Girimunho, HelvécioMarins Jr. & Clarissa Campolina (2011)
Helvécio Marins Jr. is a Brazilian screenwriter, film director and producer; Clarissa Campolina is a Brazilian cinematographer, film director and editor. The feature film debut Girimunho, which they co-directed, premiered at Venice Orizzonti, Toronto, San Sebastián, and Rotterdam; Minneapolis, where it won Best Emerging Filmmaker Award; and Havana, where it won the Special Jury Prize.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Clarissa Campolina discusses the intangible rhythms of life in the backlands, the importance of wasting time, a wish to see strong and diverse women onscreen and her next projects.
FILMATIQUE: Brazilian cinema (and literature) have historical and organic connections to the backlands, the interior of the country. Nevertheless Girimunho escapes the archetypes present in many of those narratives of poverty and desolation, as São Romão is lively and immersed in a rich and complex culture. How did you discover São Romão, and what motivated you to make a film here?
CLARISSA CAMPOLINA: I live in a big city, the capital of Brazil's Minas Gerais state, and my relationship with the backlands started when I was still a kid. The enchantment with the huge river— and also with the dark nights full of stars, the food, the animals and the stories— began with the summer vacations I spent on a farm. As the years went by, this relationship matured as I dove into literature and cinema, and grew deeper still as work opportunities allowed me to be closer to the landscape, the culture and the people that live in the backlands.
I first encountered São Romão with Helvécio while searching for locations for his short film Nascente. It was a one-month trip through the San Francisco Valley and led us to a project that screens Brazilian films in small towns next to the São Francisco River. The project, called "Cinema no Rio," was created by Inácio Neves and still takes place today.
It was during this time that we first met Bastú, and I believe this encounter made me accept, five years later, Helvécio's invitation to co-direct Girimunho after he showed me the project's first treatment.
During our initial encounter with Bastú we listened silently as she told us her stories for about two hours. Her mechanisms of tying one story to another, the timing of her narrative, her worldview, the mystery she guards and her joy of life were fascinating to me and made me want to spend more time next to her.
FLMTQ: At the risk of sounding cliché, the landscape is so expressive that it resembles a central character in the film itself. How did you seek to integrate this element, and how important do you believe nature and its rhythms to be to those who inhabit it?
CC: The landscape is spectacular and we didn't want to frame it as if it was something exotic. While we were still writing the script, we wanted to connect the landscape with the characters, with their way of living, their feelings. For that to happen, we needed to bring our look closer that of São Romão's inhabitants.
In the first encounter with Bastú, and in all the encounters— with her, Maria and the other characters— that occurred over the course of seven years, the importance of the landscape for the construction of her personality and her feelings was quite clear. As she spoke, we realized that an observation of space coincided with her explanations for the mysteries of nature. People explained the importance of "wasting" time in order to understand the cycles of nature; we saw how the way they faced the world influenced their daily lives, the rhythms of their speech, the hour they go to sleep and the hour they get up. The local images— vast fields, high sun, dark nights, flowing rivers, light reflecting off fish scales— created Bastú's stories and inspired Maria's lyrics.
In other words, aside from our conversations and observations, the extended period of time we spent visiting and even living in the village also helped us to understand that nature and landscape comprise part of these peoples' selves, their habits, their poetry, their imagination, their dreams, their lives. And it has an influence on the way they see the world.
Girimunho, HelvécioMarins Jr. & Clarissa Campolina (2011)
FLMTQ: The villagers are the 'actors' of your film who play versions of their own lives. Even if you keep the camera at a certain distance they seem very comfortable with it— there is an intimate scene between Branca and Preta when they talk about their dreams, love, their future. The scene flows seamlessly, as do many others of this kind. What was the villagers' general reaction to you shooting there and how did this evolve over time?
CC: The research period of Girimunho was long— about eight years— and the choice of shooting with the actual people that inspired the story was fundamental to its conception because the beauty, as well as the challenge, of Girimunho was to build a story alongside the characters, to build a story 'with' them, not 'about' them.
This gesture— filming 'with' them— was decisive for both Girimunho's artistic style and its production. We chose to make a film with a tiny team of twelve people and to live for four months in São Romão. This way we could experience the town, the landscape and the river. We could meet our characters and other people who lived there, during and after shooting hours. Like that, we were able to experience daily encounters and to build connections and relations that would surpass the work of the film.
I believe this way of producing influenced much of the interaction of the characters. It also had an influence on the film's aesthetics. Everyone on set was supposed to gather during the shoot. There was a lot of planning: a previous scene design, a previous 'decoupage.' Most importantly— we had to be aware of everything that was happening during the shoot.
In this context, when we were shooting we aimed for effective camera work and Ivo Lopes Araujo, our cinematographer, was essential to this. Cinematography should be part of the scene— relating to it, respecting the time and rhythm of the environment, understanding the intentions and the movements of our characters.
We were also concerned about what we should show in the images and believed we did not have the obligation to show everything. On the contrary, the camera should turn or step away in a very intimate scene, to shoot the landscape and explore what's happening off-screen. With this in mind we explored the doorways, our characters' backs and the darkness. We could build an atmosphere in which life's mysteries were respected.
FLMTQ: Can you please reflect on your experience of working with the actors, and particularly with the lead, Bastú? How was the casting process and how much direction did you give them?
