PODCAST — Episode 9, recorded
Maria Clara Escobar in conversation with BFMAF programmer Ana David introducing the film ‘Desterro’.→
Maria Clara Escobar (1988, Brazil) is a filmmaker and poet based in São Paulo. She is a graduate from the School of Cinema Darcy Ribeiro and her documentary feature film The Days with Him (2013) was screened at IBAFF – Murcia International Film Festival (Spain), Directors Week (Brazil) and the International Festival of Nuevo Habana Latin American Cine (Cuba) and was awarded by Tiradentes (Brazil), DocLisboa (Portugal), and Cachoeira.Doc (Brazil). She co-wrote Found Memories (Julia Murat, 2011) which premiered at Venice Film Festival and won over 30 awards after participating in over 40 festivals. In 2019, Escobar released her first book of poems entitled “Medo, Medo, Medo”.
Ana David is a film programmer based in Berlin working between Germany, Portugal and the UK. She is a member of the shorts selection committee and industry manager at IndieLisboa, a member of the advisory board of the Berlinale Panorama, and associate programmer at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. In 2018 she programmed at the BFI London Film Festival with a special focus on documentaries. In the past she has held positions at Portugal Film – Portuguese Film Agency, Lisbon Docs – International Financing and Co-production Forum, Festival Scope, and Queer Lisboa (2010-2015), the latter as co-director and programmer.
Hi, I’m Ana David, associate programmer at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2020. You’ll be listening to my conversation with Maria Clara Escobar, director of Desterro, her fictional feature debut, which premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January, as part of the Tiger competition. Desterro is one of the five features part of the new cinema competition at Berwick, and in the reshaped and reduced section, the only title within it coming from Latin America. Even if, needless to say, a film can represent all the cinema made in a single country, let alone in a given continent, we do that to say it is a bold representative of contemporary Brazilian cinema. Maria joined us from Recife in Brazil.
Hi Maria, thank you for joining us. Congratulations on Desterro, your very first feature. The film is excellent at depicting two characters’ descent into alienation and losing contact with what’s expected from their roles as parents, partners, and as adults in contemporary Brazilian society. Can you share a bit with us what were the seeds that started it all, the origins of the story and the origins of the field.
First of all, thank you for the festival to have invited the film to have the film. To me it’s always kind of difficult to say how a film started, because I believe comes from different things and simulations and thoughts, but I’m always trying to understand and to talk about this structure and the traditional structure of Brazil, which I call a family structure, Catholic family structure, not all in the microcosm of relationships and this case and heterosexual relationship, but also how Brazil faces politics in a familiar Catholic way. So, when I started to make the film seven years ago, I had already seen this situation, what I’m calling tradition of denying conflict and denying to see the structure itself dying or being uneffective. In fact Brazil very quickly went to this house burning. I couldn’t imagine that it would go so fast, but in a way, why I made a film, I believe is to talk about this, how Brazilian society and middle class society, we don’t face the problems. We just keep reproducing a Catholic family way of doing things, on all scales, and how this is problematic and how there’s no other way besides burning the house and facing it.
So this was like the thematic line, but also all the gestures of cinematic gestures, were also talking about that. Not pretending that this is a realistic film, like we don’t need to pretend that this is not a film to talk about real questions. So I wanted to make a film that first invited people to see, they are playing parts and in which narrative, they’re playing parts, what roles they’re playing, and after saying we can still be persons and feel things while we are discussing the world in which we are living.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you. You’ve touched upon many concepts and ideas that I’d like to delve into a bit deeper in the little time we have, and one of them is class, correct me if I’m wrong, but both Israël and Laura are middle class, maybe upper middle class. Something that I really appreciate about the film is how it looks at them in the eyes, and by this I mean, it’s neither pitifully because they’re not, they don’t have savings and it’s neither edifying nor disdainful because they do have a house with a garden and a pool, which of course, it’s something that it’s quite a privilege. Obviously this is very cautious from your part, that you wanted to have them as upper middle class. Do you want to comment on the politics of that?
They are totally upper middle class. They have a heritage, but I think it’s very clear that they have that heritage, that house and the way of doing things too. Besides being the upper middle class, they are artistic upper middle class. They’re like, so maybe that’s why you see, like you were saying that we look right in front of the eyes. I think I’m talking with people, they are constructing this discourse about the world. This is my environment too, and I come from a middle class family, which was not rich, but wanted to be intellectuals.
This is what made me see so easily or precisely the problem of having this go of life, a model of a structure or a discourse that doesn’t correspond to, or it doesn’t not correspond, it doesn’t say anything, actually, it just like repeating the part. Even though I know it’s these two characters are placed in a secret stance, that already been said a lot in cinema, like heterosexual couple from upper middle class. I wanted to replace them, in the place, I think it’s actually what they are representing, and the problematics of this couple. That’s why at a certain point of making this film, I understood that the third part could never be the end of the film. It’s not about this guy or this woman suffering. It’s not about their suffering, but there is no suffering without circumstances. There is no feeling without environment. There’s no feeling without the class conscience.
