The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many. As in life, in death he divides people. The most extreme being the rather nasty celebrations in Miami. Whilst in Cuba the majority of citizens recognise both the loss and his great contribution. The media coverage so far has been predictably inadequate. The BBC echoes the political establishment whilst Sky News could not even gets the dates of the US boycott correct. Even Al Jazeera suggested Cuba “brought the world to the brink of nuclear war”: actually it was the USA in the recurring war-mongering mode. In the UK the best comment has been on the RT Channel (113 on Freeview].
Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world. Hence tributes have been pouring in from the oppressed peoples and nations. Certainly there are few other leaders in the second half of the 20th century who maintained such a resolute resistance to US imperialism and neo-colonialism.
There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.
At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969. And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. This was part of a season of then recent Cuban films programmed at the National Media Museum. My colleague Roy Stafford was involved and introduced several of the films.
Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer. The cultural and educational aspects of ICAIC are best presented in the excellent and inspiring For the First Time (Por primera vez, 1967), which made a fine introduction to a screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).
The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).
A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radical Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment to re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.
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.
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.