Originally published on Ink 19 on December 1, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro

Over the past few years, we’ve tried to select a handful of words to describe undercurrents in our favorite films of the year. For 2022, one word overwhelmingly emerged as the winner to link the films that inspired and demanded us to look more closely at the cinematic form and our world at large: connectivity.

This year, every film in our Best Of list addresses our attempts to connect with people and/or places in some way. Sometimes the connections are new ones. Other times, they are old ones that are changing. And, more often than not, they fail to meet original expectations. Despite the likelihood of disappointment, connectivity is more important than ever, and our favorite films underscore the fragility of human interactions in an era where a past pandemic is now in the rearview mirror and distant warning signals of future ones may be ahead, keeping isolation at the top of our minds.

There are a multitude of approaches to such a broad concept in our shifting times, and consequently, this year’s list has entries from a variety of genres. Some veer towards science fiction. Many incorporate hybrid cinema techniques. One is a pure documentary. A few are dialogue-centric. And, a couple even have comedic roots. As thus, we hope that each film covers a distinct facet/perspective of our world and that, collectively, they propel us towards a hope for a new (or at least restored) sense of awareness for everything, big and small, moving around us.

We send immense gratitude to the fine folks at Acropolis Cinema, AFI Fest, Independent Film Festival Boston, the Brattle Theater, Films at Lincoln Center, and the Coolidge Corner Theater for their outstanding programming efforts that brought exceptional works to screens and audiences throughout the year. Please support these festivals, microcinemas, and independent theaters as they are vital to the progress and strengthening of our communities.

• •

Pacifiction / France, Spain / 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.

• •

Memoria / Colombia, Thailand / dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Though many in the US had the opportunity to see Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria in 2021, it arrived in our town via its roadshow (which is still ongoing!) earlier this year. Set in Colombia, Memoria centers our attention on Jessica (Tilda Swinton), an orchidologist on a visit to Bogotá for a mix of professional and personal reasons. Her sister lives there and is currently in the hospital with a peculiar unknown illness, so Jessica has arrived to comfort her, and while there, she takes the opportunity to do some research on orchid fungi for her work as well. However, the sudden onset of a thunderous sound that only she can hear pulls her out of her own life as she tries to find its source, and in doing so, she experiences a different kind of life guided by her connections to the people and places around her. Jessica becomes a transistor for the collective energies and memories of her surroundings: she absorbs and amplifies tones from modern histories, individual pasts, primordial times, and possibly even extraterrestrial presents, and through her immersion, we too are able to connect the same frequencies reverberating in ourselves as we sit in our theater seats. A film not to be watched but rather experienced because of its sensuous audio and visual elements, Memoria has been (and will only ever be) available in the US through limited engagements in theaters, major and minor, across the country. And such an exhibition and distribution method is only too apt for Memoria because, in going to theaters to see the film, we too are actively sharing a collective experience, a practice that had been put on pause since the COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, has become layered with our own recollections of the past and hopes that communal connectivity around cinema can be restored again one day soon. Read our full review of Memoria here.

