Blame only your curiosity if you’ve failed to notice it. Over the past ten years the eyes of creative filmmakers and film theorists alike have been set on Central and East-Asia. Perspective lines have focused right. East-Asian cinema–in Japan, China, Hong-Kong and Taiwan foremost–has been challenging Western conceptions of beauty and narrative form. It has won over audiences of cinemaphiles the world over–wherever the infrastructure to project foreign films has not been exterminated. On that issue, the American-Hollywood conglomerates, who spread their management doctrines to the film theaters, have banked their money and contract signatures to decide on what films you get to see. And whenever they can help it, those films aren’t from abroad.
Takashi “Beat” Kitano, Wong Kar-Wai, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, and John Woo pre-Hollywood flight, are just some of the director names worth memorizing. Failing which, you might miss a golden opportunity at capturing artists chiseling at the cutting-edge marble of the seventh art. Even more than representing their respective national artistic renaissances, these filmmakers participate in the universal category of ‘auteur cinema’.
The Asian tigers may have refined art just as they renewed collective capitalism. Yet nothing compares with the outstanding production of Iranian cinema. No other country over the past ten years has contributed so prolifically to retracing the boundaries of the audiovisual art. No other culture has challenged the dictates of the post-modern American medley, welding consumerized business principles to artistic creation, as has the land of Attar and Hedayat.
A CAMERA IN THE PASSENGER’S SEAT
Many Westerners are dead-set convinced of the repressive nature of Iranian society in the aftermath of the Shi’ite revolution. But how do you equate the following situation? In the US, the self-declared bastion of free speech and art, the majority of film viewers are deprived of exposure to the world’s greatest films. They are force-fed a monopolistic potpourri of that ol’ ultraviolence, voyeuristic nudity and fantasy representation to such a degree that Hollywood long ago became a synonym of an insult to intelligence. Whereas in Iran you may find an astonishing depiction of a millenary civilization, whose past contributions to the arts and sciences were left unexceeded even by Rome. This is a culture bursting into high-tech modernity, although one that refuses to merely be co-opted into the Western system of representation and value.
American cinema no longer has anything to teach the Iranians. Not only are we the ones who have all to learn from them, it’s learning to learn from them which has become our work. Our incessant exposure to insipid commercial products has warped our minds. The beats that pound in our hearts echo to a war cry. This is why seeking out the films of the contemporary Iranian masters is a duty not only to art, but to thought.
Islamist Iran never put the great filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf in jail. Yet Makmalbaf was tortured at the hands of the Shah’s US-trained and funded secret police. As for Kiarostami, he had to await an invitation from freedom’s bastion to be denied the right to speak. Last summer he was refused entry into the US as he planned to attend an homage to his life’s work, organized by Harvard University no less.
As for the timeliness of Makhmalbaf’s film “Kandahar” and publication of his film journal, they have given us more information and wisdom on the plight of Afghan society than the hundreds of hours of ideological soup produced by CNN and its cronies. If that wasn’t enough, he has brought up one of the shining lights of young Iranian cinema, his own daughter, Samira, already the director of two critically acclaimed features.
For just cause the filmworks of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, among several others’, whispers in the same breath as 1940’s Italian Neo-Realism. Their filming strategy allows the real to supervene as it settles into artistic form, emerging autonomously from the human agents who set about its creation. Art matched up fully with the real in the film “Kandahar”, its release coinciding with the American bombing of Afghanistan. Form spoke transparently to those intent on gazing.
As a real living object, Makhmalbaf’s work took an even more ominous turn. It appeared that Tabid Sahib, playing the medical doctor in Kandahar, was living out a film within the film. An American ex-pat at other times known as David Belfield, he is allegedly involved with the assassination of an ancien-regime Iranian diplomat in the late seventies. Upon conversion to Islam, he took the name of Daoud Salah Addine and escaped to Iran. The nom-de-plume of Hassan Tantai launched his acting career. Spot the fiction, if you can.
