Just before worldwide shutdowns and travel bans went into place with COVID-19 spreading across the globe, I sat down with Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles on an unseasonably warm afternoon in New York City to talk about their 2019 Cannes Jury Prize-winning film Bacurau. It was about to be released in select US theaters along with a Film at Lincoln Center series curated by the film’s directors, "Mapping Bacurau"—a robust constellation of American, Brazilian, Italian, and Australian genre films mixed with political cinema that informed this unpredictable, winding work.
It’s hard to say exactly what Bacurau is—an anti-imperialist sci-fi western? An adrenaline-fueled portrait of resistance? An entertaining critique of power, money, and the rise of right-wing populism, blending social realism with the unapologetic camp of early John Carpenter (think Dark Star )? A water shortage, a futuristic “WANTED” poster, and a village funeral open Bacurau. From there, things only get stranger—inexplicable bullet holes in a truck transporting fresh water; cell phone signals jammed; a drone veiled as a flying saucer; a gruesome murder on a nearby ranch; and a band of American mercenaries attempting to kill the village population for sport. Bacurau straddles so many sub-genres, continental politics, and cinematic histories, and yet it never feels nostalgic—if anything, its prescient near-future setting has a certain timelessness about it.
Anthony Hawley (Brooklyn Rail): I was wondering if you could talk a little about genre cinema and the political power it holds.
Kleber Mendonça Filho: The first thing to make clear to you as an American cinephile is that we grew up in a landscape of having access to everything that you had access to, particularly American films, British films, Australian films. But the Brazilian cinematic language was very far away from genre because Brazilian cinema, for some reason, was built on realism. And because of the dictatorship, there was a political interpretation of genre films that meant you were being Americanized. Science fiction, horror—this was all gringo stuff. Of course, this is shortsighted and stupid, like every kind of prejudice, but that's how we grew up. I grew up watching all kinds of films from American cinema—Landis, Dante, Spielberg, new Romero, and De Palma—but while being Brazilian, having my own take on Brazilian society. At the same time, when I thought about making films, I thought about making the kinds of films I wasn’t seeing coming from Brazil. I thought that I could make some new kind of Brazilian film, which would still be Brazilian but that would feed on these other films. It took a while because my early short films were already a strange mix of genres.
I remember when the digital age came, I did The Little Cotton Girl (2002) with a good friend, another co-direction. It was very well received, but a lot of the older critics dismissed it as trash because it was a ghost story. And then I did a much more successful short film, Green Vinyl (2004), which is adapted from a Russian fable, and it went to the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. It’s heavily inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). And even that one, which goes much deeper, was dismissed, especially by older critics. But then I began to see that younger critics and younger cinephiles went crazy for it. The following short film [Eletrodoméstica (2005)] I did was completely realistic—it's almost like a social realism 101. The more traditional critics came to me and said, finally you made a real film. But this film is just as important to me as the others, so I’m just telling you this (which I don’t think I’ve talked about at all until now) to understand our relationship to film. Juliano is ten years younger but he fed on the same films from VHS and DVD.
Juliano Dornelles: I remember my childhood…I had two uncles, the same age as Kleber, about 50something. I remember them talking about some films that I couldn't see at that moment, but they showed them to me even though they weren’t appropriate. In the ’80s in Brazil, you could stay outside all day until late at night and then go back home and watch some late night movies on TV. Then the next day everyone at school would look exhausted, with red eyes, and we’d all be talking about the same film [laughs]. I lived that culture, not inside the movie theaters, but this way, and I remember very clearly the commercial for Dead Ringers (1988), which was very scary. It stuck with me. So when I started to have the means to watch those films, when I could go to a video shop, I started to feed on all the memories from when I was a kid.
Filho: But why do we always get this interpretation that genre is immediately political?
Rail: I don’t think it is at all; not by necessity.
Dornelles: It isn’t at all, but when it involves something that is actually happening in the world, the film becomes powerful and sometimes goes outside its own genre borders and reaches different people.
Filho: This whole sequence of short films culminated with a 2009 film we worked on together called Cold Tropics, which is a kind of fake sci-fi documentary. A genre film that became a political film. In the film a bizarre climate change occurs in a tropical city. The population does not know the concept of cold. It only goes as low as 27 Celsius in winter and 30 Celsius in the summer, not higher, never lower. In the film everything becomes cold forever, about 5 Celsius, without explanation. The film doesn't have a technical or scientific explanation for that, but there is a whole social, political, and cultural change in behavior among these tropical people who now have to deal with the cold. There’s a scene with a bourgeois family living in a bourgeois house, and they have a housemaid. The housemaid lives in her bedroom, which is, as we all know in Brazil, the worst bedroom in the house. It's hot, with no window. What happens in the film is the boy from the family, he takes over the housemaid's bedroom, which is basically a slave’s quarters, and sends her to his suite.
Dornelles: Imagine the poor woman freezing in the room, an apartment with a big window.
Filho: It's a pretty strong image. With this film, it's all made up of lies and no, none of this ever happened, but then you end up telling the truth, making truthful observations about how things actually work. Maybe that's the case with Bacurau and genre.
Rail: Years ago, would something like Night of the Living Dead (1968) have been read by those older Brazilian critics as political or as a mere entertainment?
Filho: That’s a very political film.
Dornelles: The whole genre of zombie films was born as a political one.
Filho: One of the best ideas in the history of cinema—not knowing whether he died because he was Black or because he was a zombie. This is very disturbing.
Rail: And the fear of the outside, the fear of contagion, the fear of something inside that could eat you.
Filho: And there’s a couple images at the end of that film that would reverberate with Bacurau—a group of big, white, very American men in the countryside who can finally use their guns.
