To watch a Straub-Huillet film is to be given a gift. The films made by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub between their 1954 first meeting and Huillet’s 2006 death typically consist of a recitation or performance of a preexisting work of art. That is all there is, at surface level. Yet within the deep simplicity of the French couple’s films there lie immeasurable splendors, which often flow out of the physical act and material circumstances of staging a text. We cannot look at a painting, listen to a composed piece of music, or see and hear an actor speaking lines from a playscript in a Straub-Huillet film without also absorbing surrounding calm sunlight and wind. The couple’s films bring seemingly dead works to life, and reveal that the world of the living is where they have always belonged.
Huillet passed away in the same year that she and her husband’s adaptation of dialogues by Italian writer Cesare Pavese, These Encounters of Theirs (2006), was finished. At the time, it was generally assumed that their period of collaboration had been completed as well. This seeming fact appeared to be confirmed by Straub continuing to direct films on his own—first an elegy to his wife (with actors speaking more of Pavese’s words) called Artemis’ Knee (2008), and then subsequent shorter works emitting darker energies. Last year, however, something wonderfully strange happened. A twenty-nine-minute film called Dialogue of Shadows (2013) premiered with Straub and Huillet once again credited as co-auteurs, along with some writing beneath their names: “1954-2013.”
The film adapts a 1928 short story by Georges Bernanos, the French author perhaps known best to cinephiles for the novels that Robert Bresson used as bases for his Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Mouchette (1967). It follows Bernanos’s tale of a man and a woman addressing each other. The woman (played by Cornelia Geiser) appears seated on the lefthand side of her frame, between a lake and a clump of greenery, as she reads from pages in her hands; the man (played by Bertrand Brouder) appears alone in his own frame speaking Bernanos’s words from beneath a leafy tree. She assures her fearful beloved that she will never die, and they argue back and forth about this, with the film switching views from one actor to the other at the end of each person’s line. Together, they reach a point of catharsis, and then a final, peaceful moment of grace reveals that they have been beside each other the whole time.
Straub-Huillet’s film was the first I saw at this year’s Olhar de Cinema Curitiba International Film Festival, more popularly known just as Olhar de Cinema (Portuguese for “Cinema Gaze”). The third edition of this extremely promising Brazilian festival—unfolding over the course of a week in the capital city of the southern state of Paraná—offered about eighty features and shorts during afternoons and evenings on three screens at a centrally located shopping mall and one at the town cinematheque. Unlike with many film festivals, it was easy to sneak outside for extended intervals and taste long, warm bursts of air without feeling like one had abandoned work. To their credit, the festival’s organizers created an atmosphere reflecting that of their city: Safe, pleasant, relaxed and comfortable. There was usually a van driver waiting to take me and other guests from our hotel to event sites, and it was often my pleasure to walk.
I kept a promise to myself and followed the Straub-Huillet screening with DCP projections of Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Killing (1956), both unfolding within a partial Kubrick retrospective. I then got down to jury duty over subsequent days and viewed six recent debut features made across several countries for Olhar’s New Views Competition, which was programmed by the curator (and, in full disclosure, friend of mine) Gustavo Beck. The rationale behind this section—separate from the festival’s other features and shorts competitions, both for international films and for Brazilian works solely—was to promote distinct, emerging directorial voices. I am happy to say that my jury did well by prizing Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran’s first feature-length film, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), a musical depicting a journey across the sea from many perspectives.
Anand and Sukumaran (co-founders of the Mumbai-based artists’ collective CAMP and recipients of a currently unfolding showcase at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) worked for four years with sailors passing through the gulfs of Kutch, Persia and Aden with a variety of products, including dry goods and cars. The filmmakers caught these adventures on cell phones, encouraged the men to do the same, and then edited together several of the registers, along with found-footage music videos in which ships are essentially buoyed across their waters by pop songs. Men appear and disappear from scene to scene, filming themselves engaged in creative activities like cooking, pulling rope, remodeling their ships, and dancing. No single human character dominates the film, the better to leave viewers with the sense that they are leading the journey.
Land is sometimes glimpsed in the background, including ports in countries where the ships stop for sailors to unload their cargo in countries such as India, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, South Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Tractors and trucks are also seen at work, subtly giving a sense of a region under construction. The film registers these ongoing developments as a fact of life, without overt condemnation. Rather, From gulf to gulf to gulf suggests that people should be able to both work and play on a daily basis regardless of where they live or what work they do for a living, and that while modernization can hurt their efforts to do so, it can also help.
Our jury granted an Honorable Mention to Time Goes By Like a Roaring Lion (2013), a personal essay film in which the German filmmaker Philipp Hartmann stands at what he considers the midpoint of his life and crafts a moment of cinema for each year he might live. His practice helps him look both backwards and forwards. Great labor and care clearly went into the artist’s self-consideration, which presents seventy-six years’ worth of home movies and conversations with loved ones over seventy-six-and-a-half minutes through a lens emitting clear, bright, white light.
