Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta, Adirley Queirós
Credit: TIFF
by Michael Sicinski Film

Dry Ground Burning — Joana Pimenta, Adirley Queirós

April 21, 2023

Documentaries don’t get much more hybrid than Dry Ground Burning, the new film from Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta. It’s a film about a gang of women in the Brazilian favela of Sol Nascente who elevate theft into a form of resistance, necessary to earn a living and survive Jair Bolsonaro’s urban war against the poor. Most of Dry Ground Burning focuses on three members of this informal gang and their work as gasolineiras — petrol pirates who tap into an underground crude oil pipeline, assemble the tools to refine it into gasoline, and then sell it to the motorcycle riders of the favela.

Much of the film is defined by sheer awe, the fact that we can barely believe what we’re witnessing. The women work in a gated encampment dominated by a bobbing oil well, endlessly pumping crude right out of the pipeline below and into cast-off metal drums collected for this purpose. How can a criminal operation not only be so overt, but so fully professional? Some commentators have compared Dry Ground Burning with George Miller’s Mad Max movies in the sense that they both depict a world in which industrial equipment is up for grabs, to be reassembled by small bands of privateers for their personal use. In Mad Max, of course, this is occasioned by the complete breakdown of society as we know it, and while this is not exactly the case in Brazil, Queirós and Pimenta lean hard on the metaphor, characterizing life in the favelas as a kind of 24/7 terrordome, beset by federal drones and fascistic armored police.

We meet many of the gasolineiras but mostly focus on Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), a tough-as-nails woman who has just gotten out of prison after nearly eight years; her half-sister and best friend Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who organized the oil piracy and whose fierce ethic of protecting her loved ones is guided by Christianity; and Andreia (Andreia Viera), who has formed the Prison Peoples Party (PPP) and is running for a parliamentary seat on a progressive, pro-favela platform. As this may suggest, Dry Ground Burning takes a perspective on the gasolineiras that may be controversial in some circles, namely that Brazilian society has broken down to such a degree that their activities are no more criminal than those of the federal government. Think about it: in Europe and North America, activism is destroying pipelines in order to prevent the production of fossil fuels. But in Sol Nascente, activism (and survival) takes the form of counter-labor, seizing the means of production away from the ruling class.

Considering the social and legal gray areas addressed in Dry Ground Burning, Queirós and Pimenta have applied radical filmmaking as a way to devise a form suitable to the specific challenges of the milieu. We see the gasolineiras pumping oil, selling gas by the liter, and defending their well against the cops. But all of this is staged, fictionalized in a manner that indemnifies the women against reprisal. These passages vaguely resemble Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films, in terms of their dramatic lighting and attention to filmic texture. But methodologically, Queirós and Pimenta are more in line with Roberto Minervini and his reconstruction of events based on the testimonies of his subjects. There are more obviously “real” segments in Dry Ground Burning, such as a lively church service and a pop-up dance club in an empty field. It is clear that some portions of Dry Ground Burning are fictionalized, with the participants performing characters who are essentially themselves.

The social and political environment Queirós and Pimenta are depicting certainly demands this wide-ranging experimentation. Indeed, I have never seen a film quite like Dry Ground Burning. At the same time, it often feels like multiple films in competition, different filmic approaches stitched together and, to some extent, rejecting the graft. This refusal to form a whole, the inability to “get the picture” as one would in a more expository documentary, is absolutely endemic to Dry Ground Burning and its fundamental project. This means that, to an extent, usual criteria don’t apply here. Nevertheless, the film is often sprawling and disjointed, which blunts the impact of its most remarkable passages. Dry Ground Burning is a truly experimental film, since its makers have to reinvent cinematic language to some extent just to approach the topic at hand. I think Queirós and Pimenta have provided some bold new pathways for hybrid documentaries, even if the final product reflects this spontaneous invention in both dazzling and deleterious ways.

Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 6.