In a statement issued by Avatar films and published in The Guardian in January 2002, Makhmalbaf claimed to know nothing of the controversy. “I have made more than 20 feature films. I have always chosen my actors from crowded streets and barren desserts. I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish shooting my film. ‘Kandahar’ is no exception.”
As for whether Makhmalbaf would have still hired him had he known of the actor’s involvement in a political murderer, the director stood tall. Governments tend to pardon political crimes when committed against injustice, why would the filmmaker act the moralist? A neo-realist film aesthetic and methodology draw out the moral norms. Makhmalbaf avowed wanting to make “a film with him about the murder that he had committed, in order to explore why it is that in the civilized and opulent United States, a black man commits a political assassination and then escapes to a country like Iran, which has a tense relationship with the United States. In fact it has just occurred to me that if I were to see him I will make that film.” As it also dawned on him that, while Belfield is a marked man internationally, the filmmaker’s own torturers live comfortably in the US, the land of the free.
Faced with the most fascinating moral issue to burst from the art world since Giuliani banned the “Sensations”exhibit, the American Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to do the public’s philosophical work. After winning Cannes’ Ecumenical Jury prize in 2001, and a sure-set nominee for the Best Foreign Film category, Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece was dropped from the roster. As it’s a foreign film, the issue of censorship was never raised. That’s because when it comes to foreign films, they’re already earmarked for censorship by commercial and linguistic interests. So where does the globalized world begin?
A brand of exclusion stands equally for the rising tide of Brazilian cinema masterpieces. Those interested in Brazil’s golden year of 2002 have had to search long and hard to find information on the country. In every article where the New York Times South America correspondent links the word ‘leftist’ to newly-elected president Lula da Silva and uses innuendo to twist the sense of ‘anti-globalization former metalworker union leader’, a thousand people loose out on the chance to see a Brazilian film. Sure Brazil’s World Cup victory was celebrated in the international press. And if you live in Europe or NYC you’ve probably had the opportunity of getting familiar with some of Brazil’s recent musical creation–crafted either by exiles or natives. But it only takes a bat to flutter its wings for a glance to be sidelined.
When handsomely paid corresponds are the henchmen to belittle foreign cultures, how easy is it to keep an open mind and broaden it evermore toward their creations? As with Iran, how many are aware of the outstanding years of cinematic creation the country has lived?
The background to this creation is far different from the Cinema Nuevo movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by the late Glauber Rocha. It had given Brazilian art its international laurels in a century pierced with thorns. The country was then under a harsh military dictatorship. To quell the mounting social and political revolution of 1968, the generals increased the brutality. Glauber Rocha’s films express the desperation of an entire generation seeing themselves severed from the international youth movement.
Sprouting minds were forced to keep living under a centralized hold on power that set the country back to the nineteenth century latifundios in terms of political freedom. In reaction, these minds grew into radicals and revolutionaries, unleashing as they did the State’s violence. Use of torture became commonplace. The rest of Latin America turned to authoritarian rule as its landed aristocracy crushed the will to reform and distribute wealth either in the fields or the cities. The early years of Brazil’s military rule seem polite in comparison.
Nowadays Brazil is teaching the world a lesson in deliberative democracy. Its society is still gnawed severely by rampant inequality and the environmental catastrophe of desertification in the North-East states. Residents of its largest cities live in a continual state of preparation for violence wrought by a generation of youth with nothing to lose but a snort of glue or coke and padding their pockets with the green bill. Still, this country has historically ushered into power a government with a potential to introduce social change on a scale not seen since Chile’s Salvador Allende assumed power by popular vote in 1970.
It’s against this contemporary background that, ever since Walter Salles’s surprise Oscar victory in the best Foreign Film for “Central Station” (Central do Brasil), every month has seen a steady flow of high-level cinematic creation. And every semester has ushered in a masterpiece.
