World premiering in the Berlinale’s Forum, “Dry Ground Burning” marks the second feature collaboration between directors Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós, after Pimenta DP-ed Queirós’ “Once There Was Brasilia.”

So it’s no surprise that by this point the directorial couple have refined a common language that in “Dry Ground Burning” delivers a movie that’s stylistically refrained, while walking a fine line between documentary and a fiction with sci-fi and Western overtones.

Produced by Cinco Da Norte and Terratreme with Pimenta once again behind the camera, the duo returns to their portrayal of the inhabitants of Ceilandia, a district on the periphery of Brasilia which has been a recurring subject in both filmmakers work. The film follows sisters Chitarra and Léa, leaders of an all female gang who refines oil drawn from an oil pipeline to sell to motor bikers in the Sol Nascente favela.

Yet the gang story is already past, remembered by its members in a prison. Neither film nor characters are interested in keeping strict chronology.

Even if it often feels like crumbling sci-fi –a genre that Queirós has often played with, lending new meaning – with its arid environment and hand-made machinery, the film is still set in a very much contemporary Brazil.

Variety interviewed Pimenta and Quierós – featured in a just pre-pandemic season of Brazilian filmmakers at New York’s Lincoln Center – as their new feature premiered at Berlinale.

You use small spaces to create a larger world that almost feels like it belongs to a sci-fi movie. How did you take on depicting an oil refinery? What were your bases? 

Queirós: The refinery was a very small space, a space within the city, it is the way of filming that transforms a space into something larger, all the construction of the spaces was thought of as creating a reality for the characters, everything was built in a very functional way. It was important for us that the characters had places to live, given that they were non-professional actors, what was fundamental was the points of focus, the attention of the scene. The perspective of the construction of the scenario before and after Bolsonaro is very different. Before there was the belief that the oil is ours, after Bolsonaro there is the idea of war, of confrontation, of theft. In one it was the idea of finding the oil, in the other the idea of stealing it, of stealing the homeland.

Pimenta:  We started writing the film in 2015 when we were very  intrigued by the idea that oil could be an adventure. That suddenly after finding an oil reserve under the Lula government you have a lot of money that enters the Brazilian economy, the oil being nationalized at that time. But when we started filming it was an anachronistic reality, oil is sold to foreign companies, so working very rigorously on the platform construction comes from wanting to give the certainty that it was possible to find oil in this way. All that relationship with the staging, with the images, the rigor with which we reproduce them was filled with history and territory.

The film’s grammar is quite restrained, your set of rules are very clear from the beginning, you pan but you rarely move. How was the process of finding the language for the story. 

Pimenta: We thought a lot about what we wanted to do with the camera, whether it would be handheld following the characters or stay absolutely locked. When we started working with Chitarra and Lea, their performances were so strong that we wanted to create a space that they could occupy, we thought that when the camera followed them there was an override, like the camera taking up too much space. The toughness of the frame was important to allow a performance that was out of our control at all times. We work a lot like this, we propose fictional characters to the actresses but then we shoot it in an almost documentary style.

Queirós: I think that in Brazil there is a very current search to find a certain sensitivity, since sensitivity is a very much defined by class, territory and thought. Brazilian cinema has a need to portray this reality. It is almost assumed that the static camera does not allow that sensitivity, as if falling into a formalism. For us, that formalism gave another force of reality. In Brazil the handheld  becomes a mannerism, as if the camera then had the sensibility of a character. But it is only form. In the peripheries mainly, as a legacy of “City of God, it is a dynamic camera that attacks. But we established a code where the energy belongs to them, the characters.

Lazy loaded image
Dry Ground Burning Credit: Cinco de Norte

Although it often feels like a documentary, the film relies heavily on characters’ narration to create a kind of mythology. Characters’ arcs progress through what they tell, in little gestures, not in big plot points. Could you comment? 

Queirós: It’s a very interesting reflection, because it is possible to think that the life of the characters is like the life of classic cinema. When life is told, narrative arcs are also raised by themselves. The story is moved by the representation that is seen. Lea is a great storyteller but also she understands very quickly the dynamics of cinema, without ever having made a film or preparing to be in front of the camera, she quickly understood how to handle and dominate the scene. They intuitively understood filmmaking because representation is a continuous act, the small arcs were born out from the stories told by them the characters/actors and of course the work of Joana and Cristina (Amaral) in editing.

Pimenta: It was also the casting process. We were very curious about the women on the streets, but those who live on the streets today are much younger than the ones in the film. We were looking for women who have a history that they can look at with melancholy, whose faces and bodies marked by that history, of freedom and prison, returning but not finding the place you left. It’s a whole generation that’s been incarcerated and that feeling of not knowing if you’re in the present, past or future was a structure we wanted for the film. You go to jail and what for you is a day for the rest of the world are years. In that sense it is almost science fiction, time is very relative.

Yet again the film often emphasizes the time is set on. One of the strongest shots of the film is a 360-degree slow pan in the midst of a crowd of Bolsonaro supporters. In its length that shot delivers a weighty comment on the current state of Brazil…. 

Pimenta: For me it was one of the most important shots I filmed. We went to Brasilia in an election year and as soon as Bolsonaro won we saw all the rich people who came down to apply for congress so we decided  to go just the two of us. When we arrived, Adirley had to convince them that we worked for a foreign television and that I didn’t know Portuguese. For me it was a face to face with the world that was coming – realizing that the important thing is not Bolsonaro, it is not the party, it is the germ of the extreme right that is there and that will continue after Bolsonaro.

Queirós: I believe that the extreme right in Brazil has never been more organized and I don’t know if it will end. I’m pessimistic about the fact that we live in a political generation that has lost a sense of shame at its cynicism, the shame of classism, homophobia, misogyny and that, on the contrary, it understands them as virtues. I think that what is in Brazil now is the perspective both in common life and in politics. Even if Lula wins, the reforms that Bolsonaro has made have changed our country. He has dismantled public policies and the possibility of state intervention. I don’t think I’m very hopeful.