In late director Hector Babenco’s last film, “My Hindu Friend,” the doctor attending to Willem Dafoe’s character, a cancer-stricken Babenco alter-ego, observes: “Those who have a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival.”
These sage words best encapsulate what kept Babenco alive for more than three decades after he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer at the age of 38. He made just 11 feature films in his illustrious career but each film was a miracle that kept him going until he passed away at 70 in 2016.
“Cinema was his oxygen; the films were Hector, Hector was his films,” says filmmaker-actress Barbara Paz, who marks her directorial feature debut with “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die,” the Brazilian submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, Best Documentary Oscar, and the Spirit Awards for Documentary. While Brazil has sent many fact-based fiction films to the Oscars, this is the first documentary to represent the country.
“How does a movie come to life? It can be born in a death sentence given by a doctor, saying you’ll be dead in three months. And from that point on you start to create a story,” Babenco says at the onset of the documentary, which features him or his voice in various interviews, spoken in at least four of the several languages he knew.
Produced by Babenco’s daughter, Myra Arnaud Babenco of HB Filmes, along with Globo Filmes and Sao Paolo-based Gullane, “Babenco – Tell Me When I Die,” is a black and white ode – or love letter, as Paz puts it – to Babenco and his filmmaking prowess, revealing little known facts about him, such as his crack tomb-selling skills, being arrested in Spain or his foray into Westerns as an extra. The film won the Venice Classics Award for Best Documentary in 2019.
Paz, who was his significant other for several years, also wrote a biography and filmed a short docu, “Talk to Him,” where she interviews Babenco’s physician, close friend and collaborator Dr. Drauzio Varella, which serve as companion pieces to the film. “Dr. Varella had so much to say that I thought he deserved a short film dedicated only to his memories and observations about Hector,” Paz muses. In the short, Dr. Varella recalls how their deep friendship evolved and how they collaborated on Babenco’s multi-awarded prison drama, 2003’s “Carandiru,” based on Varella’s first novel, inspired by his interactions with prisoners.
Babenco was born in Argentina but settled in Brazil and became the first Latin American director nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his luminous 1985 drama “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” where William Hurt took home a best actor Academy Award.
Being a transplant himself in Brazil colored his films, “His films denounced social injustice,” says Arnaud Babenco. They all invariably dealt with outcasts or pariahs on the fringes of society, from his earlier films such as “Lucio Flavio” (1977), which centered on a famous criminal in Rio de Janeiro, to his acclaimed street urchin drama “Pixote” (1980), and his English-language films “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Ironweed” and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”, among others.
As he himself says in the documentary: “We can say that outcasts are closer to God than any other person alive on this planet; we can also say that outcasts are people whose lives court death all the time. We can say I love outcasts.”
Babenco also struggled with his own identity as an Argentine living in Brazil. “Exile is a state of the spirit but I feel like Brazil doesn’t accept me or I don’t accept myself in Brazil,” he says. “The Argentinians think I’m Brazilian. The Brazilians think I’m Argentinian; It’s hard to accept the absence of my own roots, my identity,” he laments.
Arnaud Babenco is currently restoring “Lucio Flavio,” Babenco’s second feature and another prison drama. She aims to restore all his films, she says. Through cinema, in many ways, Babenco has lived on.
Babenco represented Brazil twice at the Oscars, with “Pixote,” (1980) and “Carandiru” (2003). He reached his career peak with “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which was also nominated for best picture and best screenplay aside from director and actor. Even now, after his demise, he represents his beloved adopted country once more through Barbara Paz’s tender, incandescent film.