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Good Fish, Better Movies: From Prisons to the Theater, Big Plans for Cinema in the Amazon

Good Fish, Better Movies: From Prisons to the Theater, Big Plans for Cinema in the Amazon

On November 10, 2010, a riot broke out at the Raimundo Vidal Pessoa, one of the notoriously high risk prisons in Manaus, Brazil. Inside the prison walls, gangs thrive, and violent outbreaks tend to happen whenever the men decide to oppose their conditions. In this case, the battle resulted in the deaths of at least four inmates, and a nasty hostage situation involving several government employees. The incident provided a harsh reminder of the exceptionally perilous conditions of the Brazilian prison system. But media reports circulating in the aftermath of the casualties ignored an intriguing detail: Two nights before the fight, 150 prisoners gathered together to watch a movie.

The event, a program containing the Brazilian feature “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” alongside a handful of shorts, occurred as part of an ongoing screening series at prisons throughout the state of Amazonas. Organized by the “Social Cinema That Cares Exhibit,” which also brings movies to nursing homes, hospitals and educational centers, the series was initiated four years ago to take place during Manaus’s Amazonas Film Festival, which wrapped its seventh edition this week.

The existence of the prison screenings reflects both the foundation of the festival and the history of Brazilian cinema going back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when state financing became the dominant model for most national productions. Created by Amazonas governor Eduardo Braga and carried on by his successors, the festival maintains its initial goal of nurturing the local film community while aiming to bring more productions to the state. This programmatic agenda, formulated by state secretary of culture and festival director Roberio Braga, includes the dissemination of cinema in virtually every facet of Brazilian society. Hence the prison screenings, in addition to similar outreach events that bring movies to rural communities. In some cases, audiences live several hours away from Manaus by boat, in places where residents may watch Brazilian soap operas using coat-hangers as their antennas, but don’t normally see movies.

Saleyna Borges, the main coordinator of the prison screenings, views her job as indicative of the festival’s purpose. “Braga was always concerned about getting the films at the festival to the people who couldn’t come to it,” she says. The offerings for prisoners require a tricky curatorial strategy. Unlike the multilingual nature of the main festival program, which takes place at Manaus’s historic Amazon Theater, the prison screenings only include Brazilian films, since technical limitations make it impossible to create subtitles on the fly. The movies shown contain little violence, and emphasize uplifting, positive life lessons. (In a review, Variety referred to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as “unpretentious puff.”) Still, those good intentions don’t exactly make the setting any less hazardous.

Borges remembers feeling particularly nervous prior to the first prison screening four years ago. “I was really scared,” she says. “Anything can happen in there.” Soon, however, her fears dissipated. In a scene reminiscent of the classic screwball comedy “Sullivan’s Travels,” where Joel McCrea’s character witnesses chain-laden prisoners howling over a Disney cartoon, Borges saw the incarcerated audience lighten up. “Instead of watching in silence, they interact the whole time,” she says. “They talk about the characters, talk about their lives, and discuss what they think is going to happen. They talk before, during and after the film starts. They enjoy it so much that every time a film ends, they ask when it will happen again.”

Many of the prisoners like to help with the festival production, lending a hand to set up the screening equipment. Often, Borges says, a few of them come forward to express an interest in making movies, while others want to act in them. As a result, Borges has begun discussing the possibilities of introducing filmmaking courses to the prison’s educational offerings. Progress has been slow, but Borges says, “we’re working on it, because they all keep asking about it.”

No prisoner has left an impression on her more than one energized man she encountered around the first year of the program. After a screening of the 2003 feature “Lisbela and the Prisoner,” which centered on a prisoner in love, she received an optimistic letter from the inmate thanking her for the experience. “When he saw that film, it made him want to change his situation and the life he wanted for himself,” she says. “He was talking about starting a filmmaking lab when he got out.”

Alas, his vision never had the chance to bloom. Not long after reading the letter, Borges received a dour update: In the wake of the prisoner’s release, he quickly returned to a cycle of criminal activity that culminated with his untimely death. “That changed me,” she says. “I realized it wasn’t only my job to inspire people when they’re in prison, since they’re sent back to the same system that made them what they are.” She decided her work involved a two-step process. “We have to inspire them,” she says, “and give them the means to change their lives.”

And that’s precisely what the Amazonas Film Festival aspires to do — but not only for the citizens behind bars.

