Interviews Movies

Talking Brazil, Cinema Novo and Indigenous Identity with “Memory House” director João Paulo Miranda Maria

João Paulo Miranda Maria talks about his feature debut "Memory House", a powerful story of racism and Indigenous empowerment in Brazil.

João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature, “Memory House”, wants to start a cinema revolution. His home country of Brazil is going through a sociopolitical crisis where conservatism, xenophobia and racism have taken center stage. In his film, Miranda touches on those issues with precision, urging audiences and artists to move away from the void of intolerance. 

The main character is Cristovam, a native Black man in his 70s who is forced to live in a Southern Brazilian town to keep his job. Because he’s one of the few Indigenous people living there, he is surrounded by the contempt of the white population. One day, Cristovam finds an old cabin filled with old objects and attires that lead him to rediscover his Indigenous roots and connect with nature. He starts a spiritual and physical transformation.

The film has a complex story brimming with detail, pain and metaphors. In order to understand more about the powerful watching experience of “Memory House”, I talked with João Paulo Miranda Maria about its themes, the Brazilian political landscape and the involvement of legendary actor Antônio Pitanga, among other topics.

What should people know about Brazil and its Afro-Brazilian community before watching “Memory House”?

People need to understand the situation of living in a very conservative country in a very conservative moment with a very conservative government. Of course, this is not a film about the tropical Brazil landscape. It’s not set in Copacabana but in the South of the country, a European, white and rich region. They should know that the North of Brazil is a poor, ancient and African-descandant region. People from the North go to the South to have a better quality of life. So things are different from what people might imagine when thinking about Brazil.

One of the main features of the film is the cabin where Cristovam reconnects with his Indigenous roots. How did you find this place? 

Everything you see in the film is real. It’s a real location. In 2016 I discovered this Austrian colony established by people who escaped from WWII, some of them from the Nazi party. The abandoned house was built by an ex-Nazi police officer. The flag that was made for the film is based in a real movement. People that live there worked in the film too, and the costumes they used are real. The story is a fiction, but the elements are real.

How did you recruit a legendary Brazilian actor such as Antônio Pitanga to be in the film?

I imagined Pitanga in my film from the start, but I never said that to anyone because it was my feature debut, and up to that point I had only made short films with non-professional actors. Pitanga is a famous name so I didn’t believe he could be on board, but I always thought of him for the main role.

In the script I described the actor as a Black man and not that old, so people imagined something different, a strong man from the North. They didn’t imagine an 81-year-old man in the role. I didn’t ask for him because of the body, but for the history. Pitanga embodies the history of cinema and Brazilian culture. He starred in the first Glauber Rocha film, “Barra Vento”, and a lot of the Cinema Novo movement films. He participated in “O Pagador de Promessas”, the first Brazilian film to win the Palme D’or. So from the first moment, having him was like bringing luck to the project.

Even with his big filmography, Pitanga had never played a main role like this before. So this was very unique. I warned him that this wasn’t a light film. I needed him to be the body of the Brazilian people and show a lot of conflict and strength with his silence. We needed to feel through his eyes.

“Memory House” | Image courtesy of THE PR FACTORY

There’s a wave of Brazilian films with strong political and social commentary. What’s your role in this? With Bolsonaro cutting budgets, what’s the state of Brazilian cinema right now, and where do you think it’s going?

The political landscape surrounding cinema is very complicated. For example, Bolsonaro’s government cut their support to the Cinemateca Brasileira, which is our memory place, responsible for the preservation of Brazilian cinema. Now it’s like an abandoned place and, of course, new projects stopped. That’s one reason why I’m living in France. “Memory House” is a co-production between Brazil and France, and the post-production and editing process needed to be made here. After that was finished, I was invited to write a new project. Here I have the support to imagine and create, but I will go back to Brazil to develop my next film.

Right now we have an opportunity to make something big, like the ‘60s Cinema Novo revolution. During this pandemic and conservative moment, people need to think about the cinema of tomorrow, the next generation. I feel the responsibility of starting to do it right now.  We need to find out how to revolutionize cinema ourselves. This is the moment to think again about auteur cinema, because it’s difficult to see people with the courage of making big films like Passolini or Glauber Rocha. This is the moment to find the courage and make something new in a real way.

“Memory House” has some tough scenes involving animals. How did you shoot them, and why did you tackle them with such force?

If you analyze each shot I made you can see that all the explicit violence moments are outside of the frame. A lot of films just explode brains or have a lot of blood, which doesn’t allow the audience to feel fear. It’s so explicit and exaggerated. I made something that allowed people to see the soul of the dog. You see the eyes of one dog looking into your eyes. You can’t do anything to help him. And then, I cut. We see the actor making the sacrifice and you can’t see anything else. Everything is out of the frame. 

For me it’s a positive thing. I wanted to make people feel something powerful just by looking through the eyes of one animal. In the actual shooting of the scene, we gave sleep medicine to the dog and when he was dozing off, he looked right at the camera. Everybody said: ‘OK, we got it!’, but no. It’s not just that image. I needed to see him looking at my heart, only for a few seconds. Then, he did a little turn with this head to look at us and fell asleep. And that was perfect. Can you believe the power of cinema? The violence is outside of the frame and we only suggest it. But it’s a big moment of impotence because before that, the dog is looking right at you. It’s very powerful.

João Paulo Miranda Maria | Photo courtesy of THE PR FACTORY

Can you talk about the “bull auction” scene and its relationship with the journey of Cristovam?

If you pay attention to the selling of the bull scene, you can listen the description of the animal; this relates to pain, to the history of Brazil and slavery. I didn’t want a didactic film that explains every detail. The idea is to go through a ritual journey. The costume of the bull comes from Northern folklore, from the Caballadas when people would use animal cloths and change their voices. My character is calling the spiritual entity of the Boiadeiro [Brazilian cowboy]. You can hear the music repeating ‘It’s time, it’s time.’ It’s describing the fight between him and the bull. He’s losing his identity to find something very distant. The character incarnates the powerful entity of the Boiadeiro, which represents revolution and a new cycle: when something old dies and something new is born. I use the music to give attention to the idea of death and rebirth.

What projects are you working on next?

I’m writing a film about the Amazon rainforest. I already have the producers’ support and international interest, which is very surprising. I don’t like choosing the easy way and I don’t like making normal films for people to like and leave them with a good taste. I imagine myself making the biggest film, and by that I don’t mean a film with a lot of money and the biggest stars. It’s about making something big to have a conversation with the big auteurs of cinema. My greatest desire is to speak at their same level. In my career, I want to continue treating cinema like art and, even though I’m open to make films in different places, I never want to lose sight of that.

João Paulo Miranda Maria’s “Memory House” had its World premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Roger Ebert Award at the 2020 Chicago International Film Festival. 

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