Joana Pimenta


Originally published on Ink 19 on November 25, 2022
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso

Less than a week after voters selected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the next President of Brazil, we had the opportunity to speak with Portuguese-born director Joana Pimenta on the occasion of the AFI Fest screening of Dry Ground Burning (Mato Seco em Chamas), her newest feature, which she co-directed with Adirley Queirós.

We first encountered Pimenta’s immense talents as a storyteller when she lensed Adirley Queirós’s low-budget dystopian science fiction film, Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília), one of our top ten films of 2018. Set in the struggling district of Ceilândia, Once There Was Brasilia effectively repurposed cinematic tropes as a tool to expand on how the political landscape of its respective period impacted a community that had long suffered since the construction of the city of Brasilia. However, even though it is set in the same district and also incorporates and recontextualizes known film references, Dry Ground Burning diverges from Brasilia in how it integrates documentary to play against genre cinema images, amplifying the dour reality in Ceilândia and adding a fierce urgency to the film’s depiction of the current political situation in Brazil and the programmatic incarceration of its citizens.

Dry Ground Burning follows the exploits of Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), life-hardened half-sisters who have tapped into an underground pipeline that provides them with the gasoline that they then sell to bikers in their favela of Sol Nascente, an area in dire need of any form of economic infrastructure. Concurrently, Chitara and Léa’s friend, Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who enters the film as a fellow gasolinheira, shifts into a political role by drawing together her community to support her campaign to become Sol Nascente’s district deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. Throughout Dry Ground Burning, Pimenta and Queirós provide their actors with ample space to engage each other in dialogues that build empathy for their situations, while the actions playing out around them provide us with a clear and biting metaphor of their government’s failed policies that led to the economic despair in their part of the country.

During our hour-long, in-depth conversation with Pimenta, we discussed her approach to Dry Ground Burning in her roles as both a cinematographer and as a co-director, the complex issues connected to the casting of Léa, the construction of the very real campaign of Andreia, the role of the Evangelicals in her film and in Brazil, and the election of Lula, which happened only days before our talk.

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LF: We were fortunate to see Once There Was Brasilia at Locarno in Los Angeles in 2018, and it was one of our favorite films of that year. Whereas Once There Was Brasilia leans heavily on action and visuals for its narrative, much of the weight of Dry Ground Burning is carried on the shoulders of the conversations and interactions of Léa and Chitara. How did this difference shape your approach as a cinematographer?

JP: We wanted to make a film about the daughters of the women who built the city of Ceilândia. If you’ve seen Brasilia and this film, you may know a bit of this story already, but in the 1960s, the President of Brazil at the time decided to build a new capital in the geographic center of the country, so he drew an “X” on the ground in a place that was only just desert before. To facilitate this project, they had to bring in construction workers in open trucks from all over Brazil. Once Brasilia was built, they created this thing called the Campaign for Eradication of Invasions, which is where the “CEI” that is inside the name Ceilândia comes from, and they proceeded to remove everyone who worked on the development to a city 50 km away from Brasilia, which became Ceilândia. After they removed these construction workers, they also removed the women who had been brought to the workers’ city to work as prostitutes because the laborers had not arrived with their families. Many of these women brought small children with them or were pregnant and became single mothers. As a result, because the men were working, they relied on these women to build the shacks and find water and electricity, so these women were the ones who actually built Ceilândia from the ground up. One of these women in Dry Ground Burning is Léa’s mother, and the other is Chitara’s mother, whom we filmed a lot, but unfortunately those scenes didn’t make it into the final cut. And, as discussed in the film, Léa and Chitara both shared the same father, so all four women’s stories are representative of the history of Ceilândia itself.

We knew that we wanted to work with these daughters of the women who had built Ceilândia, this second generation who are also single mothers and who also have an important leadership role in the life of the city. This is where all of the conversation in the film comes from in Dry Ground Burning. These women are not like this new group of women in the city who are in their 20s and are taking over the streets. They have a different kind of body, a different way of dressing, even a different kind of music — they listen to funk, whereas the generation of Léa and Chitara mostly listen to the kind of rap that you hear in the film, and in that way, we thought of Léa and Chitara as these kind of old cowboys who would hang out on the corners in a place where many of the people have been to jail and are unemployed, so they spend their time telling stories.

Thus, the cinematography had to create that space for us because we were not working with a script, and we needed a space for them to mobilize their memories and to be able to depart from the film’s constructed fiction so that they could bring in their own memories and make them the central part of film instead. We were a very small crew of five people, and because of that scale, we had a great deal of time — about eighteen months for this film — which gave us the space to establish the shot and wait for something to happen.

GF: Leá is magnetic — she devours the screen. Since seeing Dry Ground Burning, we’ve been immensely curious about the inspiration behind her performance. How much was her casting based on her own personal experiences and how she recounted them to you and Adirley?

JP: This was complex. We spent six months looking for Chitara. Chitara is a character that we had initially written. We wrote a script, but because we don’t film exact lines, it was more like a structure, a script that functioned for us as a primer so that we could communicate to our actors what kind of film they are getting into. They then knew that it was going to be political, that there was going to be a war, and that made things very clear to them going forward. This communication was super important to us because we were working with non-professional actors.