• •

The Cathedral / United States / dir. Ricky D’Ambrose

It is oddly fitting that this review of Ricky D’Ambrose’s family epic, The Cathedral, is being written only a few days after the passing of Jean-Marie Straub, as D’Ambrose’s second full-length feature bears many of the minimalist visual attributes and verbal punctuations indicative of the works of Straub and his longtime partner, Danièle Huillet. However, The Cathedral diverges from the mostly text to screen relational works of Straub-Huillet in its narrative construction, which is based on moments that are naturally recalled from memory. Created as a semi-autobiography, The Cathedral focuses the on the pre-college life of only child Jesse Damrosch (portrayed by both Robert Levey II and William Bednar Carter), the son of Richard (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), suburban Italian-American parents who struggle mightily to maintain their family’s middle-class identity and status. Framed against a backdrop composed of major world events from the 1980s through the 2000s, which are dispensed through interjected news reports, the moments of familial misunderstandings and deafening silences endured by Jesse during his upbringing reach levels that rival these grand historical events when experienced through the mind of a young man who knows only his family’s contained world. Impressively, D’Ambrose presents the Damrosch/his family’s tribulations without the use of any over-dramatic staging of their dysfunctional moments, which has become the norm in films that depict the Italian-American experience. As we watch businesses fail and relationships falter in The Cathedral, we clearly understand the causality of these shortcomings: they stem more from the Damrosch family’s inability to fully integrate due to a socioeconomic system that is likely set against them, and less from what is usually seen in cinema when the failures of Italian-Americans are the results of a lack of desire to acclimate and, thus, move away from an outdated cultural imperative. Throughout The Cathedral, D’Ambrose artfully maintains a distance to his story through sound and framing that provide us with a clear lens that, to some, may feel overly unemotional, but is no less impactful and honest in its personal message of disenfranchisement.

• •

El Gran Movimiento / Bolivia, France, Qatar, Switzerland / dir. Kiro Russo

In the La Paz presented in El Gran Movimiento, practices and traditions of the past coexist alongside the mercantile systems of the present and the forces of capitalism steadily making their way through the geographies, architecture, and sociopolitical structures in and around the city. Kiro Russo takes us through and between all of these different energies with flashes of sound and images, zoomed in and out, to form a buzzing kaleidoscope of La Paz with components radiating from (or perhaps towards) its central point, Elder (Julio César Ticona), a coal miner who has walked to the city after losing his job. Elder simply wants to find any kind of work, but his body and the city have other intentions for him. He has a mysterious respiratory disease that intensifies when he arrives. Initially, we suspect that the mines have caused Elder’s illness, but the longer he remains in the urban heart of La Paz, where he’s exploited by market suppliers, mocked by stall-keepers, and even somewhat teased by his able-bodied friends, the more he weakens, and soon we realize that Elder’s spirit is being consumed by the malevolent forces in his surroundings. Thankfully, Mama Pancha (Francisa Arce de Aro), a woman who takes in Elder and claims to be his godmother, and Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), a shaman who provides treatments for both Mama Pancha and Elder, counter with those of a more humane past and provide hope as they manage to survive in or near the city — Mama Pancha in a building down a long forgotten alley and Max in the mountainous forest beyond the urban center — and through them, Elder has a chance to live. El Gran Movimiento is certainly political at its core, but its politics are neither dogmatic nor rigid: they are inherently human-centric and understand how an individual person manifests their flaws and triumphs to varying degrees, sometimes modulated by internal motivations, other times by external societal pressures, and oftentimes by some combination of both, which aggregate in the cities where people gather, assemble, and clash. La Paz in El Gran Movimiento is bewildering, haunting, and striking because it is an ecosystem that has its own mechanisms for operation and survival with chaos regularly injected. The city is its own character brimming with imperfections and occasional flecks of kindness and virtue. And hence, it is fundamentally representative of the modern human.

• •

Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / Brazil, Portugal / 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 discussed Dry Ground Burning with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview is available here on Ink 19.

• •

De Humani Corporis Fabrica / France, United States / 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.

• •

Espíritu sagrado (The Sacred Spirit) / Spain, France, Turkey / dir. Chema García Ibarra

