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.