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José Barahona: the soul in exile

Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcelos was a Brazilian revolutionary, who, like Dilma Roussef was tortured during the dictatorship. She continued her activism in Chile, and committed suicide in Berlin. It explores her inner life in exile through the letters she wrote to her family, texts and archive footage, as a way of saying: Never again!


Graham Douglas


One of his earlier films “I was in Lisbon and I thought of you (2015) was shown at Indie Lisboa in 2016. “Alma Clandestina” (Clandestine soul), deals with the internal dislocations that happen with emigration and exile, the importance of maintaining one’s image in the eyes of family left behind, doubts about being able to trust other emigrants from your country.

Point of view is crucial to Barahona’s film-making, contrasting the view of the colonised to the colonisers in “The lost manuscript” (2010), and admitting his own privileged immigration to Brazil in contrast to that of Sergio arriving in Portugal in “I was in Lisbon and I thought of you.

José is Portuguese, but he went to Brazil in 2012 because funding in Portugal for film-making was very hard to get, and he says that his new film is in part a way of paying a debt to Brazil for all the help he found there.

Exile is once again a theme in “Alma Clandestina”, but he decided to make the film in 2016 at the time of impeachment of Dilma Roussef, feeling the urgency of doing something to protest against the breakdown of democracy in Brazil.

Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcelos was a Brazilian activist during the dictatorship, who went to Chile after the fall of Allende, as part of a prisoner exchange with the left-wing group she belonged to in Brazil.

Continuing her activism in Chile she had to escape, and went to Berlin, where she committed suicide in 1976. Her story is little-known in Europe.

I spoke to José for ThePrisma, before the showing of his film at DocLisboa last month, where it was so popular it was shown again in a special screening. Inevitably the current situation in Brazil was our first topic of conversation.

Do you think Bolsonaro is more than just a big mouth?

When he says he will ban all the reds (PT) and arrest a lot of people, he isn’t going to do all this, but he will do a lot of harm.  And it isn’t just him or the police and army, but the people who agree with his ideas. If the President says “I want to kick the ass of gays or Blacks” on TV, people will feel free to do it. This is already happening, it’s a nightmare.

I was shocked by how many women voted for him saying, “we know he’s not wonderful, but we aren’t feminists.

People who have a lot of problems feel they need a ‘strong father’ to impose order in the house. It’s like a guy who comes home from work and sends everyone to their rooms and shouts a lot but isn’t really going to hit anyone, a lot of people want to believe he will be like that including women.

The dictadura wasn’t long ago. How come some people want the army back?

In Portugal there was a revolution, in Brazil just a Transition, and the military were never arrested and tried by the democratic government. Some people still believe that it wasn’t a dictatorship but just a military regime, and if you behaved you were ok, like: “My grandfather used to go to work every day during that period and he never had any problems”. People didn’t know and also didn’t want to know.

Your last film and also “Far from home” were about the problems of living in exile. Is that a theme that affects you personally?

It’s never easy even when it’s a choice. I wanted to make a film about the dictadura, and this film does also have that theme, but it wasn’t why I made it.

So, what did bring you to make it?

I always felt that I owed something to Brazil, because the country treated me very well. I made some political films here about the Portuguese dictatorship and torture, and this is an important issue in Brazil because those people were never put on trial. And when I started this project three or four years ago there were people saying that they need the military to come back and impose order.

This particular story about Maria Auxiliadora was told to me by a journalist friend, but I would never have dared to do it without the help this friend, Jorge Melo, a Brazilian researcher, so together we wrote a script and I re-wrote for the screen parts of a play he had written for theatre. He helped me a lot because I think without understanding the country in depth as a Brazilian, it isn’t possible to do something like this.

Is not there also the argument that artistic creativity becomes limited if only someone who has experienced something can make a film about it? You as a Portuguese have a different view?

Yes, of course, I can’t understand why these men were never brought to trial for their crimes. And this is a perspective that Brazilians don’t have, because they take for granted that these things happened, and there was no other way. It’s like that for many things in Brazil, that people believe they don’t have a right to health care or education, or human rights. Or even not to be bothered by noise at night. As a foreigner I say, “No, it’s 5am we have to complain, call the police”. And they say, “ah no, this is Brazil, and in any case the police don’t care”. But I called them, and they stopped it. But people have it in their mind that you don’t mess with the police or the military.

In Argentina they stopped the impunity.

But not in Brazil. Dilma made an investigation, the Committee of Truth interviewed everybody who was tortured or arrested, but it was just a reconciliation thing, no trials.

Turning to the film, I read that it ‘immerses itself in the soul of Maria Auxiliadora’.

This is a character who became a hero for the Left, she is well known, films were made at the time she went to Chile in exile. But I wanted to go deeper, to get to know the person beyond the myth. And the turning point for making the film was when the family showed us the letters she wrote in exile. For example, on the same day she writes to her mother, saying everything is OK, and to her sister “Don’t tell mother but I am not well, and I have problems with my passport”. So, we really got to know her through her letters.

Did you feel she was someone in general who didn’t reveal herself to others?

No, she was quite extrovert. But then she became ill, and there are a lot of blanks in her life, and things that ppl don’t want to talk about. Especially in her personal life in Berlin.

Was it difficult to approach her family?

At first, they were reserved, but then they opened up and gave us the letters, photographs and then we got on well they helped us a lot.

Dilma of course was tortured. How much is the film a comment on the present day in Brazil?

Dilma and Maria Auxiliadora were friends and they shared a house in Rio de Janeiro, but you will see in the film.

Anything to add?

Just to say that we make these films to try to stop these things from happening again.

Any new projects?

I am editing some film I shot in the Amazon this summer, but this will be a surprise for next year.

(Photos: Refinaria Filmes, provided by the interviewee)


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