Rail: I thought about zombie films so much when watching Bacurau because of that idea that everybody wants to be a part of something, or can finally be a part of something.
Filho: We never thought about zombies when writing, but that’s interesting.
Dornelles: Actually we always tried to avoid the zombie film conventions that we could sometimes slide into, but only in the forms.
Rail: And Bacurau is in no way like that, but in terms of populist politics, and galvanizing the public.
Filho: Yes. When we developed the characters of the outsiders—the attackers, the foreigners, the Americans—we did so on two levels. Firstly, in terms of the psychology of war atrocity, which comes from all wars. Levels of racism apply to this. When somebody takes part in an atrocity, he will say, well, I did, but there were no kids. There were no children. Well, I did, but there were no women. Well, I did, but they were all prostitutes. There is always a “but” to try to explain to oneself why it was okay.
Dornelles: I did but they were communists.
Filho: It’s also about power relations in terms of the “but,” and that’s exactly the point with the community in Bacurau. They do not see or respect those power relations. And that is what resonates with many audiences. The townspeople do not just lower their heads and die.
Dornelles: And it's also interesting because so many of us have our own stories. Stories about the same things between regions, between the government and the poor people. We have Canudos, a very violent moment in our history. The government just sent the military to obliterate a community, which was a big city, about [30,000] people, and they went there and just killed everybody.
Rail: The American characters are so perfect because, to me, they felt like people who are on a reality TV show.
Filho: Scoring points.
Rail: Exactly. They're hollowed out, stuck in this perpetual play. And that great line when the ex-military guy says, “God has given me a chance now to fulfill my anger…”
Filho: That’s the atrocity guy.
Rail: It's so terrifying, but they’re pitch perfect.
Filho: I find it interesting when American citizens react negatively to the American characters. I have had the opportunity to discuss this with some of them in the Q&As and I'm always respectful and interested in listening to them, but I really believe that they are fighting 124 years of film history where the US has been incredibly forceful, competent, and proficient in presenting its points of view on the world because it's the American film industry in Hollywood. And then suddenly this little film turns the tables and the Indians now are the Americans and the Americans are the Indians. Pacote (Thomas Aquino) is not shot like a cowboy, but he is one. And Lunga (Silvero Pereira) is out of some Walter Hill film, but at the same time, he's very much Brazilian and queer. I love when people ask, but why was Michael (Udo Kier) shooting his own men? And I say, why is it so tough to accept that he will shoot his own men when you have a guy spending two weeks coming in and out of a hotel in Las Vegas and then he goes and shoots 180 people? You still want an explanation? Is it the film industry that made you like this? Why can’t you accept it?
Rail: It's like fighting against 124 years of representation, of American cultural mythology.
Filho: But you can talk to any Brazilian in a multiplex and he or she will react the same way because we all feed on American iconography. For good and for bad. For instance, we love Die Hard (1988). It's a wonderful commercial film, right? [Laughs]
Rail: There's a lot of information transmission in Bacurau, for example in that little screen in the truck that shows Lunga being hunted.
Dornelles: The classic “WANTED” poster.
Rail: Yes. And you see Tony Junior’s (Thardelly Lima) truck, the town’s media truck, and of course, the UFO drone. But on the other hand you have the guitarist, and the mirrors to signal each other.
Filho: There's also the hole in the ground and probably a lot more information there, but we never go in. We love the idea that it opens up a completely new level. It's almost like a new level in a video game or an unread chapter in a book, but for whatever reason, the book that you're reading has the pages missing.
Dornelles: Let’s not forget the technology of the earbuds, the phone transmissions in the Americans’s ears. You never hear what’s being said. You don’t need to.
Filho: The information comes naturally with the requirements of the story. But there are many bits of information, and many of them pointed to different layers of information in the film.
Rail: Then there’s the psychotropic drug. Teresa (Bárbara Colen) takes it when she comes back to the town at the beginning.
Filho: And Kate (Alli Willow) when she is dying.
Dornelles: And the townspeople keep taking it to face the enemy, the Americans.
Filho: I have to say, I just love the fact that the old man gives Kate, a woman he has never seen before and who was trying to kill him, a little bit of their peace of mind. Because some directors would have had him with an axe finishing her off. We just had a shocking enough moment one minute before. And the main reason to include the drug was that he could ask, why are you doing this? You know that fucking television series Lost—why does no one ever ask in the fifth episode, why are we doing this? Because they meet people from the other side of the island and it’s just business as usual; they just shoot at them.
Rail: That’s why I brought up reality TV earlier, there’s never a “why.”
Rail: It’s about participation, about the attraction of being seen, belonging to something, mindlessly.
Filho: About mindless action and never questioning anything. So that’s the first question they ask in the film: why are you doing this?
Rail: And this comes back.
Dornelles: Three times. That’s the thing about violence. Violence is the very last resort. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of all the violent films. Violence is ugly; it’s a big deal to have violence. You have to accept the consequences of violence. The townspeople use violence to defend.
Filho: And there are different levels of violence. The dumping of the books. For the first time this afternoon I’ve been thinking about how much impact Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) had on the film—but not the whole film, just a 15-minute segment at the beginning, at the diner. The situation gets nastier and nastier and [Viggo] Mortensen has to do something and he does, dramatically. The pressure kept building and then it’s very cathartic.
Rail: When the old man shoots Kate, it’s cathartic, but then he gives her the drug, which is a twist.
Dornelles: What’s important in that scene is the aftermath, the care, the encounter. A journalist in Brazil in a press conference talked about it as a revenge film, but I corrected him immediately: it’s not a revenge film, it's a reaction film. The audience might feel the revenge, but ultimately it’s about a town reacting.