No, that’s very clear. And you mentioned also the circumstances, and one of those circumstances is that Laura is a woman. And that final part of the film, which narratively would be the second part, it’s placed at the end of the film. It’s quite a powerful comment on the role of women in society, because we have Laura, the woman in this heterosexual couple, parting away from the family that she built in the city and on the ride to Argentina, she encounters actually other women from different walks of life, who deliver very personal and politicised monologues. That brings a very powerful ending to the film, and as you just mentioned it also, I think it centres the film at the very core and importance of what it is, by ending with that powerful comment. You want to tell us how you built that final part of the film and how these little pieces of monologues came into being?
For me, it’s hard to be very objective about the making of a film, because a lot of things are intuitive and I respect it, I try to make it more intuitive, I believe it is something that we should do more. I just started realising while doing the film that it was not about the upper middle class suffering. It was about our society and our structure. The part of the bus was the thing that I didn’t know how to make it when I start to write the film, it was the harder part for me at the beginning, maybe because I saw that it will start from this falling in structure, this house, this idea of family, son, and roles of a man and a woman in the heterosexual society, even as cultural persons, the things they talk about or worry about. I knew this was the starting point. I knew that I wanted to put a woman to talk with another and stop the film to see that. But maybe I couldn’t in the beginning see what was the next step and while making the film, I could understand together with these other women. It started from provocations that I made with this actress like, please write something about putting feeling, or you can… to Barbara, I sent her the screenplay and she read and say, “Oh, I have something to write about it.” And then we start to improvise together. Then I started on the shoot and I needed to have these fictional women also like filmed like a documentary, their subjective ways of constructing themselves were the documentary element of that film and trying to, make a testimonial that looks like it’s about a whole journey or a whole life, but it’s just temporary too.
I also feel, as women, we have been many times represented and somehow I believe that we always are represented as something still, like this woman is a mother, this woman is, I don’t know, we don’t have a lot of possibilities of not being nothing. I wanted to try to understand what could be this experience of being a lot of things, and in the end, not being able to say this woman, those women are this. They are telling about how they’re feeling that in that moment, they have different stories. This could be, I hope, an invitation to open your heart, a horizon of possibilities for you to be whatever you feel like in that moment, and that won’t define you forever.
No, I love the way the film does that. How also it shows that not doing it, might trap you and I might make you feel like you are living a fulfilling life, which then means that you might start a process of alienation, of isolation within yourself. And does the name of the film Desterro, which in English means exile. And it seems like we’re talking about a personal exile here, and you’re talking about the actresses that you brought on board for literally onboard for the bus, for the final part of the film. Something that for me, was quite evident and powerful was the way that these actors interpreted their attractors also physically, and how the film inhabits really well and translates into a cinematic language, this sensation of turbulence, and alienation. I wanted to ask you about maybe the process of you working with these actors, Carla Kinzo and Otto Jr. for them to inhabit this uncanny feeling in the film?
I believe turbulence is a really good word because it parts from a thought, but it’s something that I ask and bring people there with me during the film to try to, to be in a place of turbulence. It’s a good word, because it’s something that it’s not comfortable to be in a turbulence, but you can play trying to experience it in different ways. You can feel fear about the turbulence, but you can also feel the pleasure of falling, so I think it’s a good word. And actually it’s something that I brought to the actors and actresses. I believe in a way that once we are comfortable or used to something that we think or feel, we are kind of getting trapped in this comfortable way. So it’s an exercise of always trying to be in touch with some uncomfortable feeling.
This was something that I was doing with my photographer, my editor, but also with the extras all the time. It’s not at all that thing that some directors like to do like to make, they feel bad it’s not about that. It’s like trying to find something that it’s not already established, because we were talking about that, trying to be in contact and to frame something that we don’t know how to name it, right now. Maybe once we know how to name it, it won’t suit us anymore. Carla entered in the film three years before we started to shoot, which is unusual. She helped me to write the part with the bus, which was a very fun experience because she wrote, I was like, “I don’t know how to find this new sparkle for this woman. Could you help me?” And she was writing and I looked and said, “Oh, that’s amazing.” Now it’s nothing about that, but I kind of entered in contact with some feeling and I could write it. She was also part of the screenplay. But once the two of them were together, I called Flavia Meireles, who is a choreographer, from Rio, to work with me and them physically. I know I invite people that I think are good actors and they could speak what I want them to speak, but I wanted to try to find with them, in their bodies, what could be an encounter of words and feelings, how to be in contact with this uncomfortable feeling. There was months of physical work. Then the other actors, I had less contact of course, but they are people that I admire. I trust and I feel connected with them, if not artistically in some way – the way we see the world. It’s kind of easier when they come and I explain to them, this is what I’m trying to… And everyone has their way of trying to do that, and I believe it’s something that we accomplished. This was the process. I mean, the words were there and we wanted the words to be said it was not improvising, but it was mostly trying to find this place then to be, that was not established. It was in movement.