Excuse me for flogging the poverty of American cinema to a pulp fiction. It’s a lesson that so many Brazilians also have yet to wake up to and learn. With the exception of David Lynch, American cinema has become a medium organized only for the ideological dissemination of triumphalist abnegation. With every additional Gladiator thrown at a crowd starved for art, US people continue in their simultaneously pathetic and arrogant self-portrait, forever in denial over the fact that their country is now nothing less than an Empire.
Caught in the web of the victim-hero complex, Americans suffer raw of being art-deprived by the commercial control on what gets to be shown and advertised in their Homeland secure. They prove to the world that vis-a-vis their State the population acts so often in complicity. For lack of political opposition, Americans underwrite the nightmare its current administration is forging around the world. The scenario there is of intensified poverty, spread of war and hatred, and a deregulated environment. Washington intellectuals seem unable to look at these outgrowths with clear eyes, were their spirits imbued with reading Chicago School economics and attending Georgetown University foreign policy lectures.
As Noble laureate Joseph Stiglitz put it in his last book, Globalization and its Discontents, the presence of the grand Logos of Channel, Calvin Klein, or even MacDonald’s on the streets of the former socialist block states (Europe’s new power centre, as Rumsfeld would have it) is anything but a sign of economic progress when ramping corruption aided and abetted by the IMF’s fiscal ideology sends the masses tumbling into spiraling poverty.
Brazilian intellectuals long ago understood that art was incorporation, cannibalism. Failure to ingest leads a nation’s art to wilt from depression, if not explode in fury.
Nor has the country been spared the ravages of globalized shareholder capitalism. After all, its ruling financial clique has been among the IMF’s star players in market deregulation. Still, as if on a bas-relief, Brazilian cinema has become political only in a broader sense. Were one to consider five bona fide cases, “To the Left of the Father” (Lavoura Arcaica), Hans Staden, Madam Sata, “Behind the Sun” (Abril Despedacado), or the greatest Brazilian international success since “Dona Flor and her Two Husbands”, “City of God” (Cidade de Deus), all of these films are set in the past.
Lavoura Arcaica is Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s mood piece of a young man’s passion for his sister. Based on one of the foremost works in contemporary Brazilian literature, Raduan Nasser’s eponymous novel, it tells the tale of a Lebanese immigrant family’s life in the Pindorama, toward the interior of Sao Paulo State. The images are crafted by Walter Carvalho, the leading innovator among DoPs working in Brazil, or anywhere in the world at the moment. At times distorting images of lust into anamorphic ecstasy, he reminds one of Alexander Sokurof’s tonal inversions of Christ’s passion. Caught amidst the humidity of hills and forests, in which secrecy and denial carve at the family patriarch’s staunch insistence for the Arabic homeland values to prevail, Carvalho’s camera inches by quoting Andrei Tarkovsky at the edge of Starker’s void. The film’s opening draws the viewer into a rush channeled by a stunning soundtrack mainly performed by Brazil’s premier experimental ensemble, Uakti, with sound switched into curdled milk bathing your face. Not before its 171 minutes stretch into the finale is the viewer released from penetration by the loss of unlivable desire.
Luiz Alberto Pereira’s Hans Staden is based on the autobiographical account of a German explorer and adventurer of the same name, The True History of his Captivity, published in the 1557. It recounts the explorer’s plight at the hands of a Tupinamba tribe on the coast of what was to become Sao Paulo state. The music composed by Marlui Miranda and Lelo Nazario, is performed by Uakti once again. Its effect is to make the film’s language, spoken in Tupi, into a universal expression. Staden had in fact learned the language, a trading lingua france, after three years in Brazil. I can think of no film so intelligently designed on earlier Amerindian life that has been produced in either Canada or the US. Hans Staden’s nobility is acknowledged by the Tupis, the privilege of which for a prisoner is to be eaten. The Tupis grace the “Friesian” explorer with foremost hospitality. He is given a wife and allowed full participation in daily and spiritual life, as he awaits his fateful moment. When illness starts ravaging the tribe, Hans Staden not only steals his fate by fleeing to Europe. He witnesses the future devastation that disease would inflict on all American native nations without exception.