Roberio Braga, the state secretary of culture for Amazonas since 1996, sits alone at an improbably long meeting table in the city’s lavish Rio Negro building, his Blackberry lying flat on the smooth wooden surface in front of him. The room exudes luxury: Pricey modernist art engulfs every inch, from the oil paintings on the walls to the porcelain flowers on the ceiling and the jagged lines stretching across the floor. Constructed more than 100 years ago, Rio Negro was originally designed as a prison, but officials eventually deemed it too magnificent for such a lowly function. Now, it’s among the most impressive cultural landmarks in Manaus, at once representative of the city’s past and its hopes for the future.

State Secretary of Culture Roberio Braga. [Photo by Eric Kohn]

As Braga, a small, bearded man, greets a crowd of international journalists entering the room, its decor matches his grandiose delivery. An intense speaker with an aura of authority, Braga’s political role is essentially volunteer work. He makes a living as a lawyer and a university professor — and he talks like one, too. Methodically choosing his words in Portuguese, he waits patiently every few minutes while a translator turns them into English. For close to 90 minutes, he unloads a sprawling monologue detailing Manaus’s cultural history and the festival’s role within it.

During the “rubber boom” between 1890 and 1910, Braga says, Manaus erupted into a vibrant city teeming with European exports. Architects came from across the Atlantic Ocean to map out the advanced urban landscape that survives to this day in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. Among the architecture introduced during this time, the Amazon Theater loomed large, hosting opera stars from around the world. (A century later, it would become famous for being featured in Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” although by now that reference point has been overplayed, and seems to diminish its greater significance.) The cultural elite lived well. “Nothing was saved, all was spent,” says Braga.

Then, partly due to the sudden availability of rubber in the superior working conditions of Malaysia, Manaus’s rubber boom came to a prompt end. The city fell into disrepair for decades, only slowly regaining its industry clout when it became a tax-free zone for non-pollutant companies in the 1960s. It currently pulls in a gross domestic product of $15 billion, according to official estimates, without burning the forest surrounding it, as other states do. Ninety-eight percent of the Amazon jungle located within Amazonas remains intact.

The money comes from elsewhere: Elaborate tourist options include ritzy getaways to floating resorts and the renowned Meeting of the Waters, both of which come with hefty price tags. Manaus manages to play off outsider perceptions of its exotic setting while reinforcing its metropolitan stature. Locals frequently joke about visitors’ expectation of the city as a place where wild animals roam the streets. You don’t have to travel very far to see crocodiles and monkeys in their native habitats, but it’ll probably cost you.

With its newly reborn industry, Manaus got a second shot at bolstering its artistic community. The day Braga became secretary of culture, he initiated an opera festival, which was later followed by the introduction of a ballet festival, seven orchestras, and eventually the film festival. Braga speaks of this latest addition as a tool for continuing the city’s economic progress. “If we can bring a filmmaking industry here,” he predicts, “integrated into a cultural tourism business with the larger events we have all year round, then the jungle will extend its warranty for 200 more years.”

For its first six years, the festival hired the European publicity firm Le Public Systeme to assemble the program on autopilot, import some stars, roll out the red carpet and crank up the party factor. The result was a cookie cutter festival that didn’t match the terrain, but still got the ball rolling. This year, for the first time, Manaus organized the festival internally without the help of Le Public Systeme. “We paid them a lot, but we figured out how to do it,” Braga explains. “Now we have a more Latin American festival, and a better response from the public.” (They also have $30 million from private sponsors, including Coca Cola, although Braga insists he prefers the city’s locally-produced soda beverage.)

The main program of the festival (assembled by new hires Patricia Martin and Alfredo Calvino from the sales company Intermediarte) addresses a literate audience, but not exclusively a cinephilic one. Instead, the movies are selected to foe sophisticated, multidisciplinary locals. The naturalistic Mexican drama “The Good Herbs” tugged on moviegoers heartstrings with a profound look at the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, while the ultra-cheesy love triangle comedy “Habana Eva” instigated roars of laughter at its increasingly absurd pile-up of romantic misdirection.

But the short films preceding the features were what really hit a unique note at the festival. Produced by filmmakers from throughout the country, the shorts deatl with a wide variety of topics, combining to represent a unique perspective of national identity. Highlights this year included Sao Paulo-based director Daniel Ribeiro’s “I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone,” a gay romantic comedy in which a blind high school student falls for his best friend, and the informative documentary “Wet Window,” which explores Brazil’s silent film history through the eyes of the period’s last remaining star, 92-year-old Adriana Falangola.

