As the title implies, this is a story about an important day. Vera moves into an apartment in São Paulo in 1998. She’s in her mid-40s, not unattractive but perhaps a little uncertain/worried and both elated and stressed because of the move. Certainly, she’s not wealthy or elegant and this is a large unfurnished apartment, light and airy and spacious. But like our heroine it’s also a little run-down and in need of an uplift.
Vera seems to have quite a lot of furniture, books and household goods and two removal men soon appear to bring everything up to the apartment. But suddenly another man appears in one of the rooms. Where as he come from? Vera clearly knows him, but who is he? It’s difficult to discuss this film without revealing crucial spoiler information about the narrative, but I’ll try. The mysterious man refers to Vera’s past and this is a story about the ‘disappeared’ of Brazil. In this sense the film belongs to that category of narratives found in several Latin American countries, each with a history of political repression. In Brazil under the military dictatorship of 1964-85 arrest, imprisonment and torture of dissidents was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of many individuals. In 1995 the Brazilian Government admitted the violations of human rights in the dictatorship period and 300 families were compensated for the ‘disappearance’ of relatives via legislative action. At one point the director, Tata Amaral, takes the text of the legislation and plays it over the two actors as if it was being projected onto them. You can probably guess what this means.
Hoje was the only one of the four films I saw on the Brazilian Weekender at HOME which was not introduced. There is very little about it on IMDB or Wikipedia. It was released in Brazil in 2013 and won prizes at Brazilian and Argentinian festivals but apart from one page in Brazilian from which I’ve taken the images here, it is difficult to find out much. It doesn’t seem to have travelled to other festivals. IMDB suggests that the aspect ratio is 1.78:1 implying it was shot for TV (i.e. in the 16:9 format). It looked to me more like 1.85:1 but IMDB also suggests that it was financed by HBO Latin America. If it was intended more for television that might make sense. There is really only one main set (Vera does go down to the street below for two short sequences). It had something of the feel of a TV play about it although the script is adapted from a novel.
I enjoyed the film and especially Denise Varga’s performance. I was also struck by the set design and the cinematography (which both won prizes for Vera Hamburger and Jacob Solitrenick respectively). It was interesting to see a film about the personal stories associated with resistance to authoritarian regimes – and it is noticeable that the film was produced and released when the Workers’ Party held power in Brazil.
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.
Music documentaries appear in UK cinemas fairly regularly. Tonight I could choose between two and ironically the director of the one I didn’t choose was thanked in the credits of the one I did. However, I later discovered that Bayou Maharajah was actually on the festival circuit in 2013 and has had to wait three years for a release in the UK. It was worth the wait and it will play at various venues across the UK in the next month. See dates and venues on the Music Film Network website.
James Carroll Booker (1939-1983) was a New Orleans piano player who was considered a genius by the major musicians of the New Orleans scene – the ones featured in the film include Dr John, Irma Thomas, Neville Neville and the late Allen Toussaint. If you own any records produced in New Orleans between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, you will be able to hear James Booker backing the star name. Like many geniuses before him – and sadly many in the future perhaps – James Booker’s talent was difficult to corral and confine in a recording studio. His difficult early life left him with a propensity to develop a drug and alcohol addiction. He also had poor mental health, at some point lost an eye (various stories are recounted as to how this might have happened) and he was openly gay in the New Orleans bar scene of the period. But he could play piano (and alto and tenor sax) like an angel.
Bayou Maharajah is a conventional documentary by an inexperienced filmmaker. Lily Keber was working in a bar in New Orleans in 2006 when she first heard James Booker tracks on the jukebox and drinkers talking about Booker’s exploits. By 2010 she had raised $10, 000 on Kickstarter and started to collect material. Her documentary succeeds because, apart from having the enormous talent of James Booker at its core, the film does simple things very well. Keber has found Booker’s friends, admirers and colleagues and gathered interesting anecdotes. The talking heads are presented without gimmicks and the bulk of them are very engaging. Keber has also found archive recordings of Booker’s playing, sometimes on very degraded video material – and she hasn’t messed with the aspect ratios, hoorah! She’s also found high quality stills and she presents a mini master-class by Harry Connick Jr. (who became Booker’s eager pupil aged 12). Connick demonstrates the incredible keyboard techniques that underpinned Booker’s playing. As a non-pianist, I was very impressed. I suspect piano players will be suitably wowed.
It’s important in films like these to present at least one or two complete performances. That’s certainly the case here. Like too many other African-Americans of his generation, James Booker had to leave North America to find appreciative bookers and audiences in Europe. It’s interesting to see him appearing as a solo act in France and Germany. He appreciated the respect he was given in Europe but it didn’t encourage record companies in the US and he suffered badly from very low earnings for his session work on various recordings. Part of the problem was that Booker didn’t have a manager – no-one could manage him says one interviewee.