We had written about this woman who worked at a gas station, who smoked a lot and whose body was so covered and impregnated with gasoline that she was always on the verge of catching fire. This was the archetype for that character, and then it took us about six months to find the actress to play Chitara. We looked everywhere! It must be said that there is no cinema in Ceilândia. In fact, the closest cinema is an hour away, and therefore, there isn’t a tradition for the kind of work we make, and that made it very tough to approach people and convince them to come and have a conversation with us. Eventually, we found Chitara six months after the search began. She was amazing! We read the script together, and she was like, “Well, I smoked a lot. I worked at a gas station, and I know how to shoot a gun, so I’m in!”

At this point, Léa was still in jail for real. She had been in prison for seven years, and because of her behavior, the police kept looking for excuses to keep her inside, leaving us with no idea of when she was getting out. Andreia, who was also in Once There Was Brasilia, and Chitara would always talk about Léa. So, we began shooting and filmed for about eight months, and during that whole time, Chitara and Andreia kept telling stories about Léa, so she became something of a legend while she was still in prison! They would say things like, “Léa is this tall, and her hair is down to her knees, and once she took seven rubber bullets in jail and wouldn’t fall when most men would fall after getting struck with just one bullet.” Chitara and Andreia were constantly building off of their memories about Léa, and that made me and Adirley concerned because she wasn’t a character that was part of the film initially, so we then felt that we had to start searching for an actress to play Léa. But, out of nowhere, the real Léa got out of prison, and only two weeks later she was filming with us!

As you noticed in your question, Léa was even more than anything that we could’ve ever hoped for because she is an amazing natural actress. She just seemed to instinctively understand acting. For example, from the moment that we began filming with her, as soon as one of us would say, “Cut,” she would take off, and we would find her outside smoking or on the corner or on top of the roof. She had been in prison for seven years and didn’t even know what a cellphone was when she got out, but here she was, back in her life, and she was making a film!

In the beginning, Léa may have wanted to work with us because we wrote a twelve month contract with all of the actors, so they all knew that they are going to be paid in a place where it’s hard to find work that can be sustained for a long period of time. But, then, she quickly figured out that she was very good at her job. For instance, when we would tell her that we need to repeat a scene and to do it a certain way, she would respond with, “Oh no, don’t worry. I completely understand because this is the same way that it was in prison. You would have to tell the same story a million times, but every time you tell it, you have to tell it with belief because otherwise the other prisoners would stop listening to you and then you lose your voice of command.”

So, of course, as soon as Léa began working with us, we had to change the tone. We had already filmed for eight months at that point, but we had to make Léa one of the lead characters, and that changed the film into one that was more about her relationship with her half sister. We didn’t have a closed script, and because we had a small crew, we could use our money to buy ourselves some time to film for as long as we possibly could. There was always room to change things so that we could react to things that were happening politically, as well as things that were happening on set.

LF: One of the most striking tone shifts in the film happens when we get to spend an extended amount of time with Andreia as she goes from work to church and to her canvassing and rallies as Sol Nascente’s District Deputy candidate for the Prison People Party. In this section, you and Adirley offer a greatly contrasting trajectory for Andreia. After her time as a gasolinheira, Andreia expands her focus of impact beyond her immediate crew and seeks reform at a community wide level. The gasolinheira life was highly reactive, whereas Andreia’s following chapter is more proactive. Was this contrast something you intended from the beginning, or was it something that came out of editing with Cristina Amaral or Léa’s expanded role in the film?

JP: I think that more than anything, at this point, we were reacting to this idea of incarceration as a public policy. We were filming in a place where 90% of the population had either been to prison or had a direct family member in prison. In fact, everyone in our cast has either spent time in prison or has a mother, father, or son who is incarcerated right now who they usually visit every two weeks. When we started filming, two major things happened: First, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, our former President, went to prison, and at the same time, political campaigning was happening in the streets because of upcoming elections. And so, we got together with Andreia, who was always going to bring politics in a direct way into the film, although we weren’t initially certain on how we were going to make that happen, but as soon as both of these aforementioned events occurred, we decided to make a political party that dealt with incarcerated people because they are the people who live in Sol Nascente, and because we work with non-professional actors, we made everything happen in this very concrete way.

We registered Andreia and the party for the campaign, and we opened up political headquarters on the main street of Sol Nascente. Unfortunately, none of this made it into the final cut because we were filming for eighteen months and most of what we shot didn’t make it into the film, but we did create a real campaign. We went door-to-door, we went canvassing, we created a jingle together, but most of all, we wanted Andreia to get elected for real! Since there were 16,000 prisoners awaiting trial who still had their voting rights and we needed 20,000 votes to get elected, we worked on organizing these inmates to vote, and if we could also get these inmates’ families to vote as well, then we could get Andreia elected for District Deputy.

When we started putting the campaign into motion, Andreia’s election, for her and for us, became a real possibility. This was important because we were living in a place where there is a programmatic incarceration of people who are black, poor, and coming from poor districts, and so, to a certain extent, there is a belief that every prisoner in Brazil is a political prisoner. At a time when all of this attention was directed at Lula being a political prisoner, we wanted to create a clear statement with Andreia’s campaign: if one part of our population is imprisoned systematically, then that part is consistently robbed of their right to vote and in turn are political prisoners too. Thus, our party was going to fight for prisoners’ rights from this standpoint.

The importance of the party’s focus became even clearer when Léa was arrested for a second time. Adirley and I actually went to speak at her trial as character witnesses, and we attempted to convince this judge that Léa has a job and a contract in our film, and although the system makes it sound like prison is an opportunity to retrain these prisoners to re-enter society, we had someone in Léa who already had been re-integrated. We asked the judge, “Wouldn’t this be a case for you to not put her back in jail?” But, the judge told us that Léa’s past had condemned her, and that meant to us that Léa went back to jail based on this public policy of systematically incarcerating people.