As seen by the church activities of the protagonists living in the district of Ceilândia in Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s film Dry Ground Burning, spiritual identity and connection are essential in a place enduring through economic hardship, and the same message can be said, but in a radically different way for the residents of the depressed town of Elche, the setting for Chema García Ibarra’s inventive feature-film debut, The Sacred Spirit. With its cold open to the mid-essay speech given by a seraphic young girl who directly speaks to her class about the need for priests in her town to baptize babies lest they become the unwilling organ donors to devil-worshippers, Ibarra abruptly and surrealistic offers us the town of Elche as a place that is wildly devoid of traditional religion as guide for conduct. After that first moment, we find out that the young orator is Veronica, the twin sister of Vanessa, who may have been kidnapped by a gang of organ thieves operating the in the town, a dire situation that leaves their mother Charo (Joanna Valverde) with no other option than to take to the airwaves to plead for her daughter’s return. Soon, the film shifts to Vanessa and Veronica’s uncle, José Manuel (Nacho Fernández), a cafe owner and member of the local UFO collective Ovni-Levante, who must tend to his disabled mother, Carmina (Rocío Ibáñez), the town’s medium who has been rendered fairly uncommunicative due to the progression of Alzheimer’s. Though it would seem that the grim reality of Vanessa’s disappearance should take center stage in José Manuel’s life, the death of Ovni-Levante’s leader takes precedence instead, as José Manuel is the only one with deep enough knowledge to guide humanity through the approaching extraterrestrial phenomenon. For its engine, Ibarra fills The Sacred Spirit with fantastical instances that thrive in the uncomfortable space between laughter and tragedy to purposefully misdirect you before delivering his film’s closing message of how our frenzied need to believe in the unreal in a time filled with dizzying untruths can cloud our judgment to dangerously obscure a real evil.

• •

Re Granchio (The Tale of King Crab) / Italy, France / Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis

With their feature, The Tale of King Crab, directors Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis weave the folklore of the Tuscia town of Vejano into its current reality then spin a new myth from both. The final film of a triptych concentrated on stories told by the members of a hunting lodge in Vejano, The Tale of King Crab opens with the hunters regaling the beginnings of the heroic journey of Luciano (Gabriele Silli), the son of the town’s doctor and a local drunkard who lived in Vejano some time near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Born into a class awkwardly straddled in between the peasants of the town and the royalty and clergy that rule it, Luciano contends with both when he expresses his love for Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the daughter of a shepherd. Emma’s father refuses to allow Luciano to be with Emma. And, much to the disdain of Luciano, who has never been a fan of the oppressive and seemingly trivial rules of royalty, Emma catches the attention of the local prince when she’s selected to be the symbolic Mary of the Feast of St. Orsio. With these dual forces pulling Emma away from him, Luciano commits a tragic act of arson that leads to his exile to Tierra del Fuego, a purgatory for him to reflect on his sins in Vejano. At the other end of the world, Luciano, who now fashions himself as a priest, embarks on an archetypal quest for redemption, but along the way, Rigo de Righi and Zoppis intertwine a set of uncouth pirates, a compass in the form of Tierra del Fuego’s iconic king crab, and diverse landscapes that shouldn’t coexist but somehow do at this point at the end of the earth. All of these rich details build a mythology around Luciano that has its own distinctive world with all of the essentials of a grand epic, and altogether, they breathe life into a classical genre that is centuries old, the fairy tale, reminding us that timeless narrative traditions can still be relevant and significant to the imaginations of today because the travails and triumphs of an imperfect hero will always manage to resonate with us in some way. Our full-length review of The Tale of King Crab is available here.

• •

Das Mädchen Und Die Spinne (The Girl and the Spider) / Switzerland / dirs. Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher

Silence can emphasize sound and action, or it can take on a meaning of its own. In The Girl and the Spider, the absence of sound carries the weight of the film’s mood and gives us a glimpse into the history, complications, and uncommunicated sentiments hiding below and in between its characters’ actions and words. The premise of the film is simple in concept: Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of an apartment that she has been sharing with Mara (Henriette Confurius) and Markus (Ivan Georgiev) and into an apartment for herself alone. We see the moving day activities in the former and the new apartment, and as boxes get filled and depart then arrive, we meet characters connected to the spaces. In the old apartment, we meet neighbors who exist across multiple generations, and in the new apartment, we meet a neighbor with two young children and repairmen hired to make the place a home for Lisa. In between the movements, there are plenty of glances and conversations, but all of the characters remain fairly enigmatic to us as the viewers: even if they say or do something, they all seem burdened with words that cannot or will not come out into the open. Mara is noticeably upset with Lisa’s departure, but remains relatively quiet with the exception of an outburst. Lisa is determined to make the move happen, but we’re never quite sure as to why she wants it so intensely. Lisa’s mother (Ursina Lardi) is trying her best to help with the moving efforts, but looks out of place and oddly draws recurring acts of passive and active aggression from her daughter. In turn, directors Ramon and Silvan Zürcher transform this common, domestic event of moving apartments into a microcosm of transition periods in life, that fleeting period where the connections and intimacy of the previous state collide with fresh motivations and anticipation of future interactions in the state to come. Such a transient period flows with a variety of paradoxical reactions and memories, and in the process, little can be done to express all of the feelings looming around the impending change, especially when many people are involved, so we proceed with what needs to be done or what feels proper to make the change happen, creating a forward motion even as tangents away from it continuously emerge. The Girl and the Spider stages all of these motions in the confines of the new and old apartment, and in doing so, amplifies everything around Lisa’s move and guides us to a quiet acceptance of the constancy of change.

• •

Dangsin-Eolgul-Apeseo (In Front of Your Face) / South Korea / dir. Hong Sang-soo

In 2022, we managed to view three new Hong Sang-soo films. As fans since seeing The Day He Arrives in 2012, we’ve always looked forward to the next iteration of Hong’s signatures: the uncomfortable pauses and glances, the conversations in various states of inebriation or caffeination, the cyclical actions of characters, and the quiet, yet unnerving disconnections of artists trying to interact with the world around them. These motifs always bring comfort and yet never feel stale, and consequently, most Hong films of late have felt like fresh variations on a treat that you adore. However, this is not the case with In Front of Your Face, which contains Hong’s dialogue and mood hallmarks assembled this time into a semi-linear structure far more urgent in tone than the circuitous ones of his previous films. From the earliest moments of meeting the elegant Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young), who has returned to Seoul to visit her sister (Cho Yunhee) and her home city after living in the US for many years, we sense that each interaction to come has greater meaning and stakes for her than what she superficially conveys. In a modest discussion over coffee with her sister, we learn that Sang-ok’s hopes for success in America never came true, and in her time away, an enormous chasm emerged between her and her sister, not for any dramatic reasons but rather because they took very different paths in their lives. As the sisters continue to familiarize themselves with each other, we learn about each one’s legacies in Seoul. Sang-ok gets recognized by strangers in the park, and we learn that she was once a prominent actress in Korea. And, in a separate moment, we meet Jeong-ok’s adult son, who is a kind and respectful owner of a small restaurant specializing in tteokbokki. From these scenes, we overwhelmingly sense that Sang-ok is on some kind of farewell tour, and we get full confirmation of this suspicion when she meets with a director, Jae-won (played by the frequent Hong proxy Kwon Hae-Hyo), who is a longtime fan and who drunkenly promises to make Sang-ok’s final film. Melancholic overall with fleeting infusions of playfulness, In Front of Your Face is perhaps Hong’s most sentimental film to date, but every second has an effortlessness, humanity, and honesty that makes Sang-ok’s experiences all the more meaningful, slowing down time and building an appreciation for life’s oddities, failures, and accomplishments.

• •


• •

Trenque Lauquen / Argentina, Germany / 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 is available here on Ink 19.

