repeated and repeated it for the whole afternoon that we spent there—because we’re not shooting in a way that it’s like we say cut, then go back. I’m on the back of a truck with the camera, and you go up and down, left and right. So, that political campaign exists in the city as a real campaign, and we are filming it as it happens. 

Queirós: Max Maciel just won second place last Sunday in the elections for District Deputy, the same thing Andreia was running for in the film. He’s the first person from the periphery winning from a left party. He is someone who talks to us a lot, and he said that he’s modeled his campaign after Dildu’s campaign. He went to the fair, promised a film theater with 50 cent entrance fees. He also hired a truck, like we did with Andreia, to go out on the street, so he has captured that imaginary. And we’re talking about a city that is 500,000 people, so even though the films we make are very small and not industry films that are ever going to reach a super wide audience, they are able to create, even if it’s local, something that becomes effective in real politics. It’s this energy of transgression that is similar to when we burned the car in Once There Was Brasilia. Hundreds of people gathered around that car being burnt, so it becomes a memory of an event that happened in the city. That’s the same with the political campaigns: They become a memory in the city even if they don’t become a real candidate, but maybe a real candidate can take their place once that memory is instituted.

Filmmaker: In White Out, Black In, the story is about a fire, and then there’s fire in a very literal way at the end. The car is blown up, as you said, at the end of Brasilia. And in Dry Ground Burning, there’s just a lot of stuff on fire continuously. I would like to know what brought about that escalation, and also what it takes to actually do that.

Queirós: Obviously, one day I’ll burn myself because you start getting accustomed to knowing how to do this and that, and then you start drinking. Ceilândia has always been the city of fire. Do you know the history of Ceilândia? 

Filmmaker: Just from the films themselves.

Queirós: The first things that arrived were the shacks that got removed from Brasilia and then got [moved] to Ceilândia. Then, the government gave bricks; they told us we need to burn the wood from the shacks and replace it. Then, the government gave us tires for our old cars, but they required us to burn the old tires. Then, during the Lula government, they wanted to increase industry and production and were giving, like, credit with no interest. The campaign was like, “Replace your fridge, replace your couch and put the old ones out in the street.” So, around town [there were] all these couches and fridges out in the street, and eventually, someone would set them on fire. Now, it’s prohibited to burn anything because it enrages the middle class. Fire establishes a history of the city through this one thing.

I asked nonprofessional actors to take some risks in our films. We’re also at risk setting things on fire ourselves instead of using a controlled fire. So, they see us putting our bodies in the game, and that mirrors some of the things we’re asking of them. In the next film I am going to burn a registry. In Brazil, registries are associated with the Portuguese. They still own the registries today; they’re family owned, so it goes from the son to the generation after. So, I want to begin [the next film] by burning one.

Pimenta: The fire was really important for us from the start because we wanted a city that was besieged. Until you get to Brasilia, Ceilândia is surrounded by machines but also by the Cerrado, a forest that catches on fire every five to seven years. Especially because there’s so much drought, there’s a lot of fires during the summer in Ceilândia. So, we wanted that to have that climate, to create this imaginary city that was [be]sieged. Also, we wanted to establish a way to take over the means of production, and the only place that that could go was, explode the city in order to put an end to it. So, this idea of exploding things and setting things on fire was there from our initial discussion.

Filmmaker: There are also night scenes of surveillance taking place inside vehicles of differing sizes. In the new film, they have four monitors to look at and drones following them, which is a step up from White Out, Black In, when there’s just two men in the car with one monitor.

Queirós: There’s an imaginary of this vigilant surveillance state that comes from our film references but especially from literature—1984, but The Martian Chronicles, as well—and it has a lot to do with the city. There’s a surveillance state that tries to be very subtle, and in the films, we do the opposite. We make it unsubtle. One of the things we discussed with Dry Ground Burning was this idea of the violence of the police. Basically, they’re going around the city and they’re out of their minds, drunk or on drugs, looking at us through those monitors. When you’re out of your mind and going around only seeing people through those monitors, you embark into this hallucination: Oh, there is sort of a wolf or a bear—that’s how this state sees us. Through those monitors, everything becomes more dramatic or more like in a horror movie. Through the surveillance cameras, there’s no way we’re ever going to be seen as something other than the enemy.

One of the guys on the street I live on got a drone, and every night he flies the drone around the city and gets very near to people. And he gathers everyone from that street, and they all watch the images together. They just started making up stories: “Look at this guy, look at that guy. What are they doing?” So, now they’re [using] the same technology [as] the police, but in terms of creating a kind of imaginary. We should make a film like this.

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