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The Stuff Dreams are Made of

Dry Ground Burning (Adirley Queiros and Joana Pimenta, 2023, Brasil)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

        Dry Ground Burning concludes an ugly and morbid trilogy of Brazil's hiatus - the beginning, middle, and end, to use Cristiano Botafogo's catchphrase, 'of this bad trip we got ourselves into'. It adds to the dystopian stasis of Once There was Brasília (2017) and, before that too, to the lemniscatic looping of White Out, Black In (2014), to reveal to us a country that promised to be different in 2013, but simply could not because the forces of reactionarism were greater. All three bring particular temporal registers that give expression to the logics of their respective stages. In the first, the time traveler was returning to the past to bring justice to a massacre at a charme ball, but as he acts, what happens is that the evangelical dictatorship advances into the future, as if to tell us - already in 2014 - that the capillary effort of safeguarding and historical justice could generate retaliation, and that Brazil would thus be a country of eternal return whose more than necessary fate was its own implosion. If, in the first, the desperate messianic act of destruction of the unviable nation still carried the remnants of the belief in the joy of victory, in the second, the promise of a political silencing was realized. In Once There was Brasília, Adirley/Joana make a film about the feeling of mourning and paralysis after the 2016 coup and the impossibility of getting out of place; their hardest and most anticlimactic film. The third establishes a slightly different temporal register than the previous two in that it alternates between one layer of memory and another of the present, a Sol Nascente of yesteryear where two sisters had the freedom to extract oil and produce a world on the fringes of the official one, and another where police militarism imposed its limits, a political allusion demarcated directly by the intrusion into fiction of images of the Bolsonarist celebration. 

          The signs common to all three films are also all there: the bonfires, roads and acres of empty dirt and bush, the rusty cars and vans, sheds in the middle of nowhere, the black and peripheral bodies in a Ceilândia that is both satellite and metaphor for the excluded of the official capital; an arc of images that refer to science fiction, but that have come to constitute the repertoire of a world of their own and authorial by Adirley Queiros and Joana Pimenta (director of photography of the previous one, and who here is also director). However, Dry Ground Burning also reworks this same iconography in a more polished and structured way, aware of its idiosyncrasies and their magnitude, and perhaps because of this, less immediate and libidinal; it, for example, bets more than the others on statements and narrative articulations that make clear what is at stake, in a way that neither White Out, Black In, nor Once There was Brasília did - in these, the bodies and the material presence of things often needed to be the true carrier of the discourse. This may be explained because the feature film is an ode to a lost paradise, the story of the legend of the gasoline girls, two sisters, Léa and Chitara, who discover oil on a plot of land in the Sol Nascente, and begin to coordinate and negotiate with delivery men for the distribution of gasoline. There is in it a double game between nostalgia for what was (or could have been) and the awareness of the impossibility of maintaining the same state of things - considering that the region is now restricted by police action - which adds up, ultimately, to an unbreakable desire to continue, somehow, giving continuity to what seems impossible.

          It is somewhat usual to say that Adirley Queiros' cinema starts from an exhaustive body-to-body clash with the real to transform it into fabrication, but the procedure is particularly special because even when this happens, the material layer from which it comes never fades away. In other words, the process of signification - that in which the model 'copied' into an image discounts its indiciality to enter the realm of discourse - here is never fully accomplished. It is as if the camera never allowed it. This is why Dry Ground Burning, although it drinks from genre cinema and science fiction, can never become Mad Max if not by having it as a distant reference: the real bodies, their stories, and the landscapes they film are much more important for what they mean in their testimonial materiality than for what they can contribute as a hoax to the act of establishing the fantastic world and 'fictionalization', that is, as actors who simulate characters and regions that pretend to be other geographies.

           It is also often said of a certain theatricality of the actors in a kind of amorphous space, and of the betting on a wealth of artificial poses and gestures of a performative character as revealers of an added value of presence; that the bodies that wander in desert landscapes in his work attain at most a sketchy aspect of a being (a constant becoming-to-be that never rests in the act of performance), as much as the gorilla men, the blind mafia men, or the Spanish dancers in Bang Bang, the residents on the banks of the River Tiete in The Margin, or the staggering beings in Jardim de Espumas. But it is also necessary to discern from this, because Adirley Queiros' procedure - like that of a number of contemporary Brazilian films (Batguano, Inferninho, etc.) - actually does the opposite of its marginal peers: real bodies and spaces are enhanced 'from' the fabrications, and not the opposite; they are detached from them by the way the camera behaves and lingers observing the faces, gestures, voices, and mannerisms of each one of them, that is, by a series of cinematographic and aesthetic strategies to establish its numinous landscape of spaces and body portraiture. It is not a staging that produces an incomplete adherence between the actor's pretense and the character's being, but a rarefied distillation of the staged to achieve the real body that produces the act of dramaturgy. Even fantasizing, Léa and Chitara do not try to be anything other than themselves, and it is the weight of their bodies that makes them stand out from the invented story, just as it is not by a miscalculation that the environments of the satellites in Brasília do not become powerful oil refineries (their artificiality itself shows us the impossibility that filmed things are anything other than themselves), but because these are the very objects that decay from fiction to become objects of scrutiny of the gaze, artistic added value.

           From the moment this detachment occurs (and not distancing in the Brechtian sense, this never happens), and a gain of physical authenticity against narrativity, there is nothing else for fiction but to become a metaphor of the same. Hence, if the images of Dry Ground Burning show us, most of the time, a sum of landscape and portrait, the fictional articulations that emerge here and there promote a representation of symbolic nature: 'oil' since the Varguista campaign evoked as a symbol of protectionism versus the colonization of imperialism, Joan of Arc / Chitara as feminist legends, Brasilia as a modernist symbol and of a country project, the Rising Sun plot and the housing complex as of the periphery of the excluded... The prison as a purgatory of the control/liberty dialectic. But precisely because the film's scenic strategies emphasize the matter and appearance of things, none of this makes the filmed become mere discursive and intellectual abstractions; on the contrary, it underlines the force that the elements themselves already have by themselves. It is a cinema whose true act of empowerment is to give bodies a presence in the world more than, as is usually said, to fantasize the world or imagine its victories or resistances.

          The cinema of Adirley/Joana suffers from being too third-world to receive the laurels it deserves in the circuit of European festivals, a pantheon where it should be side by side with the greatest of the present. It lacks the humanistic, whitening filter, and its arid, dull, peripheral films sound a bit like a climate-breaker. Also, because their films are not simple 'acts of empowerment' (somehow White Out, Black In was mistakenly made into this), but rather a portrait of the sphinxes of defeat or of being-there on the margins, they are also not necessarily associated with activism or a kind of peripheral, third-world revenge porn - the 'violence' that the aesthetics of hunger used to speak of now arouses the masochistic pleasure of the colonizer and is lumped together as the norm. It is a material cinema, whose great strength, or great violence, ends up being to show what exists without fantasizing it; although, even for this, it resorts to imagination. Extracting one from the other in order to be able to speak its truths.

 

April, 2023

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