Braga says he doesn’t only want the festival to review Brazilian cinema; he wants to support its existence in the Amazonas region. Each year, the festival gives out a $40,000 screenplay award to a local filmmaker, with the assurance that the state will continue to assist with production fees further down the line.

Over the years, the dominance of state funding for Brazilian film productions has routinely come under fire, although many believe that it helped revitalize national filmmaking in the nineties. When applied to the film festival model, state funding in Amazonas has had the opposite effect, hinting at an egalitarian film culture that gives directors a reason to stick around. “There are good filmmakers from this state,” Braga says, and ticks off a few names. “All of them just ran away when the state became so poor. The first thing we did with the festival was bring them back here.” Not everyone loves the state’s selective process for singling out filmmakers: “The way local productions are being presented is not really democratic,” one Manaus resident complained to me.

Nevertheless, the festival represents one of many attempts to ensure the survivability of Brazilian cinema both in Amazonas and elsewhere. In 2005, the president signed a decree requiring theaters to exhibit Brazilian movies at least 35 days a year, and a Brazilian feature (“Elite Squad 2”) currently holds the top spot at the box office.

Braga wants to add a film school at Manaus’s state university by 2011, although open courses have been available there for years. He’s also hoping to use some of the budget currently set aside to build a new soccer stadium for the 2014 World Cup to construct a film studio.

After making that last pronouncement, Braga’s galvanizing mission statement takes a sharp turn and sounds like a plea. “If there is an international producer who reads what you write, and becomes interested in keeping the jungle here, then the best thing he can do is to look for us and make his film here,” he says. “We know we have to do our part, and we will. Nobody is brought all the way here just to eat good fish.”

Before Amazonas brought movies to its people, the people brought movies to Amazonas. That was when Junior Rodrigues, 27 years ago, found his calling. Originally an electronics student from a small town hidden fourteen hours away from Manaus by boat, Rodrigues grew bored with the discipline and dropped out. While visiting his sister in another town, he encountered a film production in which she starred, directed by the German filmmaker Herbert Brodl. Entranced by the art form, Rodrigues became Brodl’s production assistant at age 15, eventually graduating to the role of director’s assistant and working on eight of Brodl’s films, many of which were shot in Brazil. During a trip to a film shoot in Africa, he realized “the possibilities of making a movie with somebody who had never seen one before.”

Junior Rodrigues, founder of the Amacine film collective. [Photo by Eric Kohn]

These days, the 42-year-old Rodrigues puts his revelation into action. Since 2000, he has run the filmmaking collective “Amacine,” which receives partial funding from the government, but still runs a tight ship. Rodrigues and his team travel to rural communities to teach filmmaking workshops, offering the classes for free in exchange for accommodations. The result of his efforts has been an astoundingly large volume of amateur short films: So far, 300,000 people have participated in the workshops in more than fifteen cities. “We’re now able to build an identity for the Amazonas region,” he says. Rodrigues, whose dialogue-free short film “Tears of Poison” opened the festival this year, had mixed feelings about its previous editions. “Le Public Systeme did not speak our language in terms of cinema,” he says. “It used to be for them, and now it’s for us, for Brazil. We’re finally able to give a different face to the festival — our face.”

A sprightly man with long hair and an ever-present smile, Rodrigues speaks excitedly about the events organized by his collective. Last month, beginning approximately ten minutes after midnight on November 10th — 10/10/10, of course — Amacine celebrated its tenth anniversary with a ten-hour exhibition of local productions. For the duration of November, Rodrigues has hosted a month-long festival called “Cinema Além da Imagem” (“Beyond the Image”), which screens short films for deaf people. “This was a communication between speakers and non-speakers,” he says. “The relationship happened in such an amazing way, with such synergy, that I find most of the people really delve into what was shown. They don’t know anything about the region, and they really trust it.”

Rodrigues says his main goal revolves around rectifying misconceptions about the Amazonas region, using cinema as his tool of preference. “Brazil is a country that doesn’t know itself,” he says. “And the other regions especially don’t know the Amazon. We want to change the mistaken image of the Amazon people and show that we have the same problems. We’re as happy and as sad as they are.”

He gestures to a nearby table in the festival’s press lounge, where a few Manaus residents peruse the schedule. “Look at those guys over there,” he says. “They look very local. We want a cinema that will communicate with those people.”

He grins ear to ear and finishes his thought. “I think,” he says,”that we’re beginning to have that now.”

This Article is related to: Festivals