Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) has been the theme for several Brazilian films, including 1997’s Four Days in September (O que É Isso Companheiro?) and 2006’s The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (O Ano em que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias). Though those dark days play a role in São Paulo director Tata Amaral’s latest film, Hoje (meaning ‘today’ in English), the film, as its title suggests, mainly focuses on the present.
In the film, Vera (Denise Fraga) buys an apartment with money she has received from the government in compensation for the ‘disappearance’ of her husband, Luis. A militant activist during the dictatorship, Luis (played by the Uruguyan César Troncoso), reappears – after a nearly 30-year absence.
Hoje is an adaptation of the book Prova Contrária by the São Paulo-based author Fernando Bonassi. This is the second of Bonassi’s novels that Amaral has made into a film, the first being Um Céu de Estrelas (A Starry Sky, 1997). And just as in her feature-length debut, the 53-year-old director shot the movie in a single location – in an apartment in downtown São Paulo.
Tata welcomed Time Out São Paulo to her production studio in Vila Madalena to talk about cinema, politics and her relationship with São Paulo, the city in which she was born, and where she currently lives and works.
Is Hoje a love story?
Yes, but it’s also about mourning and the possibility of being reunited with someone you loved very much. The film is very personal for me, because I lost my partner, my daughter’s father, when I was 19. It had nothing to do with politics, but it would be nice to be able to talk about the things that were left unsaid. I carry that with me to this day.
Despite discussing the dictatorship, the film deals with the present. Did you mean to make that clear with the title ‘Hoje’ (‘today’)?
Exactly. The thrust of the film is that our past persists, no matter how much we may want to sweep it under the carpet. Brazil, for example, did not deal with torturers in the way Chile and Argentina did. We granted people amnesty. And in some ways, we continue to practice and accept torture in our society – in Argentina today, you don’t find hundreds of people being killed in the poorest areas. Hoje is different to other films in that it addresses this subject, not as a flashback, but by having the past shed light on what’s happening today.
This isn’t a typical role for Denise Fraga. Why did you think of her when casting Vera?
It was intuition. I had a stack of photographs of possible actresses and her face kept staring back at me. She’s a great comedic actress; she has very good timing and is also brave, dedicated and generous. She made Vera into a more loving person than I could have imagined.
Which scene most shows this loving side?
The scene in which Luis asks: ‘If I reappeared, what would you do? You’d have to return the apartment. And you’ve never had your own home. Now what?’ She doesn’t say anything, but you see everything.
What’s the most challenging part of shooting an entire film in one apartment?
It’s a challenge to make the space interesting all the time, and to let the viewer discover that environment. As such, the apartment ends up becoming a character in itself. We’ve had a photo of the 1950s Edifício Louvre, in downtown São Paulo, since the beginning of the Hoje project. When we finally got the money to make the film, and after much searching, we decided to look at the Louvre and this huge apartment was available. We took it on despite the high rent, because the size gave us the space we needed for production.
Have you been in contact with people whose relatives disappeared during the dictatorship?
I have. I ended up doing another film about it during the research process. It’s a mini-series, Trago Comigo (which loosely translates as ‘I bring it with me’), which was broadcast on TV Cultura. I’m going to turn into a feature film. It’s a mix of fiction and reality, and several relatives of missing people were interviewed for it. Their state of mind seemed frozen, with no closure for their loss.
There was one father who buried a suit. He was dying, and said he needed to mourn his son. And there are practical issues: a woman can’t remarry because she’s not officially a widow; minors can’t travel because they don’t have full parental authorisation, or a death certificate for the missing parent; you can’t sell a car or an apartment you share with the person, because you need their signature.
Do you think the fact that the film’s release coincides with media coverage of the Truth Commission [which investigates human rights violations during the dictatorship], will help the film?
I hope so. The film addresses the role the Truth Commission is playing in terms of bringing events to light. A developing country can’t move forward without first highlighting, identifying, and analysing what has happened. Now we’re seeing police officers taking poor people into alleys and shooting them. It’s the same thing that was happening forty years ago.
Do you have memories of the dictatorship?
I was four when the coup took place. I remember the parades on Avenida Nove de Julho, and later, I heard stories that such-and-such had had his nails torn off in jail – that sort of thing. My cousin had a girlfriend whose family had to leave the country.
|César Troncoso and Denise Fraga|
Were you part of a leftist organisation?
I was, at another time, in the late-1970s, during the student movement. The years up until 1974 were terrible years, when everyone died or disappeared. I got involved in 1976, when I was in high school. I participated in large rallies organised by the student movement, when we took over the city.
What’s your involvement in politics today?
None. I vote PT (the Workers’ Party) because they are redistributing income and we’re finally leaving the Truman era. It’s only now that there’s a change in the Marshall Plan, which allowed the USA to reorganise the post-war world, making Latin American economies more dependent. Latin American governments are systematically disparaged for this, including Chávez (the late Venezuelan president).
What was it like making films in the early 1990s, when Brazilian production was virtually non-existent?
I was a movie-lover, and chose to go to film school. For my family, it was like saying I was going to become a Martian – it wasn’t a profession. At the time, I had a daughter and I was a widow. It was a challenge. I’ve had a lot of financial difficulties. I worked in advertising, and was even a wardrobe assistant. My finances were all over the place and I never knew what would happen from one month to the next. The only things I own today are a refrigerator and a computer; I haven’t accumulated many material goods. My assets are my films.
After all these years of work, would you say that you’ve developed your own style?
I focus on characters, not on action, despite loving action films. I think all of my films have elements of suspense and eroticism.
What do you think of Brazilian cinematography today?
We are creating very powerful cinematography and there is investment, which is really important. For years, I’ve seen filmmakers in Europe making a living from independent television projects.
São Paulo is often described as one of the ugliest cities in the world. As a filmmaker working here, what do you think about that?
São Paulo doesn’t hold on to its past, and that’s why it’s turned ugly. Neighbourhoods like Pinheiros and Vila Madalena, with their art-deco houses, are being destroyed. These properties should be protected. Even though you can see beautiful architecture downtown, for example, there’s no planning. My family has been in São Paulo since 1640. I fight for São Paulo, I founded the group Moradores de Pinheiros contra a Verticalização do Bairro (Pinheiros Residents against the Verticalisation of the Neighbourhood). As a filmmaker, it’s possible to turn chaos into poetry.