GF: Given that we are speaking about Andreia’s role in the film, we must ask: what is faith to her? We wanted to discuss this because the scene in the church is fascinating, as there’s so much at play there: the streets flooding outside, the other attendees in the periphery, Andreia’s countenance. We can sense the surrounding instability and the seeking of hope and redemption all in this sequence, yet there’s a lot that feels left unseen and unexplained. How important was this balance between the seen and unseen in constructing Andreia’s church attendance?

JP: That is a good question, as I feel that so many people react violently to that church scene because they feel that it shouldn’t be part of the film. Sometimes, I feel that many progressive people have difficulty in understanding other people’s religions. We ended up having to fight to keep that scene in the film—every filmmaker who saw the final cut wanted us to remove that moment, but we felt that it was crucial to the film because Andreia, Léa, and Chitara are Evangelicals.

There is an Evangelical church on almost every single corner in Sol Nascente, so we knew that we had to address faith. Also, Lula almost didn’t get elected as President this past week because the Workers Party still refuses to acknowledge the importance of Evangelicals in Brazil. It is almost like the people on the political left don’t even know how to start engaging with the Evangelical communities, so they pretend that they don’t exist. At the same time, I am not defending the Evangelical Church as an institution. I myself am not an Evangelical, and I am completely aware of everything that they do that is problematic, but within the context of this community, they fulfill a super important role.

It is impossible to go to an Evangelical church, especially with people you know, and not get very moved. These are people who are humiliated in their jobs, and they spend three hours a day commuting to Brasilia to do menial work, and so when I received this question about the church scene at a film festival here in the States, I explained that, in the US, many people have the need and means to see therapists or psychoanalysts, and I don’t see that practice as being radically different from going to an Evangelical Church where you give your testimony. All of a sudden, for half an hour, there are up to a hundred people who will stop and listen to you and hear about anything that you have done, and it is all understood by this group of people. Adirley and I discussed this a lot because every time people film at an Evangelical church in Brazil, they film outside and don’t go in, and thus they make the parishioners seem like caricatures. But in a space like Sol Nascente in Brazil, the Evangelicals occupy a very important function, so it was essential that we showed the interiors of the church.

As for the flooding outside, when we made the decision to film inside, we filmed over many days, and one day, it rained a great deal, and because of the poor infrastructure, the rain came cascading down the street, and the scene became almost Biblical. We also made the decision to shoot everything from the pews, and we removed the preacher from the scene because we just wanted to see parishioners singing and communicating. We just found the whole scene so beautiful, watching them sing with such passion and sincerity. It was very moving for us, and so we wanted the church to become more about what it meant to the actors, and less about how the church has been viewed politically. I’m glad that you both found that moment important because it was so very important for us too!

LF: While watching your film, we felt this instinctive link to Antonioni’s Red Desert. The dependence on fuel and chemical refinement is certainly a part of it, but, more importantly, both films express a dystopian future set in a contemporary space. Antonioni hints at the future through the distinctive experimental score by Giovanni Fusco so that you see the present, but imagine the future through sound. What elements in Dry Ground Burning were the most significant to you in establishing this convergence of the future and the now?

JP: Oil, for us, was a mark of the past and of the history we wanted to mobilize. In Brazil, oil is nationalized, and at the end of the Lula government, a law was created that said that 75% of the royalties from oil had to go to culture, education, and health. So, for a little bit, there was almost the promise of a complete revolution in Brazil because the government was injecting so many billions into key areas that needed help. Then, there was a coup that took President Dilma from power, and then the Temer government and the Bolsonaro governments sold off the oil fields to multinational companies for the price of bananas. So, today, Brazil has not retained much of its oil rights after these two administrations. Basically, the oil that is in our film is the opposite of what you are saying — it is the elegiac mark to the past and to what could’ve been.

When we decided to take ownership of the oil and approach it from a popular narrative, we began to think about what it could mean if the oil belonged to the people. In turn, I think that there were two aspects that looked towards the future for us. First is the militia car. We started thinking about surveillance, and we had this image of how the police always operated in the district by only seeing citizens from inside of their vehicle or through cameras, so we came to the conclusion that if you only see people through these methods, then it is impossible for you to see them as anything but monsters. To explore this idea, we asked our friends, who are also members from the Movement Without Land, to portray these militia members in the vehicle. They played the opposite of what they do in their daily lives! For their motivation, we told them to imagine that they have not left this car for the last ten years and that they were lost inside of it while observing the city. Then, this officially became the future forward element for us when we eventually disassembled the car and burned it in the end.

You wouldn’t know this from watching the film, but this car was only one of five that was made in Brazil during the end of the dictatorship. It was supposed to represent the promise of a new Brazilian car manufacturing industry, and now this car has become an icon of the extreme right. We acquired the car from an old man in São Paulo who refused to sell it to our art director because she was a woman, which meant that we had to get a man to buy the car. Thankfully, our metal worker, who is also an actor in the film, picked it up, but the old man made him promise to take good care of it. We did burn it, of course, but because the car was so expensive, we stripped it for the parts first and then burned only the frame.

