After Bacurau, Brazil’s Film Industry Is Under Threat From Jair Bolsonaro’s Government
The Brazilian film Bacurau received international acclaim as one of the best films of 2020. In Brazil, however, it has unleashed the ire of a far-right government, intent on smashing the country’s film industry. Bacurau’s directors speak to Jacobin about the Lula government’s revitalization of the Brazilian cultural scene and what Bolsonaro has been doing since to destroy it.
- Interview by
- Nicolas Allen and Daniel Carneiro Leão
Brazil’s sci-fi adventure thriller Bacurau was widely received as one of 2020’s best films, heralded as a new high-water mark in a growing wave of class-conscious filmmaking. The film, directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, has been favorably compared by critics to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and the two Recife-born filmmakers have have not shied away from using their celebrity as a soapbox to hold forth on political issues. Given the timing of its release, it was also inevitable that commentators would frame Bacurau as a kind of anti-Bolsonaro manifesto. Notwithstanding the anachronism (Bacurau was filmed before Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 victory), there is a grain of truth to the description.
Just as well, Bacurau is nearly unclassifiable. Critics fumbled to express what they found so compelling, although they seemed to agree that part of what made the film so effective was that it took Brazilian society, in all its complexity, and turned that reality into an estrangement device. Casting Hollywood’s familiar genre conventions against the backdrop of the parched and impoverished Sertão, the underlying inequalities and injustices of the region lend a sometimes-unbearable intensity to the film’s otherwise familiar sci-fi and Western tropes. But the Sertão, located in Brazil’s historically underserved Northeast, is more than just backdrop.
Since the start of their careers, Dornelles and Filho have made it their business to put the Northeast at the center of the national cultural map. With the success of 2016’s Aquarius and especially with 2019’s Bacurau, they drew the region into the international spotlight, causing consternation among Brazilian conservatives.
Indeed, Bacurau’s directors have been in a battle with the Right that dates back to at least 2016, when they staged a public protest at Cannes against the soft coup of former president Dilma Rousseff. Since then, Filho has been the target of government-backed financial sabotage, and both Aquarius and Bacurau were conspicuously overlooked as Oscar candidates.
Bolsonaro’s administration has been especially aggressive in its efforts to destroy important cultural institutions like Brazil’s National Cinema Agency and the Cinemateca Brasileira. Its savage attacks on arts and education funding are a typical move from the far-right playbook. But they also serve as a reminder that, for all its shortcomings, the beleaguered Workers’ Party (PT) left a formidable legacy in regard to culture and education that cannot be so swiftly erased.
In a conversation with Jacobin, the directors of Bacurau make a special point to emphasize that legacy. As Dornelles and Filho underline, it was the Northeast in particular that saw important gains under successive PT administrations, both in cultural and social terms. In fact, government support for the historically marginalized region was so significant that Dornelles and Filho cannot help but recognize the intertwining histories of the PT and their own artistic trajectories.
Nicolas Allen and Daniel Carneiro Leão spoke to the directors to learn more about the region that inspired Bacurau — a quintessentially Brazilian film, unlike any other.
Actually, the idea for Bacurau started from a sense of discomfort and dissatisfaction that Kleber and I felt about what was being produced in Brazilian cinema at the time. We were seeing a lot of documentaries about the Sertão, where Bacurau is set, that portrayed the inhabitants of that region as impoverished simpletons living in complete isolation. We went to a film festival in Brasília and saw a number of documentaries, many of them quite good, but almost always with a patronizing attitude toward the Sertanejo figure.
Long before Bacurau, we made a short film in 2009 called Recife Frio. It was shot as a mockumentary of sorts, but really it was a work of science fiction about climate change set in Brazil’s Northeast (where the Sertão is located). Recife Frio was received to wide acclaim, and the DVD actually outsold Harry Potter in the big chain bookstores in Brazil.
