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The nucleus of São Paulo’s avant garde cinema scene is in the city’s historic Centro district, a few blocks from where the sprawling metropolis was founded by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. A rickety pre-war lift takes you to the modest office of Daniel Ribeiro, one of Brazil’s new wave of directors, known for giving universal themes a 21st-century twist. Indeed, the whole building is a hub for people working in film, with four floors occupied by directors and producers, Ribeiro says.
“Most of the people here are friends; we all know each other,” says Ribeiro, friendly and relaxed. At 34, he is one of a generation of mostly millennial directors spawned by a system of state-administered funding for cinema that is changing the face of Brazilian film.
Exploring subjects that range from sexuality to middle-class angst, they represent a departure from their predecessors, who gave viewers Brazil’s favela thrillers, including City of God (2002) and Elite Squad (2007), and more traditional representations of inequality and rural poverty, such as Central Station (1998).
The new generation is also winning recognition on the international stage. Other rising Brazilian film-makers include João Paulo Miranda Maria (34), Eryk Rocha (38) and Kleber Mendonça Filho (47), all of whom were honoured at this year’s Cannes film festival.
But few represent the new wave better than Ribeiro, whose films tell the stories of ordinary people in neutral settings that could almost be anywhere in the world. The plot is revealed through engaging dialogue, rather than the shock and awe of violence or poverty. Take the dialogue from an early scene from his first feature film, The Way He Looks (2014).
The female lead, an adolescent schoolgirl called Giovanna, is talking by the pool with her friend Léo.
“And what about you, don’t you worry about that?” she asks.
“About what?” responds Léo.
“About passing your entire life without kissing someone?”
“Who’s going to want to kiss me?” retorts Léo.
It could be a scene from any teenage coming-of-age drama. But Léo is blind and his first kiss eventually comes from a male classmate, Gabriel.
The film won multiple awards, including two at the 2014 Berlin film festival — the Teddy Award for the best feature film on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics and the Fipresci jury Panorama prize.
The feature builds on Ribeiro’s earlier short films, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone (2010), about the same characters, and You, Me and Him (2007), in which two gay young men are contemplating moving in together when the parents of one of them die. They are then forced to care for one of the men’s 10-year-old brother, creating a complicated situation in which the three must cohabitate. The film won the best short film prize for the Generation 14plus jury at the 2008 Berlin film festival.
“Before, the type of cinema that was successful, especially internationally, had this eye towards inequality,” Ribeiro says. “Today, that’s no longer necessarily the case.”
The cause of this change, he says, lies in the rise of Brazil’s left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ruled for eight years between 2003 and 2011. Through a special cinema fund, the Fundo Setorial do Audiovisual, created by the Lula da Silva government, the industry has become somewhat self-sufficient. The government collects taxes from the industry, which go into the fund. The fund then lends money back to makers of films and television series, who repay the loans if their productions make a profit.
“They invest in various lines of film-making — those with commercial potential, which end up sustaining the fund, and those that will win prestige overseas,” says Ribeiro. The increase in funding has led to a steady rise in the number of films, which now come from a greater range of states in Brazil, from Rio Grande do Sul in the south to Amazonas in the north. This breadth of field has in turn fostered a diversity of themes.
“When you had 40 films being made per year, or 30 films, you had less incentive for the producers who finance those films to take risks. When that number rises to 100 or more, you are opening up the game,” Ribeiro says.
The risk is that more conservative future governments could cut this funding, Brazil’s economic crisis adding pressure. “In principle, it would not appear sensible to destroy, especially during a moment of economic crisis, an area that generates jobs and revenue,” he says.
Coming from a developing country is not a serious obstacle to winning recognition overseas for Brazilian films. While Hollywood remains dominant internationally, Brazilian films get showings at film festivals and social media help to spread their popularity. More important is the overall profile of the country abroad. When Brazil’s economy was growing rapidly a few years ago, curiosity about the country increased, stimulating interest in its cinema. “Being a developing country is not a fundamental problem,” Ribeiro says.
Ribeiro wrote his university thesis on how the portrayal of gay characters in Brazilian film has evolved from stereotypical representations to explorations of themes of human interest through characters who happen to be gay. “This is what I did with The Way He Looks,” he says. “While the story shows a boy who is in love with another boy, the theme is really first love.”
Next, he is working on a film about a male and female transgender couple who began dating when they were adolescents but grow apart after she enters university and develops other interests. “I could be doing a story about transsexuals,” Ribeiro says, “but I instead intend to tell a story that any person watching it will think: ‘Yeah, I can identify with that — you leave school and the world opens up and everything changes.’”