Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta come from very different artistic backgrounds, but that fact wouldn’t be obvious based on their two collaborations to date, Once Upon a Time in Brasilia (as director and cinematographer, respectively) and now Dry Ground Burning (sharing directing duties). What brings their particular creative visions together is the shared goal of finding new ways to approach nonfiction filmmaking, ones that bypass the historical hierarchies and power relations that have permeated this field since its conception.
In Dry Ground Burning, genre signifiers from Western and cyberpunk canons are recontextualized through the real-life experiences of the inhabitants of the Sol Nascente favela on the outskirts of Brasilia. The intersections between political urgency and fabulism are carried by the inherent power of the bodies on screen, their story of folk resistance constructed by way of the intrinsic relationship between hard labor, leisure, and dissent.
Queirós and Pimenta talked to us about how reality molds fiction, the process of portraying a dissident aesthetic, and their own way of establishing a dialogue with contemporary Brazil’s socio-political tension.
Previously, you worked as director and cinematographer on Once Upon a Time in Brasilia (2017). How did that artistic relationship evolve toward the point of co-directing Dry Ground Burning?
Joana Pimenta: Since Once Upon a Time in Brasilia, we felt immediate artistic symbiosis in how we understood a film’s relationship with the cinematic space. Despite coming from two very different backgrounds, our ways of approaching filmmaking were quite close. I’m a Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab alumni, so I have a very particular way of approaching non-fiction; I like to find the unfamiliar in the familiar through my way of framing things, and how what’s beyond the lens relates to it. Adirley, on his part, his whole work is built around creating an ethnography of fiction, as he says. We have a shared obsession with the idea of what’s behind a non-fiction film, the urgency that guides it and gives it life. We seek to embody form as a political entity in our filmmaking.
Once you settled on the film’s conceptual basis, how was the creative process alongside the Sol Nascente community? How much did things change once you started working with them?
Adirley Queirós: I’ve known this community my whole life, so it was a matter of deciding on what to focus on, and we went the way of the population’s relationship with oil and gasoline since it was a political, hot-button topic when we started filming in 2016. Soon enough, the country suffered a coup d’etat against current president Dilma Rousseff, and it was all based on this scandal around a giant oil company. Everyone became interested in how oil is allocated through these corporate entities, so we asked ourselves: what could happen if a poor community took matters into its own hands?
Everything in Brazil is heavily centralized, there’s even an old phrase that goes “Oil is ours,” as a national badge of honor. Politics start with our own grammar, as you see. We wanted to put that on its head. We went out around Sol Nascente and literally asked people on the street what they thought — for us, that’s when the film starts. By searching for our characters, since we use non-professional actors, we need to explore the city. Literally, look in every corner until we find those figures whom we want to be at the heart of the film. But we also needed to be clear to people about our process, since to us that’s an inherently political act, to appear in a film.
Andreia Viera, for example, was already in Once Upon a Time in Brasilia, while we struggled a lot to find our central Chitarra until Joana Darc Furtado appeared. Lea Alves, whose character is Chitarra’s sister, actually became part of the film once we’d already started. Just like in the film, she was finishing her prison sentence, and once she arrives, all of our pre-constructed fiction begins to crumble. Real life imposes itself, and ironically, also mirrors precisely what we wanted to portray but couldn’t create. Lea herself is a character straight out of a Western, and she came into the film and brought that aura with her. That’s not something we had a say on.
JP: As Adirley mentions, our way of approaching filmmaking tends to be very open. Up until the editing process, we’re taking important structural decisions. So it’s a living process. A character can literally arrive and change our whole plans, and to us, that’s part of filmmaking.
One of the ways that Sol Nascente comes to life is through its aural atmosphere. At what point in the process did the location’s sonic characterization come into place, and how did it evolve to the point of what we hear in the film?
JP: In a way, that comes to us organically, as our filming process is really immersive. We rent a house in a community for almost a year, and we start simply existing there. We become accustomed to the daily rituals that happen, and that includes the location’s sonic personality. For us, it’s important that it sounds like a living environment, and that it goes both [ways]. We cherish the sounds of the city, but also the sounds that the film brings into the city. Once we reach the sound editing process, we basically search for every sound we’ve recorded and decide which feels more representative to us. Not necessarily what’s the most accurate, but what feels like an aural depiction of that place.
Additionally, as you’ve probably noticed, there’s our whole relationship with music, which to us is essential. Muleka 100 Calcinha, the group that created the film’s soundtrack, worked really close to us throughout the whole process, and then there’s the final song by Faroeste. He’s a storyteller to us, and he was actually the music we listened to while we took filming breaks, so it became part of our reality in Sol Nascente, and it eventually made its way into the film’s climax.
AQ: We constantly thought about sound, we asked ourselves “how can we use these soundscapes to create a rhythm in the film?”, as if they were elements of a musical composition. And the compositions we chose had to be a reflection of the setting. Faroeste is a gangsta rap artist from the ‘90s, very popular amongst marginalized communities, and we also feature a lot of Funk (Brazilian funk), which is music that’s really hard to contain in a film, it’s music that overpowers everything once it starts playing. But to us, it was very important to have [those artists], because they portray a time and place.
