Brazil occupies a special place in the popular imagination. Whether it's because of the exotic music, the colorful and kinetic fashions, or the enduring mystique of its sexually charged inhabitants, there's a fascination with South America's largest country that has surpassed its political or economic power globally.
Now that Brazil is achieving an economic parity with such countries as India and China as well as having its long-standing cultural presence, it becomes more and more valuable to get a sense of the country through its cinema. Over the last few years that has become easier and easier as several of its directors such as Walter Salles or Fernando Meirelles have become internationally recognized figures with award-winning films.
So even if you can't make it to Brazil, or afford a deep DVD collection, there are several events being held this summer that can critically enhance your knowledge of Brazil, its culture, and cinema -- with one in particular, The Museum of Modern Art's Premiere Brazil series, already underway.
[left: Rio FF Director Ilda Santiago] For the seventh time, MoMA's film division presents its annual overview of contemporary Brazilian film. With the help of the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival Director Ilda Santiago, Premiere Brazil 2009 is organized by Film Department curator Jytte Jensen; this 19-day event introduces audiences to accomplished, original films from this unique country. Most of the films in Premiere Brazil will be introduced by their directors at the first screening. Running from July 16 through August 3, 2009, this year's edition includes 19 features and three shorts.
Said Jensen about their efforts, "With this annual program we are interested in following filmmakers who continue to create works that bring Brazilian filmmaking to the international marketplace but also to create a forum for new original voices. We choose from the sidebar of the Rio International Film Festival named Premiere Brazil and also bring in films that are just finished, thus being able to present films which premiere here and then go on the Rio Festival later in the year."
"Our aim is the cover the various genres and trends in Brazil and show the diversity of filmmaking in this particular national cinema," added Jensen. "We do not, per se, look for a specific aesthetic but often a trend will emerge when we have selected the program -- like this year's investigations in several of the films of how music and poetry has shaped what we have come to think of as the Brazilian spirit -- and the pace and rhythm in the films being made."
As before, the fest includes documentaries of such striking quality that they sometimes overshadow the fiction features. Those docs include a few which address, as Jensen noted, the rich heritage of Brazilian music. Of the two world premieres among this year's selection, Beyond Ipanema: Brazilian Waves in Global Music(2009), is a brilliant overview of the incursion of Brazilian music world wide by directors Guto Barra and Beco Dranoff. With dramatic archival footage and original interviews, this fast-paced doc tells in 89 minutes nearly all the history of Brazilian music since the 1940s.
Beyond that, the film describes how such music as samba, bosa nova and Tropicalia became an international phenomena as well. By having such personalities as Brazilian legends Gilberto Gil, Bebel Gilberto, Os Mutantes, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso in the same film with contemporary music figures such as Devendra Banhart, David Byrne, M.I.A., and Thievery Corporation, it illustrates the link between the generations.
The other world premiere Moscou (Moscow)(2009), is directed by master documentarian Eduardo Coutinho--whose has seven other films being featured here as part of the first retrospective done for this series.
And to enhance the audio elements of the festival, this year's exhibition is accompanied by a series of live Brazilian music performances in the Museum's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden on Thursday nights in July (it began July 2 and continues through July 30).
Among the other docs, there is one other, Morrinho -- Deus sabe de tudo mas nao e X9 (Morrinho: God Knows Everything But Is Not a Snitch) -- it had its first screening on Monday but will have another on July 30th -- that has the potential to be another Born Into Brothels. Enhanced with the sort of hopefulness found in Slumdog Millionaire,this real life fable tells the tale of a group of slum kids living in what's known as the favela, who were staying out of trouble by creating their own alternate world. They created an huge, small-scale model of Rio's favelas, on the side of a hill calling it Morrinho. Made of re-crafted bricks and inhabited by dozens of Lego figures, they played in it as if reenacting war games between the police and the gangs.
When director Fabio Gaviao got wind of this he started a long odyssey that included 600 hours of video and eight years of time as the kids got discovered by the international art world and traveled with their project to major art expos including the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. The filmmakers -- Gaviao, co-director Markao Oliviera and producer Sergio Bloch not only discovered new talent but demonstrated the healing effect film can have a community of kids.
After having met Gaviao and Bloch at a wonderful press lunch in one of New York's best Brazilian restaurants, Plataforma Churrascaria (on West 49th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.), the two outlined their experience with discovering these kids and their construction.
Explained Bloch, "A friend of ours, Rodrigo, who teaches environmental studies to the kids from favela told us about it. The kids -- basically two brothers who started it and about six friends who help them -- were missing class a lot. When he asked why they were missing class, the other kids said, 'Oh, because they are playing in the Morrinho.'
One day they attended class and he said he'd like to see this Morrinho. So they took him to see it and [he was amazed]. He says to them 'Look, when you want to play there let me know and I will [give you credit]. What you do there is what I teach here--how to deal with space... You have to put plants to hold the land steady and you've learned architecture -- how to build and design.' He was so fascinated he called Fabio who called me. We arrived that first day and starting shooting -- and we never left."
No wonder. The Morrinho is a masterpiece of construction, rich in colors and little Lego figurines so that it is not just a static representation but a miniature city where the kids create little dramas and act them out. For the production team, this was not only an opportunity to document a fascinating organically generated creation in the favela -- a positive development made in world fraught with violence and poverty -- but it was a chance to concretely help the community or at least, one small part of it.
Gaviao recalled, "We have a big problem in Brazil, especially with so many poor people living there with no education or jobs; that's why a lot of young people get involved with drug dealers and violence. This project was a big opportunity for the community to change their reality. It happened in a way [as a simple outlet for the kids], but we saw could be much more than that."
With that realization, they not only dug into making the documentary, but set up an organization to help the kids as they went from favela to television appearances, art shows through the world and becoming tour guides to their miniature world. Added Bloch, "Right there, we thought we'd do a documentary for a few months and that's would be it, but as we got involved with them, as we realized what was there, what it meant and that it could become something bigger.
"We saw that by doing the documentary, we're not only making it for us, but for them. We saw a chance to make an exchange, and for to be a part of a world they had never been a part of before."
Seeing a film like this -- one that encompasses so much more than just a clever story -- explains why such filmmaking is important and why it is important that, by experiencing a place as different as Brazil and its favelas are, we experience something compelling about ourselves and our world.