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Day 4: Violence and Resilience

Puentes en el Mar (Patrícia Ayala Ruiz / Colômbia e México, 2022)

Toda Noite Estarei Lá (Dir.: Tati Franklin e Suellen Vasconcellos / Espírito Santo, 2022)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

        The last day of 'Territories' brings to the screen two films whose themes revolve around stories of violence and resilience in the face of adversity, with the drama of their protagonists as the epicenter. They are two works that subtly explore the emotional aspect of suffering, without turning it into an exercise in sadism, but rather focusing on the tour de force of their agents and what they can mean for the identity and militancy flags they raise, while not neglecting an aesthetic refinement that helps build the situations portrayed. Puentes en el Mar is set in the port area of San Andres de Tumaco, in the coastal neighborhood of El Bajito, where, at the beginning, we follow the individual drama of a matriarch and the hyper-protective relationship with which she treats her teenage son, both of African descent from humble origins, and her desire at all costs to control the young man and prevent him from being summoned by the drug trafficking that seems to plague the place.

            The effort to combine their figures with the social space, the economic context, the stilts and wooden bridges where they live, is removed from any anthropological approach thanks to the more humanistic and attentive look at the dramas in which Patrícia Ayala Ruiz's camera invests. Although it is structured very much through general shots that take in the landscape of the region, it draws more of its strength from the distressed close-ups of the mother or frustrated close-ups of the son, rooting their life experience in the place, but at the same time, in neorealist fashion, putting individual feelings at the center of this dialectic between subject and world. Thus, the first part of the film is devoted almost entirely to the mother's fear of loss, which seems to quickly turn into neurosis and a desire to control her son. Then, in the second part, the boy's feeling of inferiority to others, his anguish and desire to be someone else somewhere else. 

           Puentes en el Mar doesn't always manage to extract all the strength it could from its characters. Partly because the mother's realistic situation takes a long time to get going (strictly speaking, it doesn't happen until the end), which makes her drama spin out of control and the object of little adhesion; if we don't have the exact measure of her fear, her obsessive circling for a return phone call from her son really just seems to be an excess of protectionism and jealousy (if, in practice, it isn't just that). A series of shots with somewhat volatile changes of focus - some more skillful that they manage to enrich the details of the scene, others so literal that they get in the way (the woman crosses the passage and the camera lets the focal length settle on a dead fish) - seem to announce the change of narrative focus about to take place. From the moment we jump to the son's point of view, Puentes en el Mar grows a little, as his affections seem more 'rooted' in a way of life than before (frustration with friends, the desire for freedom, etc). This is when Patrícia Ayala Ruiz's debut feature reaches its zenith, which is only regained towards the end, in the beautiful communion that the women establish between themselves, helping each other to survive, lose and mourn in the face of a reality that is eternally posthumous to them.

          Puentes en el Mar is perhaps Territorios' most 'correct' film, both in terms of formal distribution (it is technically very well finished) and narrative (it connects its turning points with great insight), as well as in a certain conventionality of narrating and showing. The choice of an intimate approach to peripheral characters is a perfect fit for a contemporary cinema that increasingly invests in looking at their lives with sugary and affection, a kind of neorealist resurgence in the light of the reference to the world's excluded peoples. The oscillation doesn't help the film that much, and it suffers a little from using the phenomenon of drug trafficking as a more generic crutch for the plot, with the more incomplete portrayal of everyday oppressions being its Achilles heel. Nevertheless, it manages to extract moments of real strength and affability from its characters' tour de force, and, especially at the end (its climax), to show us a community world doomed to disaster that survives in resilience thanks to the mutual help of those women who recognize themselves as mothers. 

 

           While the tone of resilience in Puentes en el Mar is much more lyrical, that of Toda Noite Estarei Lá is more shoot-from-the-hip and militant; more joyful and mobilizing despite being painful. The only Brazilian film in the competition, from Espírito Santo, documents the legal process of Mel do Rosário, an evangelical trans woman who is violently expelled by her pastor and vexatiously forbidden to attend church after transitioning. And also the consequences of this situation: once she has won her right in the legal field, she goes out all night with placards to stand in front of the entrance to the service to highlight the act of transphobia and demand her rights - the act that is the title of the work. In addition to the scenes associated with the legal dispute itself and Mel's activist demonstrations, the film also portrays a few more everyday moments that emphasize her meetings with acquaintances in the neighbourhood, a birthday party with her family, moments of prayer in her beauty salon, etc. However, the narrative arc of Tati Franklin and Suellen Vasconcellos' debut feature film is organized less as a fresco of a specific character (and what a character!) than around the flow of time, the unfolding of the case over the years, in direct association with Brazil's political history between 2016 and today. There are numerous direct mentions of Dilma's impeachment and the rise of Bolsonaro, either in the protagonist's comments or through the insertions that are made in the work with this intention, which lead us to follow the outcome of the case in the light of a collective memory of what Brazil has been like in recent years.

           The deliberate choice to make Mel's story the metonymy of national political life is what makes Toda Noite Estarei Lá a strong libel, a piece of mobilization that finds in the protagonist a parable of resilience. At every moment, slogans echo against the discriminatory violence of the pastors and their minions, and the way in which they oppress trans women takes center stage in the narration; when it isn't captured in the images, in the discomfort that the security guards and churchgoers feel at her presence, in the silence of their reactions or in their refusal to appear in the footage, the feature film resorts to phone calls in which Mel explains the latest developments in the legal action or that she has been expelled from the service again. Franklin and Vasconcellos' camera works to emulate the same resilience as the protagonist, conforming to her presence and actions - when they're forbidden to enter the service, they stand outside waiting for Mel to record her departure; when not allowed to film in the office where the meetings in the case are taking place, they sit in front of the door waiting, recording the sound clandestinely and seizing moments that reveal how common sense is also extremely transphobic.

           The film's choice to heroize Mel is a double-edged sword: while on the one hand it maps out both the violence that victimizes the trans population and evokes the viewer's affective memory of what Brazil suffered between Dilma's impeachment and Bolsonaro's misrule, and with this it achieves a great electrifying force, on the other hand, it ends up not accessing the contradictions of its protagonist. Nothing of her most human and ordinary side appears on screen that isn't mediated by the most overwrought militant intentions and the frequent performance of resilience. In the case of a figure as complex as Mel - a progressive evangelical who advocates human rights in an environment often associated with the more reactionary right wing - this seems a great loss, if only to leave us wondering how much greater Toda Noite Estarei Lá could be. Of course, it would be another movie. Nevertheless, the richness of the protagonist's presence in front of the lens of a pair of directors who are skilled at probing her political significance is enough to make this debut feature a strong and somewhat enchanting piece. Through the editing and narrative direction, they manage to evoke the sense of what has been the most perverse and inhumane side of the political conservatism that has plagued Brazil in recent years, and find a rare example of resilience even in the face of all adversity.

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