Berlinale: Brazil’s Felipe Bragança on Brazil’s Legacy of the Past, Decadent Machismo

Sold by IM Global’s Mundial, ‘Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!’ Bragança’s first solo feature, plays Berlin’s Generation

Felipe Bragança on Brazil’s Legacy of
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

MADRID  — Over 1864-70, Brazil and Paraguay fought maybe the most terrible war in Latin American history, the War of the Triple Alliance. In it, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans, mostly Guaranis, in a massive land-grab. 150 years later, on the Paraguay-Brazil border, the setting for “Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” the historical memory of how the (central) West was won for Brazil still rankles.

One of the latest pickups by IM Global’s Mundial, selected for Sundance and now Berlin, “Alligator Girl!” starts off as an across-the-tracks story of first love between Brazilian teen, Joca, and a Paraguayan girl, Basano, who calls herself the “Tattooed Queen of the Apa River,” in reference to the river which separates the two countries.

As the film also turns to take in Joca’s brother, Fernando, a member of a bikers Calendar Gang which races against rival Guarani motorcyclists down moonlight roads, the film broadens to considerations of conflict, driven by retrograde models of masculinity, and a father, a big landowner, who still wants to keep Guaranis off his land by fair means or foul. Soon Guarani corpses are once more floating down the Apa River.

“A fairy tale connected with the heart of the people” in Brazil’s central-West, the equivalent of the U.S.’s Old West, “Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” positions Bragança as a younger member of a Brazilian generation that is challenging the official story of Brazilian history and channelling big history into fictional psychological narrative.

Post-Sundance, pre-Berlin, Variety caught up with Felipe Bragança, for whom “Alligator Girl!” is his first solo feature, after a series of more experimental movies co-directed with Melina Melinda and a creative collaboration with Karim Ainouz, Latter includes a co-scribe credit on Ainouz’s Berlin competition player “Futuro Beach.”

“Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” talks about the legacy of the past in terms of war, but also in first love and in tragic models of masculinity. Would you agree? 

The film talks about memory in a lot of ways. Memory of the past, of the War of the Triple Alliance that our official history tries to forget but is always there, and Joca’s memory of the recent ideal love story of his teenage years, which maybe everyone carries with them in different ways. This moment that created us as who we are. I wanted to create a dialogue between the two layers.

How does the War of the Triple Alliance play out in contemporary Brazil? 

The war with Paraguay helped create the country we are now today. After that war, the country changed a lot. The army got stronger. We became a militarized society, which we continue to be, even in democracy. Sometimes I think about Brazilian identity as being like Joca in the film. We would love to be a heroic country, a country of the future. But we are too stuck in memories of the past to move forward.

The film also talks about models of manhood. Joca’s father is absent, his far older brother Fernando is desperately trying to earn the respect of the father that abandoned both of them by being an uber-man…

I wanted to talk about the decadence of a macho man society. Joca senses that the model of manhood he sees in his brother is in decadence. But he doesn’t have the referents around him to know how to deal with that. So he ends up mirroring his brother, creating his own gang of friends who go around on push-bikes, rather than motorcycles.

Did that influence the way you shot the biker gang with heavily-stylized references to classic or modern classic American movies in terms of color and composition? 

The idea was that the world of the gang and everything surrounding Fernando was always seen through Joca’s imagination, with a feeling of fable, an atmosphere from comic books and even American movies that every boy sees in the afternoons after school. Films like “The Warriors,” American cinema that reaches these regions in Brazil via TV, creating a reference of what it is to be a man.

Where did you shoot the film? Rio Grande del Sur?

Matto Grosso del Sur, in Brazil’s far South-West. The real reason for the War was Brazil’s push south in an attempt to occupy the region, bring in settlers, carve out farmlands, on lands used by the indigenous peoples..

It sounds like the conquest of the American West…

Yes. When I researched the movie, one reference was American Westerns. That’s why Brazil raised Paraguay’s capital, Ascension: To destroy Paraguay’s economy, which is why it is still the poorest country in the region.

Your film was shot in Brazil’s South-West, Marcelo Gomes’ competition player “Joaquim” and Daniela Thomas’ Panorama opener “Vazante” were both filmed in Brazil’s imposing eastern mountains, Davi Pretto’s “Rifle” on the farmlands of southern-most Brazil. You talked about Brazil’s identity. I sense your films are mapping this by exploring the huge events and factors shaping Brazil’s present.

My sense is that about a decade ago, when we were trying to establish an auteur cinema in Brazil, we made films about things close to us. Now, as Brazil faces a large crisis which is not only political but about identity, we’re talking about bigger issues: Who we are, where we come from.