• •

A Chiara / Italy, France / dir. Jonas Carpignano

The winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, A Chiara is the final installment of director Jonas Carpignano’s Calabrian triptych set in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro. Here, the focus is on 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), the middle daughter of upper-middle class parents, Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) and Carmela (Carmela Fumo) Guerrasio. As a Gen Z Italian teen of some privilege, Chiara blissfully goes about her days without a concern, but when she witnesses a car bombing that occurs on the street outside of her sister Giulia’s (Grecia Rotolo) eighteenth birthday party, that moment of seemingly random violence sets in a motion of chain of events that alerts Chiara to the nefarious nature of her father’s illicit activities. When news reports detailing her father’s ties to the ‘Ndrangheta reach school, a disgraced Chiara sets out on a search for answers and enlists the help of Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), who brings Chiara to Ciambra, the center of the Roma community in Gioia Tauro and the neighborhood of the Amato family, whom we lived with in Carpignano’s previous entry of the triptych. But in A Chiara, we approach the Ciambra from a different perspective as Chiara begrudgingly tries to comprehend the role that her father has played in exploiting this community and responds to her frustrations by committing a violent action against a Roma teen girl. Now guilty of a crime herself, Chiara’s sentence enacts a governmental order created to break up crime families: she must sever all ties with her family in Gioia Tauro and relocate to Urbino to live with a government-approved, wealthy family helmed by a pediatrician. With each film in Carpignano’s triptych, we see how family, ethnicity, and economic standing influence the actions of and the ramifications against each of the films’ main characters. Each protagonist is forced at some point to make a decision related to their individual family, and the available choices are determined by their statuses as Italians, varying from newly arrived immigrant to a member of a Roma community to a more established multigenerational family, which reflect the current state of acculturation and national identity in Italy overall. Read our full review of A Chiara here.

• •

Wood and Water / Germany, France / dir. Jonas Bak

At the opening of Wood and Water, we meet Anke on a monumental day in her adult life: her last day of work before retirement. Anke has worked as an employee of a small church in an idyllic village in the Black Forest for many years, and the tranquility of her work setting extends into her last day and retirement, which are both peaceful, but somewhat lonely. As a new retiree, Anke first sets out to organize a modest reunion with her children at a cabin by the Baltic Sea that was the site of many past vacations, but when her son, Max, fails to make it because he’s stuck in Hong Kong as the pro-democracy protests surge, Anke decides to go to him. Amidst the high tensions and energy in Hong Kong, Anke walks and observes all that is around her and converses with older denizens of the city who articulate pasts long gone and a present that is somewhat alien but, alas, is right in front of them. The longer she remains in Hong Kong, the more Anke finds her own pace to experience her new reality as a retiree, a foreigner, and a mother of adult children. For the role of Anke, director Jonas Bak casted his own mother, Anke Bak, who at the time of filming was not retired but was in the twilight of her working years. This decision imbues Wood and Water with a tenderness that never veers towards the cloyingly sweet because the film projects Anke forward to a retirement that doesn’t regress into the past but rather explores a changing future with self-assurance and heightened awareness. A confident debut feature, Wood and Water gifts us with a refreshing sense of calm, not through escape but rather through absorption.

• •

Incroyable mais vrai (Incredible But True) / France, Belgium / dir. Quentin Dupieux

Over the last two decades plus, director Quentin Dupieux has excelled far beyond any other filmmaker in accentuating the absurd in his comedies to reveal our shortcomings. Case in point is last year’s hysterically funny effort from Dupieux, Mandibules, where he gave us the most extreme version of a slacker film where our protagonists’ total lack of desire to earn an honest wage prompts them to transform a giant house fly into a thief to do their bidding. One of two comedies directed this year by Dupieux (the other being Smoking Causes Coughing), Incredible But True sees Léa Drucker and Dupieux regular Alain Chabat playing Marie and Alain, a middle-aged couple who purchase a run down house that contains one remarkable supernatural quality — a basement manhole access to an upstairs hallway corner that progresses time by a half-day while also reversing aging by three days for whoever travels through it. Though this feature would be of endless fascination to some, in the world of Dupieux, Alain and Marie find it merely amusing at first and simply revel in their new digs, but all that changes after their first dinner party when their friend and Alain’s boss, Gégé (played by Benoît Magimel whose boorish character here is clearly more evil than his turn as Monsieur De Roller in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction), boasts of his recent surgery that replaced his perfectly functional penis with one that is bluetooth-enabled and (in theory) is always ready on-demand. Now, face to face with Gégé’s wonder phallus and his young and beautiful partner, Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier), Marie sees green and subsequently takes fanatical advantage of her new time machine with the hopes of eventually turning the clock back far enough so that she can become a teenage fashion model, and while she regresses in age and outlook, Alain’s concern for her deteriorating mental health situation grows each day. Though only 74 minutes in length and fairly simple in its overall message of the consequences of envy that arise with the fear of mortality, Dupieux fills Incredible But True with scenes of laugh out loud comedy and understated emotion that make the film a remarkably compassionate watch.

