In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.
I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)
Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.
The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.
In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.
I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.
This film in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender turned out to be a documentary about what Stephanie Dennison in her Introduction referred to as a ‘small subject’. Professor Dennison leads on Brazilian film at the University of Leeds and the Weekender is a joint Leeds/Manchester University initiative with HOME’s festivals team. She suggested to us that often the Brazilian films that are seen abroad are about ‘big’ subjects or they are ‘exotic’ and strange/wonderful. She went on to suggest that with the swing to the right in Brazil what she thought was interesting about this film (apart from the technical skill on display) was its concern with public education – something that was an important part of the Workers’ Party agenda. Certainly the last two Brazilian films I’ve seen were Second Mother (Brazil 2015) and The Violin Teacher (Brazil 2015), both concerned with issues related to education.
The ‘striking technical skill’ here belongs to first-time documentary feature filmmaker Paula Gomes. She crafts an 83 minute film that takes its simple premise and presents it as accessibly as possible while maintaining a reasonable observational distance from its subject – though this is breached three times, but each time in an interesting and revealing way. The ‘Jonas’ of the title is a 13 year-old boy in the North-Eastern region of Bahia. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom have had experience in the circus. If we are told about a father figure, I missed it in the subtitles. However, we do learn that Jonas has an uncle who is still operating a circus in the region.
The ‘plot’ of the documentary sees Jonas using a holiday period to devise a circus performance with his friends in his mother’s backyard. His mother tolerates this (and his grandma encourages it) but the mother’s concern is to see Jonas succeed at school. Jonas has the skills and the commitment to ‘make a go’ of the circus but his friends in the neighbourhood don’t share his need to be a performer and although they ‘muck in’ and enjoy themselves, they gradually drift away. Meanwhile, Jonas is only a peripheral figure at school – knuckling down only when the camera is on him. The filmmaker appears briefly in one scene reflected in the mirror in Jonas’ bedroom when his mother tries to wake him to send him to school. More importantly perhaps the director is addressed in one scene by the headteacher who tells her that her film is a bad idea since it gets in the way of Jonas and his schoolwork. This seems a little unfair, but it’s good to see some concern over the boy’s education. The closing credits include another line of dialogue directed to the filmmaker but I won’t spoil what is a pretty good joke.
For me, the technical and artistic success of the film is based on an ‘intimate’ camera style which brings us into the world of Jonas and his friends and family without ever being ‘exploitative’. There are many close-ups, mainly of faces. It is indeed an impressive first feature. Jonas is an engaging young man and his mother and grandmother are equally interesting characters. The classroom scenes suggest that working class education in Brazil is a real issue and I’m reminded that one of the great education thinkers was Paulo Friere who came from Recife in the neighbouring region of Pernambuco. The turn to the right in Brazilian politics is bad news for the working class.
A conventional crowdpleaser, The Violin Teacher has enough grit and local ‘colour’ to become an international festival favourite and an arthouse hit (in those territories that, unlike the UK, still show foreign language films). Though conventional the film is in fact inspired by a real project which has seen school students in Heliopolis, the biggest favela in São Paulo, getting the opportunity to learn how to play classical music. The film’s conventionality comes from the decision to meld this with a story about a child prodigy who hasn’t quite made it, but who rediscovers his mojo when declining income forces him to become the reluctant music teacher in said school project.
The teacher is Laerte, a rather earnest and sad-faced African-Brazilian played by Lázaro Ramos whose performance grew on me as the film proceeded. He has just blown an audition for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (the most prestigious in South America) and the string quartet that he plays in is breaking up. He daren’t return to his parents and the rent is due on his penthouse flat. Of course, he’s not a very good teacher at first and he will have to go through a learning process to meet his students halfway bef0re he can teach them anything useful. The film’s narrative structure requires Laerte to latch on to the most gifted player, a boy who is plagued by a brutal father and held back by his loyalty to friends who run in a gang, stealing and recycling bank cards (and in turn finding themselves in hock to the criminal bosses in the favela). Inevitably that loyalty will threaten the success of the school project and will act as a challenge to Laerte. Does he feel completely committed to his students – or will he return to his own ambitions once his confidence has returned? Finally, convention requires that the school musicians must give a performance in the favela – which will be a triumph against the odds.