One night, while celebrating that movie’s success, we got to talking about how there is no tradition of genre film in Brazil and how the entire phenomenon was born of the Hollywood system. In Brazil, filmmakers working in genre cinema have never received their due — take someone like Zé do Caixão, a complete genius and one of the world’s greatest artists working in any medium. He was never given the respect he deserved.
Bacurau basically came out of our desire to make a genre film that would also be completely Brazilian. And that in part meant taking the existing tradition of television journalism and telenovelas — which has a very “generic” way of representing the Brazilian popular classes — and exploring the conflicts and contradictions behind those representations. Making a Brazilian genre film also led us to revisit Brazilian cinema — and the cinema of Pernambuco (the Northeast) — which is generally supposed to only portray popular culture, folky motifs, and Afro-Brazilian culture.
That was ten years ago. As you point out, we spent nearly a decade talking about Bacurau. But when the time finally came in 2016 to apply for grants and get to work on the screenplay, Donald Trump appeared on the scene. As it began to sink in that Trump would be the next president of the United States, we realized two things: the film needed to shift gears toward something more intense. And, second, we had found the antagonists for Bacurau — the Americans.
The United States is both beautiful and ugly and full of contradictions — just like Brazil. With that comparison in mind, we began talking about the Western genre, thinking about how in the classic Western films of the 1940s, the camera is always distant from the Indians — who are portrayed as threatening and savage — whereas it follows the white man closely and assumes his vantage point. The way the Indian is represented is not so different from how the Brazilian popular classes are portrayed.
We put the final touches on the script over eight months, throughout 2017. During that time, as we discussed history, watched films, and did research for Bacurau, we were also completely connected to current events. Maybe that’s why the film ended up feeling so prescient.
My film O Som ao Redor [“Neighboring Sounds”] was written in 2008. At that point in time, Brazil had achieved a remarkable, unprecedented level of stability. But Brazilian society is full of contradictions, and even then, there was something diffuse in the air — a certain unease.
My next film, Aquarius, was written between 2013 and 2015. When we started filming in 2015, after Dilma’s reelection, I began to see certain things that I had not seen or heard in Brazil in a long time. For one, the invisible cultural and political division between the wealthier South and the poorer Northeast of Brazil was coming back into play. Being from Pernambuco in the Northeast, I was always sensitive to that social and geographic divide. I also began to notice that the type of right-wing figures — and eventually far-right figures — that had practically disappeared in the last decade began to reappear with increasing virulence.
While we were filming Aquarius, Lula was the victim of a completely absurd and mendacious campaign of political persecution. And that situation started to find its way into the script. I vividly remember a moment on the shoots when we had a hundred crew members working with cameras and equipment, and suddenly someone came by and shouted: “Why don’t you find a real job you sons of bitches!” I was struck by how absurd that situation was, and I started to sense that things were headed in the wrong direction. Later, at the premiere of Aquarius, we started to receive attacks from the far right.
The year that Aquarius was released, 2016, was the same year as the coup in Brazil and the victory of Donald Trump. All during that time, we had been developing the idea for Bacurau — a sci-fi adventure thriller genre film that was meant to be completely Brazilian. Like Juliano said, we were completely plugged-in to current events and watching what was happening on social media. As we followed global political developments, we realized that the fantastic and absurd elements of the film had to be turned up a notch.
People have remarked that many of the ideas in Bacurau ended up coming to life. For example, we were shooting the film when Brazil’s National Museum burned down. In the film, the village of Bacurau has its own museum, which is of central importance — like the National Museum. The National Museum is like the Met or the British Museum — just imagine if those burned down.
But it needs to be stressed that Bacurau did not predict events in Brazil, as some have claimed. The script for Bacurau was written with a sharp sense of Brazilian history, that much is true. But Brazilian history has a habit of repeating itself. Really, everything in Bacurau is old history. Brazil is like a person that can’t learn the lessons of the past. When people point out that Bacurau is set in the near future, they think: “This is a futurist film,” but really the film is about historic repetition. Brazil’s history is one of repetition.