At least as honorable as Hartmann’s film, however, was Narimane Mari’s unrewarded Algerian-French co-production Bloody Beans (2013), a crude and primitive allegory in the best sense. Mari—the forty-five year-old daughter of an Algerian man and a French woman whose family forced the couple to separate—made her imaginative film with the fiftieth anniversary of Algeria’s declaration of independence from France in mind and with a group of children from an impoverished area of the former colony as her key collaborators. The youth play child soldiers in a beach-and-town-bound war waged largely at night against foreign aggressors, represented most vividly by an abusive man wearing a pig mask and by a teenage French POW who would play with the locals in friendship were it not for patriotic fervors.
It is difficult to capture Bloody Beans’s essence in print, I think, partly because of how the film employs a combination of elements in ways that can’t be paraphrased. The French electro-pop duo Zombie Zombie’s lightly pulsating score and cinematographer Nasser Madjkane’s weightily bouncing camerawork give a joint sense of encircling the kids as though awaiting a time to push them forward. This occurs even and especially during the film’s frequent scenes of the children bickering in a mixture of regional Arabic and rotely spoken French over what to do next. The ensemble’s performances feel natural, and indeed, the young people are all essentially playing themselves beneath the cover of fiction. They work together with adults to convey war as a tiresome, largely improvised dance not entirely understood by its participants, and one that might never end.
At a small film festival (as in many sectors of life), gossip spreads fast and helps keep people entertained. Oftentimes, it can prove useful for learning which films to catch. I needed nobody at Olhar to point me towards the eventual winner of the festival’s main competition, Portuguese couple Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s diary film about love conquering sickness, What Now? Remind Me (2013)—already a well-traveled masterwork, and so evidently the best option for many people with whom I spoke that they felt disappointed to see it compete.
However, friends’ recommendations were largely what led me to the international competition’s runner-up and Brazilian competition’s winner, White Out Black In (2014). Adirley Queirós’s second feature-length film belongs to his larger body of work realized over the past decade with a regular group of collaborators from the collective Ceicine in their hometown of Ceilândia, a slum of the nation’s capital of Brasília.
Queirós grew up there, like many, as a result of a historical injustice laid out in his previous film, a documentary with some staged scenes called Is the City One Only? (2011). In that film, cheerful local people helpfully explain to Queirós how the Brazilian government imported a number of workers and their families to erect the new capital city, which was founded in 1960. They also talk about how, less than a decade later, many such people (including Queirós’s parents) were evicted from Brasília and exiled to its outskirts to make way for government buildings, while all the while being fed propaganda about how the move to a slum area would improve their lives. Today they and their descendants still live as second-class citizens. “Everything that I am, that I think, everything that my generation is, how it acts,” the forty-four-year-old Queirós has said, “is a fruit of that contradiction of being and not being from Brasília.”
One of the foci of Is the City One Only? is a Ceilândia native running for political office in order to represent his peoples’ interests who eventually discovers that, in his contemporary world, the ruling forces will always win. White Out Black In responds to this potentially bitter truth by unfolding in a science-fiction reality—a Ceilândia with residents that alternately hope and plan to indict the Brazilian state for its crimes against impoverished black people. Ceilândia-born actor Dilmar Durães, who played Is the City’s candidate, here assumes the role of a hip detective swooping in from the future to investigate their claims. A few residents describe, in intimate monologues to the camera, how they have been physically and psychologically damaged by corrupt law enforcement, with a remembered police raid at a public dance in the 1980s coming to represent a shared point of trauma. Each person pensively inhabits space alone or in quiet two-shots, and the film presents an urban wasteland behind him as he works through his past.
One man is Sartana (played by Shockito), who has lived with an artificial leg ever since the attack and who spends much of the film casually demonstrating how ably he can carry himself nonetheless, even upon its removal. Another figure of growing interest is Marquim, a wheelchair-bound black rap artist and actor in Queirós’s previous films who plays himself as a solitary DJ with a police-inflicted old bullet wound, a mysteriously brewing generator in his basement, and some ongoing business on the side. For fellow blacks that can help him with the secret mission that he is planning, Marquim can manufacture passports enabling their entry into Brasília. Each passport has marked on it a red “X,” the same symbol used to mark the homes of those who were told four decades prior that they were leaving the capital. In these moments and in others, Queirós places history in the hands of people that have formerly had it bluntly imposed on them. The film’s different strands intertwine in a finale of Ceilândia’s people achieving something beautiful with their newfound power: Revenge.
More information about the third edition of the Olhar de Cinema Curitiba International Film Festival can be found here.
Aaron Cutler lives in São Paulo and keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer.