Last night we had the opportunity to see the relevant and engrossing film by Kleber Mendonça Filho , Aquarius, at the AFI Silver Theatre. For me it is films like this that focus on a social setting and involve real, deep and complex characters who have had to traverse through our recent and complicated political pasts that make life so generous and films indispensable for our growth. The story's incorporation of music and how it functions in the characters' lives as they try to understand what is transpiring is an accurate but seldom seen depiction of music as daily religion. This is the story of our lives, or at least mine and my family's. In addition to this we also had the pleasure of hearing Sonia Braga speak about her film experience and opportunity to actually get a satisfying role for an older woman that is real and meaningful. She took it to town!
Here's a recent letter in Film Comment by the director detailing the issues with the film release in troubled Brazil:
Much of what has been written and discussed about Aquarius’s tumultuous release in Brazil—and this is of course, beyond discussing the film itself as a film—has focused on words like “struggle”, “tensions” and even “retaliation,” words normally associated with the political arena and not so much with the film world. I actually believe that these words do come up every now and then in the arts, for books, plays, films, but they are not, by definition, what you would normally expect when a film, a work of fiction and cinema language, is about to be released. So, I would like to point out that there has been a huge amount of support and love for Aquarius in Brazil and also for our political views on the current state of Brazilian politics. It would have been impossible to actually get the film out if the whole scenario was purely hostile.
I started noticing this from the first moment, at the Cannes Film Festival, when we got massive support and also when the Brazilian right started its attacks. For three months, much was discussed about the film, for and against, without anyone actually seeing it. We started getting requests by big media to actually show them Aquarius (which we did with caution), whereas Brazilian journalists who were in Cannes would get their ideas out, all of them raving about the film. The two dissonant voices in Brazilian media came from right-wing journalists who had not yet seen Aquarius, one of them calling for a boycott on the film. The other one suggested the film’s crew attended Cannes on some sort of glamorous holiday package paid by taxpayers, sponsored by the Dilma Rousseff government so we would stage the protest. The concept of attending Cannes to present a film in competition as some sort of glamorous holiday shows how artists are currently seen by some in Brazil, and this also confirmed some of the very negative reactions Brazilian artists in general seem to be getting from the right, a complete lack of understanding of how democracy works and also on the very nature of an artist’s work, normally pictured as vagabonds, bon vivants who do not actually work like real decent people do. This was probably the most comical aspect of this whole non-discussion, though I have to say that I struggle to use the word “comical” because it is, in fact, quite sad.
Then again, for every negative reaction, there was and still is a couple of positive ones, and the path to the release of Aquarius was paved with this huge political and human energy, a cloud of ideas and admiration that seemed to grow bigger every time the film was screened in an international film festival prior to its Brazilian release date. These screenings were attended by many Brazilians who would go online and rave about the film. It happened in Sydney, Munich, Paris, Lima; it just made the whole film grow.
And, of course, the similarities between the storyline in Aquarius and Dilma’s predicament were much discussed. They are, in fact, quite staggering. When we went up the steps of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the impeachment process had just begun after a very ugly chain of events that felt like a weird mix of Kafka and a cheap reality show. On that same week, the new interim government pulled the plug on the Ministry of Culture, widely seen by conservatives as a safe haven for radical leftists. That lasted about a week in May and it was also part of our protest. They decided it was a bad idea to get rid of the Ministry of Culture and brought it back, just like that crazy anarchist in Airplane!, plugging and unplugging the runway lights. Tools normally offered by democracy were re-orchestrated and creatively applied to meet the needs of conservatives who grew impatient and frustrated with four defeats in 13 years in Brazil’s very democratic general elections. They had to get to power through this nonsensical impeachment process with full support from big Brazilian media, which presented an outlandish narrative where all things liberal and left were presented as rotten through and through. Some people actually believe now that corruption was a concept brought into Brazilian society by PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers’ Party) less than 15 years ago. A fascinating case of short-term collective memory. Clara’s words in the film “Do you know when you feel mad, but you actually know you are not mad?” began to resonate strongly, and soon the story of these two women trying to resist eviction from their homes began to hit people.
The most paranormal correlation between Clara and Dilma took place in late August. The three months which topped the whole lab generated political crisis, and what would be the season finale, took place on the exact week Aquarius was coming out nationwide, and after five raucous advance screenings took place all over the country. The Recife screening, the very first one in the country, on August 20th, at the 1952 movie Palace, the São Luiz, was about the most dramatic. One thousand seats, all taken. People began to cheer and applaud from the moment Clara starts throwing pieces of rotten wood on the marble table. Everyone could tell the film seemed to be hitting a nerve; a very cathartic experience.
Aquarius opened Thursday, September 1st, 12 hours after Dilma was finally told to leave office by senators, many of them accused of corruption crimes, whereas no charges whatsoever were ever presented for Dilma herself as a politician, as a citizen or as president. As for myself and for the group of friends who made Aquarius, we just went where the film took us. We opened the Gramado Film Festival, which was quite a big night, we had massive advance screenings in São Paulo and Rio, juggling huge media coverage (mostly supportive) through reviews, articles and interviews. I was either reacting accordingly or just reacting with irony to two very specific, government-related attacks: the unusual 18 rating the film got from the Ministry of Justice, something that became a huge controversy and that led us to argue in very technical terms with censors that, in reality, it did not make much sense. I have to say that a whole history of film and censorship came to mind during that episode, an area of cinema I have always been very fond of, having lived in Britain during my teenage years, at the time of the video nasties. I also thought of Jose Mojica Marins (Zé do Caixão), Verhoeven, De Palma, and also, inevitably, the dictatorship years, when I was a child, in the ’70s, a time when I was not allowed to see Sonia Braga’s films in cinemas because they were all rated 18, sometimes with cuts made by the Departamento de Censura.