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Mascaro, Ellis on Bulls, Bodies and Brazil

Director and producer of ‘Neon Bull’ explain a singular, sensual aspirational drama set in Brazil’s North-EAst

MADRID – Acquired for world sales by Memento Films Intl.’s Artscope label, “Neon Bull” is an original drama. A Special Jury Prize winner at Venice Horizons that went on to sweep best film, screenplay, cinematography (rising d.p. Diego Garcia) and supporting actress at October’s Rio Fest,  it’s a film about the aspirations of a cowpoke at a touring bull rodeo show in Brazil’s North-East who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. But its narrative isn’t framed as a classic tale of adversity overcome. There’s poverty: On the road, the cowpokes, their lorry driver and daughter wash from a bucket. But it’s not fore-fronted. The daughter pines after her father, whom she’s never known. But this isn’t the story of a broken father. Commendably, and it’s one thing which draws audiences to this motley crew of rodeo coworkers, Iremar, the wannabe fashion designer, and his friends form a loving neo-family. And “Neon Bull,” one of the latest films to come out of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, brims with gender reversal, though the characters take it in their stride, as well as sex and sensuality. For Variety reviewer Peter Debruge, “’Neon Bull’ exudes hormones from every pore, sure to seduce many a festival with the helmer’s gift for frank sexuality and unforgettable imagery,”

Already attracting attention with their debut, 2014 Locarno Fest hit “August Winds,” which established them as talents to track, director Gabriel Mascaro and producer Rachel Ellis talk about the film’s singular aims and industry context:

The rural landscapes of “Neon Bull” are pockmarked by near futuristic industrial parks, cities, a spectacular viaduct, signs of Brazil’s much promoted progress. Yet one question the film asks is how much progress a sensitive cowpoke can make in joining this new Brazil. The answer is, I think, at least uncertain. Would you agree with this as an analysis of the film and analysis of contemporary Brazil? 

Gabriel Mascaro: “In the ‘60s, politicians and economists viewed the North East of Brazil as the problem region due to its history of desertification, starvation, drought, religious fanaticism and popular revolt. At the same time, cinema and literature found an allegory of the class fight and rural uprisings in the region. Cinema Novo embraced the North East as a terrain that crystalized certain symbols and ideas that they propagated, such as the preservation of traditional culture, the bravery and puritanism of the rural worker and the existence of   values that could alleviate the identity crisis of urban centres. Today the context in Brazil is very different. The region has gone through a process of rapid economic development and its peri-urban towns are very wealthy, although inequality is still rampant and the landscape is testament to chaotic construction and lack of long-term development strategies. In “Neon Bull,” the idea was to shed new light on the recent economic transformations from the point of few of a group of cowhands that live on the road transporting bulls to the different Vaquejada events in the region, the biggest agro-business events in Brazil. Despite the redistribution policies of Lula that lifted millions out of poverty and returned hope and dignity to the North East, the politics of economic development haven’t yet broken with the divisive politics of power in Brazil, they haven’t empowered critically citizens. Rural cities have grown exponentially but there has been no urban planning. The Vaquejada is an allegory of these transformations amidst a monochromatic North East landscape that is now dotted with colour, colours that highlight the contradictions of consumption and the current model of economic development. One of the first scenes in the film shows a deserted plain strewn with pieces of brightly coloured cloth, mutilated mannequins. This waste was deposited there by the big factories of the textile industry. The colour is seductive but it is also a violent gesture.  We are encouraged to consume brightly coloured goods to promote development, but these same goods are strewn across the landscape, masking the cracked dried earth, and implying yet another layer of inequality, as opposed to a solution to the pasts challenges.  As such, to what extent a cow hand, like Iremar, can participate in this process of economic development of the region is, you are right, not resolved in the film. Depite the failures, or challenges of economic and social development people’s dreams are an unerring part of the human condition, they will always exist and pervade the most surreal environments and situations.

At one point in the film, the announcer at the stockbreeders auction describes Brazil as a land fascinated by physique and fertility. The fascination with physique is obvious in the film. Rather than fertility, the characters are highly concerned about stock – as a business, a way to make a quick buck, purloining a thoroughbred’s sperm, or as a possible way to social rise (Cacá, the daughter, who consistently questions her father’s identity).

