In her debut feature, “Fogaréu,” director Flávia Neves interweaves the broader impact of colonialism in Brazil with a close-up tale of insidious goings on in Goiás, her home town in central Brazil. Having gained support from the CNC’s Aide Aux Cinemas du Monde, “Fogaréu” is an accomplished first film that offers a nuanced critique of power dynamics within a bold, cinematic thriller framework. The film screens in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival.

Named after the Catholic Procession of the Fogaréu at Easter, a tradition introduced by the Spanish in the mid-18th century that re-enacts the arrest of Jesus, the film follows the return of prodigal daughter Fernanda (Bárbara Colen) to Goiás having lived in more progressive and liberal environments since she left with her adoptive mother. Back in the town, she discovers its open secret—that many neurodiverse children put up for adoption have been taken in by wealthy families to be used as domestic servants—and more hidden truths about her own past and family history.

It’s a narrative made all the more shocking by its real life origins. Despite being from Goiás, the practice wasn’t something Neves was aware of until she studied cinema in Rio where a professor asked her about it. “He instigated me to tell the story,” she explains. “It got stuck in my head and I decided to go back to Goiás to dig into this history.”

“When I started pitching the project, people didn’t believe it was based on a true story,” she adds. “People would question why they didn’t run away from these environments when they had the chance.” The personal context and new understanding of the place she grew up in also gave the film a political and historical importance for the director.

The drama further unfolds against the backdrop of the region’s Indigenous population’s struggle for ownership of their land and the threats posed by Fernanda’s uncle, the mayor. “For me, it was also important to help the city that I come from as agricultural businesses grow and devastate the natural environment. It’s really important for people to understand the history of colonization and the way wealthy families have controlled these areas,” she says.

In taking the project further, other difficulties arose beyond plot believability. As a woman filmmaker in Brazil, Neves was working in a “male structure” that made finding people who trusted her ability to make a first feature “a fight.” In this search, however, emerged producers Vania Catani and Mayra Faour Auad who add to the largely female and intergenerational team behind the camera, including DoP Luciana Basseggio and screenplay co-writer Melanie Dimantas. “Today there are a lot of films about women, directed by women,” Catani says. “But often they are only about one generation. In this film, we mixed many generations both on screen and in the process of making the film which I’m very proud of.”

With touches of film noir blended with folkloric and fantasy elements, “Fogaréu” stands out as a creative and exciting addition to the Panorama lineup. Looking ahead to her next project, Neves explains that she will turn her focus more fully toward environmental issues in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi on deforestation in Goiás, reflecting on the impact of President Bolsonaro’s support for “agribusiness” and the sheer devastation this is bringing to many areas of Brazil.