I make these points about conventional scripting not to diminish the film but to place it institutionally. This is a film deliberately produced to attempt to appeal to a local audience and to interest festival programmers and ultimately overseas distributors. It is from the same production company which successfully guided The Second Mother down a similar path in 2015. If the narrative structure supports the universal appeal of the teacher/student/musical performance progression, it relies on significant local research to give the scenario credibility. The film also has a bigger budget than most Brazilian films so that the city can be presented in all its diversity – with aerial photography (and ‘Scope) and a real sense that Laerte ‘crosses the bridge’ from the wealthy city centre to Heliopolis. Similarly, the budget provides for car chases and confrontations between police and favela residents. The research and budget also helped the soundtrack which includes both the classical orchestra players and several of Brazil’s leading popular music players. Co-producer on the film was Fox International, underlining the potential for overseas markets. This Variety report reveals that Fox have acquired the rights for Brazil and Portugal and the rest of Latin America.
The Violin Teacher is an enjoyable film that could do well with the right kind of distributor support. Its major weakness seems to be a failure to develop significant female roles. This doesn’t have to be a love interest for Laerte – though he does have a female friend whose role could be expanded. Rather it could mean one of the girls in the school project being allowed a lead role. Director Sérgio Machado did have Maria Adelaide Amaral, an experienced writer of telenovelas as a writing partner. Perhaps Brazilian writers could learn something from Girlhood (France 2014)? It doesn’t always have to be the boys in the favelas. This turned out to be the first of three films at GFF in which the central character takes on a job dealing with potentially ‘difficult’ young people.
Brazil is the most populous and country in Latin America with the largest GDP but its film industry currently ranks second to Mexico in cinema admissions and behind Argentina in terms of prestige and international profile. Where Brazil does prevail, however, is in TV production as the centre for telenovela (a type of soap opera drama) production for a large domestic and international audience.
The Second Mother is co-produced by Globo Filmes, part of Grupo Globo, one of the world’s largest media groups and also home to TV Globo, the originator of the telenovela. Some commentators have suggested that The Second Mother is in some ways a cinematic equivalent of a telenovela. As the name implies a telenovela is a ‘long-form drama’, a novel in the form of a hundred TV episodes. Telenovelas cover a wide range of topics but some are certainly concerned with the after effects of colonialism – social class divisions and inequalities – and others focus on contemporary social issues which interest a mass audience.
The maid and nanny in post-colonial Latin America
There are several major themes in the ‘New Latin American Cinema’ of the last ten years. Latin America is now the most urbanised region on the planet with 80% of the population living in cities and surrounding urban areas. Given that for many years the image of Brazil on screen often included the rain forests or the Amazon, it is certainly worth considering just how many recent films have focused on urban life. They have focused on the problems of rapid urbanisation and how these have produced shanty towns/favelas alongside modernist architecture and gated communities. Inequalities have helped to create criminal gangs and kidnappings etc. Rapidly growing populations mean housing problems and pressure on services like education.
There have been several high profile Latin American films that have focused on wealthy (often very wealthy) families and the role of the maid and/or nanny). The Second Mother is not the film’s original title (which doesn’t easily translate from the Portuguese) but Val can be seen as either the ‘second woman’ who is a mother in the wealthy household or as the woman who acts as the nanny or ‘second mother’ of the teenager in the family, Fabinho. But the title might have another meaning as well, which we’ll discuss after the screening.
The maid/nanny figure is a ‘holdover’ from the European colonial period (even though this was 200 years ago). The European élites often appointed a young woman from the ‘native’ population as first a maid then a nanny and eventually as a housekeeper. (Something similar can be found in many ex-British colonial societies such as Hong Kong, Malaysia or India.) In all cases a specific three-sided relationship between mother, nanny and son/daughter develops. In the case of Val the maid/nanny/housekeeper and her own daughter Jéssica, Val respects the traditions associated with working for a rich family but Jessica is a ‘modern’ young woman who rejects class difference – thus creating the film’s narrative drive.
It is noticeable that when Jessica first arrives in São Paulo, the Southern hemisphere’s largest conurbation (of 20 million people), she first announces her plan to study architecture and then hears Val’s description of ‘concreting over’ the city she remembers from earlier times.
Anna Muylaert first conceived the idea for The Second Mother and outlined a script many years ago, but changed her approach after the election of Dilma Rousseff as Brazilian President in 2011, who has subsequently given support to female filmmakers. The new script, Muylaert says, “reflected the changes and debates that were happening around me. Instead of portraying the nanny’s daughter as hapless and meek – a faulty cliché – I gave her a forceful personality, made her noble and headstrong enough to stand up to the separatist social rules grounded in Brazil’s colonial past”. It is also clear that the film’s focus is very much on the women in both the wealthy family and in Val’s own family. Women have ‘agency’ in this film.