Cláudio Assis is a Brazilian screenwriter, producer and director. He was born in Caruaru, in the state of Pernambuco, and went to the state's capital Recife when he was 17 to study economics, but felt "totally incompatible" with its structure. He thus starting making films, first with Mango Yellow which won Best Film at Brasilia; his second film Bog of Beasts won the Tiger Award for Best Film at Rotterdam. Assis' third and fourth films, Rat Feverand Big Jato respectively, continue his examination of the power of poetry to shape society.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Cláudio Assis discusses marginal poets of the 1970s, freedom, the failure of capitalism and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: BothRat FeverandBig Jatoembrace poetry as a method for subverting sociopolitical corruptions and the influence of capitalism, particularly in the slums of Brazil. Could you reflect on the dualism between bourgeois Brazilian life and existence in the slums of Recife? How does this dualism breed the particular artistic tones of Zizo and Xico, the poets in your films?
CLÁUDIO ASSIS: For me, these poets can be anything they want in life. Both Zizo and Xico can create the world they want. The poet is free. So when I wrote about Zizo, I wanted to make a homage to the marginal poets who used to exist in the 70s, and still do exist— there are still some of them today. So Zizo is alive.
Xico Sá is another person, he is also a writer, so we wanted to put this writer's voice in his mouth. What do I mean by that... it is what it is. Zizo is a representation of the marginal poetry nowadays.
FLMTQ: Instead of touching on expected issues such as labor, education, poverty, or health care system, the poet Zizo is awakened by radical hedonism. He seeks to liberate himself from the power systems that tame him linguistically and performatively, and dismantle a civil conscience that serves only to censor the pleasures of the senses. Zizo's anarchy thus drives toward the extreme realm of freedom— the freedom of sex, language, and other human conditions. What motivated the choice to have Zizo and Xico take this route, rather than address other urgent matters of living at the fringes of society?
CA: I think about both socialism and capitalism— even more capitalism, which is more bankrupt than socialism when it began. I don't have an ideology, but the ideology that I connect the most with is anarchism... it is Bakunin, it is Malatesta, and I think that the world is proving more and more that we are fucked, that there is no capitalism, because we are living in disgrace. Not only in Brazil, but all over the world. Capitalism is fated to failure; it is over.
So when we choose to talk about the route that Zizo and Xico take, it happens with a clear conscience. Freedom is the shape of sex, poetry, ways of intervention— ways to criticize the society in which they live, from the favelas to the city of Recife. These poets, they can do everything. They are anarchists and that is why they love, that is why they intervene in society.
In Big Jato, Xico can also do all things: he is an antagonist, he is two people in one. In this case Xico is inspired by the author of the novel, Xico Sá, representing the possibility to form the character of a child. The question then becomes, how is this child raised? This child is raised by two different people: one who is totally conservative, retrograde and the another who believes in poetry, who is the poet with his typewriter. It is two people in one, the father and the uncle become the same person, showing how you have to be careful with raising a child, with the child's character. The pursuit of poetry goes on this way with the hope to give freedom while raising a child, in order to create a better society.
FLMTQ: Rat Feverevokes the diverse palette of Zizo's language via black and white images, whereas Big Jato directly paints Xico's anxiety in dense colors. Could you tell us about your intentions of utilizing different color landscapes in both films, and your understanding of these choices in terms of the relationship between the poetry and cinema?
CA: The black and white in Rat Fever was precisely chosen to create a look, to draw the viewer's attention so he could hear poetry, because black and white is more poetic than color. That was a much discussed topic, in order to know what we were going to do in this direction. Black and white is also poetry.
In Big Jato the choice of color happened because we were shooting in a great location, that is the region of Vale do Catimbau, in Pernambuco. It is the most beautiful canyon we have in Brazil, and I couldn't hide it. Then because Tio Nelson, the radio's owner, is a delirious man, we used the color to show density too. If we used black and white people wouldn't see that wonderful view at Vale do Catimbau. It was important to show that place.
In Rat Fever the colors were not necessary. The focus is more on the sense of the poet Zizo's social and cultural intervention.
FLMTQ: Both poets turn their eyes to the camera just for a few seconds while delivering their seditious messages, cajoling the audience to joining their crusades. What inspired your choice to break the fourth wall in this way?
CA: I believe that my intention was to speak directly with the public. They have to know what I am talking about, what we are talking about, and what we are saying in the movie has to do with him, the audience. So when we talk, when Leona Cavalli says in "Amarelo Manga" that one day just comes after another and that she wants everyone to go fuck themselves— it's déjà vu, she's talking to the audience so they can understand what kind of life this woman is living.
All my movies have characters that talk to the camera. They talk to the audience, that's the interaction, bringing people into the movie. I want the audience to know that the movie is also theirs. That's intensity! If the fourth wall is broken, I will determine the fifth.
FLMTQ: When the police arrive inRat Fever, Zizo is blocked from reciting his poems of freedom. While the persecution of the poet gives rise to a new milestone in the history of the ‘Rat Fever’ movement, the fact that Zizo has disappeared prevents any further action on his behalf against the powers that subjugate him. In Big Jato, on the other hand, Xico and his uncle Nelson’s obscenity encroaches upon the sphere of the governing power more effectively. How did you formulate the films' distinct outcomes of poetic resistance?
CA: In Rat Fever he turns into a rat itself— he disappears, swims in the pool, is thrown into the river but comes back in the form of a rat. In Big Jato he returns through the boy; Nelson reincarnates in the boy, the boy goes away, he decides to leave, he lets go. He says "I will," because if you stay here you will become a stone, so these are ways for liberty.
In these two movies poetry exists to provide freedom. It exists so that people can go beyond and not stand where they are supposed to be. That's my intention, mine and that of Hilton Lacerda, the author. Big Jato gives people a chance to go beyond and not to be doomed to failure.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
CA: João Cabral de Melo Neto's Dog Without Feathers debuted in the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro, co-directed by Deborah Colker and me, which is now on tour in Brazil and will then go to Europe. João Cabral de Melo Neto is one of the greatest poets in Brazil, from Pernambuco. Dog Without Feathers is a wonderful poem!
And we also shot a documentary on how it was set up, which airs on TV in September. The series Old Gold, New World which is about poetry in the Pajeú Valley, in the Sertão de Pernambuco, is also ready and will debut soon on Canal Brasil.
And I'm looking for funding to shoot another film for which we have the script ready. The project is called Gigante Pela Própria Natureza (Giant by Nature Itself) which is a phrase in the national anthem and also the name of a city of dwarves. In life, there is no art direction, we have to respect them as they are— fat, thin, black, white, poor, rich. The storyline of the movie is this. In my life, there is no art direction.
Finally, I'm working on the feature film Piedade that is already finalizing. Piedade is the name of a beach in Pernambuco where sharks attack people and the name of a movie in which, for the first time in the history of cinema, the shark is not a villain but a victim. We humans attack the sharks, so he reacts. The movie is with the Academy Awards nominee Fernanda Montenegro, Cauã Reymond, Matheus Nachtergaele, Mariana Ruggiero, Irandhir Santos and Francisco de Assis Moraes. It is a film that talks about how we hurt the Earth and how nature charges back. That's it!