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Sacred Skin

Xamã Punk (João Maia Peixoto, 2023, RJ)

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

         Although a very singular specimen, Xamã Punk seems to fit in with the proposal of a wider thematic curatorship that has been revealing itself, with each film, in this year's Aurora Exhibit: the mix between fictional and documentary with some form of performative device - trance as a kind of elixir to the disease of isolation (and the return to normality after the pandemic world seems to be seen between the lines) - and films made out of a desire to meet the other. While As Linhas da Minha Mão mobilized a communion between filmmaker and character for this investigation and bet on a meticulous probe of it, João Maia Peixoto's debut feature film is born as a collective low-budget project and produces a very particular scenic device - a series of blocks/sketches of encounters between the director/personage and his cameraman with actors producing performances in spaces and geographies of ruins and forests. On the other hand, and to justify the device, the film mobilizes a fictional fabrication that reveals that the aesthetic pretensions of Xamã Punk are greater than the collective and poor experimentation may make it seem, and that if there is a slight libertarian just-do-it attitude, it coexists with a very particular and ostensibly pretentious cosmogony.

          Right in the opening sequence of Xamã Punk, the voice of the narrator/director explains the context of the fictional situation: an environmental catastrophe has led what is left of humanity (basically the elite) to migrate underground to a cave, build a bunker in tunnels, and after that, for nine generations, humanity has lived without seeing sunlight. Two young men decide to return to the surface, wielding a camera and sound recorder, to encounter the rubble of the previous civilization and the nature that reoccupies the globe. The narration voice points to a recognizable futuristic post-apocalyptic sci-fi scenario that is in vogue, figuring in a good portion of Brazilian auteur cinema (A Seita, Cantos dos Ossos, Branco Sai, Preto Fica, for instance) as much as in Netflix series or blockbusters. But accompanying the narration is the footage of the pitch-black of a cave, lit by a flashlight, merging with a series of archival images showing a kind of retroactive arc of the catastrophe - traffic accidents, the sea invading the streets, windstorms, fires, etc. At this point, a little en passant, the voiceover explains the images: "all I know are tunnels, and the rest I've seen in videos, games, and virtual reality". The sequence sets the tone of the problem that seems to mobilize the director-personage: a world filled with an excess of 'projected' images - the cinematic situation itself here as a kind of myth of the world -, experienced as a simulacrum, that does not give an enlightened knowledge of what is outside. Faced with Plato's cave, the filmmaker/personage mobilizes to get out and find some kind of cosmogonic illumination, symbolized by the flash outside where the title graphic appears written. 

          But if there is a promise of spiritual elevation in this gesture, what we see the film pursuing is less a full enlightenment than a deconstructive game (or one through the other); abolishing the codes of language and going after a guttural concreteness of the world and of things - Xamã Punk bets on a rather epidermic symbiosis between an oscillating camera and the actors' bodily performance, on the dissonant and shrill sounds, a kind of primitivism of the film form that matches the effort of staging tribal rituals and the like. Here, a catatonic boy makes etchings on the wall, there, a girl looks in the mirror and listens to the voices of the universe. There is the talk of a reconnection with supposed ancestors who, to be reached, one would need to resort to a series of liberation procedures. The final scene, the apogee of the premise, shows a mystical act of castration - the phallus (representing patriarchy) removed as an analogy of the stripping away of language to reach deeper realities that are, at the same time, the most epidermal realities possible between body and world. If the opening credits show the graphic in gestation, the ultimate reality is only reached in its deformation. In this sense, Xamã Punk paradoxically positions itself as a film of encounter, but not of an encounter between subjectivities, rather between physical bodies, touches, matters that some vague tribal and millennial knowledge to be discovered could provide. 

         The problem with the film is that this truly concrete dimension of the world that it promises is rarely achieved, because there is little or no desire to make the mise en scéne or dramaturgical strategies actually produce it. There is no thought of shot composition (even of the strategy to work through a more fluid, free and dirty camera, a found-footage of immediate registration), of sound articulation (even if the dissonant and the guttural could be its constitutive elements), of making its repertoire of bodies (the choice of actors, their gestures and expressions staged for the camera) and congruent objects (the symbols it chooses for its 'tribalism') to achieve effects that really mobilize our encounter, as spectators, with this material layer that the performance intends. The film is completely dedicated to experimentation in the actors' work, to stripping them of their convictions, and almost nothing to how to articulate the third element of the equation (the images and the sound; in short, us, the spectators) to access the experience we are promised. The intonations are fragile, and the whole fabrication of the post-apocalyptic world and everything that refers to it sounds forcibly introjected into the midst of a lysergic experience that could be the object of more scrutiny, rarely worked on, and even more rarely glimpsed when the fictional justifications are forgotten. It's no wonder that, in several moments, the feature film ridicules cinema itself (the camera and the sound recording) by placing it as 'those of the cave', beneath the magical experience of the 'outside' (the actors, the performance of the body in space) - a certain privileging of the idolatry of the primitive against the technique that just doesn't work. 

           In fact, cinema continues to be the experience of the cave, of the projected images, and not of what transcends it - and its strength is to make us know a little of the world outside without being there.  In the end, with all its pretensions of showing us the enlightened beings outside, it turns out that the few good moments of Xamã Punk are the less pretentious, not very self-indulgent ones, which remind us of Navarro, Ivan Cardoso, and others who, paradoxically, demanded mystical raptures at the same time as they mocked their exaggerations. This is because there is no way around it: cinema is still, as it has been said frequentely, the art of appearances. In relation to mystical symbols and hieroglyphs, and to the incorporations or trances that are internal experiences of the actors by nature, cinema is almost always an iconoclastic art par excellence; and if there isn't a real work of construction of the gaze and image, a meticulous study of how to produce them not only in the pro-filmic space with the actors, but also and mainly for us, who are on the other side of the lenses, then cinema is a merciless god. 

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