And what was it like to release Bacurau in the midst of an upsurge in reactionary politics? With widespread cuts in public funding for the arts and national cinema, not to mention outright censorship? What kind of resistance do the arts have to offer in that situation?
Brazil’s National Cinema Agency is hanging by a thread today. It’s remarkable how long it takes to build up culture and just how quickly it can be torn down. Take Bolsonaro, he eliminated the Ministry of Culture on his first day in office.
But I’ve actually been feeling more optimistic lately. The current cycle of far-right politics seemed until very recently to be a long-term trend, but then Trump was defeated. In Brazil, Bolsonaro failed to get anyone elected to local government in recent municipal elections. Things seem to be changing.
There’s no denying that, where cinema and the arts are concerned, a revolution did take place under Lula. In terms of support and investment for the audiovisual arts, what happened here in Pernambuco is honestly without parallel anywhere else in the world.
That said, I don’t know how long it will take us to reach that benchmark again, when Brazil was producing three hundred films per year — something that has never happened before. That was a true golden era for Brazilian cinema.
For me personally, the most encouraging thing is that those years of government support encouraged human development, and you can’t destroy that overnight. Because of it, there’s a whole generation of filmmakers that will keep making movies even if there is no money. We may have suffered losses that will take years to recover, but artistic expression will remain strong.
Bacurau was a source of great embarrassment for the government. When it premiered in 2019, it was actually the film’s commercial success, as well as its capacity to stir debate, that threatened the government. Bacurau’s box office numbers, the fact that it was screened internationally and won prizes at Cannes, that it premiered to great acclaim in the United States, all of that was hugely embarrassing for a government that does not believe in Brazilian-made products or Brazilian culture — because cinema is, after all, a combination of those factors, commerce and art.
For me personally, cinema is a powerful voice that speaks about identity and citizenship, about marking one’s place in the world. So when Bacurau is played on Brazilian TV alongside The Avengers and Spider-Man 4, I take that seriously and think it is very important.
Going back to the idea of the overlap of culture and economy, I think Bolsonaro’s cuts to funding have been especially cruel or maybe just stupid. I know many professionals from the film world that are now working as Uber drivers, in construction, and doing other work.
That said, film production in Recife has been extremely strong — exceptionally strong in terms of Brazilian cinema. The local film industry was built up over fifteen years in a way that was completely democratic, slow, and gradual. The current government is trying to sabotage the industry, but there is still a core group of filmmakers here in Recife. And the climate here is much healthier than in other places in Brazil.
When I say “healthier,” I mean that politics are still alive and well in the cultural sphere. But we’re not nearly as organized as we should be. Like Juliano said, it takes years to build up cultural organization, and it can be wiped out overnight. Put it this way: even during the best of times, when we had a healthy democratic culture, you still had to deal with bureaucracy and a series of complicated situations. When someone like Bolsonaro is set on sabotaging cultural policies, they don’t have it hard.
I’d like to feel as hopeful as Juliano and think that this moment will pass, and that in a few years we’ll be piecing the cultural industry back together. Because, honestly, not too long ago in Recife, in the Northeast of Brazil, we were not too far off from France, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, or Portugal in terms of government support and investment in culture. Naturally, those types of policies come with their owns sets of problems.
It is especially frustrating to see how the government has sabotaged a gradual, hard-fought effort to make Brazilian audiovisual production more diverse, in terms of race, gender, regions, and social backgrounds. In cinema, we were just starting to see new perspectives and new conversations encouraging people to think about the way this country is wired. In December, for example, something unique happened: São Paulo rapper Emicida released his concert film on Netflix. It was not some bullshit commercial project launched by advertising execs; Emicida’s film is a deeply personal take on Brazil’s violent history of racism. I was glad to see that such a history lesson could receive massive exposure, occupying the place normally reserved for things like The Crown.
