Cinema from Pernambuco a unique genre

Following the screening of two films from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, UCLA's Randal Johnson led a discussion about the unique school of film emerging in the country's northeast.

Cinema from Pernambuco a unique genre

“The majority of movies are financed by the government, [so filmmakers] don't worry about tickets and the public. They really care about expressing ideas and stories. These aren't commercial movies; they can't make commercial movies.” —Karina Galindo

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, October 13, 2016 — Pernambuco, the Brazilian state long famed for its beaches and carnivals, is now emerging as a cinematic powerhouse. Two films from the state, “João Heleno dos Brito” and “Big Jato,” were screened in UCLA’s James Bridges Theater on October 5, 2016, as part of Pernambuco Beat Week. The weeklong celebration of the arts and culture of Pernambuco was sponsored by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Brazilian Digital Channel International and the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies.

The films

“João Heleno dos Brito” (a Brazilian name which sounds remarkably like “John Lennon of the Beatles” in Portuguese), directed by Neco Tabosa, is a slapstick, western-style short film detailing a bloody feud between two families. The slightly more serious feature film, “Big Jato” (Portuguese for “Big Jet”), directed by Cláudio Assis, follows a teenage boy from the interior of Pernambuco whose dreams of being a poet are derided by his alcoholic father.

Both films juxtapose absurdist humor with melancholy to highlight the culture of Pernambuco. The directors cleverly utilize Beatlemania and septic tanks, respectively, as both symbols of the challenges of provincial life and metaphors for their characters’ longing for different lives. Bright colors abound, as do shots of the beautiful natural landscape of Pernambuco. The role that place, family and home play in forming identity was also explored in each film.

A unique genre of filmmaking

Following the screenings, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Randal Johnson hosted a panel with Pernambuco film industry insiders Karina Galindo, a cultural film producer, and Ivan Cordeiro, a filmmaker from Pernambuco’s capital city of Recife.

Johnson originated the Brazilian Film Series of the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies, in which recent films from Brazil are shown the first Wednesday evening of every month at UCLA, usually followed by the discussion with the director. The series is cosponsored by the UCLA Department of Spanish & Portuguese abd made possible by the generosity of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Consulate General of Brazil in Los Angeles.

From left: Professor Randal Johnson, Karina Galindo and Ivan Cordeiro. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.)

Brazil, and Pernambuco specifically, is now becoming a creative force in cinema thanks largely to government subsidization of the film industry. Sizeable federal grants have shifted the focus of cinema in Pernambuco almost entirely to the artistry of film, as the commercial market is largely dominated by American films. As Karina Galindo explained, “The majority of movies are financed by the government, [so filmmakers] don’t worry about tickets and the public. They really care about expressing ideas and stories. These aren’t commercial movies; they can’t make commercial movies.”

This situation, as well as the history and culture of Pernambuco, has created a unique style of moviemaking. “It has more politics, it’s more sarcastic. There’s debauchery, and it’s more poetic,” explained director Ivan Cordeiro. “And you can see a lot of poetic quality in films from Recife and Pernambuco. Why? I guess because there you have lots of influence from the Dutch, the slaves, the Portuguese… we have very good poets and writers in Recife and Pernambuco, and they brought all of that into cinema.”

Although both films find their strength in over-the-top humor, each examines serious issues facing communities in the region, such as violence and income inequality. Cordeiro explained that in films from Pernambuco, you often feel transported there “through the music and the sharp images… [They bring] about the essence of Brazil. Brazil is a land of disparities, you have the very rich, you have the very poor, you have things happening in front of you, centimeters away.”

Karina Galindo. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.) As Galindo sees it, it’s essential to take a holistic approach to viewing cinema from Pernambuco. “It’s a reality,” she said, “even if you don’t like it, or think ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to see this kind of movie,’ it’s something that you have to know the reality of.”

Cordeiro proposed that the political content and social commentary now commonplace in Pernambuco cinema became a staple of the genre during his formative years due to the influence of journalists. “During my time — I started making films in 1978 — all my influences were journalists,” he said. “During the dictatorship, when movies weren’t allowed to be played in Brazil… these journalists started making movies. They started making super 8s and would play these movies inside houses and residences, saying ‘Hey, this is what the TV is not showing you.’”

Film and memory

The uninhibited, unafraid and organic tone of cinema from Pernambuco has been preserved to this day. Cordeiro attributes this tone to the school of film typical of northern Brazil, not formal film training. “You don’t need to go to film school to make films,” he said. “You make films by making films and watching a lot of films.

“Our country has its memory, and cinema is an amazing medium to preserve that memory,” insisted Cordeiro. With steady growth in Pernambuco’s film industry and countless young filmmakers from the region gaining traction and support, the films of Pernambuco will be preserving those memories for years to come.