The second piece of looking forward is the last shot of the film that has Léa riding on the motorcycle with all of the other drivers behind her. The song that plays is a song that Léa used to listen to all the time while we were shooting, but neither Adirley nor I knew what it was. At some point, we gave up on guessing, and we just asked her what she was listening to, and then, we contacted the rapper who wrote the song back in the 1990s, and we got it to use in the film. The reason why that is future-looking for me is because it reveals where the film stands at the end in a more straightforward way.

The film could have ended with Léa going to jail. Then, it wouldn’t have been two-and-a-half hours, and instead, it would’ve been more like an hour and fifty minutes, which would’ve made it easier to distribute. It was also a naturally clear ending because we knew that it would be hard to come back from Léa going to jail again. It’s a tough watch because that became such a major closing point to all of this, but we made a deal with the actors: they were not going to lose. They had to take over the streets and become the queens of the neighborhood! So, when we go to the burning of the car and the end with Léa becoming a legend, parading across the city, we felt that the film points to a possible positive future. I mean, for me, if there is any hope for Brazil, it is in them to an extent because their strength, curiosity, and generosity makes me personally want to carry on and make this kind of work. So, for me, it is these two things that direct the film towards the future.

GF: Early in Dry Ground Burning, when Léa gets her shotgun back from her brother, you evoke motifs of the western genre (i.e. gunslinger getting out of jail and receiving his gun back), and as a result, you show a future that has regressed quite far back into the past. In light of the election on Monday where voters brought Lula back, did you have a sense that, politically, people would be looking to the past in response to Bolsonaro too?

JP: I guess that was the hope. Because there is no movie theater in Ceilândia, we kind of have to work with the actors with references that we can share, which are mostly from the late night films that our actors watched on television, usually westerns, kung fu films and classic Hollywood movies. When they were all growing up, there actually was this single cinema in Ceilândia that had one show a day called Sex Karate! That meant a double feature of a porno film and a kung fu film, and so it was in this kind of cinemagraphic space that we tried to collaborate. Obviously, the western became more useful here in terms of the aesthetics that we were trying to propose in terms of scale. We wanted wide shots to be super wide, and we wanted close-ups to be quite close, so we were thinking about an elasticity of scale that would allow us to work with bodies and landscapes in a way that Adirley and I were interested in while also allowing us to mobilize archetypes and the idea of what constitutes a legend in a way that we can all watch, discuss, and think about together. That is how these references to genre, and particularly westerns, came into the project.

As far as the past, I think that what makes me sad is that we, as the left, have lost this narrative battle. The only person who could win an election from Bolsonaro was Lula, and he barely made it! We haven’t in all these years been able to build and rethink what it means to do politics, and I think this is somewhat similar to what’s going on in the US too. It’s almost like we are barely coming to terms with the ascendants of the right, when they are the ones reinventing narrative, reinventing language, reinventing how you make political campaigns. The motorcycle drivers, truck drivers, and the delivery people are a good example of this. They are a huge force in Brazil, and Bolsonaro cleverly assembled them for his campaign, which means that the far right is still winning the political mobilizations, especially these large groups that constitute the majority beyond the city centers, but we, the left, are still under the impression that a voter in Rio or São Paulo is more important than a voter in Ceilândia when they all count the same! We have not been able to motivate the voters or form a political campaign in places outside of Rio and São Paulo that speaks to people who are Evangelical or who are without a job, and that means we are still shying away from going to the heart of how that could translate into a political form that could serve us all.

That said, the one person who has achieved that in the most brilliant and wonderful way is Lula because he loves people. I think that he has done the right things, such as rebuilding the northeast. So, looking to the past is more of a sign of our failure in progressive politics to rethink who are the people we should be campaigning with or doing things for right now. In Brazil, voting is mandatory, and yet, here we are still campaigning towards the politics of the center when that doesn’t represent the majority of the electorate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Featured photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Dry Ground Burning

AFI Fest 2022


Originally published on Ink 19 on November 9, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

For the past eight years, the arrival of November has always brought us immense excitement because AFI Fest has been guaranteed to showcase an impressive program of films representing many vital approaches to cinema across the world in that moment in time. As with last year’s iteration, AFI Fest 2022 had a slightly leaner lineup than the versions in pre-COVID-19 days, but this worked to the advantage of AFI Fest’s programmers, for the slate for this year’s festival was tightly focused and featured strong and bold works from both debut and well-established directors.

This year’s festival also showcased one of the strongest lineups of features from directors returning to AFI Fest in recent memory. Over this past week, a monumental list of filmmakers ranging from Albert Serra to Joanna Hogg to Alice Diop to Hong Sang-soo came back to the TCL theater screens on Hollywood Boulevard to present their newest works, and overall, AFI Fest 2022 offered attendees 125 titles split into eight sections this time around: 7 in Red Carpet Premieres, 6 in Special Screenings, 12 in Discovery, 12 in World Cinema, 12 in Documentary, 30 in Short Film Competition, 43 in AFI Conservatory and 3 in Guest Artistic Director Selections!

Faced with such an eclectic range of choices, we — as we always have in previous years — made a plan to spend most of AFI Fest taking in all that the World Cinema section had to offer, but, in the end, the outstanding documentary curation, which had an overwhelming amount of compelling titles that veered towards the experimental, vied for a good percentage of our viewing time! Regardless of genre, if there was a consistent theme that existed throughout most of the films that we favored at this year’s AFI Fest, it would be that of identity transformation in response to environments and/or consequential events, which feels all too appropriate in our rapidly changing world.

