Gabriel Mascaro: Ebbs and Flows

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I still haven’t gotten around to writing about Neon Bull for Cinética, but I didn’t want to overlook the beginning of Gabriel Mascaro’s first US retrospective, starting today at Lincoln Center. I’ve been writing about Mascaro’s work since 2009, when High Rise (Um Lugar ao Sol – literal translation: a place in the sun) premiered at the first Semana dos Realizadores, in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, I’ve covered most of his cinema work for Cinética, with the exception of his debut documentary, KFZ-1348 (co-directed with Marcelo Pedroso and not present in the retrospective), his debut fiction film, August Winds (2014), and the great short film that lends its title to the retrospective and picture to this post, Ebb and Flow (2012). With Neon Bull, Mascaro achieved new international recognition and this partial retrospective (one of my favorite films directed by him, The Adventures of Paulo Bruscky – a documentary made in partnership with artist Paulo Bruscky, entirely set on virtual platform Second Life – is sadly missing) bowties the successful international trajectory of Neon Bull with a chance to revisit and discover his earlier films.

Despite the solid coherency displayed in his latest fiction film, Mascaro isn’t a director whose work shows clear signs of a common sensibility. His films range from interview-based documentaries (High Rise) to cross-media experiments (Paulo Bruscky), finding perhaps more solid ground in the intersection between fiction film and documentary that, in different modulations, fuels a larger number of his films – Neon Bull; August Winds; Ebbs and Flows; Avenida Brasília Formosa and Housemaids. The social-political vantage point of the films can go from quiet observation to angry confrontation (with all its problems, High Rise is a very important document for those who hope to keep their heads above the water in the current turmoil in Brazilian politics, both for what is said in front of the camera and what the director himself does with it), adhering to a clear left wing agenda without necessarily taking it to the explosive extremes one can find in Adirley Queirós’ Black In White Out (2014), which was part of last year’s Art of the Real.

Instead, what remains fairly constant in his work is fittingly connected to this constant volatility: a favoring of drafts over finished works and of studies over completed dramatic trajectories, with films that are as close to being open-ended as they are to having never actually started. While in his early, more traditional documentary work this characteristic came from the rather risky way the movies themselves were made, in August Winds and Neon Bull they become deliberate narrative strategies.

In this arch, it is Housemaids – tonight’s film – that remains a kind of optimal peak. Mascaro asks seven teenagers from very different backgrounds to make documentaries about their housemaids, and then edits the footage looking not only for contextual revelation, but also for dramatic possibilities. In a way, the (theoretical or actual) absence of the director in the shooting stages requires that the movie be more expressively directed in the editing room, forcing Mascaro to go against his natural tendency towards dedramatization, and finding a different energy by simply switching directions in this same space of indecision – while Neon Bull and August Winds raise the obligatory question of what is real in all that is staged, Housemaids calls attention to what is staged in all that is real and what the repercussions of that can be.

At the time it was released in theaters, we published two articles about the film at Cinética. Both of them were translated to English by/for the magazine and later reprinted in the book dedicated to the film organized by fellow Cinética collaborator Victor Guimarães. The English version of the book is on sale at the Film Society, and it also features articles on the film by critics and scholars such as Nicole Brenez, Jean-Louis Commoli, Mariana Souto and others. As a way to celebrate Gabriel Mascaro: Ebbs and Flows, I’m including the updated translation of my article here. Housemaids screens at the Walter Reade theater tonight, at 6:30pm.

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Housemaids (Doméstica), by Gabriel Mascaro (Brazil, 2012)

* Original translation published at Cinética in February 2014, later revised for the book Housemaids, org. Victor Guimarães.

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When I wrote about Gabriel Mascaro’s 2010 short The Adventures of Paulo Bruscky, one of the notes left out of the final draft reflected on the similarity of the approaches shared by Gabriel Mascaro and another director from Recife, Marcelo Pedroso. Paulo Bruscky took a few of the intentions in Pedroso’s Pacific (2009) a step further; whilst Pacific was a movie with ‘no filming’ and ‘no direction’, Mascaro’s short film, made entirely with images taken from the online social platform Second Life, was a movie with ‘no camera’, ‘no material’ (and the reason for the quotes is that of course all those things do exist in the movie, but not in the way they normally do, in other movies). Naturally, there are similarities shared by other stock footage documentaries (Pacific) or animated movies (Paulo Bruscky), but both were moved by a less material intent that concerns the creative possibilities of letting go of complete control. While the best documentaries are usually open to the influence of the imponderable, both Pacific and Paulo Bruscky sought after new modulations of this lack of control. At a time when imponderability already seemed to be caged by very strict standards coming from television, visual arts and documentary filmmaking itself, such restlessness was praiseworthy in itself. But, beyond that, it was also a shot in the right direction: the lack of control brought to light a new opportunity for drama.

