Filmmaker uses horror to explore society’s toughest themes
Horror films come in all shapes and sizes. They can have terrifying ghouls and goblins that “pop out” and cause a united shriek from the crowd, or they can have a thick cloud of suspense hanging in the air the entire time, never allowing the audience to stop and take a breather.
Gabriela Amaral Almeida has studied the horror film genre for 15 years and has realized that these films can explore certain themes on a much deeper level than any other genre. In her newest project, “The Father’s Shadow,” Almeida uses horror to examine not only the feats and downfalls of Brazil’s modernization but also their effects on the country’s social classes. Almeida explains to Variety that there is a lot more than meets the eye in horror movies.
Would you say “The Father’s Shadow” works on several different levels? In one sense it acts as an intimate horror film about a young girl conjuring up the spirit of her dead mother out of need for her father, but in another it works as a tale of social horror about Brazil’s galloping modernization, favoring a financial class at the expense of Brazil’s working classes.
“The Father’s Shadow” is a drama embodied in the genre of a horror film. Reality and fantasy dialogue depict the private dramas of each character. On the surface, we have the story of Dalva, a girl conjuring the spirit of her dead mother in order to communicate with her father, who she believes is turning into a zombie. But on the narrative’s deepest levels what we actually find is as human and natural as feelings can be: a girl who’s afraid of being left alone by her father and a man who’s afraid of losing his job.
I see “The Father’s Shadow” as a tale about loneliness in a country plagued by the myth of growth and development. Everything is growing so fast while the lives of many people are falling apart.
As in Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive,” which you mention in an interview, this is a portrait a family fractured by history. Could you comment?
The movie narrates the story of nine-year-old Dalva, who is suddenly forced to grow up, after her father, the bricklayer Jorge, is diagnosed with depression. They live alone in the suburbs of the city of São Paulo, a very poor region on the biggest and most contradictory city in Brazil. While Jorge is becoming sadder because of his untreated disease and the excess of work at the construction site, Dalva believes her father is turning into a living dead much like a real zombie in George Romero’s films. It is easier for Dalva to believe in the fantasy of the situation instead of the reality, so she chooses to deal with her father’s lack of attention in this way.
On the one hand, we have a middle class building under construction. On the other, we have a broken family living in a humble suburban house. The civil construction advances whereas the life of its anonymous workers recedes. As Jorge builds other people’s houses, his own life seems to fall apart.
What else influences your work?
In my short films, I have pursued the Fantastic and Horror genres in order to deal with topical issues such as the isolation and the difficulty of communication in main urban centers. Directors like Aki Kaurismaki, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Robert Bresson have influenced my work for the way they approach the anguish and dread of the invisible citizen – the industrial worker, the immigrant, the unemployed, etc.
“The Father’s Shadow” is still influenced by American horror movies from the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the film “The Night of the Hunter” (Charles Laughton) and the naturalistic fantasy of M. Night Shyamalan’s work. Last but definitely not least, Alfred Hitchcock has a huge influence on everything I write and film.
What do you think are the current trends in Brazilian production?
Brazil is huge. The films that emerge from its reality are as different and diverse as its culture. I am particularly excited about the possibilities of working with genres such as horror. I feel we are more opened to these narrative influences now. I hope I am right.
Some of Brazil’s finest production houses are run by women: Bossa Nova, Bananeira. Do you see more women breaking through as directors?
Fortunately yes. There’s still a path to be traveled but there’s no doubt that women are directing and producing more. In other words, women are occupying positions that were mostly driven by men. I wish to see more and more films directed by women.
How do your producers plan to finance “The Father’s Shadow”?
We are looking for public financing in Brazil. We are also looking for partners who have interest in engaging to the project.
What is it about horror films that draw you to them?
For me, horror is a way of processing and allegorizing interior and strong dramas. I’ve been studying the genre for the last 15 years. Good horror – because “bad horror” exists – is when you fear for the character because he/she is suffering from inside, not because there’s simply a monster or a generic scary situation. Let’s understand “The Shining,” for example. What’s at the bottom of this film is the family’s inability to communicate. When they are alone in that big and scary hotel, the “ghosts” arise from the darkest places of their souls: fear of being hurt, fear of being non-creative, fear of being left alone, etc.
The horror genre does nothing but enhance these pretty normal and human feelings. It’s a powerful tool to tell stories! With “The Father’s Shadow,” I focus on familiar topics such as the relationship between parents and children, the loneliness of living in a big city and the nature of fear. The genre helps me to make these themes as vivid as they can be.
What else can we expect from you in the future?
I’ve recently finished a new short called “Freeze!” a modern horror tale that deals with the fear of becoming a mother. It tells the story of the nanny, Isabel, a pregnant woman who begins to question her desire to become a mother when she faces Joana, a needy nine-year-old girl. Joana is an only child and her mother is never at home: she is a stewardess and divorced from her husband. The girl is practically raised by stranger nannies, and Isabel is just another one. She is facing problems with the father of the child. With no one to blame, Isabel targets Joana. Isabel finds it easier to look at her as a little monster than to question herself about what’s really going on deep inside her.
I am also writing Walter Salles’ next feature film and working on some projects for the future – one of them a western that takes place in the northeast region of Brazil and another one that’s a fantasy story of a Paraguayan nanny who can speak to ghosts.