CC: In Girimunho we aimed to breathe in the atmosphere of the place and the people that inspired us to make the film. It was an intense process of meeting them and being affected by them. Building a fictional film wherein Bastú and Maria could produce a narrative through the interpretation of their own stories was our biggest challenge. Besides all the events that happened to them, it was necessary to create new situations in order to build the fictional elements of the film. The intimacy and the time we spent with them allowed us to 'produce' new events; however, we had to be very aware during the shoot and give up on things we had planned in order to respect the characters' wishes.
The whole process with Bastú was very special. When we first met her, we were immediately caught by the way she told her stories and by her ability to mix reality and fantasy. This inspired us during many stages of the film: from script development and artistic concept to our work with the characters. Her poetic and jolly side were intricate to her daily life, which made the acting process very light and relaxed.
Girimunho, HelvécioMarins Jr. & Clarissa Campolina (2011)
FLMTQ: Not just Bastú but all the women in the film are so determined, independent, and resourceful, challenging the stereotype viewers may have about social and cultural dynamics in these small places. Does the role of women in Brazilian society differ in rural versus urban environments, and across generations?
CC: It's very hard to speak of social behavior patterns among women in Brazil. We live very different realities among all states, be it urban or rural environments, and these realities change over the course of generations as well. Even inside a restricted social group, you may encounter extremely different people.
In my opinion, the important thing about making a film with strong female characters is to produce "identification:" a feeling of connection among female viewers. This can break certain stereotypes and intolerant notions we've been taught throughout our lives. With Girimunho, I have no doubt that my desire to approach these women— Bastú, Maria, Branca and Preta— and to conceive of the characters and the film with them by my side, came from an internal wish to see strong and diverse women onscreen.
FLMTQ: In addition to using non-professional actors, Felipe Bragança's script is far from traditional. How did the narrative take shape?
CC: The script-writer Felipe Bragança went to the village and met the ladies for the first time in 2008. Helvécio had already gathered a lot of information— recorded interviews, photos and notes— which he showed to Felipe. Based on their stories, Felipe wrote our first draft in fifteen days.
After that, the screenplay changed at every moment as it embraced new events, stories and situations we could only witness due to the long period of time we spent with the villagers. We were able to observe how Bastú's relationship with her granddaughters changed as they grew up. We also managed to see the growth of the village as technologies such as cell phones and the internet arrived.
This kind of interpersonal interaction enabled us to become closer to them and the space in which they lived. The screenplay could therefore access deeper and more complex layers because it had been prepared for that kind of overture and reinvention. We had a narrative arc— Feliciano's death and Bastú's process of "renewing" herself— in spite of that, the film had to allow the characters to experiment, to lead the film into unplanned situations, always intuitively guided by their desires, curiosity and emotional state.
In other words, the film had to embrace movement, to welcome new possibilities. This way, unplanned events could give the film something special from the local atmosphere, as they connected with the characters' feelings, the magic and the mystery of life.
FLMTQ: The making of Girimunho seems to follow a pattern of collective work and artistic collaboration reflected in both previous shorts and feature films. You have both actively participated in the artistic initiatives Teia and Espaço Teia. What do you view as the challenges and the value of collective work in an industry that pushes so much in the direction of distinctive individual authorship and success?
CC: To me, directing a film demands passion, commitment and a lot of work. I like to feel challenged during the shooting, it's like stepping out of my comfort zone and diving into a world that is unknown to me. I think filmmaking has this kind of strength, this possibility of throwing us into something new, which you interpret, "feel" and recreate.
In several moments, sharing creative work and producing a collaborate film also transforms you in a very strong way. Then, once you're back to your own self, you realize you're a different person. You have a distinct outlook that was strengthened by the movement and by the action of your partner.
I believe Teia and Espaço Teia originated from the desire to exchange, to interact with other ideas. In my opinion, being able to work like that for fifteen years is clear proof of the power of this kind of work— collaborative work. Anyhow, I believe that every new project is an opportunity to experiment, to develop fresh ways of cooperation and partnership. There is no pattern, no right way of doing things.
FLMTQ: How would you evaluate the prospects of Brazilian cinema today, taking into account the remarkable production of the last two decades?
CC: In the past two decades, very different kinds of cinema— that is to say different ways of producing and watching films, a different way of seeing "cinema" and filmmaking in general— were produced in Brazil, making it really hard to trace a general overview.
However, I believe that more and more films are being made through independent means. Films in which people experiment and come up with new production models and fresh artistic choices are gaining strength throughout the world. That broadens the perspective of Brazilian cinema, which I think is a very positive thing for our creativity and for the appreciation of our cultural and artistic environment, considering there's an overture for a plurality of films that did not exist before.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
CC: I'm currently working on three films that are in distinct stages of production. I'm editing a film essay named The Other Hidden (co-directed by Luiz Pretti) that tells the story of an immigrant couple that can't be together. I'm in the pre-production stage of a fiction feature film called Faraway Song which is about the complex ways in which distance and proximity play out between a Brazilian girl and her Salvadorean father. Finally, I'm developing the screenplay of a fiction feature film (co-directed by Sérgio Borges) inspired in Henry James' novel The Beast in the Jungle.
Interview by Dr. Paula Halperin Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and History SUNY Purchase