Brazil: dancing bodies

By Rachel Morais

30 dias

“We are in the midst of chaos, we can't stretch the ‘ala’* the way we thought, the way we dreamed all this time. But we are together”. These words by Camila Xavier, president of the “ala das baianas” of the samba school Alegria da Zona Sul, begin and end 30 dias – Um carnaval entre a alegria e o desapontamento (pictured), a film by Valmir Moratelli, in a repetition that announces the circularity of time – each year will bring a renewal of the celebration, even if renewal is not easy.

The difficulties experienced by the samba school are similar to those experienced by various artistic bodies and cultural institutions in Rio de Janeiro in recent years, as a result of budget cuts implemented at the initiative of the Presidency of the Republic, the State Government, and the City Hall. This year, the Rio de Janeiro Intl’ Film Festival has lost some of its main sponsors and was in danger of not happening. Like other Brazilian film festivals that no longer receive public money, for Rio’s festival the threat of cuts had already resonated in the 2018 edition, but this year was strong enough to postpone it by two months.

30 dias… is one of the films that take part of Rio’s Int’l Film Festival program, as part of Première Brasil. This year the section dedicated to national production has a larger number of films than usual, as a way that the management found to position itself against the diminishing resources. This situation is not exclusive to the festival circuit, but marks the current context of audiovisual in the country, as it is heard inside the walls and between sessions these days. By reinforcing the presence of Brazilian creations, the festival's directorate echoes the encouragement Camila Xavier directed to her baianas, through the constant allusion to her survival efforts: what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Under the rain, under white spotlights, she congregates the women of the group before the start of the parade, tells them about the personal sacrifice they made to be there, an effort that is common to everyone in the samba school, which, in 2019, counted with a quarter of its original budget and today is the target of attacks by the mayor of the city, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop. Constructed as a countdown – thirty days, twenty-six, twenty, eighteen, twelve, five, two… – the organization of the film follows the daily time, being made of the same kind of substance of what it films: simple, unfinished material, the empty ground where the samba school allegoric cars are built, the bare spaces where the choreography is rehearsed, the rainy night in which the carnival takes place, spaces framed in shots that are more concerned with preserving a certain vital energy than being perfect in formal terms.

In the film, the reduction in funding is presented as the result of a targeted political intention – to stifle manifestations of popular culture that reveal a certain Brazil, the poor Brazil, the black Brazil, the Brazil of Candomblé, a bunch of “Brazils” that are impossible to overlap in a linear or simple way, but which are closely related, as the film's statements make explicit. These testimonials come from a number of experts on the historical, cultural and social roots of carnival, as well as from the mouth of its participants. The use of the traditional “ala das baianas” as the entrance and exit door of the film is symbolic in this attempt of historical contextualization of the carnival. That part of the parade evokes the circles of the so-called Bahian old ladies who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, served as a refuge for members of samba groups who, fleeing police persecution, found protection under the “baianas” wings.

In this sense, 30 dias is, in aesthetic terms, as well as in the strategies by which it is built, diametrically opposed to another film programmed as part of Première Brasil, in the competitive documentary section, a film that also focuses on the way a Cultural institution suffers from financial constraints: Ressaca, by Patrizia Landi and Vincent Rimbaux. The film follows the challenging months faced by the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater since, in 2016, it began to see its budget drastically reduced.

Ressaca portrays a manifestation of what’s considered highbrow culture and this translates into its form – filmed in black and white, the film seeks a depuration recognized in the most restrained movements of the classical dancers of the Theater –, a dryness totally absent from the samba’s rapt dance steps. If in 30 dias the water that flows from their bodies is captured in saturated colors and in the open, the sweat and tears in Ressaca are often captured in interior scenes, polished images built between light and dark.

In addition to sharing similar themes, there is another important common thread between the two films. Both intend to be a synecdoche of Brazil and reflect on the existing gap between dream and reality. Ressaca, on the one hand, matches the Theatro's decay and the different forms of defeat by which its characters go through with the cancellation of the promise of a prosperous Brazil. It does so in an allegorical way, placing side by side a fall on stage by Marcia, the main dancer, and the death of Marielle Franco (a councilwoman who was assassinated in an unresolved crime); the death of Mr. João, a doorman in the theatre, and the murders in the favela where he lives; the struggle of theater workers and street demonstrations with police confrontation.

In 30 dias, in turn, by presenting the carnival as a central manifestation in Brazilian culture, it can also be read as a proposal of a symbol of Brazil, but a Brazil distinct from that to which the tradition of the Municipal Theater refers. 30 dias documents a collective creation of popular roots, absolutely fixed in the community that founded it, and seeks to trace the origins of this creation, thus inscribing it in a broader scenario. Ressaca portrays the Municipal Theater as a cohesive body, but completely isolated from the space that directly surrounds it. If Ressaca is built as a discourse of a highbrow class for whom the threat to culture began as the first visible sign of a political siege, in 30 dias the cuts in culture are just one of the traces of oppression exercised by the political class for years, representative of a certain status quo associated with whiteness. A new problem for the Municipal Theater is, strictly speaking, an older problem for the “Alegria da Zona Sul” samba school. Perhaps that is why the forms of reaction to the attack are so distinct within the two films. If in Ressaca revolt and resistance, although experienced together, are essentially viewed from individual perspectives, in 30 dias the problem is presented as a much more collective experience. The circle that surrounds Marcia on stage before his departure to another country, where she will continue her career, is a circle that is experiencing the abandonment of its aggregating figure. To this circle we can confront that of Carmen Xavier, who does not give up joining her clan.

Neither film is more faithful to one idea of Brazil than the other, because both account for two realities contained in this larger word. So, although Ressaca ends in a note of apotheosis, with the camera moving vertically skyward, and 30 dias ends in a melancholy note, with a devalued rain-covered samba school inside the access group, perhaps the second film contains a greater potential for political reaction than the first, precisely because it seeks its response tools within the community on which it is based. We can assume that the construction of any national filmography depends above all on resourcing the specificities of the soil to which it belongs, rather than on externally learned materials and forms. * “ala”: a section of the samba school in the carnaval parade