Brazilian filmmaker Clarissa Campolina in Morro da Conceição, a historic neighborhood overlooking Rio de Janeiro's port area © Andre Vieira

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In the city of Belo Horizonte, where Brazilian experimental film director Clarissa Campolina grew up, nothing is permanent. The capital of the state of Minas Gerais (“general mines” in English) climbs a hill that has been hollowed out on one side for its rich deposits of iron ore.

Another once commanding hill, on the road to a friend’s house, one day simply disappeared and last year a mining disaster led to a mud tsunami that polluted one of Brazil’s largest river systems. “This landscape in a certain way gave me the sensation that the world had already ended, that we are already dealing with the end of time,” Campolina says.

The general sense of devastation in Minas Gerais presented Campolina with the idea for her latest short film, Solon, a work that has solidified her reputation as one of the country’s most creative directors, particularly among those outside the creative hubs of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Rather than using the destruction of Minas Gerais to create a tale of cataclysm, she turns it into the background for a creation myth. In a kind of moving installation that combines fine art and film, a creature emerges from a burning, arid landscape, spouts water and eventually turns into a woman.

We meet to discuss her latest work at Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Art, a landmark in the city’s beautified Centro district. “I never want to stay in my comfort zone — I always want to experiment with something new,” Campolina says. “I think that with Solon I wanted to tell a fable of the reconstruction of the world, where God is feminine, not masculine, with a body that forms part of the landscape and vice versa.”

Born in 1979, Campolina got her start in cinema in 1997 as an assistant director after studying communications. She worked with Rafael Conde, a director and professor of fine arts at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, before becoming a partner in Teia, a collective production outfit, between 2002 and 2014. She has since founded her own company, Anavilhana.

Campolina took inspiration from the landscape of her home state of Minas Gerais © Getty

Campolina has made five short films and one feature, Swirl, which she co-directed with Helvécio Marins. It had its premiere at the 2011 Venice film festival, where it won the Interfilm Award.

Several of Campolina’s works have experimented with a documentary style, using ordinary people and their stories to build a narrative that blends fiction with dreamy reality.

In Swirl, Bastú, an 81-year-old widow starts a new life after the loss of her husband. She is played by Maria Sebastian Martins Álvaro, a resident of the Minas Gerais sertão (back country) along the São Francisco river. “Time doesn’t stop — it’s us who stop,” Bastú remarks in the film, one of many of her characteristically blunt observations.

Working with non-actors is rewarding, Campolina says. But it can take time — Swirl took six years to film.

She uses a similar tactic in Stretch, another partnership with Marins, in which the two directors follow a central character, Libério, as he retraces a 2,300-km journey along Brazil’s highways that he had made eight years previously. “The journey is a reconstruction of a journey — it could be fiction. We filmed the points along the way that he remembered,” Campolina says.

Working in partnerships has been a big part of Campolina’s work, she says. Having a second opinion helps to “divert a bit some of my obsessions and keep me in check”.

“I like the sense of exchange very much,” she adds. “Having someone else’s opinion helps me to hone my own perspective.”

Tania Cattebeke, runner-up, Olia

Tania Cattebeke explored death through the eyes of a child

Tania Cattebeke may be the only film-maker who has arranged for a cast member to play himself without him knowing it, reports Rose Carr. Olia is inspired by her family’s struggle to explain to her nephew the death of his nanny — “My sister told him that it was a long trip” — and the resulting film is a personal exploration of death, seen through the eyes of a child.

Using only black and white stills and strong audio production techniques, Olia tells the story of the aftermath of the nanny’s death. “One day I returned from university and found my mother at home crying because my nephew had told her the night before that his nanny had been calling him with a bell.”

The sound of the bell both spooked Cattebeke and sparked her imagination. “That event was the inspiration for Olia,” she says. With no budget, Cattebeke cast her family in the production; her mother and nephew took leading roles. This presented its own problems, especially when it came to her nephew. “It was very difficult because when we were shooting I didn’t want him to understand that the film was about him,” she says. “He still hasn’t seen [it] because I think it would scare him if he knew.”

With little in the way of a film industry in her native Paraguay, Cattebeke, a former psychology student, started making short films on her own before embarking on a full-time career as a cinematographer in 2013. She has since been recognised for her work at international festivals and says she hopes this might help her win a scholarship to go to film school.

“Paraguay is starting to tell stories with film, but this is new for my country,” she says. “We don’t have a cinematography industry here yet, but we have so many stories to tell.”

Camilo Restrepo, runner-up, Impressions of a War

Camilo Restrepo discovered a new Colombia after years away from the country

“I belong to a generation of Colombians who were strongly affected by the most violent years of the conflict and who bear the stigmata of the war,” says Camilo Restrepo. Born in 1975 in Medellín, Colombia, Restrepo explores the pervasive effects of a 50-year-long internecine war on a society that has been ravaged by guerrilla groups, drug traffickers, military and paramilitary forces, and mafia-style gangs, reports Rose Carr. “The country has turned into a battlefield, leading to a climate of generalised violence gradually settling across the whole of society,” he says.

The visible traces of the conflict have been etched into the landscape, in the cityscapes and on the battlefields, and these physical wounds form the visual backdrop of Restrepo’s Impressions of a War. “My goal was to capture visible traces of the violence in the daily lives of the people who live in that country,” he says.

Restrepo has lived and worked in Paris since 1999. Since then, “memories, encounters, telephone conversations and the media have been my substitutes for living [in Colombia] day to day”, he says. “Over time, a different country from the one I used to know has taken shape for me.” His foray into film-making started in response to revisiting Colombia, and contrasting “the recomposed Colombia in my mind with the country’s reality”.

Restrepo is a member of the film-makers’ collective L’Abominable, an experimental film lab. Impressions of a War was shot on 16mm film, a decision that imposed certain restrictions on the process. “I create the image mentally as I am manipulating it physically, and my films evolve constantly in response to technical decisions,” says Restrepo.

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