• •

Cette Maison (This House) / Canada / 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 AFI FEST, and that conversation is available here.

• •

Los Conductos (The Conduits) / Colombia, France, Brazil / dir. Camilo Restrepo

Luis Felipe “Pinky” Lozano has escaped the insidious grasp of a cult and its leader to find himself roaming the streets of Medellín in a profound state of loss. Loosely based on Pinky’s actual experiences after fleeing a tyrannical religious sect, Los Conductos follows Pinky through a psychedelic purgatorial state of consciousness as he takes refuge in an illegal factory where he produces textiles embossed with images of eternal fire, indulges in narcotics, and plots future revenge (or perhaps past actions of vengeance) on the cult’s “padre.” Though set in contemporary Colombia, Restrepo creates a enigmatic sense of time that adds layers to the hallucinatory atmosphere by drawing from the visual aesthetic of Jodorowsky’s 70s output, while incorporating elements of the past, such as the story of the real life 1950s outlaw Desquite (Revenge), who acts as a mirror of sorts to Pinky’s feelings of rage and contempt for the oppressive world that he left behind and the damaged place he now inhabits. Adventurously shot by Guillaume Mazloum on grainy 16mm that adds a palpable unease, as Los Conductos freely progresses in a non-linear fashion without a definitive sense of era, it feels less like a statement about today’s Colombia and more like one from Restrepo that aims at a country that has historically exploited its inhabitants and has never been united in a goal for a peaceful existence. Drawing its strength from its contrasting elements, Los Conductos steers us through each of Pinky’s denouncements of the violence permeating every strata of his identity, and by the end, we are ultimately left to ruminate on a single line of a poem by Gonzalo Arango that asks, “When will Colombia stop killing its sons?”

• •


• •

Flaming Ears (4K Restoration) / Austria / dirs. Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek

Though set in the year 2700, 1991’s dystopian and prophetic science fiction film Flaming Ears is a fitting work to be restored and re-released in 2022. After two years plus of COVID-19 fatalities, lockdowns, and social distancing, our concept of urban society is even more unsettled now than it was during the ruinous period surrounding the initial release of Flaming Ears in which the aftermath of the consumerist 1980s coupled with a decade of fears from the HIV epidemic reimagined urban landscapes for worse. Set during the Year of the Toads, Angela Hans Scheirl, Ursula Pürrer, and Dietmar Schipek’s feature primarily focuses its attention on three denizens of the fictional industrial wasteland city of Asche: Spy (Susanna Heilmayr), Volley (co-director Ursula Pürrer), and Nun (co-director Angela Hans Scheirl), whose existences begin to intersect when the rollerskating pyromaniac and sex performer Volley destroys the work and printing means of Spy, a comicbook creator. At the same time, Volley’s lover Nun wanders around Asche as a corrective force that challenges both the anarchic and perverse elements of the city, and when Spy is injured as she seeks revenge on Volley, Nun rescues her. As Nun figuratively devours the plagues from the book of Exodus while searching for pure expressions of love, she becomes a symbol of everyone who once strived to help invigorate and protect the extreme factions of attitudes, both cultural and social, that kept cities vibrant. As a statement on the 1980s, Flaming Ears provided a biting comment on the homogenizing effects that HIV and the rapid gentrification by urban professionals had on most megalopolises, and in 2022, it is a grim reminder that our major cities, though densely packed, are filled with isolated people who only see their neighbors as obstacles standing in the way of their contentment. You can read our full review of Flaming Ears here

Featured image courtesy of Grasshopper Films

Generoso and Lily Fierro

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.

• •

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