My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.
At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.
Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.
My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.
The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).
Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.
Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer:
Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.
Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.
Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens in the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.
By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.
HOME is an arts venue that now combines cinema with theatre, art and a range of performance events including music. HOME ‘seasons’ can be weekenders, single days or months or longer periods and often they attempt to bring together all the art form possibilities. The Brazilian Weekender discussed here over the last week actually comprised five film screenings – I was unable to attend the opening screening of Boi Neon (Neon Bull, 2015) showing second house on the Thursday evening. I’m sorry I missed it as it sounds as if it would make an interesting contrast and complement to the mainly female-focused films over the weekend. The film programme also included a ‘Portuguese Language Taster Event’ – matching the Spanish language conversation sessions offered during the ¡Viva! Film Festivals at HOME.
The Weekender was also linked to a major new Art Exhibition, ‘Behind the Sun’ which opened on the Saturday. This was launched with a celebration on the Friday evening with music from Manchester band Riot Jazz and DJs plus an outdoor barbecue (presumably on the artificial turf outside). On the Saturday 20th August there will be a free 1 hour theatre performance by Tiago Cadet taking the audience on “an exploration of representations of the human body throughout history, looking at the construction and invention of Brazil and what it is to be Brazilian”.
The film programme times meant that I did have an opportunity to look at the new exhibition. There were previously galleries in the former Cornerhouse building but for cinemagoers it was easy to forget that they were there on the upper floors. At HOME, the new galleries are easily accessible (more so than the cinemas and theatres) being situated just off the main foyer of the building. There are five light and airy gallery spaces, two of which were darkened for video installations for ‘Behind the Sun’. The exhibition comprises the work of five artists selected from an original 600 and a shortlist of 30 representing the different regions of Brazil. This Manchester exhibition is a partnership with Manchester School of Art, in conjunction with Instituto Plano Cultural, Brazil. It represents work for the Marcantônio Vilaça Award. The exhibition is curated by Marcus de Lontra Costa.
What can I say about the exhibition? I couldn’t join the informal tour led by someone from HOME’s Visual Arts team as it ran earlier in the day when a film was showing. There is another tour on Saturday 3rd September. I think I would have benefited from an introduction. HOME provides a short print guide but I didn’t find that enough to help me to get to grips with the exhibition. I like some aspects of contemporary art but much of it leaves me cold. I inevitably retreat to the video installations, but even then I don’t feel comfortable. The most accessible material here is perhaps the video work of Berna Reale who comes from Belém, the city that acts as the ‘gateway’ to the Amazon. Reale tends towards socio-political statements articulated through specific characters (herself or ‘willing participants’) presented as alien or ‘out of context’ in her otherwise documentary photographs and video pieces. Images from her piece Cantando na Chuva (Singing in the Rain) 2014 (see image above) are used to illustrate the whole exhibition. Reale’s aim is to use these dramatic juxtapositions to underline the disparities in Brazilian economic and social life. Or at least that’s how I saw them. I didn’t get the statements in the exhibition guide which refer to a “defeated humanity” and a “pathetic look at the wreckage of a civilisation”. All the same I did find these short films to be provocative and stimulating.
I realise that I’m not equipped to discuss the exhibitions at HOME. Perhaps making an attempt is a good way of addressing any complacency I have about my familiar cinema experiences. I confess that I would rather have seen Berna Reale’s work on a big screen in a cinema – and projected at a higher resolution. It isn’t the same experience sitting on a bench in a darkened gallery with an open door through which others may come and go as the short films run on a continuous loop. The exhibition demands time and I’ll have to return and try to make more sense of what I see. The HOME website does offer more insights here, including access to the printed guide above.
The Weekender was staged at this time for two reasons I think. The timing is obviously important to tie in with the Rio Olympics, but it is also useful in exploring the potential for a more regular Brazilian strand within future ¡Viva! Festivals. ¡Viva! is a festival of Spanish and Latin American Film. Brazilian cinema is both distinctive, partly because of language, and also part of wider Latin American trends. I’d certainly like to see Brazilian films in their broader context. Logically, it would also be useful to include Portuguese films in¡Viva!. Lusophone cinema also offers the possibility of new films coming from Mozambique and perhaps Angola.