Housemaids is a new footstep on that same path. Seven teenagers are invited to make a documentary about their domestic home help. Mascaro does not actively participate in any of the filming, but rather directs, proceeding as the creator of the concept and the curator and editor of the material – both human and audiovisual. The first decisive choice is in the deliberate selection of the guest filmmakers: the teenagers behind the cameras are all in a very specific age group, at a point in life when the nature of the relationships of command is not clearly defined. In the opening of the movie, some of them say that their housemaids have been working in their houses for 16, 17 years, and they are definitely not much older than that. Housemaids settles itself into a grey area in which the film’s ‘narrators’ no longer see their maids as figures of relative authority over them (like nannies) but – to paraphrase one of the characters in the movie – are still yet to ‘affirm themselves as bosses’. In each of the cases shown, the narrators are somewhat faltering, sometimes using the camera as an affirmative tool, whilst at other times using it as a medium to express curiosity. The class relation on screen is very much like the relationship between documentarian and character.

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But focusing on the source of enunciation of Housemaids is seeing only part of the picture. If the director’s interest in class shown in his previous documentaries Um Lugar ao Sol (High-Rise, 2009) and Avenida Brasília Formosa (Defiant Brasilia, 2010) joined the univocal nature of their titles, in a panel-like impression, the first big surprise with Doméstica (Housemaids) is precisely the way in which the film takes such a clearly delimited sample and enlarges it from the inside-out. Housemaids is, indeed, a character-driven film. At a time in which Brazilian documentary seems largely dominated by movies which are supposedly dedicated to their protagonists, sometimes carrying their names as a title in a way that is often misleading (Is João Moreira Salles’ Santiago a precise representation of Santiago, the person?), it is the movie with the most generic title that seems the most dedicated to enhancing the individuality of each character (even when, in Lena’s case, this individuality translates as near absence on screen) and fine tuning each individual piece to serve that purpose. Housemaids starts as a melodrama, but from one segment to another it may suddenly turn into an ethnographic film, a tragicomedy, a Bildungsroman, an exploitation movie.

For that reason, both the film’s structure and the spectator’s fruition is often anchored in dramatic conventions derived from genre filmmaking, which requires a critical approach that isn’t based solely on the relation between documentarian and the filmed subject, despite it being part of the movie. Housemaids is not merely the documentation of a clash between two different gazes, but of three. One of the crucial shots in that regard is during Bia’s presentation: when filming herself introducing her part, she places the camera in front of a mirror that – in between her occasional head movements – reflects the image of the camera. The camera is not a sole mediator, but also the artifact that symbolizes the presence of this third element in every scene: the director’s gaze. In the class war seen in Housemaids, Gabriel Mascaro is the true authority figure, the true boss – and in that sense the movie finds an unlikely connection with the aforementioned Santiago by João Moreira Salles, also a movie about a ‘housemaid’ (a butler), but guided by an extremely personal will that’s on the opposite side of this route towards immateriality that we see here. If the spectator may notice how Lena remains mostly off- screen in her segment – and how her space in the scene is often occupied by her boss – it is never clear if that option was made by the one holding the camera or if it’s a posterior interpretation by the director, materialized in the editing. For all we know, there might be many shots featuring Lena in the source material, and the choice to present that relationship in that manner could be a deliberate choice made in the editing room to work against that same material. Either way, what matters here is that this very imprecise, indefinable choice remains extremely present and active throughout the film. Housemaids requires a double, maybe triple interpretational movement (if we consider the spectator’s gaze as well) that forwards this authority position, like a Chinese whispers game, which means that the final image reaching the spectator has already been reprocessed, reimagined, redirected in a number of different stages before it reaches the screen.

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That pattern can also be noticed in the film structure. Starting with a highly typified character from the housemaid ranks – Vanuza, a lovelorn woman who draws a certain comfort from popular call-in radio shows – the film gradually rolls out its theme with each new character, in the most unlikely ways, bringing in new faces, settings and actions that shift further and further from the stereotypical introduction. Approaching housemaids in this way, Gabriel Mascaro creates much more than a panorama of types, rather, a collection of small portraits that neither complement nor cancel each other out: these people exist only on-screen and are deliberately presented in a way that makes them seem more complex than one could possibly imagine. Gracinha, Flávia, Vanuza, Lena – each of the characters in Housemaids is carefully tailored to very specific places and relationships, precisely so that they can stand up and declare themselves unique. This constant articulation creates individual story arches for each of them: Flávia dancing to her mistress’s son is the same person who got kicked in the stomach by a past boyfriend, leading to a miscarriage of triplets (a very similar operation to the one seen in Agnés Varda’s Kung Fu Master, in which, during the eclosion of the HIV virus, a grown woman falls deeply in love with a little boy); Sérgio’s dismantling face contrasts with a picture of a much fleshier past; the boss that needs to affirm herself over Lucimar is the same young girl holding her hand in a happy picture taken years before. This appropriation of fictional tools to the realm of documentary filmmaking raises an ethical awareness that is as old as cinema itself. However, the key here is not to put that simply under suspicion, but to acknowledge this same problem before asking different questions: What does the director want with all of that? If there is an intrinsic violence in turning people into characters, what can be gained from it?