Madam Sata, directed by Karim Ainouz, is another film shot by Walter Carvalho, this time taking on Fassbinder’s Querelle as deconstruction. Set in the hot Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, swarming with “malandro” hustlers, it traces the origins of a transsexual who would become one of the great celebrities of Rio’s carnaval, dancing as a star with numerous samba schools. A masterpiece of acting, Madam Sata stars Lazaro Ramos, whose pathologic outbursts are only offset by his finesse, artistic grace and brooding sexuality. Living from the gregarious gender-bending cabarets that brought Brazilian transsexuals their international fame, Sata becomes a hunted animal. He has slain an intoxicated gay-hater, who taunts him as if by a prohibitive messenger of God sent to keep the marginal deep within the Styx. The film is an aural experience. Music and chatter reverberate through the narrow alleys spreading under the bleech-white aqueduc that today hosts the roots samba revival. Through the heat and sweat, sex and murder, the hands of the narrative leave the cavaquinho and quique to pound drums built up multiplying fivehundredfold as the film sambas to climax.
Walter Salles was involved in Brazil’s recent tide of cinema from the start–as was his family. In 1996, brother Murilo Salles shot a stunning tale of regular teenage banditry, Como nascem os anjos (“How Angels are Born”). It may only be seen these days by subscribers of Brazil’s fine cable channel, “Canal Brasil”, but this film anticipated the theme of kid-adults turned into psychopathic killers as if fed on a diet of rampant poverty. Their late-father, founder and former head of Unibanco, one of Brazil’s major investment banks, was a patron of the arts for many decades. His lavish house, an architectural wonder in the heights over Gavea, is now open as an art and photo gallery, seating one of Rio’s best small-scale cinemas. A music center has also recently been added to a research wing that had previously funded projects such as Claude Levi-Strauss’ Odysseyan “Saudade for Brazil”.
Whereas the name of most art patrons are lost within the stone and paint and glass of which their funds release the creation, Salles passed his patronym onto cinema in the work of his sons. In “Behind the Sun”, Walter sets a story written by Albanian author Ismael Kandare in the legendary Sertao backlands. It’s a historical journey into the gang-related violence today tearing apart Brazil’s urban fabric. The setting juts straight out from the initial chapters of Euclide de Cunhas “Rebellion in the Backlands”, but focuses on the plight of two clans condemned by the Law of Talion to seek retribution generation after murdered generation for the killing of past loved ones. Walter Carvalho is again behind the lenses, this time venturing alone into the infernal representational maelstrum as if following a catinga plant’s off-shooting stems.
Carvalho’s astonishing work as director of photography should incite the reader to see his own documentary on blindness, featuring Hermeto Pascoal and Wim Wenders. Indeed, Brazil’s documentary production has been second to none. This year has seen two outstanding features, Edificio Master and Omnibus 174, both set in contemporary Rio de Janeiro. The outstanding films discussed above may innovate on fiction, representation and narrative through historical pallettes. But the documentary form–whether classically demarcated, or integrated into fictional narratives–borrows present-time as its instrument for staining tears with blood.
As a blood banquet, “City of God” reaches parasidical heights of filmic expression. Dovetailing so many features composing this rising tide of cinema, its historical backtracking encapsulates what Brazil’s current renaissance is all about. The samba and the funk, the poverty and rebellion, intensify the grind of living in two of the hemisphere’s largest cities, need I say megalopolises. Much is still being written on the film and its social import, and more will surely be said. When I think of its hip action, and its sanguine humanism, I grow into a victim, subdued by the syncopation of legendary samba composer and cantor, Cartola.
His Psalm of Psalms beckons to art “Chora, disfarca e chora”–Weep, disguise and weep. And I do so neither because of what lies within the film’s form, nor owing to what attacks from without the cinema’s doors. No, I cry and clap and scream because art exceeds life here in neo-realist form, reaching into the pantheons of creation and eternity as if set afloat on Yemanja’s barque gliding beyond the underworld.
NORMAN MADARASZ is a Canadian philosopher based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.