Culture, Europe, Globe, Latin America, Screen

Affonso Uchoa: the power of fiction to transform experience

His film about the arrest and violent abuse of a young man by the Brazilian police is also an interesting experiment in combining documentary and fiction. He talks about the power of cinema as an anti-history machine to tell the story of the people. And about his concerns for Brazil now.


Graham Douglas


Uchoa’s film, “7 years in May”, was shown at the 50th anniversary edition of the Visions du Reel festival in Nyon, Switzerland in April, where it won the Prix du Jury Société des Hôteliers de la Côte, for best innovative film in the Burning Lights International Competition.

It is set in the town of Contagem, close to Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais State in Brazil, where he has lived since the age of 11.

Uchoa and his colleagues aim to recognize that people living in the margins are human beings with stories to tell, not fodder for voyeurism by audiences in rich countries. Mario Patrocinio’s film Complexo do Alemão, did the same for favela life in Rio.

He points out that Contagem was “almost created to receive industrial projects, including oil extracting and refining. . . and it’s marked by the working-class experience”. But it’s not a favela. He describes his film as an experiment in synthesizing documentary with the power that fiction has to engage the humanity of the audience, in the way that novels can do. It tells the story of a young man who was violently abused by the state police, and the effects this has had on his life.

He talks about his fears for Brazil under the extreme right-wing government of Bolsonaro, especially the abuse of minority groups. Film-making came to Contagem as a direct result of President Lula’s education reforms, and his desire to move away from the elitist production of culture.

Affonso Uchoa

Contagem didn’t use to be associated with film-making.

Minas Gerais has a strong background in literature and music. Video and small productions began in the ‘80s, but hardly any fiction. In 2007 a college for cinema studies opened. (Previously they only existed in São Paulo and Rio) and because of the Lula government’s initiatives, a lot of people from peripheral areas, like Contagem, started to go to college and even to study cinema. André Novais Oliveira, whose film “Temporada” premiered last year in Locarno, and Gabriel and Maurílio Martins, whose new film “No coração do mundo” premiered in this years’ Rotterdam festival started to make films. We are all from Contagem, a generation born in working class neighbourhoods, who started making films because of the cultural atmosphere in Brazil during the Lula times.

Your film switches from the guy telling the story of his abuse, to a dialogue that you say is more constructed. Why?

It’s a formal challenge, to find a way that someone recounting their life can be completely real, but at the same time we can notice some kind of constructive gesture. The film bridges documentary and fiction when the recounting is revealed to be part of a dialogue. Fiction is the right way to portray Rafael’s story. What he tells is brutally real, yet at the same time it’s like a novel, it’s so big, that it has the power to move our imagination, and make us understand a lot about our lives, as fiction does.

You said it’s important to trust the power of words. Did you think of becoming a writer?

In my 20’s I experimented with writing, but words also awakened my desire to be an artist. When I read John Dos Passos, Goethe, … it opened a whole new world to me, and I saw that in cinema poetry is possible without words. When I began working with film, and discovered films by Manoel de Oliveira and Leon Hirszman  – I thought “Wow, these guys are amazing, because they can make us see a lot just by a single shot”. Someone might be talking about their life for half an hour in a Manoel de Oliveira film, with nothing happening on the screen, but it releases us to imagine everything from what they are saying.

I wanted to make the audience understand what has happened through the power of their imagination, because just showing the violence would be a kind of blackmail, like violence porn.

You said that cinema can be an ‘anti-history machine’ – what did you mean?

History is normally written by the rich and powerful, the generals, the politicians, not those who suffered. I am fascinated by the common people, those who will die when their own bodies die. Their stories and the things they face during their lives are the most important things. In the lives of the workers and those who are marginalised, we see how the world is really constructed. Cinema is an anti-history machine because it can tell their story.

You challenge films that focus on poverty and violence, like City of God.

It’s a good thing to show the lives of excluded and poor people, but it depends how you treat it. Porno Miseria, as they call it in Spanish, is a second exclusion, because these people have already been excluded from the mainstream world, and then they are treated as a source of excitement for cinema-goers. City of God is a good film, but it has a negative effect in Brazil because it’s hard to recall a scene without someone holding a gun. As if poor people don’t know how to do anything else, and it has this Blaxploitation mood, where ‘70s Funk music is used as the background of a mass killing scene, as if it’s cool to kill people.

And that’s a very middle-class view, because they are only concerned about stray bullets from the favelas, they don’t care about the conditions people live in there. My goal is to build stories and characters that honestly show other aspects of their lives.

During the last five years there have been a lot of new directors from minority groups, which can really change the way Brazilians see their country. But ANCINE, the Brazilian film Institute, is now paralysed by funding controls and from Bolsonaro’s cultural proposals, we can only figure that this process of social inclusion and transformation through culture will disappear.

The film was partly produced in Argentina

I did the post production in Buenos Aires through a partnership with the Un Puma company. There was no money for this in Brazil, but it was also an artistic choice.

When I met Teddy Williams, Victoria Marotta and Jerónimo Quevedo I felt that we are all pushing for the same kind of cinema. I and the Brazilian producer, Camila Bahia believe that we need more Latin-American integration. We are part of the same continent, we share a lot of the same reality, so we need to collaborate. This film was a first step in this direction for me.

What are your concerns for Brazil and for film makers, since Bolsonaro was elected?

I’m really pessimistic. Bolsonaro doesn’t have any fear of publicly proclaiming his prejudices regarding Blacks, women, gays or indigenous people. In four months, he has abolished the “ministry of human rights”, he wants to change the land reservations for indigenous people, and his programme to deal with violence against women is to make partnerships with beauty shop employees to stimulate complaints of harassment.

He even changed the anti-AIDS campaign publicity material because it mentions gays and trans people, which “offends families”.

Our president celebrates publicly the date of the military coup of 1964 and today, 22nd of April, he stopped the work of scientists who are searching for the remains of the last of those who were disappeared during the dictatorship. We are facing a dark age and I’m afraid of what tomorrow can bring to us. Not only in Brazil, but the whole world. A part of humanity is now saying openly that some lives are worth more than others, and minority groups are not quite human. Of course, culture and the cinema will suffer. In times like these, we need to remember that all lives matter, and how making films can help us to surpass all of this nightmare.

(Photos by Desali, provided by Affonso Uchoa)

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