You both mention the strength of cultural production in the Northeast of Brazil. One could argue that the region itself is the main character of Bacurau. Given that the Northeast and the Sertão is full of negative stereotypes — poor, simple, backwards, etc. — how did you approach the portrayal of the region and its people?
Kleber and I were always sensitive to the fact that we’re from the city and not the Sertão region. We in no way wanted to go out there and tell people how things should be done. We went to the Sertão — which is a totally singular place — with full awareness that we should let the area guide us and that we would make the film alongside the people from the region. From the get-go, we knew that the people of the Sertão would help to make the film and lend their own viewpoint.
The most common mistake with the Sertão and the Sertanejo is to approach it with the mentality of a filmmaker — the guy who knows everything and wants to impose the image in their head onto their surroundings. That’s what most people — in film, journalism, or telenovelas — do in their representations of Sertanejo culture. I’ve been making films in the Sertão since 2003, and it’s been a process of learning things about the region, growing to feel myself part of it. The Sertão is incredibly rich in culture. So much history, literature, music, and ideas have come from there.
We traveled 11,000 kilometers to find a specific location for shooting. There are thousands of people living in the area, and the casting team did extensive research and worked hard to bring the community into the film. We lived with that community in a warm and respectful environment. That resulted in a more horizontal approach to the filmmaking process, where lots of things ended up in the film that were not even in the script.
I think the question can be answered in three different ways. First, as we’ve already discussed, one of the original inspirations for the film was the existing representation of the Sertão in Brazilian media. What does that representation say about the Sertão? The dominant media portrayal is simplistic, full of prejudices, and completely misinformed about the reality of the region.
Many of the existing prejudices about the region — extreme wealth disparities, hunger, drought, and so on — are not deliberately malicious. Most depictions of the Sertão show the people living a simple lifestyle, talking with a funny accent, and so on. The intentions might not be malicious, but the effects are. With Bacurau, we started out wanting to make something different from the regular, often well-meaning, portrayals of the Sertão as a charming universe that is somehow a world apart.
The second answer, related to the first, is that we wanted to show how the Sertão region is part of our own lives. I’m from Recife, the urban capital of Pernambuco. I’ve always had close friends, family members, and ex-girlfriends from the nearby Sertão region. The Sertão’s speech patterns, literature, and music are all present in one way or another in Recife.
The third factor informing our approach was also the most moving. Like Juliano said, we had to travel far to find the shooting location, and along the way, we had incredible chance encounters. We met a lady who invited us to visit her village’s museum. When we arrived there, the museum was actually a wall with pictures in the woman’s living room. That was the museum.
When we arrived on location to begin production, people showed up from the community wanting to work on the film. There were carpenters, electricians, actors, and actresses, many of whom ended up playing characters in Bacurau. Many of those people, we later learned, were actually the most marginalized members of their community — poets, transgender people, musicians, clowns, actors, homosexuals, crazy people. I think their presence on the set gave the film an added layer of truth to the film.
Brazilian economist Celso Furtado once said of the region: “I discovered in the Northeast that the world is absurd, violent, and unjust.”
We wanted to hear your gut reaction to Furtado’s quote, because in a sense the most progressive visions for nation-building in Brazil have tended to put the Northeast at their center, suggesting, as Furtado did when he was director of the SUDENE (Superintendency for the Development of the Northeast), that the “reality” of Brazil lies in one of its most underdeveloped regions.
Being from the Northeast, the Sertão is part of our life story — even if we are from the city and are middle-class. Coming from the world of culture and cinema, we had a privileged vantage point to see how the region was transformed over the last decades.
People who are from the Northeast have a special sensibility for the social problems of the region. And, in point of fact, the Northeast of Brazil is where one is confronted most powerfully with all the signs of neglect and abandonment — it is the symbol par excellence of Brazil’s inequality.