There is one almost avant-garde use of what I took to be ‘found footage’. A black and white film of one night at a New Orleans bar is speeded up to last only a few minutes as almost subliminal figures suddenly flash on screen. At the time I think I puzzled over what to make of this but on reflection it seems like an effective means of representing James Booker’s life in New Orleans. He was only properly appreciated by a few but his talent was such that his presence remains embedded in New Orleans music culture.
I never did find out why the film has the title ‘Bayou Maharajah’ but it fits somehow. James Booker could play everything from Chopin to jazz. Most of all though for me he captured that essential New Orleans sound and now I want someone to make a film explaining why New Orleans piano-playing is so distinctive – in both cultural and musical terms.
Here is the trailer plus a clip showing one of the archive performances. I hope these will convince you to look up this film:
Lucile Hadzihalilovic, the director and co-writer of Évolution is the partner of Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits of this film). I wonder what they talk about at breakfast? Noé is controversial in terms of treatment of sexuality. Hadzihalilovic has three short/medium length films to her credit plus two full length features. Her previous feature, Innocence in 2004, focused on a mysterious girls’ boarding school. Évolution introduces us to a small community of pre-pubescent boys who live with female carers (not their mothers according to one of the boys) close to the sea in small concrete block houses. There are no men in the community and seemingly no girls.
The film begins with an underwater shot, looking up to one of the boys swimming on the surface. He dives down towards the camera and finds something on the sea-bed which will propel him forward as the protagonist of this tale. We aren’t surprised that as all the heroes of fantasy/horror/science fiction/tales of mystery, Nicolas our hero will investigate to uncover the truth and will risk himself becoming a victim of whatever is happening in this unusual community.
What follows is a triumph of camerawork (Manuel Dacosse), editing, set design, production design, effects, music and, not least, performance. The landscape of Lanzarote with its black volcanic ‘sand’ is matched with the dark interiors of a classic horror hospital – with dingy lighting, peeling paintwork and water running down the walls. As one reviewer has pointed out, the opening shot reminds us that humanity came out of the sea and water remains in our consciousness as connected to ‘birthing’. How can I explain anything about what happens without ‘spoiling’ the narrative? All I’ll say is that Nicolas is a real hero and that he has a ‘helper’ – a nurse in the hospital who is for some reason attracted to this boy. In the final reel, Nicolas calls out her name, ‘Stella’. In the opening sequence, referenced above, Nicolas sees a red starfish. A starfish isn’t actually a fish and is perhaps better considered under its alternative name of ‘sea star’. In Latin this is ‘stella marina’. ‘Stella’ (Roxane Duran) is a red-haired nurse. The sea star is an amazing creature and Lucile Hadzihalilovic must have spent some time thinking about this creature and its habits. I certainly found it interesting to research them. In doing so I found a group of Haitian midwives associated with a project called ‘Stella Marina’ – which aims to provide ‘birthing kits’ for use in poorer communities.
I’m not going to say any more about what actually happens in Évolution. All I would say, to give you a flavour of the film, is that it reminded me at one point of the John Sayles film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) featuring the myth of the Selkie – the creature that can transform from seal at sea to human on the land. Others, less squeamish than me, refer to David Cronenberg films and the cycle of ‘body horror films’ from the 1980s. I can see those references but Évolution is different in tone with its 10 year-old protagonist. It really is a remarkable performance by Max Brebant. It’s only 82 minutes long, but there is a great deal packed into the narrative and trying to tie together all the elements is intriguing.
Évolution was the latest screening in the Picturehouses programming slot in the UK. This involves the possibility that any cinema in the Picturehouses chain (or, I think, programmed/booked by Picturehouses) can show a film for a single screening on a Tuesday. These are films presumably deemed by Picturehouses as not commercial enough for a proper release of multiple screenings across a week or so in selected cinemas. I have heard arguments that this is a positive move because it gives the possibility of a specialised film becoming available at cinemas across the UK. That may be so and as a concept it goes back to the beginnings of digital cinema in the UK as something similar was suggested as part of the first round of subsidised digital cinema projectors instigated by the UK Film Council in the 2000s. Even so, it works against the idea of local programming and strategies which attempt to grow a local audience through ‘word of mouth’ screenings. There were 10-12 people in the cinema when I saw this film. Perhaps there would only have been three or four if it was showing two or three times this week, but I’d like to think that with good reports the audience for this and similar films could be grown. Instead, Picturehouses is using those other possible programme slots to show Independence Day and Absolutely Fabulous and if you can’t get to a screening on Tuesday at 18.00, then specialised cinema is not for you. So, I guess you’ll have to look for Évolution online.