This year’s AFI Fest programming was particularly formidable, and below are our reviews of the ten features that we consider as essential watches, beginning with our favorite.

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Pacifiction / dir. Albert Serra

In the earliest scenes of Pacifiction, French Navy sailors land at a small harbor, and soon after, a disarmingly sickly, yet mesmerizing sky fills the screen. Immediately, we begin to suspect that we are somewhere in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. But, as Pacifiction hones in on Monsieur De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a High Commissioner to French Polynesia, we start to detect echoes of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, setting in place the expectations of a story about a wayward colonial government representative long forgotten because of time, distance, and insignificance. However, throughout Pacifiction, Serra navigates away from any familiar narrative devices and continuously re-directs all of our attention to Monsieur De Roller, whose actions present a fascinating, morally ambiguous, and unsettlingly contemporary character. De Roller is not like the morally decrepit of the past. He’s not a hedonist. He’s not an ideologue. And, in fact, he maintains positive (though palpably fragile) relationships with most around him — so much so that he is someone that both Polynesian community leaders and French expats trust. But, De Roller is a deceptive, complex figure, and Serra allows us to study his actions and conversations to try to decipher his motivations. After we see stern, diplomatic, amiable, and pseudo-casual versions of De Roller through his interactions with others, we take notice of something consistent in his demeanor: control. Not that of a dictatorial kind, but rather control that comes from a keen understanding of the people around him and the ability to push and pull different strengths and tensions in order to maintain stability and peace for himself in his environment. De Roller’s attentive yet noticeably distant countenances in most settings reveal his lack of commitment to any particular cause, yet his words, particularly terms of negotiation, often acknowledge, address, and take some action on his conversational partner(s) concerns. De Roller doesn’t want to help people, but he does want to maintain his control over the systems he has mastered in his surroundings: positive outcomes are necessary, and acts of physical violence towards his fellow inhabitants are generally avoided because of their long-term consequences. This approach works perfectly for De Roller until an admiral (Marc Susini) arrives and continues to reappear in De Roller’s social circles while rumors of the return of nuclear testing spread, stirring up paranoia in De Roller as French military powers threaten the equilibrium he’s created for himself and remind him of his insignificance beyond the shores of French Polynesia. Pacifiction stands out as Albert Serra’s most approachable work to date, but despite the illusion of a narrative laden with images that evoke familiar motifs in fictions of the past, Pacifiction slyly uses known conventions to mislead you towards a grand ending or a climax that never happens. Instead, we enter a paradoxically hyper-real and hyper-fictionalized world that mirrors our own distortions of reality and see it through the hyperbolic, morally indifferent eyes of De Roller, who perfectly represents the collision of unsavory geopolitical histories, strategic diplomacy and conciliation, basic self-interest, and powers far beyond our grasp and perception, all of which are forces that underlie our own daily actions, even if we don’t want to be aware of them.

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Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / dirs. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós

Back in the spring of 2018, we were extremely fortunate to catch a screening of Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) at Locarno in Los Angeles. That politically urgent, low-budget science fiction film, which was awarded a Special Mention in Locarno the previous year, was the first collaboration between director Adirley Queirós and his then cinematographer, Joana Pimenta. A top ten film for us in 2018, Queirós’s feature inventively blended tropes from dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema to deliver a poignant statement on contemporary Brazil from a futuristic world devoid of hope. With their new feature, Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta has returned as the DP and, in addition, has joined Adirley Queirós as a co-director for an ambitious docu-fiction work that brings our filmmakers back to the beleaguered district of Ceilândia, the site of their aforementioned sci-fi film.

At the center of Pimenta and Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning are half-sisters Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), leaders of a gang who sell purloined gasoline to bikers in their Sol Nascente favela, a community that has long given up on the promises and hopes of societal enrichment from governmental investment into the Brazilian infrastructure after the extraction of untold amounts of oil found in the country during the mid-2000s. As the sisters run gasoline with their all-female crew, we learn about the pervasive history and impact of crime and incarceration in their current lives and future. Timelines pause, reverse, and skip forward in Dry Ground Burning, but the oil rig and refinery remains as the emanating point for Chitara, Léa, and their teammate Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who together provide their neighborhood with gasoline while also supporting themselves and their families before splitting apart as the surrounding police state descends on them. From its early scenes, Dry Ground Burning is intentionally framed as a neo-western mixed with shades of City of God, but, as the film progresses, Pimenta and Queirós strip away any cinematic tropes and build the film’s strength not from typical action scenes, but from raw dialogues heard between the sisters and their gang and long takes of the women working at the rig and living outside of its gates, which humanize the overall feeling of desperation and survival in Sol Nascente in a way that slickly shot gunplay could never achieve. We spoke with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 in the coming weeks.

