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Immersed in Movies: Alê Abreu Talks ‘Boy and the World’ from Gkids

Immersed in Movies: Alê Abreu Talks 'Boy and the World' from Gkids

Boy and the World, the hand-drawn Brazilian festival fave from Alê Abreu, unfolds like a sumptuous tapestry for a small stick figure of a boy, who experiences an exciting yet difficult rite of passage. At the same time, Abreu offers a devastating political critique as the boy travels from the simple line drawings of his village to bushels of cotton-lined country roads to industrial landscapes filled with animal-machines, whirling carnival colors, exploding fireworks and flashing neon adverts. All of this accompanied by pan-flute, samba and Brazilian hip-hop. The visceral impact is startling for this Gkids Oscar contender. 
Bill Desowitz: Talk about how this began as a documentary, Canto Latino, about the formation of South America and how you inserted the boy into it.
Alê Abreu: I was doing research into the development of an animadoc (an animated documentary) about the early history of Latin America. And one day in one of my notebooks I found  this character I had drawn on a previous occasion.  It wasn’t the just something in the character that attracted me, rather it was the very simple, scribbled  almost “urgent” way in which he was drawn. There was a spirit there which captured the essence of the Canto Latino project in one image. I felt as if the boy were waving at me, calling me to discover his story. I put aside Canto Latino to find Boy and the World.
BD: You drew in the spirit of a child with various patterns, bright colors and different techniques. Tell us more about your use of different paints, pens and pencils and the use of newspaper and magazine collage.
AA: The idea was to start with a completely blank sheet of paper. A metaphysical void, I would say . Where we had come from and where we were going. This child emerges into this space, a garden full of colors and organic textures. And as he starts walking toward a knowledge of the things of this world built by men, the collage of newspaper and magazine clippings begins covering over this white, luminous and sacred space.
BD: You’ve said this was like a game. How so?
AA: You’re referring to the way in which the film was created, right? Yes, it was like a game, in the sense that I made a film practically without a screenplay, working directly from my sensations which I then transformed into small movie segments. I then tried to somehow connect these segments in a search for some larger meaning. In this way I began to discover the characters and their connections. I believe that many of these discoveries surprised me in the same way it surprises some viewers at certain moments in the film.
BD: What was the significance of the theme of Latin American colonization and how it relates to the boy and his journey?
AA: I think the boy represents in a certain way the “childhood” of these countries. The theme of the loss of a father and the search for a father is a recurrent one in Latin American cinema — the father as fatherland. I asked myself during my research for Canto Latino, how these Latin American countries, born as exploited colonies with such difficult “childhoods,” and marked by military dictatorships that served specific economic interests, had arrived at today’s globalized world.
BD: And how did you develop this visually as a metaphor for the boy?
AA: I think that above all the Canto Latino project provided me with a background, this historical overview through which I could then have the boy circulate and discover his own story. This child’s eyes were fundamental to the whole visual universe we created. Everything went through the boy. I tried to bring out more primitive elements in my drawing, inspired by the freedom of children when they draw. It was always a boy facing the world.

Talk about the animation and your toolset.
AA: Ninety percent of the animation was produced in my little studio in São Paulo, with a small team of assistants. I even animated the film myself and did the backgrounds. I animated the characters using a digital pen, in programs like Photoshop. Then the drawings were printed on sheets of paper and re-drawn on a light table, to achieve the whole multitude of textures we have in the film. Of course, many textures were emulated on the computer, but we always tried to imagine that we were working on a blank sheet of paper and not in front of a computer screen. This organic texture is fundamental to this film which, above all, deals with human beings.
BD: What were the most difficult challenges?
AA: I think the biggest challenge in producing a film is not to lose — over the hard years of production and all the mishaps along the way — that initial motivation that filled us with energy in the first place. The reason why we made the movie. Specifically with regards to the boy, the biggest challenge was for me to stay close to the way that boy saw the world. I needed to let myself be guided by this character I had invented. I needed to assure that his personality would be projected onto the choices I had made. There comes a time when a director is no longer the one giving the orders in a film, he needs to just listen to the movie he’s making and to see the film that’s emerging before him.
BD: Tell us about the soundtrack and the inspiration of protest songs. The use of flute and percussion is especially effective.
AA: Canto Latino, the animated documentary that gave origin to Boy and the World, was a film in which music played a central role. The idea was to tell the story from the perspective of the protest songs of that particular period. I think this musical spirit permeated the creation of the boy. I used to draw entire segments of the film absorbed in these songs. Then the film began to take on a more universal quality than just the history of Latin America, and other references came in, such as Sigur Rós (the Icelandic band). The idea for the flute came from one of their songs. Gustavo Kurlat and  Ruben Feffer, the creators of the soundtrack of the film, were very successful in juggling so many references. Emicida arrived toward the end, when the film was almost ready. We thought we needed a song with lyrics, which would serve as a counterweight to a film that was so abstract, and we also wanted somehow to create a dialogue with those protest songs I mentioned. That’s how we decided to go with rap music, which is a contemporary form of protest music.
BD: Do you have a favorite moment?
AA: I like the “exploration clip,” that’s what we call the sequence where the boy runs through the forest in flames and we open to the live-action images.
BD: What is your takeaway in terms of your growth as a filmmaker?
AA: I feel more encouraged now in making films that use less conventional processes. To dive into the creative process without knowing where it will lead me, just believing in the path.

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