For me Caca brings doesn’t question the identity of her father so much as have a genuine curiosity as to who he is, someone who she wants to be with, perhaps an escape for her from the world of the Vaqeujadas. The fascination with stock, as you mention, is a real concern for people in the Vaqeujadas in relation to the horses that are worth millions of dollars. This is also a commentary on the ideal of social ascendency and class, promulgated by a sport that is grounded in hierarchical structures. The title of the film “Neon Bull,” brings something ambiguous that permeates the political position of the film too.   The bodies are bio-political bodies allegorized within the recordings of the ordinary, with a spotlight on the cultural spectacle of consumption.  It is a unique body that resists and dreams. It is also a translucid body that escapes oneself and at times illuminates.

As critics have remarked, the film’s has an intriguing taker on gender with women assuming traditional men’s roles – Galega, the mother, drives the lorry – a cowboy who wants to become a fashion designer – and women calling the moves in sex. Could you comment?

During my research, I came across this world of the cowhands that work behind the scenes at the Vaqeujadas, in the curral, looking after the bulls. I was very struck by one man who worked with the bulls and also in the fashion industry.  The idea of his ritual, the preparation of the bull’s tail and then him sitting at a sewing machine for his second shift fascinated me. This was the starting point for developing a character who could bring together force and delicacy, bravery and sensitivity, violence and affection. What interests me is the expansion of gender representation, as opposed to inverting gender roles. By depicting the routine of the day-to-day of the characters, I try to ensure that any reshaping of gender roles is not sensationalized, but rather, normalized, organic. I wanted to go beyond the psychology of the characters, rooting the film in the physical presence of the characters in their surroundings and the daily choreography that has the potential to be a catalyzing, poetic experience. The film doesn’t necessarily follow one particular protagonist, rather it speculates on the impact of the performative experiences of each character within the group. It is about curious characters and intense experiences, and despite knowing little about who these people are, we find ourselves becoming deeply involved with their stories. “Neon Bull” focuses on the microscopic conflicts that make up the everyday.

The film has an unbridled sensuality, in its shots of cows, horses, and humans, such as the sex scene between Iremar and Geise, the security guard at the clothing factor. Would you say that this is inherent to the society you portray or something you want to forefront?  

My intention in making films is the possibility of bringing people closer to experiences that are in essence an exception and to instill in that which is an exception the rhythm of the everyday, at the same time as question the normalization of what is an anomaly. “Neon Bull” has moments that are surreal, excessive, absurd even. But curiously within this world that is one of excess and exception, strange and different, life is lived by the characters in absolute normality. The construction of the characters doesn’t develop in a classic way. It is within this ambiguous play between authenticity and surrealism that the film, from the excess of reality to the accumulation of artifice, presents itself.   Even though the form comes close to documentary in parts, the film is completely fictional. The aesthetic surrealism in the film is part of the culture of excess. Sometimes the spectator asks if Neon Bull really exists, it the workers really do do the horses hair….the aesthetic surrealism is emersed in the excesses of the culture of spectacularization. Not knowing where one world ends and the other starts is part of the game of suspending reality that the film provokes.  The big conflict in the narrative is outside of the film, in the expectations of the spectator.

There is at time a sense that you bring a documentarian’s eye to the world you portray and which at times to simply show it in its extraordinary uniqueness. You let the narrative breath.

Working with really experienced actors was a new and very rewarding challenge for me. I was supported by Fatima Toledo as drama coach (“City of God,” “La Jaula de Oro,” “Paulina”) and she conducted a wonderful rehearsal and preparation process. The length of the scenes was a real challenge and we had to work meticulously to choreograph them, but at the same time, give them room to breathe, as you said.  The length of the scenes allowed for this narrative breath, but depended on the talent of the actors (professional and non-professional) as well as the skill of my DP to make this work whilst we were shooting.

You consistently use medium shots with the camera often moving laterally to another focus of the same – often extended – shot. It’s as if you’re filming bodies in a landscape or humans as you would animals, often the whole body….