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De Humani Corporis Fabrica / dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Unseen systems that generate outputs that we interact with, such as water purification or the conversion of gasoline into energy, continuously operate all around us. We understand some systems abstractly. But with others, we don’t even quite know their parts. The systems in our bodies fall into both of these categories, and for the longest time, we would only learn about them through ailments with clear, perceptible symptoms, and we rarely saw into the physiological culprits. Hospitals too are their own systems that we engage with when we need treatment for our bodies and minds, but unless we are (or intimately know) medical professionals, we rarely get to see how parts of the hospital system work and how operations are performed. In De Humani Corporis Fabrica, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images and sounds from studies of components of hospital and body systems far from perfection and provide us new, visceral, uncomfortable, and amazing views into both. In operating rooms, via laparoscopic cameras, we travel through unknown ducts and tubes to watch surgical graspers, scissors, and needles cut, repair, or remove tissues and organs. In labs, we see tumors prepared for microscopic study and the resulting psychedelic slices projected onto screens. In geriatric hallways, we see how our physical and mental faculties wear down with age. And, in the morgue, we see masses of bodies that have reached the end of their lifecycles. Mixed into these varying internal and external views of the human form, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor pipe in casual conversations throughout various hospital settings that reveal the less than ideal conditions doctors and nurses face with unsustainable case loads, staff reductions, and even surgical supply shortages. Yet, despite the feeling that everything inside the hospitals featured in De Humani Corporis Fabrica may be broken, the doctors and nurses manage to continue maintaining and fixing the human body and keeping the hospitals’ systems running, instilling in us wonder that our bodies work at all and awe in the fortitude and resilience of medical professionals who see our bodies at their lowest points every day.

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Trenque Lauquen / dir. Laura Citarella

At the center of the cosmos of Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen is Laura (Laura Paredes), a woman who has gone missing. A botanist sent to Trenque Lauquen for a cataloging project that could cement her success as an academic, Laura has her own pulsating, shifting orbit that intersects with those of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend and academic partner in Buenos Aires, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), her institute assigned driver turned investigative partner in Trenque Lauquen, and Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), a brusque and mysterious local doctor. In the moments she shares with each of these main players, sometimes in person, other times through phone calls and voice messages, we as the audience learn more about the transformations that led up to Laura’s disappearance. In part one of the film, Citarella primarily focuses our attention on Laura, Rafael, and Ezequiel. Rafael and Ezequiel actively search for Laura by car, and as they ask for information from various shop owners and farmers along the roads, their chances of success look slim. Rafael and Ezequiel are both discreet in what they share about their own relationships with Laura, preventing them (and us) from piecing together a complete understanding of Laura. However, as Citarella takes us back in time to learn about the evolution of Ezequiel and Laura’s relationship through Laura’s discovery and compulsive excavation of letters written in the 1960s between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in the town, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) and Ezequiel’s contributions to the investigation to understand who the lovers were and how their relationship fell apart, we begin to better understand Laura in the period before her disappearance. Upon discovering a letter between the lovers hidden in a book by Alexandra Kollontai, Laura abandons her plant cataloging project and instead spends all of her time voraciously combing through the Martín Fierro estate’s large donation to the Trenque Lauquen library to hunt for the rest of the letters hidden inside of the collection. As she attempts to piece together the letters’ timelines and portraits of their writers, she shares the knowledge with Ezequiel, and with his own connections to the history of Trenque Lauquen, he helps Laura connect Carmen and Paolo to their positions and statuses in the town. But, despite this expanded knowledge and Laura’s success in extracting the complete series of correspondence between Carmen and Paolo, the letters point towards a surprisingly unclear resolution, for, as they progressed in time, Carmen’s location became more ambiguous and eventually unknown.

As the second part of Trenque Lauquen opens, we learn about how Laura became intertwined with Elisa, beginning with the moment when she asked Laura for a sample of a short yellow flower. This simple request pulls Laura into a local event and its fallout — the discovery and presence of a half-human, half-amphibian child in Trenque Lauquen’s lake and Elisa and her partner Romina’s roles in becoming the child’s caretakers and secret guardians. When Laura finally brings a sample of the flowers to Elisa’s home, she gains partial entry into Elisa’s life. However, little is shared about the child and Elisa’s intentions for it, even as Elisa and Romina (Verónica Llinás) ask Laura for her assistance with growing plants and finding materials for something that Laura can only assume is a simulated habitat. Though Laura never gets to see the child/creature, she nevertheless works harmoniously alongside Elisa and Romina and develops a more collaborative spirit, allowing her to open up, receive, and accept what may come, regardless of how irrational or unexplainable it may be. So, when Elisa, Romina, and the child must flee and Laura receives instructions from Elisa explaining things to collect and meet up points, Laura complies, and as she works to fulfill Elisa’s requests, she is sharply aware of everything around her and absorbs it all. Trenque Lauquen doesn’t seek a solution to a mystery. Instead, it documents the awakenings and transformations caused by and within Laura, making her whereabouts far less important than her impact on the people and places she interacted with and their influence on her. We spoke with director Laura Citarella during AFI Fest 2022, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 very soon.