You’ve just mentioned why Carla was important for you to have her in collaborating with you on the script. You also had Caetano who was the director himself, an excellent director, also joining in collaborating on the script. Why was it also important for you to have Caetano’s inputs into the story, into the script?
I mean, I don’t know if this is something from my generation or if it’s something personal, but I work much better in dialogue than, alone by myself. So Caetano, I mean, the first part of the film has a lot to do, I believe with the first feature film by Caetano, also O Que Se Move, and we know each other since, I don’t know, a lot of years. I have been thinking about it. I don’t know if I also like to use the films also to make an homage to my friends and people that I love, and I met and I see, and people on the streets that talk things that I believe that construct me as well.
It was Caetano, it was Clara, but also the photographer, the producer, we had a cineclub in my house for, I don’t know, a year before. We were seeing films one day per week and we make food and we talk about how it could relate or not to the film. Mostly it was about the film, but sometimes somebody said, no, let’s just see this polemic film that people are talking about. We were constructing grammar. Doing it together, to be able to talk about it during shooting. The work with Caetano started, I wrote something, I wrote a first small script and Caetano and I would improvise all the text of the breakfast. He would play Israël and I was playing Laura. And we’re like experimenting with the words and seeing what works and what didn’t work. While Bruno, who is the photographer, was shooting. We were trying to understand from the very beginning, how we filmed this and which words make us feel something or not. From that, I rewrote and kept on going on the writing of the script. We were there bodily. And in the afternoon, we got so tired from doing the breakfast scene, because they were so heavy. Then the rest of the day, we were there, still reading poems and exchanging films and conversations about our own lives. These three people, for example, Clara, Bruno and Caetano are in the script. They are rare, kind of fragments of the history of everybody, of Juliana, who is the art director too. This is actually what I believe, is a director’s skill, like to put all these people together and try to construct a song or film or something. I need them to make this, I don’t think it will be a good film if it was just me.
No, that speaks of the idea of documentary and how just before Desterro, you had directed a documentary, but also before the feature documentary had two short films, which were fictional, and it seems like you brought some ideas of documentary into fiction and maybe fictional into documentary. And it’s a process that nurtures.
I believe it’s the languages, the possibilities are like tools and the film is an aesthetic way of talking and trying to understand how we see things, why we see things, right, in that way, what that says about us. The poetry was very important to us too. I have an alternative screenplay, which was like, we have all the headlines of the things. In each scene, there was no, there was no scene. There were images or poems or some references that the actors could, or the photographer could see and like, feel the thing, like read a poem that brings him to that feeling. It’s better than just read the scene and then go inside the scene and with those feelings. I believe that they work better being tools than definitions.
One last question is, you’ve mentioned the beginning that it took you seven years to give birth to this film. And I was wondering why, was it because of all the watching films and reading and doing breakfast, with others and…
It’s funny because I just, I saw the other day Lucretia Martel speaking on a Locarno interview and she’ll say, “Ah, I’m from a Latin America and I’m used to the films taking a lot of years to be possible to make.” I believe it’s the way we can make our films like, I didn’t have the money, so it took me seven years to be able to have the money. I didn’t want to make it with less money that would provide respect under good conditions to my team, having the time to make it, not making everybody crazy and unhappy and unsatisfied. Maybe we could have made the film in like five years, not less than that, but we waited one or two more. By that time there was a real state of politics for films, which now doesn’t exist anymore.
I don’t know how people will make movies in Brazil in the next years. Maybe it will take 20 years to make it. I don’t know, it’s sad, but it’s true. We were, we won this fund that was like, I don’t know if like the third year of it. It was a really young fund for what they call Alter cinema, and it doesn’t exist anymore. Now we don’t have funds for public television. We don’t have funds for nothing. I believe in a way is the political reality of making a film in Latin America. In the beginning, it gave me a bit of anxiety, but then I kind of understood that was good. It was good to take the time to develop the film together with the world. Although Brazil has changed really fast since 2016 and it was crazy, but this is the way it is. I would just keep happy if we will be able to keep doing films right now.
No, I truly hope so either by way of community and helping each other and which was already the case in Brazil, but also in cooperation with the countries for co-production and funds. Hopefully also emergency funds to answer this pandemic, which can aid countries whose democracy and culture is at risk, such as in Brazil, it’s not the only country, but it’s definitely one of the most urgent and awful cases.
t’s about like people being able to live also, so it’s hard sometimes to just speak about cinema, but I see the cinema is important to help us not to come back too many years in a way that we won’t be able to know anymore what we are and not to see subjective possibilities. Which I believe is subjective, is concrete- possibilities to construct ourselves as people and to leave some images for the future.
Thank you, Maria. That’s a beautiful way to end.
Thank you so much.