The cinematography of the film was an integral part of the choreography of each and every scene. The camera makes very subtle, constant movements, edging into new spaces, mapping the human fabric that emanates from this complex, often turbulent landscape – that is both ordinary and surreal. The scenes were all quite long and therefore complex to shoot, and we had the added complication of bulls and horses in many of the sequences, yet much of the magic of the film occurs exactly when the animals take centre stage.  One of the central themes of the film was to question ideas of body hierarchy, be it animal or human. During the research for the script, spending time at the Vaquejadas, I noticed a fascinating ethic of the body that distinguished the way landowners and labourers related to each other and to the animals. Behind the stage the cowhands clean the tail of the bull, dust it with chalk and release them onto the track. Two horsemen then chase after the bull. The farmhand, mounted on one horse, grabs the bull’s tail and passes it over to the second rider, who is also the owner of the horses, and whose job it is to finish the task of pulling the bull to the ground, taking the glory of the fall. I realized that this “sport“ is almost an allegory of Brazilian hierarchy, materializing itself in the bodies of these men and animals. The repetition of this same movement for hours and hours it became almost a ritual, a recurring choreography. As such numerous questions arose around how best to film the body. What is the ideal distance between the bodies and the camera? This was a central question for me. And I found that the long medium shots allowed the bodies to breath, to explore their space and context and to naturalise the surreal. I wanted to explore the presence of these human and animal bodies politically, revealing new contours, new impressions, new eruptions, showing that violence and pleasure inhabit the same body.  The camera scans the space with slow movements in search of the place of the body within the context rather that the place of the character’s face. If I put the camera closer it would turn the characters into caricatures, which I wanted to avoid at all cost. The open shots return to the characters their strength, presence, resistence. The characters in the film are humble, unpretentious, strange and different, but they don’t want to run away, they want to dream as beings with the right to exist and be where they are.

”Neon Bull” was backed by a string of regional entities, plus at least one municipal authority. How essential was this to its financing, Rachel?

Rachel Ellis: “From the outset we knew that this would be a complex project, not least due to the animals involved and our need to access the Vaquejadas. We worked at getting recognition for the project at an international level to help us with our funding nationally. Vaqeujadas are quite controversial in Brazil so this support from outside of Brazil was particularly important for providing credibility to the project. The majority of funding is from national and sate culture funds and a significant amount of in-kind support from the Picui municipal government (one of our locations). The complexity of the film and in particular the shooting with animals on diverse locations meant we depended on support from numerous institutions and individuals to make the film possible, not least cowboys, vets, horse owners, etc.

Would you say that this is in anyway a Pernambuco film, not just in locale or financing but in its positioning on the borderlands, sometimes, between fiction and documentary, as well as its concern for the human impact of rampant modernization?

It is a Pernambuco film in so much as the director and much of the team are from Pernambuco and part of the film was shot there. However, our crew was very multicultural (Brazilians, Argentines, Uruguayans, a Mexican DP, Dutch post production and co-producer), as well as crew members from other parts of Brazil. As such, it is a film that is Pernambucano, but also belongs to all these other places. The backlands stretch well beyond Pernambuco, and we also filmed in neighboring states, so in as much as the landscape and context of Vaquejadas is concerned it is also a Northeastern Brazilian film.   The only really specific element related to Pernambuco is the reference to the emergence of a massive textile industry, but this also has parallels in other parts of Brazil, Latin America and the rest of the world.

Gabriel has a very singular way of looking at the world and registering the day to day which many people have difficulty in classifying as documentary or fiction and often refer to it as hybrid or on the frontier. For me this film is very much a fiction.

I don’t believe that there is a particular trend for films that are on the frontier between fiction and documentary in Pernambuco.  We are lucky that much of the funding that we access in Brasil recognizes the importance of letting directors experiment and explore different approaches, genres etc.  financial return is not an issue in supporting the majority of projects. The result, especially in Pernambuco, is that many young talented directors are not restricted by commercial concerns and are encouraged to be as explorative and original as possible.  That is how independent film should always be funded. New auteurs and voices will never emerge if they are expected to follow formulas or in other’s footsteps.

Where was “Neon Bull” shot?

In the tropical lowlands of Pernambuco and the backlands of Paraiba.

Do you have any new projects or productions, Rachel?

Gabriel is working on two projects, a documentary and a fiction, that I am producing, both in early stages of development. I am also working as a co-producer on three exciting and very different feature fiction projects. ”John Africa na Terra dos Leoes,” by Filipa Reis and João Miller, (from Portugal) which is currently in production in Cape Verde , “Rojo” by Benjamin Naishtat (Argentina) and “Chico Ventana También Quisiera um Submarino,” by Alex Piperno (Uruguay), both in development.

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