Can filmmaking be developed around a sense of empathy and understanding between who films and who is filmed? The works of Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca unfold around the attempt to answer this question. The fascinating passion for popular music genres and the social behaviours and codes developed around them is the meeting point of the protagonists of the duo’s works, who are portrayed through a gaze imbued with a sensorial approach to the complexities of contemporary Brazilian society. In this conversation the artists offer an insight into their collaborative practice, elaborate on the importance of Recife and its cultural scenes in their work and reveal the details around the making of Swinguerra – the film they presented for the Brazilian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale this year.
Matteo Lucchetti: In your work frevo, brega, schlager, swingueira – just some of the popular music genres your works revolve around – are described both as the basis of entertainment businesses and a reflection on the cultural, social and political preoccupations of the communities behind them. What did you learn from the protagonists of these vernacular music forms that millions of people listen to?
Bárbara Wagner: Maybe there’s a simple way to start, which is where we come from in terms of practice. I never planned to be an artist. I studied journalism here in Recife and became a photojournalist, which for me was about being part of a whole engine of making images that are legible for the masses. In the shift from analogue to digital photography, I was eager to share this ‘making’ with the people I was photographing in the streets, which gave me the possibility to open up conversations and get interested in performance as language. This interdisciplinarity of my early years is something that I similarly find in the practices of the young artists we are working with today. For instance, in the film Faz Que Vai (2015), the dancers who perform frevo – a traditional form derived from capoeira, protected by UNESCO and valued as official propaganda – do so by incorporating influences from voguing and electronic music. In this area of Brazil, if you look closely at Carnival and the way in which cultural manifestations considered popular traditions have been refashioned today – and who is pioneering this – you can begin to see why we ended up making films about music due to how heavily intertwined it is with economics and politics.
Matteo: Music as an entry point to a much bigger issue of what culture produces today.
…it’s about an urgency of desires, which the viewers not only look at, but can relate to and reflect upon.
Benjamin de Burca: Music touches subjects without necessarily having to didactically explain them, and everybody can relate to it. In this sense, it’s a useful lens to work through. In the films, it carries at once both the performances presented and a profound contract with the individuals in front of and behind the camera. Our involvement with the cast is such that we become part of their lives, and they become part of ours. This is one of the deeper things I have learned through our practice – it’s about an urgency of desires, which the viewers not only look at, but can relate to and reflect upon.
Bárbara: Besides, we are in Recife, very close to Bahia, in the Northeast, which is so different from anything that the European art world would normally know of Brazil. We are actually very certain about working here and from the perspective that comes with this, and understand how to devote our interest, attention and methodology to then learn from other forms of artistic practices.
Matteo: Many of your protagonists, may them be black rappers from Toronto, frevo dancers, or the swingueira warriors of your last piece, live outside of the canons of white, Western mainstream society, and often their cultural production can be seen as an act of resistance to those structures that they don’t belong to. By depicting their struggles and their stories, you show solidarity, empathising with these communities. How do you manage to go beyond the role of the ally, and to engage further with these counter-narratives?
Bárbara: This is a very beautiful question and for me it has to do with what our contribution has been so far, in terms of filmmaking. I’m not even talking about ethics in documentary artistic practices, but let’s talk about cinema: our engagement is founded in the way we structure a project, think about research, rehearse and then script, shoot, post-produce. Benjamin and I have only worked together for six years, but we are already comfortable with our methodology. We try to work beyond a certain frame of what militant cinema should look like. In other words, we found a form of working together that doesn’t necessarily respond with a political statement, but holds the complexity of an encounter. It’s a belief that cinema is able to mediate states of difference. In the Northeast of Brazil there is very limited access to cinema schools and subsequent professionalisation, so as a result crews are more middle class. In this sense, the encounters between the crew and cast are already very rich in terms of the contrasts and prejudgements that break through the understanding of different realities. Our films are actually the result of these encounters before anything else.
Matteo: Does that mean that the script making is a process that is ongoing while the shooting happens or it’s something that is closed before?
Benjamin: It’s usually closed a few days before shooting. Sometimes it is reopened during shooting; things always change. It’s a continuous cycle of live scripting, like throwing as much as we can in the air and making it land in a way that works for everybody involved, until the point of shooting. We’re all taking a risk and experimenting. But when everybody is doing it together, it can usually culminate in something that actually presents more than expected.
Bárbara: The work Terremoto Santo (2017) is a very interesting example of how this process can be intense. We shot Terremoto in February 2017, in the middle of our most recent political coup, after Dilma Roussef was impeached and conservative powers – mainly represented by the evangelical church – were being felt in a more public debate. We knew that was something we should address, and so it was a natural progression to go on with the research initiated in Estás Vendo Coisas (2016) – into the music industry as embraced by a young generation of singers – this time focusing on artists emerging from rural areas of Pernambuco who were accessing the church as a way to exercise creativity and pursue a new form of labour.
Benjamin: And community.
Bárbara: We knew that was the way to go, but the crew was very resistant. I guess that happened because at that exact moment more engaged cinema had a political agenda to portray the evangelical as the enemy. Getting a team together wasn’t easy because there was a ideological negotiation going on between crew and cast. In this we learned a little bit more about what we were doing in terms of a social practice too.
Benjamin: That’s true.
Bárbara: We knew that was the way to go, however the crew was very resistant. This happened because at that exact moment more engaged cinema had a political agenda to portray the evangelical as the enemy. Getting a team together wasn’t easy because there was a whole ideological negotiation going on between crew and cast. Through this experience we also learned a little bit more about what we were doing in terms of a social practice too. For example, the transit between people from the brega to the gospel scene is superfluid. Everywhere in the peripheries of Recife, you can see an evangelical church right next to a brega club. For us, it is the same world. People are just trying to have a better life. They want to have the right to no longer be miserable, and to make a living as artists.
Matteo: The communities of Terremoto Santo and the ones in Estás Vendo Coisas, the film about brega, seem completely different, but in the end they have a lot in common. Perhaps they show different sides of the same problem, as much as they share in the idea of self-empowerment. There is also the heteronormativity of the former in opposition to the queer perspective of the latter, showing the antagonisms at play in the country. In this sense, do you see your work also as a sociological essay developed in collaboration with its protagonists?
Bárbara: We hope so.
Benjamin: Perhaps it’s because in the brega scene, heteronormativity is a larger envelope of male and female representation, and actually part of a masquerade. Similarly to the swingueria scene, the brega scene is very gender fluid. They combine quite a lot because there’s room to it. We tried to discuss this with the two characters in the film.
Bárbara: I don’t feel a difference and it’s interesting you perceive that, but I can understand why: a queer perspective is more visible in Swinguerra (2019). As a result of showing it at Venice, everybody was talking about the LGBTQ representation and politics in Brazil. It’s beautiful that this has happened, and it’s true that the group we worked with, Extremo, featuring transgender women and gay men as the main dancers in the film, has a close connection to brega. But why is it that those swingueira dancers are not in the brega industry? Because they wouldn’t fit in the heteronormative stardards of the brega scene itself. So the antagonisms are inherent to these phenomena, and I agree with Matteo in this sense. Brega is performed in the night clubs, while swingueira is a form that manifests on sports courts in public schools all over the peripheries of Recife. Brega became more market-driven, while in swingueira dancers exercise a form of being together, affirming their own identity politics and gender in the making of a community.
For the project in Venice, we were introduced to Extremo by Eduarda Lemos (the protagonist of Swinguerra), who was part of Faz Que Vai (2015), so it was a very organic process. For many years we had the idea to work on swingueira as a dance and music form, but we just didn’t have the chance. We visited competitions and got acquainted with the groups and the aesthetics of their presentations, we understood what the phenomena were. Then last year we agreed that we would finally take our time to work on our research for the script of Swinguerra after coming back from Canada – where we shot Rise (2018). It was just a couple of weeks later when we received an email from Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro (the curator of the Brazilian pavilion), asking to Skype with us. When he proposed we represent Brazil in Venice, and the only way we could accept the invitation was to start working on the swingueira scene. Gabriel took the risk and mediated the conversations with the Biennial of São Paulo Foundation, which commissioned the piece.
We then visited Extremo in November; they were in the middle of preparing for a competition in April, just one month before the biennale. We learned their choreography, their methodology, the music project they were working on, the costumes they were planning. The choreography started with the words: ‘Brazil, such a wonderful country. Indeed, we have to honour what is written on our flag: order and progress.’ We trusted this approach; it was their project after all. In this way, it’s not that we aim to portray Brazilian society, it happens naturally because we’re looking at the present and at a specific form of making art and community. Not many people are doing it in Brazil right now. We never planned this but I’m happy that it’s recognised as serious research.
Matteo: When you watch Swinguerra, dramaturgically speaking, you cannot help thinking about the Capulets and Montagues, or the Sharks and the Jets. Differently from those kinds of gangs, in the film they ultimately ally with each other. It’s interesting because towards the end they also say: ‘Pleasure, I’m coming back.’ It’s as though they revolt against a higher power playing around with them and ally towards pleasure. Is there an emancipatory message there?
Benjamin: It’s very subversive!
…where the platforms of visibility vary as much as what a generation writes and says with their words and bodies.
Bárbara: We thought that too, and love that you draw this connection. The dancers actually perform a battle because they do real competitions – swingueira is an incredibly competitive phenomenon. There’s even sabotage in the competitions; they really do want to finish off the other team! We heard interesting stories, like people unplugging the sound system during performances. By being with Extremo in this intuitive way, we learned that swingueira, as a phenomenon, was being threatened by brega funk, a form of dance made onstage to accompany an MC that would perform with a DJ. It is a little bit more explicit than swingueira in the sense of how the body really enacts what is being said by the MC, though with fewer dancers. During our research period we understood that brega funk had been a threat to swingueira as much as the Passinho dos Maloka – a viral phenomenon that uses Instagram as a platform for small dance choreographies of two or four people – was emerging as a threat to brega funk. So if the lyrics in brega funk are already quite sexually-oriented, in Passinho Dos Maloka they are just explicitly pornographic. It’s a generational change, where the platforms of visibility vary as much as what a generation writes and says with their words and bodies.
Once we began thinking of Swinguerra as the story of these manifestations occurring right now, we started searching for where it could be set, as our films are always also very much an investigation into spaces. We were really careful about finding a place where the groups could exist in an autonomous way, yet still share in an idea of how they could learn with each other. That’s why there’s a lot of looking and learning in the film. There’s a performance of dancing and looking. And the looking is pretty much about learning: when the girls dance, the boys look; when the boys dance, the girls look. In the meantime, another group looks at the whole group dance. For us this is how these groups dispute visibility and space and find ways to coexist.
Knowing that the shooting location was extremely important, we searched for a place that could cater to this kind of dynamism. We found this beautiful modernist project called CAIC – Centro de Atenção Integral à Criança e ao Adolescente [Centre for Integral or Full Attention to Children and Adolescents]. This national project was initiated by Oscar Niemeyer and Darcy Ribeiro in the 1980s in Rio and later replicated all over the country by architect João Filgueiras in the beginning of re-democratisation. An open-ended and versatile structure – still functioning though vandalised – with no walls, grids or fences, and which has a school connected to a sports court connected to an amphitheatre. This was incredibly fitting as the sports court is very much a swingueira space, with dancers often favouring non-commercial spaces like community centres and public squares to do their rehearsals. We then spent ten days filming in this location, which isn’t foregrounded in the film. Yet it’s essential to us to be present and really think about its meaning in an ongoing way throughout the process.
Matteo: This seems important because it gives a bit of context to a certain time in Brazil that allowed for certain structures to exist, and still now for forms of cultural experiences from below to exist, to have a space to thrive.
Bárbara: Exactly. The CAICs are as old as our democracy, yet the state of the building illustrates how both structures are similarly threatened now. It is a beautifully symbolic location.