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Perhaps a fairer understanding of the term ‘housemaids’, of the names given to each entity, and of the ideological underlining of such terminology that the movie needs to make use of is required, to then reevaluate it. Despite the effort of treating each character as an individual, respecting their origins (“If you want me to, I can tell you about how I ended up in São Paulo,” says Dilma, directing her director) and their possible fate, all of them are indeed housemaids. They all share the activity that the original title carries in its singular form, because the focus here is not to affirm how plural this universe is, but to start with the plurality to investigate the ontology of the term that binds them together. Housemaids is a movie of many different games, but they all seem to lead to the broader play between part and whole, of how each new fold changes the way we perceive the original pattern of the fabric. Through their uniqueness, these characters slam up against the structures by which they are determined, transforming their bodily presence while leaving that structure slightly dented by their impact. All the characters in the movie both define and are defined by the term that brings them together, both in the film and out in the real world.

For this to occur, Gabriel Mascaro has to resist the anthropological urge this kind of material inevitably teases, and face the delicate challenge of using it as dramatic material. This is achieved through both the individual blocks (as is the case with the housemaid with nocturnal habits, announced right at the beginning of her block and allowed to unfold like a thriller) and the order among and connections between them. While Pacific was put together in a way that resembled a choir, using a vertovian approach to orchestrate a plurality of perspectives in a single ship, Housemaids is carried by a single voice that changes over time. In addition to the care that ensures that all characters have room to breathe in their own spaces, the organization imposed by the director (and his editor) is based around a desire to make this general space – the synthetic, singular (in Portuguese) title, which not only speaks of a job, but also of a relationship and so many other things – reorganize itself internally. With each new character, the key turns and turns and turns, as if the restraining will towards a definition were attempting to lock a door that refuses to stay closed.

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It is precisely in that sense that Housemaids is a political film – the political act of questioning the names given to things. Gabriel Mascaro’s cinema has always edged in that direction, but occasionally seemed to mistake it for a chance at pamphleteering. In Housemaids, however, there is a simple perception that overrides that: if there is the possibility of politics in art, it lies in leaving the doors wide open. The editing makes a point of including footage that shows how these camera-wielding youngsters and their families relate to their housemaids and – in some cases where the ties stretch further back – to their children, families and backgrounds as well. In every case, despite feeling more or less empathy for a specific character, it is hard to determine a clear antagonist. Throughout the projection, the individual will – both in the camerawork and in what’s in front of it – to do the right thing is always clear, even though such an often blind desire cannot be separated from its consequences. This careful construction jumbles the extremities of the sensible, as it demands a reorganization of the boundaries between the public and the private, documentary-maker and documentary film, work and affection, cause and effect, male and female, shot and reverse-shot. As stereotypical as Vanuza’s universe is, the class issues that take the film inside this universe from such a distanced perspective are progressively shown to be more and more sensitive to the touch. The politics of this reorganization finds completion in the fact that, once the credits roll, we return to the world – best case scenario – with an altered perspective.

If cinema today very rarely carries the revelatory power of Major Tomaz Reis’ early travelogues (and one only needs to watch Paulo Bruscky to clearly see how that is a concern in Gabriel Mascaro’s cinema), that void can be filled by the chance of establishing relations, which can often be themselves revealing: none of the blocks in Housemaids is as strong individually as it is within the movie, because what’s more impressive here is not a single moment, or a single reality, but the interpretation and organization made by the director and the fact that they all fit in the same drawer, the same continuum, the same term that lends itself as title to the film and to all those distinct lives. Gabriel Mascaro starts from a distance, but never uses the dispositive as an excuse to not implicate himself in the process. On the contrary: by assuming this wide portrait as dramaturgy, it is clear that there is no position more fragile in Housemaids than that of the director. From something so specific and localizable, Gabriel Mascaro arrives at broad questions that are so deeply rooted in everyday life that we hardly even notice them. The politics of the film resides in highlighting the historical weight that underpins each casual gesture, each behavioral standard we so distractedly repeat as we go about our quotidian choreography. If Brazilian society lives by codes so engrained that we don’t even recognize them as wounds, it is not cinema’s place to stitch them closed, much less open fresh cuts; but there is the possibility of pinpointing exactly where these sores are, and leaving them open, wide open.