What did I learn about Brazilian cinema and culture? The four films I saw were selected, as far as I can see, using three loose criteria. They were all in a sense ‘small’ stories as distinct from the ‘exotic’, violent and sensational stories of successful Brazilian films that have reached the West via commercial distribution. Three out of the four were directed by women and all four featured women’s lives prominently. Finally, all four promoted interest in the lives of people who have in some ways been helped by the reforms put in place by the Workers Party and who might now suffer with the swing to the right in Brazil. I enjoyed all four films and these seemed like good criteria for selection. I certainly learned things about Brazilian music history from Yorimatã but the other three films tended to mainly re-inforce things I’ve learned from other Brazilian films or from Hispanic Latin American films seen in festivals (not least ¡Viva!). In terms of population Brazil is closest to Mexico but has smaller cinema audiences despite a larger population. It makes more films than Mexico – but not as many as Argentina and they don’t get as much exposure internationally – possibly because of the language issue. A Variety report from Cannes 2016 suggests that this is changing, partly through major government incentives leading to over 100 productions per year – but will this survive the current political crisis? In terms of cultural diversity Brazil might be more like its Northern neighbours Venezuela and Colombia. The big plus in Brazil is the strength of local TV production and the global profile of companies like Grupo Globo and other producers of telenovelas. I think there was significant TV investment in the four films of the weekender. Another Variety report suggests that Brazil’s admissions reached 170 million in 2015 compared to Mexican totals of 286 million. But while Mexico managed only a 6.5% domestic share, Brazil managed 11.8% (second to Argentina). Nearly all the top domestic titles tend to be comedies, so if Brazilian films do feature in ¡Viva! we should see some popular comedies I think.
I hope we do see Brazilian films in ¡Viva! after this enjoyable taster of a Weekender.
This final screening in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender was introduced by Lúcia Sa, Professor in Brazilian Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. She informed us that the film had only opened in Brazil in June 2016 so it was something of a coup to see it in Manchester now. When I checked later I realised that since the film was co-produced with France it stands a good chance of getting a European release, certainly in France but perhaps also other territories. It had its world première at Toronto last year and also appeared in Berlin, Rome and at the American Film Market. Lúcia also told us that the director, Sandra Kogut, is from a Hungarian family. Further research reveals she has lived in France and worked in Europe and had artworks exhibited in New York. Might we then expect a view of contemporary Brazil from a global perspective?
Professor Sa suggested that the film we were about to see was about the ‘divided space’ of Rio de Janeiro. The film’s title refers to one of the poorer outlying areas to the west of the city. One morning, Regina, a wealthy woman in the affluent district of Ipanema in the South Zone (Zona Sul), is told by her maid that a small girl has been left in the entrance hall of the building with instructions not to move until her mother returns. Later the girl, Rayane, will be joined by her older brother Ygor (he’s around 9, she is perhaps 5). Neither knows where their mother has gone or the address of where they live with her. Regina at first tries to get rid of both of the children by phoning the local council and getting them put into care. But the mystery remains – why have they come to her door? Regina also has her own problems. She is splitting from her husband and her daughter, who is studying for college exams, is moving between the two. Is she being a ‘bad mother’? How does she feel as a middle-aged woman facing a possibly lonely future? Regina is also packing to move and the film carefully links her domestic chaos to the frantic building work taking place across the city. When Ygor re-appears at her door, she has a change of heart and tries to find his mother and his home. In the film’s Press Pack, director and co-writer Sandra Kogut explains that she sees the chaos of the city as both in one sense ‘realist’ and in another sense expressionistic as it represents the turmoil in the heads of the characters. The domestic chaos of Regina’s apartment is similarly bewildering for the children.
Campo Grande is 80 kilometres from Ipanema and when Regina makes the journey to find Ygor’s grandmother’s house she feels completely disorientated – she would never normally visit a place like this. Kogut also explains that although she wasn’t aiming for ‘realism’ as such she did use a methodology with the mainly non-professional cast that meant they didn’t know what would happen from scene to scene and that they stayed in position in designated settings such as Regina’s apartment for several days to get used to their situation. The street scenes were filmed ‘live’ – i.e. without blocking off traffic or using extras. Kogut is also an experienced documentary filmmaker. This approach is in fact quite similar to that of ‘social realist’ filmmakers such as Ken Loach. I also wondered if this might be a ‘realist melodrama’. It certainly seems that way and music is quite important in the narrative, including Regina’s daughter’s rendition of the John Lennon song ‘Love’ on the piano and a Brazilian pop song that Ygor claims is his grandmother’s favourite. The performances are generally very good. Carla Ribas who plays Regina is one of the few professionals in the cast.
Two further points about the film’s ‘look’ are important. As Lúcia Sa suggested, there are several scenes when the camera adopts the child’s perspective – shooting from a much lower ‘eye level’. There is also a more frequent use of close-ups and shallow depth of focus than might be expected in a film using a ‘realist’ aesthetic. In this sense the film is similar to the first of the Weekender films I saw, Jonas e seu circo sem lona, a ‘pure’ documentary. Campo Grande certainly highlights the inequality in Rio de Janeiro, though I suspect that something similar could be found in narratives set in many cities. I should also note that something else the director says, about the ways in which wealthy Brazilians develop very fluid relationships with maids and other servants, ties this film in with The Second Mother (Brazil 2015). You can probably guess why the mother of Ygor and Rayane left her children at Regina’s door. I’ll just reassure you that there is a resolution of sorts.
Here is the official Brazilian trailer – no English subs but it gives you the ‘feel’ of the film: