Built out of ruins: A psychogeographic revaluation of the Barbican Estate

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Rising from one of the largest bombsites in London, the Barbican Estate is a post-war rebuilding project that intended to repopulate the Square Mile. Most modernists attempted to render the past obsolete; however, the architectural firm made a feature out of the ruins upon which they built. This suggests the Barbican, and perhaps the concept of modernism itself, is contingent on that which precedes it. As such, this essay will explore the Barbican’s ambivalent relationship with time, ruination and empire in order to decide whether it deserves its reputation as one of the most radical rebuilds of the twentieth-century.

Peter Ackroyd explains how Londoners thought they were witnessing the imminent destruction of their city when, in the first days of the Blitz, they saw ‘ranks of German bombers advancing without being hindered by anti-aircraft fire’.[1] Witnessing the air raids on London,[2] T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘The Dry Salvages’ that ‘Time the destroyer is [also] time the preserver’.[3] His meditation on the persistence of the eternal during the apocalyptic unintentionally coincided with the excavation of part of the ancient London Wall by the bombing of Cripplegate.[4] Whilst Eliot may not have been present at this exact moment, one might imagine that the unearthing of the built legacy of Britain under foreign occupation would have left many Londoners afraid for their city’s future. Ruins are not just ancient artefacts but frames through which one must contemplate their own condition.[5] The re-emergence of the London Wall occasioned a sort of imperial anagnorisis: within the ruins the British recognised the impermanence of their own empire.

It is something of an oversight to suggest building the Barbican out of a bombsite is like an artist working from a blank canvas. Accommodating the traces of Britain under colonial occupation triggered anxiety about the future of its sovereignty; the bombsite is, therefore, more analogous to a palimpsest than a tabula rasa. Palimpsests reveal the layers of history preserved within them in the same way that the modernist poem does. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example, cannot assert its experimental modernist form without intertextual reference. Just as the preservation of Roman ruins within the Barbican Estate leaves us with an uncanny prescience of empirical decline, the anachronistic nursery rhyme at the end of The Waste Land fills us with dread at the thought of a city on the brink of collapse: ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’.[6]

The Barbican’s militaristic references make one think that its architects felt the coherence of their build might be threatened by the re-emergence of the past. While the Estate’s unintuitive thresholds and hidden entrances render it impenetrable from the outside, its raised walkways are built straight like Roman roads as if in anticipation of the enemy from within (see Appendix, Fig. 1). Details from medieval castles are made reference to: the saw-tooth rhythm of the blocks’ profiles and the arrow-slit openings recall balistraria (see Appendix, Figs. 2 and 3), while atop Gilbert Bridge one imagines they might be crossing a moat. Brutalism, according to Jonathan Glancey, ‘owed something to Nazi gun emplacements built along the Atlantic coast of France [and] the flak towers in Hamburg and Vienna’.[7] Towering over the remains of the London Wall, the Barbican’s imposing walls and concrete building material bolster it against an uncertain future.

The site of deep ambivalence, ruins are exhibited as spectacles of persistence but feared like a spectral presence. Although they seem incongruous against London’s glass skyscrapers, within their context the Barbican’s three tower blocks appear as replicas of the ancient watchtower of the church of St Giles Cripplegate. Thought to have its origins in the eleventh-century, it is one of the only churches to have withstood the Great Fire of London and, although the main body of the church was damaged during the Blitz, its stone watchtower remains just as it was when built in 1394.[8] While the concrete skyscrapers are something of a contradiction in terms, one understands the architects’ concern for their durability; they are engineered to be structurally resilient to the gravitational pull of an uncertain future, ensuring the forty-storey flats preside over the city for as long as the church’s watchtower has. Even the texture of the concrete persuades us of its resillience: bomb damage is hand-drilled into the walls as if they have already survived in an air raid (see Appendix, Fig. 4).

History repeats itself, and the three-dimensional city of the future must be built with this knowledge. It is a fact of structural engineering that the taller the tower, the deeper its foundations must be. The Barbican’s reputation as a radical post-war rebuild largely originates from being the pioneer of the methods and materials it uses. However, building upwards requires a backwards glance at the layers of history into which it is necessary to excavate. The project’s reputation as having broken from the past is largely misleading: the past is the very substance it is made out of.

[1] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Random House, 2005), p. 783.

[2] Eliot composed this part of The Four Quartets in December 1940 during the Blitz. Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 262.

[3] T.S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941), in T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 191-200, p. 196.

[4] Ackroyd notes that having been ‘hidden for many hundreds of years, [the London Wall] was uncovered by the bombing of Cripplegate’. Ackroyd, London: The Biography, p. 745.

[5] This remark takes its cue from Julia Hell’s ‘Imperial Ruin Gazers, or Why Did Scipio Weep?’, in Ruins of Modernity, ed. by Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 169-192.

[6] T. S. Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’, in The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, ed. by Lawrence Rainey, 2nd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 57-74, p. 70.

[7] Jonathan Glancey, ‘Why Brutal is Beautiful’, <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140828-why-brutal-is-beautiful> [accessed 9 November].

[8] Anon., ‘History of St Giles’’, <http://www.stgilesnewsite.co.uk/history/> [accessed 9 November 2016].

 

 

Photo: Drilling into the concrete. Anon., A construction worker hand-drills the textured effect on the Foyer walls. [Photograph]. (The Barbican, London: 1979).

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The Colour of Pomegranates

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grenade, n.1

Pronunciation:  /ɡrɪˈneɪd/

Etymology: < French grenade (feminine), < Spanish granada (also Portuguese granada ).

 

  1. A pomegranate. Obsolete.

 

Last night after dancing to creole techno and drinking mojitos, Sofi let me sleep on her blow-up mattress. Everything in excess, we filled our bellies with butter and slid across the dance floor.

Painkillers and a glass of water for a sore head. ‘Do you want me to run you a bath?’ No, I like dirty. Come get into bed.

We half-watched a TV documentary and I ignored messages from those more eager to start the day. The streets of Montreuil marched to the Sunday market. Somewhere the sirens of young children started up, cyclists screeched and tiny dogs picked with one another. It’s just too much. I’m shivery and clammy and foolishly out of balance, I’m tripping over myself.

Nothing to eat apart from a fallen fruit Sofi gathered from the garden of her new home. She’s moving back in with her mum and I’m furious. I’ve only just got here. The forbidden fruit. The fallen woman. Did Eve really eat an apple? Apple crumble, apple cobbler, apple sauce, apple cider vinegar, apple fritter. Western culture loves it bland. What’s not to say Eve didn’t wrap her lips around the exotic scarlet orbs?

A mess of contradictions, they are leathery and velvety polished but you couldn’t call them warm or soft. They aren’t orange nor are they red, but instead their colour is formed of translucent layers. They aren’t really one thing at all and I don’t feel that clearly defined myself either. The little coquettes, they blush and fade as they come and go. If I can’t decorate with words enough then I tell you this:

This morning’s fruit is yellow-green. It’s ripe and weighty. When I tear it open the seeds spill out onto the bedsheets. My arms and hands tremble with dizzy nausea. It’s sour like nothing I’ve ever tried, but the juices cool my burning throat and I just can’t stop. I totally and unselfconsciously attack it but I lose all my battles.

The fruit of the youth, the fruit of the night, the fruit of the devil, to you I must surrender. We eat in giddy ecstasy. I’m alive, I’m alive. Looking onto the street, we pelt the busybodies down below with our peals of laughter, we hurl insults and indecencies with no shame. An apple a day might keep the doctor away but a pomegranate knocks them dead. There’s nothing obsolete about the sheer fucking pleasure of this hit.

 

Photo by Rosalind Wilson from, ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ collaborative exhibition by Genie Poretzky-Lee, Rosalind Wilson and Laura Davis, 16-18 November 2018, The Lotus Foundation

The Other Side of Silence

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I woke to a roar so loud and so close, I could feel it in the inner cavities of my ear.

Lights on and I had already had the exposed flesh of my forearm drained dry.

 

Man against beast, I readied myself for an endless battle.

It wielded its swordy beak up against my pillowy skin.

I tried to find a footing in my mattress but the wind from its wings knocked me unsteady.

It sucked all the air out of the room, I gasped for breath.

I felt light headed, my veins desperate for oxygen.

 

Old tissue at hand, I pounced.

I killed it instantly, squeezing the blood, my blood, from its belly.

There’s no way I can decorate this with words other than to say that it just surrendered to the folds of my tissue. Its tiny torso mashed into a smear.

 

Perhaps the weight of the night had dulled its reflexes, perhaps it had finally felt full with the grisly riches of its last supper.

 

I lay back down

Feeling victorious and slightly sorry

 

The bites weren’t even that itchy

We could have made quite a team

 

Image via http://devilsartisan.ca

Maenad’s night

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Late was the harvest and they thirsted like the desert.

Work work work, the work was tricky

Work work work, the gods took no pity

 

But tonight they bow to no one, they reap the ripe raisins

Knocking back goblets, getting giddy in the vines

They plucked the berries, fat and sweet,

And filled sacks which spilled over

 

They thundered down roars and raves

And stamped the dance floor sticky.

They danced for reincarnation, they danced for redemption,

They danced to dance out of their flesh and bones.

 

The endless night, they birthed themselves new

And in their birthing, they were burning.

They were burning out a riot of new life

 

Tonight they elected Orpheus their sacrificial lamb

Fighting for a taste,

They wrapped their lips around his tenderloins

Knawed at his knuckles, sucked the marrow from his bones

Spread jam onto his flanks and carved and carved at his corpse

 

The sun, cruel sun, it rose.

The maenads tumbled back down

To prune the slopes and hammer the land.

 

The fermented juices, still warm in their bellies,

Pulsed sanguine and sickly, as they got to their toil once more.

 

 

Image: Maenads, John Collier (1850-1934), Southwark Art Collection

Laura Huertas Millàn’s Ethnographic Fiction and Its Influences

Originally published on MUBI Notebook 4 September
The work of Colombian filmmaker Laura Huertas Millàn considers how narrative creation can liberate the single, fixed colonial viewpoint.
Sol Negro
Why do we categorize documentary films as non-fiction? If fiction is a means to truthfulness and documentary filmmaking attempts to represent the realities of lived experience, then can’t the languages of emotion and introspection operate within the genre?
These are the questions that preoccupy the students of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. At this year’s Open City Documentary Festival will be the U.K. premieres of films produced by Colombian filmmaker Laura Huertas Millàn during her practice-based PhD there. Sol Negro (2016), La Libertad (2017) and jeny303 (2018) are part of her ethnographic fiction series. In dialogue with visual anthropology, they consider how narrative creation can liberate the single, fixed colonial viewpoint.
In the tradition of Jean Rouch, ethnofiction filmmaking uses less conventional techniques to provide an insight into the lives of an indigenous population. Rouch compared this form of filmmaking to Surrealism, defining it as an art form that exploits the “most real processes of reproduction, the most photographic, but at the service of the unreal, bringing into being elements of the irrational (as in Magritte, Dalì)”. Troubling concepts of identity and alterity, they seek to destabilize the traditional documentary standpoint, ultimately striving to decolonize ethnography.
This form of ethnography—both an academic discipline and hybrid film genre—gives agency to its subject, using fiction to suggest the potential for other realities. After agreeing on the outline of a story, the filmmaker follows the subjects’ improvisations of their own lived experiences. Discarding empty metaphors for the oneiric poetry of the subject-matter as it exists, ethnofictions operate beyond the realm of language. As the filmmaker and postcolonial theorist Trinh T. Minh-Ha stated in her 1982 essay film Reassemblage, this form of anthropological practice does “not wish to speak about, only to speak nearby.”
In her critically-acclaimed Sol Negro, Huertas Millàn portrays the pillaging and displacement of her country and its people through her own family tragedy. Documenting the aftermath of her aunt’s suicide attempt, Sol Negro connects the psychiatric hospital, the family home, an abandoned theatre and a barren precipice. Huertas Millàn prompts many a tender moment from her aunt, an opera singer. A notable scene is one in which she stands unsteady on a rock face, clutching a blood-stained white rag with tears of mascara falling down her cheeks. The quickened, shallow breath of a panic attack is contrasted with measured non-diegetic soprano performance of Schumann’s Frauen-liebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life). In this two-fold composition, Huertas Millàn illustrates the emotional legacy of her country’s colonization as the European language stifles individual expression.
Huertas Millàn renders her inherited experiences through conversations between her mother and aunt as an internal monologue, appearing before the camera herself as well. The medium-length film is shot in the half-light of a prolonged eclipse, both planetary and emotional. The cosmological conceit that is used to express national grief through family tragedy bears a resemblance to the work of Patricio Guzmán. She declares her admiration of the ‘de-colonist’ poetics of the Chilean documentarian in her essay ‘Cuerpos celestes’/‘Celestial Bodies’ for TerremotoMagazine. Huertas Millàn confronts the symbolic production of memory in Chile and Colombia—two nations divided by violence.
In Nostalgia for the Light (2010),Guzmán connects the astral with the ancestral through the calcium chemistry shared by the human skeleton and the galaxy far, far away. With her metaphor of the black sun, Huertas Millàn explores how the disinherited contemplate their position in the universe through a metaphysical connection with it. Two documentarians’ inquiries into the universe on behalf of their nation are connected with a contemplation of anatomy, anthropological origination and the heavenly transcendental.
Huertas Millàn explores the dark iconography of the ‘black sun of melancholy’ from ancient Greek humoral theory to Durer’s engravings, and from Gérard Nerval’s poetry to Nazi mysticism. She concludes that the way to ease pain, absence and loss is to surrender to the sovereign otherness of the celestial. Huertas Millàn quotes Valentina Rodríguez from Nostalgia for the Light: “When pain gets really oppressive […] To think that everything began with a cycle and that it neither began nor will it end with me, nor with my parents, nor my children; that we’re all part of a current, an energy; so that life can emerge… In light of that, I believe what happened to them, their absence, takes on another meaning…” 
Following Sol Negro’s solar eclipse, La Libertad offers a glimpse of the freedom enjoyed by the matriarchal communities indigenous to Oaxaca, Mexico. Resisting the traditional conventions of documentary filmmaking, Huertas Millànconceives of a new way of voicing the subaltern. Within the Navarro community groups assemble around the backstrap loom, a pre-Hispanic weaving technique preserved for centuries by indigenous women in Mesoamerica. The first eight minutes of the film do not feature voices or even faces, but, instead, hands and handcraft. Reducing the depth of field, Huertas Millànoffers an intimacy into the quotidian. The threads suspended across the screen are so delicate they vibrate like vocal chords in response to their environment. By substituting taking heads for talking hands, the film resists the super-imposition of meaning-making metaphors. Essential to the film is a scene shot inside the Textile Museum of Oaxaca in which a group of curators cannot find words to adequately describe an antique Iranian fabric. Sometimes language just simply doesn’t suffice.
Before her ethnographic fiction project, Huertas Millàn produced a series around the concept of exoticism taking the form of ‘jungle-movie’ pastiches. Combining fantasy, science fiction and mockumentary, they stage the discovery of America. Journey to a Land Otherwise Known(2011) is a ‘first contact’ film formed of the travelogues of European scientists, conquistadors and missionaries. Among the source material is Hans Staden’s 1557 account, ‘True Story and Description of a Country of Wild, Naked, Grim, Mean-eating People in the New World’. Isolated from their origins and framed in this way, the entries are ridiculed. Shot in Lille’s tropical greenhouse, the film undermines the colonizers’ heroic adventures. Huertas Millàn’s experimental approach resists the narrow compartmentalization of post-colonial filmmakers, establishing her as one of the most urgent filmmakers of the present.
Alongside Patricio Guzmàn, Huertas Millàn is indebted to the great Trinh T. Minh-Ha. In various interviews Minh-Ha has spoken about the burden of representation that non-Europeans filmmakers must bear. Minh-Ha expresses her feelings coming from a country as culturally and demographically diverse as Vietnam. From an anthropological perspective, there is no simple, singular form of experience to package up and export to a Western audience. The solution is a hybridization of genre. Paradoxically both inside and outside, a similar sense of alienation is felt in Huertas Millàn exoticism series. The othering within the title of the 2011 film implies the toppling of perspectives, not simply through the French setting but through its cultural translation and twenty-first-century reconfiguration. The French title Voyage En La Terre Autrement Ditecontains suggestive nuances that implies the land has not just been ‘otherwise known’ but hegemonic discourse has been irrevocably and irreducibly ‘otherwise said.’
Speaking and speech-making is a preoccupation in the latest films of Huertas Millàn’s ethnographic fiction series. Speech (2017) is a found-footage film that edits together actress’ Oscar acceptance speeches delivered in the ceremonies in the years between 2000 and 2015. As opposed to her ethnographic fictions, the seemingly-spontaneous emotional outpouring is exposed as artificial and mechanical. The majority white actresses kiss their partners, thank the Academy and their husbands in between making self-deprecating comments and downplaying their achievements. The dominant discourse of the new millennium is deconstructed, its hegemonic noise and bombast contrasts against the intimate quietness and grace of her earlier ethnographic fiction films.
Found-footage combined with 16mm stock is also the material that forms her most recent film, Le Labryinthe. The Locarno prize-winner has also been selected to screen in the TIFF Wavelengths and NYFF Projections sections. It traces a journey back in time through the memories of a Uitoto man who worked for the drug lords in the Colombian Amazon in the 80s. He recounts the death of Evaristo Porras, who oversaw the trafficking of tons of cocaine via Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Porras was the chief of the Medellín cartel which, at its height, supplied up to eighty per cent of the global cocaine market. Porras built a replica of the mansion famous from the recently-rebooted American TV show Dynasty, the home of Blake Carrington the oil tycoon. Huertas Millàn features clips of the TV program in Le Labyrinthe.
By drawing a parallel between one empire and another, Huertas Millàn implies the violence of the drug wars is just another iteration of the violent European conquest of Colombia. The replica mansion now in crumbles, the ravages and repetitions of time’s onwards march exposes the built projects as ephemeral. The psychological consequences of narcocapitalism, however, are deeply entrenched within the memories of the film’s protagonist. As the impressionistic and imagistic narrative progresses, we venture further into his labyrinthine mindscape to witness his near death experience. The final shot shows men around a campfire at night time, disappearing into the darkness—gesturing to that which escapes representation. The audience is left helpless.

Queering the Frame: Close-Up on “Casa Roshell”

Originally published in MUBI Notebook on 15th June 2018

A documentary-fiction hybrid about a Mexico City transvestite club is revolutionary in its demand for patience and respect for drag culture.
Casa Roshell
Camila José Donoso’s Casa Roshell begins backstage. An early scene shows one of the titular club’s guests dressing up as a woman. Donoso carefully aligns camera with changing-room mirror so that their profile is only visible through a reflection. We witness the covering up of stubble and and the fastening of corsets, with the focus not on the drag illusion but the moment of self-discovery. It is a prolonged scene and the lack of performance and glamour typically associated with drag culture is perhaps alienating; however, the demand for patience and respect from the viewer that the mirrored—and thus queered—frame makes is profoundly subversive, proving Donoso a low-key revolutionary.
It is in these contrasting but complimentary gestures of intimacy and estrangement that produce the queer vision of Casa Roshell—one which uses the utopian space of the changing-room and theatre-stage to produce endless depths of possibility, privileging the power of self-fashioning over the need to please an audience, both at the club and the one watching the movie.
The Roshell Club, also known as the transvestite house for sexual diversity, is located in the Alamos neighborhood of Mexico City. The business functions as a bar, cabaret and performance space, as well as venue for workshops, exhibitions, and events about diversity and what it means to be trans. Despite becoming relatively well-known on the Latin LGBT circuit, Donoso retains a sense of the club’s underground secrecy; often heard is the overhead soar of aircrafts, emphasizing its peripheral status. With the absence of windows or scenes outdoors, space is conjured inwards rather than outwards. Reality is contingent on the potential for personal transformation; the politics of the interior space is negotiated by the transwomen themselves. With the interplay of documentary and fiction, and the combination of film stock, digital, CCTV and camera phone footage, Donoso refuses to let her film settle into comfortable binaries.
The documentary-fiction hybrid takes its source material from lines of dialogue recorded by club’s guests on their phones. As a result, the non-actors’ performances come across as highly staged— however, this is the intention. The film stock Donoso uses makes a contrast against these scenes which are very clearly directed, heightening the divide between the more naturalistic back-stage self-fashioning and the audience-centric theatricals. The celluloid is cut raw, with lens flares, light leaks, scratches, burns and dirt still visible. Donoso emphasizes the imperfection of experimentation, the roughness of her style perhaps a tribute to the courage of those who venture into the dressing rooms for the first time.
This is Donoso’s second feature after Naomi Campbel, which she co-directed with Nicolás Videla. Naomi Campbel follows the struggle of transgender woman Yermén to save enough money for her gender reassignment surgery so she can “be exactly the same” as her supermodel namesake. Traditional power dynamics are toppled with grainy low-fi footage shot by Yermén herself on a Hi8 camcorder predominating. Passing a transwoman the camera is—although in an ideal world it wouldn’t be—truly transgressive filmmaking; evident in this 2013 feature are the preoccupations—both political and aesthetic—of Casa Roshell.
Despite recent legal reforms in Mexico including same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, there is still widespread violence towards the LGBT community. This is particularly true for trans-people with a rise in the number of asylum seekers looking for a safer life in the United States—proving the necessity of spaces like Roshell’s Club. Casa Roshell is a portrait of the club and of its owner trans-activist Roshell Terranova in equal measure. Roshell delivers personality workshops in which the participants learn about the silhouette and posture of a feminine body. Like many of the club’s guests, she is older and has been through the struggle for civil rights with many other Latin American trans-women throughout their lifetime. While it is a carnivalesque space of limitless possibility and apparently endless nights out, the club is introduced through surveillance camera footage associating the outside world with a sense of risk.
As a consequence, Donoso offers us a fragmentary portrait of women from every walk of life rather than limiting her film to one person’s coming-out narrative. The film is unique in its mix of experienced drag artists and complete newcomers. From wigs to eyebrow pencil, the dressing rooms of the club are equipped with everything its guests might need to complete their transformation. The guests are at liberty to do what they like as long as they strictly adhere to Roshell’s ten commandments. These stipulate that guests must never covert their neighbors’ wigs, and never speak in fake female voices: “we all know you are men in drag.”
Teasing the viewer with snatches of conversation or glimpses of blossoming romance, we drift through the club as if there for the first time ourselves. A particularly memorable encounter is between two men in dresses who, behind their elaborate head-pieces and heavy make-up, recognize each other from their past lives. With the club’s festivities audible in the background, they conclude that it is fate that brought them together and joke about how they look so much better dressed up in the club. Drinking brightly colored juice cocktails and wearing heavy metallic jewelry, it’s as if they’ve found each other in the afterlife.
Heterosexual relationships are under scrutiny with Donoso’s camera devoting as much attention to the straight-identifying men who make the transition to desiring trans-women as it does to the trans-women themselves. It is in this dislocation of the outsider that she so radically undermines expectations and that renders the films so fresh and contemporary. Moreover, as an audience, we must question—and therefore transition—our heterocentric bias, challenging the ideologies contained within straight-desire. For Donoso, sexual repression is something that is largely self-imposed and can be liberated through the queered frame.
At the end of the film the viewer wakes from this one-night stand with a heart full of hope. Casa Roshell offers a glimpse of the future, blending fact and fiction to illustrate the fantasy of trans self-fashioning, the freedom of non-binary sexual orientation and the limitless possibilities of trans-activism.

Affonso Uchoa on The Hidden Tiger: “Cinema allows life to go on”

Originally published in Sight & Sound, 17 March 2018

The Brazilian director’s debut film, a quasi-fictional portrait of his neighbourhood in the Brazilian city of Minas Gerais, is playing at the Chronic Youth Film Festival in London. One of the event’s young programmers sat down with him to discuss religion, James Joyce and putting his home on the cinematic map.

In its 1914 review of Dubliners, the New Statesman heralded the then little-known James Joyce as a man of genius, praising his determination to represent things as they are: Joyce “dares to let people speak for themselves with the awkward meticulousness, the persistent incompetent repetition, of actual human intercourse… he insists upon aspects of life which are ordinarily not mentioned.”

A century later, Brazilian director Affonso Uchoa placed his hometown Minas Gerais and its inhabitants in front of a camera for the first time in docudrama The Hidden Tiger. Uchoa’s work contains a social realism similar to that of Joyce: they both show us that life is random and unpredictable, that hardship is inevitable but that these marginalised communities matter. Like Joyce, Uchoa is non-judgemental and dares use multiplicity of voice to produce an unashamedly political work.

His more recent feature Araby, co-directed with João Dumans, recasts The Hidden Tiger’s Aristides de Sousa in a fictional role as the itinerant labourer Cristiano. A loose adaptation of the Araby story in Joyce’s Dubliners, his memoir is introduced by a young boy’s discovery of his diary. Insisting that the story of their protagonist be told through the frame narrative of his diary entries, Uchoa and Dumans elevate the memoir of a nondescript factory worker to that of a hero from the past.

I spoke to the director about his first two films and about his relationship with his neighbourhood and his religion.

Affonso Uchoa

 

Where did you begin with The Hidden Tiger?

I noticed there are a lot of people from my neighbourhood who work in film but are not allowed to be in the major positions – and never in front of the camera. I wrote The Hidden Tiger to change this, to solve an internal problem about my own neighbourhood.

I did not want to make a traditional documentary but I wanted to experiment with fiction while portraying the reality of people’s lives. However, if I wrote a script it would not work. I wanted to experiment in a different creative process – to try and get closer to these guys, to take a long time to discover what kind of characters they can be in a movie.

And then I began to film without a script in March 2009. Finding characters was difficult at first; I took almost four months to find my actors. I was recording one day and then Aristides de Sousa, covered by dust after a day’s work, approached me. He asked what I was holding. I tried to lie to him and say it was a keyboard but he knew it was a tripod. He asked if it was true I was making a film and he asked how he could be a part of it. He never missed a day’s shoot – he loved being a part of the film. Aristides made The Hidden Tiger the film that it is.

Araby (2017)

 

How did you write Araby?

The first script was almost 300 pages long – the production staff were furious. We needed to cut it down and to do so we needed to find the things that were indispensable. We were very strongly influenced by a Brazilian film called Sâo Bernardo, directed by Léon Hirszman, which was adapted from the novel by Graciliano Ramos. It’s an incredible film in which we see eight years of a character’s life in a few minutes. He makes an effort to understand the worker before speaking for them. I wanted to do something similar in Araby. My films have a lot in common with the radical French filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and the works of novelist John Dos Passos.

We are showing The Hidden Tiger at a youth-oriented festival. Would you say that you make coming-of-age films?

The Hidden Tiger is a coming-of-age film, Araby is not. In Brazil we have the term bildungsroman. Araby is not a bildungsroman of a character but a bildungsroman of a conscience. It is important to imagine how our lives and everything we live through gets us close to a political consciousness: to love someone, to kill someone, to be in jail, to lose a friend are all things that are equally important in shaping a person’s conscience.

The Hidden Tiger (2014)

 

I’m interested in the role of religion in your films. It is present in the form of sacrifice and devotion but it is also often absent – many people seem to experience a lack of faith or become disillusioned in some way. Is there a God in your films?

In Araby I think it comes a lot from the city, you can feel it in the air. As in Joyce’s Dubliners, Catholicism is so heavy in the state of Minas Gerais – we couldn’t ignore it in either film. You can see how important religion is when you see the little boy thinking about God.

But if I dare theorise my own film, I think that religion is hope-filled. I record very tough and very hard realities from people with nothing to lose who live their lives, die and then leave no trace. Religion helps people value life more: church is where life happens. It is where my friends go to find girlfriends, where you can exist outside of working life. It’s strange, but true.

There is also a lot of my own personal experience in the films. When I was ten years old I got cancer and my mum cared for me, as Donna Soura does in the film. I wanted to recreate this memory and by doing so, show how cinema allows life to go on. It is not a matter of cinema recording or reducing reality but purposefully interfering with it. For me it is important to try and figure out reality differently with cinema.

What are you working on now?

Before I came to Europe I shot a short film in the same neighbourhood as in The Hidden Tiger, the neighbourhood in which I live, about a friend who was tortured by the police by mistake. At the moment I’m writing a new script, which is an adaptation of the John Dos Passos novel 1919, one of my favourite books. The film will be called 2019. I’m trying to adapt it to Brazil but I am only at the beginning of the process and I still don’t know that much about this project.

I love John Dos Passos. We tried to replicate the structure of his novels in Araby and The Hidden Tiger but in 2019 I want to do this more radically. It’s difficult to translate into cinema because it’s not linear, it’s very fractured. I think Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There is a good example of this type of film.

In both Joyce’s short story Araby and your film there’s an epiphany. Is there an epiphany in The Hidden Tiger?

The scene in which the kid tells Aristides that he failed a grade at school is important to me. Aristides reveals a lot of people his age went on to be more successful than him. He decides something must change. This is something like the small enlightenment in Araby. But, like Araby, it’s open to interpretation. At the end of the film the screen goes black for a short time before the credits, in this time you must decide whether it is optimistic or melancholic. Everything is determined by the viewer.

The Fits

Royalty Hightower leads in this superb meditation on mass hysteria.

Set in a Cincinnati community centre, boxer Toni leavers her brothers ringside to join the Lionesses drill team. Within days the girls begin to fall victim to violent seizure-like episodes, causing panic among their team-mates.

00-holding-anna-rose-holmer-the-fitsRoyalty Hightower as Toni

The fits are about fitting in. Speculatively diagnosed as a ‘boyfriend disease’ they are a rite of passage that the girls must pass through to become women. Because Toni moves between the boxing gym and the dance hall so frequently, she must remain a pre-pubescent androgyne. The seizures appear to her to catalyse puberty faster than her newly pierced ears or varnished fingernails do; however, it becomes apparent that they are semi-contagious manifestations of psychological distress.

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Q-Kidz drill team

This debut comes from Anna Rose Holmer, a first-time director who previously worked as a cinematographer and produced. She shares her experiences of seeking acceptance as a tomboy in an interview with Vogue. She co-wrote The Fits with producer Lisa Kjerulff and editor Saela Davis, the multi-talented multitasking trio masterfully shapes the production around the story. It is shorter than a full-length feature, with a perfect final fifteen minutes that drifts off into full physical cinema. Selecting her young cast from Cincinnati’s real-life drill squad Q-Kidz – of which Royalty is one – Holmer recruited the dancer cast to collaborate with the crew to choreograph its dance routines.

The Fits is an exemplary piece of filmmaking; a triumphant team-effort.

Moonlight

It is hard to picture the humble origins of the widely-released and Oscar-nominated Moonlight. Without a doubt, the film owes its rocketing success to the strength of its source material – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical stage play had sat at the bottom of a drawer for ten years before Barry Jenkins and film school best mate cinematographer James Laxton picked it up. Carving out a space for POC and LGBT narratives, Moonlight has already eclipsed its competition. Above everything, this is an inspirational film that, in both its production and its story-matter, demonstrates how tight male friendships can overcome financial setback.

That all said, I don’t like it’s very likely Moonlight will take Best Picture. It entirely deserves the award but Academy votes tend to be judge films retrospectively. Barry Jenkins is so new to the scene and Damien Chazelle was criminally overlooked for Whiplash that the outcome is very predictable – but I still think David Lynch would’ve made a better director of La La Land.

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Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade’s third feature explores inter-generational difference through hilarious avant garde German comedy.

In an effort to rekindle the relationship with his daughter Innes (Sandra Hüller), joker father Winifred Conradi (Peter Simonischek) dons a set of false teeth to become Toni Erdmann. He follows her to Bucharest, where Innes has relocated on work matters. Incongruous amongst her professional world, Winifred strategically assumes a new identity to reacquaint himself with his daughter. The imposter catalyses a small crisis in her life which then concludes in a perfect final scene, where father and daughter are finally reconciled.

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The film is delightfully theatrical. Both leads were stage actors (Winifred’s orthodontically-challenged alter-ego is all the more interesting since before he became an actor Simonischek was a dentist), and Ade makes use of absurd props, masks and self-conscious role-playing, while also stressing the importance of spontaneity. If I had one criticism, it would be that it is initially difficult to adjust from the simple pleasures of Toni/Winifred’s practical jokes to her reserved professionalism. His clownish humour jars against her distance and poise and his large cumbersome frame doesn’t quite fit next to her tailor-made couture. Emotion is channelled through our ambivalence towards both characters. While she is serious and career-obsessed, he is idolatrous and attention-seeking.

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That all said, father and daughter eventually reach a common ground. There is one scene where Innes obtains a small foot injury from an unfortunate sofa-bed accident after housing her father for the night, and her consequent limp translates into a funny walk. Life father, like daughter. Mortification and embarrassment is both estranging and uniting. To purposefully humiliate oneself is to betray human weakness and compassionate strength. Comedy is, in this instance, disarmingly poignant.

Ade distinguishes herself as the auteur of human relationships commanding emotional transparency from Hüller and Simonischek; their feelings of alienation and estrangement are incredibly raw and there are a few scenes that even brought tears to the crowd at Cannes. Her past work has receives accolades for its depiction of relationships. Her first feature The Forest for the Trees won the Special Jury prize at Sundance and her second, Everyone Else the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin. This critically acclaimed film in competition for Best Foreign Language at the Academy Awards, its silverware imminent.