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For hardcore cinephiles keeping tabs on the international film festival circuit, Gabriel Mascaro is hardly a newcomer. The Brazilian filmmaker has been cranking out inventive documentaries for nearly a decade. But most of the world has yet to discover Mascaro’s work. His acclaimed documentary “Housemaids,” finally made its way to Vimeo on Demand last year. The film, for which the filmmaker gave cameras to housemaids to film their routines, typifies the director’s unique method of permeating underrepresented worlds. That was also the case for sleeper hit “Ventos de Agosto,” his first stab at fictional storytelling in 2014, but Mascaro’s cinematic ambition reaches new heights with the newly released “Neon Bull.”
The alternately naturalistic and dreamlike narrative focuses on a group of freewheeling rodeo hands in the countryside of Brazil, whose relaxed attitudes toward sexuality and work stand apart from the more rigid boundaries of modern society. Hauntingly beautiful, meditative and surprisingly funny in equal measures, it solidifies Mascaro’s role as a major filmmaker on the rise. The timing is especially good, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center will follow its “Neon Bull” run with a retrospective of Mascaro’s work, including his short films. In New York for a screening of “Neon Bull” at the New Directors/New Films series, Mascaro reflected on his unique approach to blending narrative and documentary traditions for “Neon Bull.”
It was a great challenge to work with actors who are very experienced in Brazil. Their TV experiences are very strong. But it was also a challenge to create a different context for them, where the scenes went on for eight minutes or more without a cut. There was something very magical about trying to turn those scenes into moments of life that were unrepeatable. We didn’t have the option to use the tools of editing and photography to manipulate feelings.
This was basically an experiment with language. There’s a special line of funding in Brazil that is focused on language experiments, so we used that federal money. And there’s an agreement between Brazil and Uruguay that also allowed us to get some funding.
The film works with two kinds of aesthetic approaches. One is almost realistic and the other is lyrical and very dreamy. These two connections create something like a displacement of time and space. Lots of things are connected to dreaming — even some moments that are completely close to the documentary, fly-on-the-wall style. It’s a film that really blends our experiences into something that is sometimes uncomfortable because it can be the excess of normalization, the excess of naturalism. The film uses that excess as a way of questioning differences. It establishes characters that have an atypical life in a cowboy world. But they don’t judge themselves or each other.
When we think about a cowboy — about country culture — we have lots of associations. Slowly we begin to present characters that are a part of this world, and they are very attached to this world, but are also completely out of this world. Some of it is really unusual, like a cowboy that wants to be a fashion designer. People have questions: “Oh, is he gay?” There’s lots of easy and dangerous questions that we address. “Neon Bull” is trying to question a lot of the associations that we normally make.
I did a lot of script research. I met a guy who was very much a cowboy, and he wanted to leave to go to the fashion industry. Northeastern Brazil used to be very poor, and over the last 10 years they put a huge industrial textile factory, specializing in surf wear in a place where there’s no water. It’s very dry land so it’s almost imposing change by the government where it really affects the way of life of people that used to be connected to some kind of rural, agricultural activity. It was interesting to think about this element of color and clothing.
The film was recently released in Brazil. A lot of people have told me that that is the contemporary northeast Brazil. I also read tweets that are from cowboys and farmers who said that it’s absurd, that a cowboy would never exchange his profession to be a fashion designer.
I was a bit nervous about the pregnant sex scene, especially for the actor. We also shot a bath scene with a naked woman and man sharing a shower. I had a big challenge to seduce not only the crew, the producer, but also the actors. It was little by little. It was a very special moment when I understood how the actors can also be seduced. It’s not only a directing process. They must trust different people in the crew to be connected to the film. I could see clearly when we were shooting the scene that all the actors became part of it. They really appreciated how that shower scene had been shot. It was very special to see how these different elements of trust come together. Sometimes, it happens by accident: We’d do the scene and people would say, “I wanna do my sex scene now!” It’s funny to see how they could see one scene and understand the film.