By Josh Gardner
After his critically acclaimed first two features (Neighboring Sounds / O Som ao Redor and Aquarius), Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho is exploring new terrain with Bacarau. Co-directed with his longtime production designer, Juliano Dornelles, this taut allegorical thriller made a splashy debut at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize.
The film, set at some point in future, finds a remote Brazilian village under attack by a group of trigger-happy foreigners. Bacurau made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where TropicalFRONT sat down with Filho and Dornelles to discuss Brazilian genre filmmaking, memes, and the film’s eerily prescient dystopian future.
BACARAU is a departure in tone from the previous films you’ve made together. Could you talk about where the idea came from to make this film?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: We had a desire to make a genre film, with action scenes, and to also be able to talk about the situation in Brazil—the tensions we have between regions. It was a lot of fun. I have to admit that, as a cinephile, I know all too well what is missing from Brazilian cinema. This felt like a film that would be interesting to see in the body of Brazilian cinema: an action-adventure film, slightly sci-fi-ish, horror-ish, but very Brazilian. We made it with a lot of love and influence from ‘70s American cinema, right down to the Panavision lenses. We almost shot the film the way one would shoot a film in 1972.
We released the film two weeks ago in Brazil. Audiences are both excited and surprised because they are not used to seeing genre films made in Brazil. Our film might be an undefined genre, but it’s still genre.
Juliano: At the same time, audiences are saying it's very Brazilian. So, it's not like using tracing paper to copy some thriller from the U.S.
Kleber: We do not obey the rules of genre films. We are not worried about obeying the rules, we just wrote it and shot it.
Juliano: We used a lot of genre conventions, but added our own little twist. Like the little village where the film is set—it’s a very Western situation, to be attacked by outsiders. But then of course the outsiders in our film are a mix of foreign, American, and British citizens, which is quite unusual. We subscribe to the genre, but we don't fully respect it.
How did you balance the genre elements with the more naturalist elements of the community of Bacarau, where the film is set?
Kleber: It started in the script. This is a film about a community. The key thing with a story like this is to give important moments to every character.
Juliano: There are no small characters, although they may be small on the page.
Kleber: But everybody's small and everybody's big. Actually, many scenes in the film have become memes in Brazil. Some of the most popular are from a little kid who only has two lines in the film. One of them is of the boy in school saying, "Sir, do we have to pay to be on the map?" That's a meme. The other is, "Those who are born in Bacurau, what are they called? People.” That's a meme.
Juliano: That line actually came from a personal experience where I asked a little boy the meaning of an indigenous word and he told me it meant “people.” So I thought, let's use this, because we are from the “big city” and our ignorance might come off as smug. I think it happens in the U.S., it happens in France and Italy, too, where “big city” people look at small communities as backwoods, exotic, simple. And this is exactly why we wanted to make Bacurau. Bacurau is not simple. They're just great characters, great people.
Could you talk about the casting process and finding all these great characters, and then also how people like Sônia Braga fit into the bigger picture?
Kleber: We were very concerned about representation—it’s the main engine behind a film like Bacarau. We needed a representation of Brazil in the community of Bacarau. We couldn't repeat the same mistakes that a lot of filmmakers do by misrepresenting “small town” people. And, of course, we wanted to be very honest and authentic. So we…cast the non-professional actors and, then, the people we already had in mind who we wanted to work with again. For example, Sônia Braga.
Juliano: Kleber and Sônia developed a very strong bond after Aquarius, and it was natural to have her in Bacarau. When we started to think about the character of Domingas, we started to think about Sônia. But there were many characters that we discovered during auditions in numerous cities. When we chose the film’s location—it's in a state up in the Northeast—we started to go to many villages nearby, to find diversified faces, and strong faces. I think we did a pretty good job.
Kleber: Yes, because they're very real, very honest. Each small community had its own set of outcasts. You know, the “gay guy,” the “misunderstood poet,” the wonderful lady who always wanted to be a painter but never could. They were naturally attracted to the idea of being part to of this film. We realized very late in the game that we were, in fact, working with the most amazing people, people who were not really respected in their own communities because of the way they were. That was the most touching aspect of the whole experience. They revealed themselves to be very talented in front of the camera and not intimidated by all the equipment and people working. They were very confident. It was like they understood the story of the film very quickly because, somehow, they knew that feeling of being the underdog.
The movie's set in the near future, but it deals with past, present, and future of Brazil. Why do you think setting something in the near future allows you to talk about all these things that are going on politically?
Kleber: It’s what I call the best, and most cheap, special effect in the film: "A few years from now.” It's just four words, yet it immediately puts you in a heightened state of mind. I mean, it has been done many times. The first Mad Max begins with "A few years from now." But Brazil—I mean it's happening everywhere now—but Brazil keeps repeating the same mistakes… [of] violence, corruption, lack of education, lack of understanding its own history. So the film is very much about that, and since we are now living the reality of actually going “back in time” in terms of discussing things like indigenous and gay rights.
Juliano: For example, there are many government programs that support indigenous people. Now the new government, the extreme right government, says “no, why do we have to give special treatment to indigenous people? They should be treated like everyone else.” Now we are living dystopia and the film kind of matches reality. People are flabbergasted. They're going to the cinema like, "why the fuck did they do this?" Brazil is just going backward and it’s stuck in its own chronic problems with history and its lack of understanding its own society.
Kleber: And there are some details in the script that are quite similar to the things that are happening [in real life] in Brazil—people went crazy with this.
Juliano: [Just recently] at a book fair, the Mayor of Rio De Janeiro heard that there were some LGBT books at the book fair and he sent the police over to confiscate them, which [is illegal and actually violates] the Constitution. This is absolutely crazy, unacceptable. And then people [watch Bacarau] and they see the scene where a truck dumps a ton of books…
Kleber: This is just one example…In the film, we see the bloodshed at the museum in Bacurau. During the editing of the film the National Museum burned in Brazil. We lost the National Museum.
Juliano: It would be like the Smithsonian burning to the ground.
Kleber: It's painful to remember.
Juliano: Recently, too, the Rio police shot a car, being driven by a family, 167 times and then said, “Oops, oh it's a family. Oh sorry.” These kinds of things [are happening in real life] and so the film is hitting a nerve.
Bacurau will have its U.S. premiere this October as part of the main slate at the 57th edition of the New York Film Festival, and it will be released in the U.S. by Kino Lorber in the spring of 2020.