There’s also a very different kind of music that plays in one of the film’s most appalling moments, during Bolsonaro’s rally. It’s almost like a military march that his followers are singing, which is almost at the opposite spectrum, rhythmically, and aesthetically, of the rambunctious Funk that the protagonists dance to. How was the process of placing that nearly observational sequence within the film’s structure?
JP: We went to record at a Bolsonaro rally just after he won, but we had to do that undercover. Bolsonaro’s people were really reluctant to engage with the press, and Adirley, with his hair and beard, looks very Lulista (supporter of Lula). So me and Chico [Francisco Craesmeyer, the sound guy], cosplayed as German Press since we’re both blonde and have blue eyes. It worked, to our surprise.
To us, it was very important to engage and be shoulder to shoulder with “the enemy,” to see them eye-to-eye and create a portrait of how they react and act. Because they aren’t these distant and abstract figures. 70% of Brasilia voted twice for Bolsonaro, and that includes butcher men, friends of ours, and all kinds of working-class people. We needed to avoid the smugness of filming from a progressive perspective, and simply depict with honesty. After all, that night in 2016 Brasil was about to suffer important changes, and we felt indebted to register that process. Those, on screen, were the bodies of those about to come back to power… because they’d been in power for an important part of the 20th Century. It was about understanding who we were going to be dealing with on a more macro level.
AQ: Since the film’s conception, we were clear about telling a story of a part of Brazil outside of traditional structures. A peripheral Brazil. The whole arc about creating an alternative political party and the oil redistribution was a way of representing how these worlds adjacent to Brasilia battle against their hold on them. That tension is at the heart of the film. Our protagonists are black women from the working class, and here, in that single-take shot of Bolsonaro’s followers, we get a glimpse of their counterparts. Not only of them as iconography, but how they act and how they represent themselves. They’re shouting and singing to the camera. They’re looking straight at it and wishing death to Lula. To this day, I still believe that the right understands way more about the power of representation than any progressive — they seize that power and exploit it to their advantage.
You mention the aesthetic power of representation, and the film is notable for how it depicts labor in an almost bodily fashion. There seems to be a palpable resistance happening within each frame. How did you approach depicting these bodies on screen, with all their political implications?
AQ: We approach cinema as work. To us, it’s collective labor. It’s never above what it depicts or represents, thus it’s also related to oppression. Labor and oppression go hand-in-hand, as they’re built on subjecting bodies to their own framework.
I think peripheral communities in Brazil can be understood through two layers: Work and religion. And a group that used to be neglected by Brazilian society were the motoboys (clandestine labor built around delivering several types of items), since they were seen as a kind of lumpenproletariat. The lowest of the lowest. That’s why in the film we portray them as the vanguard. And that relates to the hard work done by the women at the oil refinery. To us, work, and how bodies are exerted on it, is an integral part of dramaturgy. We tried to establish links between hard labor, and that’s why Chitarra organizes a kind of motorized union. In Brazil, everyone thinks of peripheral communities as abstract and incongruous things. But we wanted to imagine them organizing, and working together towards change. So we had to also be a part of that. That’s why we lived there for 18 months and showed them that between our work and theirs, there was no hierarchy. We wanted to express that, yes, their labor is an integral part of who they are in Sol Nascente. But they can also be their own storytellers.
The film’s structure does feel like a fable, or a folktale in a way. Naturally, many people are drawn to the Cyberpunk and Western referents in your previous films, but they feel less like aesthetic imports, and more like recontextualizations. How do you relate to these fictional iconographies? Is there a conscious effort to subvert them?
JP: The first thing we did when approaching Sol Nascente was to reassure them that a film could be set there. When we arrived, everyone thought we were going to do a porno shoot, since that’s their only referent of people wanting to film there. So we had to work with them and establish a mutual understanding of what a film there could and should be like. That meant incorporating a lot of signifiers from films shown on TV since Sol Nascente doesn’t have a cinema. Most of the films they identified were old Hollywood films, genre films, and that included Westerns. That became our shared language. We started there and then the film developed through a life of its own. As we mentioned earlier, the protagonists’ own lives came into the film and changed our ideas about it. The barriers of fiction and nonfiction and of genre can’t be above your subjects. At least not in how we approach filmmaking.
AQs: Our goal is what Joana mentioned. That this community and these characters can believe that what they’re doing can be cinema. Once they believe that, they understand how to use those images they have with them, those popular and shared images, and create through them. That’s the concept we mentioned at the beginning: An ethnography of fiction. Their real-life memories become an integral part of the collective filmmaking process. The basis of our aesthetic of resistance comes from opposing, condescending positions. The bodies we frame can’t be compartmentalized. They’re violent, and their violence is what guides the film. After all, we aren’t all working together to create a political performance. We’re creating politics.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 19.