João Paulo Miranda Maria’s debut feature “Memory House” – a nuanced look at systemic racism in modern Brazil – is about to make its third appearance on this year’s festival circuit.
The only Latin American film to be selected for the Cannes Label this year, “Memory House” has also premiered at Toronto and will run in San Sebastian’s New Director’s Line Up later this week.
Miranda Maria uses richly composed scenes and minimal dialogue to tell the story of Cristovam, an indigenous Black man from the rural north of Brazil who migrates to a conservative Austrian community in the south to work at a dairy.
Steeped in imagery from indigenous Brazilian folklore, the film is a study of what happens to an oppressed minority as decades of abuse chip away at his humanity.
The protagonist undergoes a metamorphosis inspired by the “caboclo boiadeiro” figures of the bull and cowboy, as he realizes that he shares more in common with the dairy’s cattle than his fellow workers.
A timely commentary on integration and colonialism, the screenplay was written and developed during a Cannes Next Step Workshop, which Miranda Maria attended in 2015, at a time when his native Brazil was in a state of flux.
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Later that year the Brazil’s president would be impeached, eventually paving the way for Jair Bolsonaro’s government that Miranda Maria said has allowed “very conservative people to have a podium to speak”.
Miranda Maria added that he has always felt racial tensions bubbling under the surface in Brazil “which is at odds with its image as a tropical carnival paradise.”
And, like the spirits invoked by the character his film, the director added that in transferring these tensions to the cinema, there is a shamanistic element to his work.
“One producer told me my films are like voodoo or black magic, an energy that I’m summoning.
“I don’t want audiences to necessarily understand everything, but I want them to feel it. I want to show them what they are not seeing. It’s invisible, but you can feel it.”
In “Memory House,” the director attempts to evoke these feelings through detailed scene compositions, and he credits his partnership with Oscar-winning cinematographer, Benjamin Echazarreta (“A Fantastic Woman”, “Gloria”) with helping him to realise this.
“He saw from the beginning that I always bring a lot of notes with me about each shot. I make few shots and very few options for each
scene, with one camera for everything,” he said.
“Each shot is practically a picture, minimalist, but full of detail creating an image that suggests more than what is visible,” he added.
According to the director, his inspirations include the Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu, who eschewed tracking shots in favour of layered scene and sound compositions.
However, this method may also have its origins in necessity. Hailing from a small town outside Rio, with no film industry contacts, Miranda Maria spent his early film career persuading wedding videographers – and anyone he could – to lend him equipment, usually a single camera.
His father also lent him his mobile phone – one of the few at the time which came a two megapixel camera – and so his carefully crafted scene compositions began, and his first award – from CNN in 2009 – came out of a call to find the best films in the world shot on video.
Miranda Maria is also an admirer of Stanley Kubrick’s work, and the opening dairy scenes and his method of capturing light inside the characters eyes (inspired by” 2001’s” Leopard scene) bear testament to this.
The very physical and largely silent performance of the film’s protagonist – the octogenarian actor and veteran of Cinema Novo Antonio Pitanga – is another key aspect of the film.
“We spent the day walking around Rio – which made me realize he was up to the task physically. I told him “I want to give you this challenge. It’s a big risk – it’s grotesque, ridiculous, fragile and strong and I want to see the blood in your eyes. But if agree you to do this it will make my dream’. And he loved it.”
Pitanga – whose daughter Camlia is a celebrated telenovela actress –featured in Angelo Duarte’s Palme d’Or winning “Keeper of Promises” and also acted in Glauber Rocha’s first feature – but finally, with “Memory House,”he has got to play the lead role.
“He says it was a gift”, Miranda Maria added.
The director, who decamped to Paris last year for the film’s post production – and has now settled there with his family – is currently working on his second equally prophetic feature: a story about the mistreatment of the Amazon Rain Forest and how it seeks its revenge.