Benjamin: Education is an important question now, as it is being dismantled in Brazil. In the film, they’re all learning from each other. Like Bárbara said earlier, they’re all watching. It’s nice that we come full circle to your first question about learning. The other location, where the honouring of the flag takes place, is where Brazil, as a nation, was born, through the Battle of Guararapes in 1648, the battle that ousted the Dutch colonisers here in Recife. That’s supposedly the birthplace of the nation. We managed to get access to the military base at the site for the film, and we also used the barracks of the operating military base for dinners. The makeup and costume departments were then located inside the sergeants’ main office. There was a wonderful situation where we had a table of soldiers sitting on one side and a table of trans women and gay men sitting on the other.
Bárbara: Many of the swingueira dancers have been in the army. It is a beautiful thing, which you can read from the bodies that are performing. I like this complexity so much. It’s not that the film is a protest against Jair Bolsonaro’s regime alone, because actually LGBTQ communities have been threatened throughout recent history in Brazil. What the performers are then reclaiming is their position; they’re trying to rescue a form of participation in terms of citizenship.
Matteo: Paul B. Preciado, in the new introduction to his book, Countersexual Manifesto (2000), creates a very beautiful image of the way in which the Marquis de Sade protected his manuscript The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) – written in prison – by hiding the pages in a wooden dildo. ‘[A] book can operate like a dildo by becoming a technique for fabricating sexuality,’ writes Preciado, further detailing that a book, or any other cultural form, can modify, like a dildo does, the subject who might use it. I wonder if you can look at your work – that sometimes plays with hyper-sexualised bodies that are protagonists of your films – also as dildos in the sense that they can modify the subject that comes to the point of encountering them?
Benjamin: It’s the first time I’ve heard it put like that.
For us it is actually a dildo inside a dildo, to paraphrase Preciado
Bárbara: It’s wonderful. I do see it like this. Imagine that we make a kind of contract with them, not just a figurative one, we do formalise it. Everybody knows what’s going on. It’s labour and everybody is paid, which is the most important thing for us. We don’t exchange their interest in working just for visibility. They need the money, we are very aware of it. When we sell the works we also share the payment with the participants of the work.
When we make a film like Swinguerra and we bring it to Venice, where it is largely seen and covered by the media, many people could ask: Why are they actually performing to these ultra-violent and sexist lyrics? For us it is actually a dildo inside a dildo, to paraphrase Preciado. When you look closely at what our protagonists do, they already have their own ‘dildo.’ Only a transgender woman who suffers violence all the time she’s in public space, from trying to get a job to getting onto a
bus to avoiding police brutality, is able to perform those lyrics in a way that twists their original meaning. It’s a superpower. Maybe our films are an attempt to accommodate this dildo and bring it somewhere else. We have to evoke this kind of double function because we do not judge what they’re doing. We can’t
Matteo: There is one last thing I am curious about. In the very last seconds of Swinguerra a woman arrives with the taboret. It feels almost like Amarcord (1973), in the sight of something rooted in the past suggesting that these dance movements are too rooted in much older practices. The exchange of gazes between Eduarda and the chanting woman is also a way of having intergenerational com-munication and passing testimony on to a newer generation. What kind of meaning does this scene have to you?
Bárbara: Kinha is selling her taborets in the streets around where we live, and all three groups involved in the film, Extremo, La Mafia and Maloka, knew her because she is an amazing presence in the streets. She also represents a form of labour that is disappearing, of those who sell in the streets by chanting, in the same way in which Eduarda sells pastéis [crust tarts] with her mother in the streets when she is not rehearsing and dancing.
Benjamin: There are many potential readings but one essential effect of the scene is to give an ending to the film without allowing it to be closed or easily celebrated – to maybe look through Kinha’s eyes at the protagonists and not your own conditioned or preconditioned point of view as a viewer. It’s a way of taking the viewer out of themselves, taking the ‘dildo’ outside the ‘dildo.’ There is also a simpler reading I like. It’s more humorous: ultimately, the film is about spending the entire time shaking ass or shaking the ass to the ground, so the stool represents the moment where they can all finally seat.