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The Ends and The Means

Apples in The Dark (Dir.: Tiago A. Neves, 2024, SP)

Not Dead (Dir. Isaac Nonato, 2024, BA)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

             The narrative frame of Apples in the Dark introduces a foreign film company that hires the actors of a troupe to document playwright Edson Aquino, who has been running a theater company on the outskirts of São Paulo for 35 years. He is supposedly someone who was successful in the past and is now sliding downhill. From there, Tiago A. Neves' second feature film is a more or less fictional portrait that follows the daily moments of this and other figures who orbit his universe. We move through the homes, rehearsal spaces, bars and walks through the center and outskirts of São Paulo, where long moments of intimacy and banal exchanges take place between the people who make up this nucleus. Some dream of a better life for themselves and their children, others expect nothing more from it than a loaf of bread with average for breakfast.

           At times, Apples in the Dark comes up against a somewhat excessive romanticization of marginality and decadence, which is also revealed in the aesthetic form of the film, for example, in the careless use of the camera even at moments when it could be fixed and frame the action more clearly and sharply, in the lighting and the clumsy sound even where this immediacy is not justified, in the sluggish pace of the sequences as if to confirm it. When marginal artists took advantage of mambembe techniques, it was more to liberate their creativity than to simply emphasize or normalize them. Their exaltation also becomes a comic or dramatic motif in the narrative, in a series of scenes that sometimes border a João Gordo on MTV fetishism: drinking Bavaria instead of Skol, eating bacon at the cost of the foreign team, discussions about whether or not to open a CNPJ, renting a mansion for a collective performance that runs overtime and the caretaker comes to shut it down, or filming a robbery and closing it with the fearless protagonist cursing the thief. Ultimately, the revelation that what the gringos really wanted was a movie starring Miguel Falabella. All of this contributes to a spirit of idolatry for that universe, which sometimes exacerbates the exact weight of the adversities that these figures face, the very material conditions of marginalization that are opaque to their dreams which, when they arise, produce solemn and touching moments.

          But the most interesting thing about Apples in the Dark doesn't have to do with the everyday life it records or stages, with the funny habits of that group of artists, or with the material difficulties they face in order to get on stage. What is truly moving is the portrayal of a kind of art that, good or bad (the film is far from wanting to make a value judgment, and if it does, it makes it all seem rather bad), mobilizes the lives of a group of people, of a certain theatrical scene that orbits around Aquino and his shed and gives meaning to their personal lives. It is the elixir for emptiness and loneliness, as was making a movie without resources, the redemption of mourning for Edna from Cervejas no Escuro and also for the history of the city of Pernambuco. Whether he's a genius or a fool, it doesn't matter. At no point does the film try to justify Edson's genius. More than being a good or bad artist... much more than making an artist's biography an effort to attest to their genius (on the contrary, Edson Aquino is often shown to be a more or less mediocre director, who makes every creation seem random), the value of art lies in what it means to those who produce it, and that is sometimes their very reason for living - which gives it an absolute and immeasurable value, especially when talking about peripheral dwellers. That's why, when confronted with the public's negative reaction - however much we may agree with them - the character tells everyone to fuck off. The ethics of Apples in the Dark continue those of the filmmaker's previous film, and have to do with this very personal sense of the marginal artist's creation. One where it's not just that the end doesn't justify the means: on the contrary, it's the means that justify the end, because for those who make it, art is healing itself.

         The Bahian Not Dead is similar in nature. It also deals with an art scene that unfolded in a peripheral region, the punk universe that revolved around the bookstore that gives the film its title in the 1980s. The feature film also opts for a portrait of everyday life, although it does so in a somewhat more traditional and less fictionalized documentary way, putting the characters in contact with each other and filming dialogues that become a compendium of memories, an operation to rescue that experience. The figure of Piolho helps to lead the encounters with a series of different figures who inhabited the scene. In this sense, the film chooses to deal with the present of those who were part of the 'scene' in the past - one who became a carpenter, another a sign and audio description assistant, another who works making craft beer or another who has a vegan cafeteria - in order to see to what extent the ideals that mobilized the gatherings around the punk circles are still alive and well in the present, what they took from one moment in their lives to another that has changed. In this sense, it's not a movie about decay so much as survival. 

          But there is a paradox in this. Because while to some extent the film even strives for revival, with scenes such as the preparation of a party or the band making a comeback, most of the time it is a movie about nostalgia. "Anyone who sees me today can't imagine that I was 'punk'" seems to be the diapason repeated a few times, in a reaffirmation of the distance between the reality of their lives and the whole ideology that motivated them in the past, the remnants of a punk ideology and the application of its anarchist theories typically associated with the movement of the 1980s - self-management, building autonomy on the basis of mutual aid, the DIY (do it yourself) philosophy, revolt against the oppressive system of capitalism and the state-political model, etc. What remains is perhaps more of an attitude, a flame or a glint in the eye of each person who lived through it. Thus, Not Dead hesitates at every moment between passing on the death certificate or exalting what remains, filming a dialogue between three friends in the small bar where they are alone or filming it from across the street, from inside a loud evangelical church, revealing and reviving the enthusiasm of what remains by putting the band on or showing the façade of the bookshop with the word "Not" faded out, leaving only the “Dead".

          And yet, there's not really a defeatist tone. Although at times Not Dead is reduced to an instruction manual for punk and anarchism, what Isaac Donato's film really observes and what is most interesting about it seems to take place somewhat in the background: a certain economic and material issue, the peripheral economic reality that forces their lives away from the ideological practice they defend. The degree of autonomy they can develop is on the threshold of a small business, of rejecting the bosses by becoming a self-employed motorcycle courier, of the mutual strengthening of community enterprises in resistance to big business, etc. If, on the one hand, the somewhat bureaucratic way in which the film unfolds somewhat hinders the charisma of the characters that the documentary has in its hands, on the other hand, what gives Not Dead some grace is the evidence of this contrast. It's a small achievement, but it goes against the grain of much of contemporary Brazilian cinema, which is increasingly forgetting the importance of rooting the characters in the conditions in which they live and making this an active part of their descriptions, revealing the material field rather than making everything and everyone into abstract figures.

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