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Piaffe / dir. Ann Oren

It is nearly impossible not to think of Bruce Robinson’s woefully forgotten 1989 black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, when watching Ann Oren’s debut feature, Piaffe. Arriving near the end of the single most commerce-obsessed decade in human history, Robinson’s film tells the story of Denis Bagley (Richard E. Grant), a highly successful advertising executive who develops a crisis of conscience when a pharmaceutical company tasks him with one too many boil cream campaigns. Fraught with ethical concerns, Denis feverishly proclaims his worries to his wife and friends about the inherent evil of the product he must promote and his desire to walk away from the endless barrage of adverts he’s inflicted on humanity. Unfortunately, an enormously fiendish boil, complete with eyes and a mouth, appears on Denis’s shoulder to guide him towards a different undesired outcome. In Piaffe, Eva (Simone Bucio), a reserved Foley artist charged with creating the sounds of a horse featured in an endorsement for the fittingly-named “Equili,” a mood-stabilizing medication, is the analog to Denis in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. When her early attempts at duplicating the animal’s sounds are rejected by the commercial’s director due to their perceived unnaturalness, Eva throws herself deeper into the project while also struggling to care for her non-binary sibling, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), who is hospitalized for an unknown condition. Now, as Eva is left with no other option but to successfully complete her Foley assignment, she visits a stable to get closer to her subject and takes that experience back into the sound studio where her uncanny embodiment of the horse’s mannerisms results in her own Denis-esque physical manifestation: a small tail, which emerges on her lower back. As Eva’s tail begins to grow longer, she draws the attention of botanist Dr. Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), who fetishizes her new appendage and seemingly integrates his research around fern roots (which he manipulates and binds) and ferns at gametophyte stage (which is of particular interest to him because it’s a time when ferns produce both sperm and eggs) into his sexual practice with Eva. The amorphous spaces between species, gender, and sexuality build and shift around Eva and disorient her as they push her in new directions. And, with each moment of transformation, we see Eva fall into a disquieting state where she has the approval and interest of people around her — something that she never had prior to her newly grown tail — but is now at their mercy more than ever before. In this hazardous territory, Eva, who was awkward, alone, and frightened at the beginning of Piaffe, becomes disaffected and aloof in an unsustainable persona that doesn’t feel like her own. With Piaffe, Oren effectively and insightfully nuances the core message of How to Get Ahead in Advertising for today’s generation, one that is equally bombarded with medicinal “cures” alongside a dizzying array of societal norms and transgressions, which together can potently convolute the concept of self.

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Walk Up / dir. Hong Sang-soo

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our relation to the physical space that we inhabit and the reflection of that space back onto our lives has taken on a greater meaning than ever before. For director Hong Sang-soo’s 28th feature, he continues his recent shift to an even more threadbare filmmaking style and inserts his avatar into a four-story, multi-purpose building that takes him through a four-part narrative that allows us to gain a deeper insight into his despairs by utilizing each floor as an affecting stage to play against the women he encounters there. Starting on the first floor, Sang-soo stand in Byung-soo (Kwon Haehyo), a well-respected film director, travels with his estranged daughter, Jeongsu (Park Miso) to our emotional edifice to introduce her to Ms. Kim (Lee Hyeyoung), the landlord of the building, who Byung-soo hopes will offer some advice to his daughter before she embarks on her career in interior design, a field in which Ms. Kim has enjoyed some success. Given that the handsome, gray-haired Byung-soo is in the thick of a successful career and Ms. Kim is enamored with his fame, she not only offers Jeongsu an internship, but also gifts Byung-soo a free rooftop apartment to use as an office if he so desires. After some time passes, we find a more fragile Byung-soo drinking again in the second floor restaurant run by Sunhee (Song Sunmi), an equally fragile, but failed artist, who adores Byung-soo’s work and engages him in an earnest but awkward conversation that leads to their eventual coupling. By the time we get to the third floor, a COVID-compromised Byung-soo is cohabitating with Sunhee and both are cracking under the claustrophobic stagnation of their living situation and their failed careers. Eventually, Byung-soo makes it up to the fourth floor, and with that final space comes another woman and an even greater reveal into the director’s true self. With Walk Up, Hong once again masterfully jars us with uncomfortable human moments interjected into casual scenes and surrounds these moments with paced build ups and deflections that altogether underscore the frailty and humanness of his flawed characters. Much of the success of Hong’s signature technique in Walk Up can be attributed to the naturalistic performances throughout the film as well as Hong’s clever decision to entrap his characters in a set space that forces us to look as closely into their actions as we looked into our own while under lockdown.

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Cette Maison (This House) / dir. Miryam Charles

After the sudden loss of a loved one, there is an essential need within many of us to understand the why before we can imagine what could’ve been. For director Miryam Charles, the tragic loss of her cousin, Terra, who died under violent and mysterious circumstances at the age of fourteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008, is experienced in Cette Maison through a reconstruction, not of the crime, but of the trajectory of Terra in her real and imagined life via her family’s reactions to her passing and their connections to the physical spaces that they’ve existed in through their migrations years prior and since her passing. As an experiential process, Charles depicts the varying states of sadness, grief, and resignation through different visual motifs that recurrently pull us closer then away to emulate time against impact. When we witness the day that Terra is found dead, Charles recreates the moments as a formal stage play, complete with facades and direct lighting in a way that feels dramatic and intense but classical and familiar in appearance. Charles ages Terra through the performance of actress Schelby Jean-Baptiste, who is close to the age of Terra had she lived, and as Terra engages with her mother (Florence Blain Mbaye) in confrontational conversations, their communication evokes a bi-directional transference of spirit that manifests as a documentary of mourning, memory, and imagination which carries Terra’s spirit back and forth from Connecticut to Quebec to Haiti through her mother’s grief. These erratic shifts of location and storytelling style are juxtaposed with Charles’s use of grainy 16mm film and warm natural light, which imbue us with a sense that Terra’s death and her family’s inability to find a place of belonging are forever intertwined. We spoke with director Miryam Charles during this year’s festival, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 soon.

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Saint Omer / dir. Alice Diop

Consistently throughout her career as a documentarian, director Alice Diop, the daughter of Senegalese parents, has explored the difficulties of assimilation for people of African descent in her native France by maintaining a close proximity to her subjects that feels urgent and factual, but never clinical or detached. Such a dynamic and personal approach to a subject so close to one’s own experience carries with it a dangerous propensity to sacrifice objectiveness for empathy, and it is the investigation of that precarious balance which stands at the core of Saint Omer, Diop’s first narrative feature as a director. Based on the 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant and graduate student in philosophy accused of drowning her 15-month-old daughter, Diop explores the connection between subject and storyteller through Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist of Senaglese descent, who attends the trial of defendant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) with the hopes of adapting Coly’s alleged crime into a modern version of Medea.

As Saint Omer begins, Diop provides us with a snapshot of Rama lecturing a class on Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and then shifts us back to her mother’s home, where she enjoys positive discussions with her white musician husband and supportive sisters, as well as some less comfortable moments with her mother at the dinner table. Once in the courtroom, Rama observes and studies Laurence, who remains remarkably stoic while the presiding white female judge sums up the allegations that she murdered her baby Elise. When Laurence is ultimately questioned as to why she committed this heinous crime, she reservedly responds that she hopes that the trial will unearth the reasons behind her actions. Just as the first day ends, Rama meets Laurence’s mother, who provides Rama with a view into Laurence’s background, which included a strict upbringing in a home where Laurence was told to only speak perfect French and to refrain from speaking Wolof. The next day, witnesses are called, one of whom is the father of baby Elise, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an older white man who testifies of the love he had for his child while more testimony establishes that Elise was born in secret and that Dumontet had no real feelings for Laurence. With each successive revelation in the case in Saint Omer, the symmetry and discrepancies that exist between Rama’s and Laurence’s backgrounds and capabilities are illuminated, and with every epiphany, Diop adeptly mirrors the fragile relationship between an empathetic creator and subject and the more perilous hazards of adapting that real connection into fiction.

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Rewind & Play / dir. Alain Gomis

It would be easy to dismiss the disastrous Thelonious Monk interview at the center of director Alain Gomis’s experimental and provocative new documentary as simply another example of an uninformed host so far out in the weeds that he embarrasses himself with every contrived, half-heartedly delivered question that inevitably falls flat. Easy indeed, except for the fact that the string of bland and clueless queries directed at one of most innovative figures in jazz history is not only being uttered by a personal acquaintance of Monk’s, but also one of France’s finest talents in the genre, Henri Renaud, a famed pianist and producer who recorded extensively with a who’s who of jazz luminaries, including artists such as Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, and Clifford Brown! Herein lies the great curiosity of Rewind & Play, but before we are allowed to witness the verbal minefield perpetrated on the set of the long-running television program, Jazz Portrait, we are lulled into a familiar music documentary setup that has Monk and his wife Nellie arriving in Paris and being whisked away into town for drinks at a cozy bar. The mood is cool in these early minutes, and in narrative terms, it feels like a safe place, but from the moment it leaves the smoke and libations and we see Monk planted piano side with searing studio spotlights bearing down on his face, we immediately sense all is not well. What follows for the remainder of the film is a barrage of awkward and inappropriate inquiries from Renaud that you would never expect to hear from a musician speaking to a fellow musician, much less a friend, and throughout these proceedings, Gomis cleverly chops together the questions and answers uttered during rehearsals into an absurd and redundant cacophony of bewildered looks and unpleasant reactions with the only salvations coming from Monk who is finally left alone to play “Round Midnight” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” As Rewind & Play comes to a close, you have a perfectly articulated declaration of the struggles that arise from being avant-garde within a known form. If Monk’s friend, fellow musician, and jazz scholar, Henri Renaud, was genuinely puzzled as to why Monk languished in semi-obscurity for years, you can only cringe at the notion of how Monk was perceived by those of influence who existed outside of his inner circle.

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Le Pupille (The Pupils) / dir. Alice Rohrwacher

During our 2018 conversation after the AFI Fest screening of her feature, Happy as Lazzaro, director Alice Rohrwacher stressed the disparity between the religions that coexisted in her film: the historical religion of the Catholic Church, which primarily served in her film as a force of suppression over a group of anachronistic sharecroppers, and a religion of innocence, or the pure belief that human beings have in other human beings.

A comparable delineation of faith and religion comes into play again in Rohrwacher’s newest creation, Le Pupille, a sumptuously shot 16mm short set during the Second World War in the days leading up to Christmas in a sparse boarding school for girls. At the helm of this school is The Mother Superior (Alba Rohrwacher), who uses Catholicism as a method of control over her group of innocent subjects for power and profit, much like Happy as Lazzaro’s Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna did. As it is the holiday season, the money-making tool in Le Pupille takes the form of a Nativity play consisting of our perfectly-costumed seraphic students suspended by wires in the church to form a devotion-inspiring Renaissance painting of sorts. This living painting then becomes a service for the townspeople who offer what little food and lira they have to get these posed innocents to pray for whatever their patrons desire. Given that it is wartime, most villagers pray for the safe return of their loved ones, but when a well-to-do woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) offers the ultimate symbol of royal privilege during rationing — a perfectly made Zuppa Inglese — in exchange for prayers that will bring her scoundrel of a fiancé back to her, the Zuppa Inglese becomes a symbol of rebellion for one of the girls who was unfairly maligned prior to the Christmas Day dinner. Based on a letter composed by writer Elsa Morante as a Christmas greeting to a friend, Le Pupille simultaneously functions as a playful holiday watch while cleverly expanding on Rohrwacher’s thoughts regarding the true essence of human nature over organized morality. 

All films were screened at AFI Fest 2022. Many thanks and congratulations to AFI for another excellent year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.

AFI Fest

Featured photo courtesy of AFI