Bacurau was the vehicle we chose to advance the struggles of the people of the Sertão. One never really knows beforehand what the impact of a film will be, but we felt we had found something potent to convey about the harsh reality of the Northeast, and that we, in our own way, could make a contribution to the advancement of the region.
As someone born in the Northeast, my early childhood was spent traveling through the different parts of the region — including the Sertão. Celso Furtado is, of course, one of Brazil’s greatest minds, but his vision of the Northeast is similar to that of an outsider. My own view of the region is more physical, more immediate. I’m fifty-two years old now, and I have only recently been able to reflect on my earliest memories of traveling as a kid outside the city of Recife, in other parts of the Northeast. There, I saw families suffering from hunger, emaciated children, and people begging for food on the roadside, and those images left a lasting impression on me.
For years, I had completely naturalized that landscape. But as I get older and traveled again throughout the Northeast, I could read the passage of time by noticing that the images I had from my childhood — the starving families, the poverty — were starting to disappear.
It’s impossible to ignore one thing: the shifting human landscape of the region is connected to the social and political work that took place during the Lula years. Lula knew what he was doing, or what he was trying to do. The social landscape of the Northeast became more dignified. I began to see school buses traveling along dirt roads to pick up children in rural farmhouses. Thousands of bicycles were donated so that kids could get to school. And, of course, there were numerous policies for income distribution. It’s really moving to speak with people and realize how much those changes meant to them.
In Bacurau, we wanted to show that human face of Brazil by focusing on the Northeast, a region that, because of how the country was historically organized, always received much less than it deserved. Having said that, Brazil is a country of many different regions, and during the Workers’ Party (PT) years, specifically under Lula, we saw an unprecedented level of respect paid for the entirety of Brazil. The PT administrations grasped that the country’s infrastructure had been laid in a way that was completely wrong.
These ideas were at the front of our minds when we made Bacurau, and in all the films I’ve made, not to mention as a Brazilian citizen.
Could you speak about the central conflict in Bacurau? As the film progresses, we meet the residents of Bacurau, then the invaders — the Americans who are aided by Brazilian collaborators. Finally, the two sides do battle — the residents of Bacurau for survival, and the Americans for reasons that remain obscure. What was the inspiration behind that conflict?
We were thinking about the revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and ’70s. Those films were informed by the Cuban Revolution, popular uprisings, and revolts. As Westerns, they hewed close to the Hollywood formula, but they were also filmed in Spain, produced in Italy, and generally foregrounded a host of political issues absent in normal Westerns.
In the classic Western, you often find a city surrounded by invading villains who want to reduce a people to servitude. But that same dynamic is not unique to Westerns — we were studying the Vietnam War for ideas, too! And we went even further afield, studying Asterix comics — where the Gauls were under siege by the Romans. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the characters in Bacurau are drawn from Asterix.
I think Bacurau is essentially a cathartic film, where some form of justice is meted out. In the first press conference we held in Brazil, a journalist from the Southeast asked us if Bacurau is a revenge film. My response then, as now, was: “Bacurau is not a revenge film. It’s a movie about reaction and reflexes.” It’s a film about what inevitably happens when you bully someone — eventually, they hit back. That’s part of the catharsis of the film, and Bacurau uses aesthetic elements — visual effects, all the tools of commercial cinema — to deal with the issue of violence, which as you probably know is a deep-seated issue in Brazilian history.
Like Juliano said, I think revisiting history can be useful for developing your own original stories. If you’re working with humans and society, most things have already happened before and can be of help for developing your own ideas.
As you mentioned, the idea for the Brazilian “collaborationists” from the Southeast was actually informed by the history of the Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union. Certain Ukrainians felt a greater kinship with the Germans than the Ukrainian people themselves. I was always fascinated by that side of World War II, and I actually think the “collaborationist” dynamic has a way of repeating itself where armed conflicts are concerned.
That realistic precedent was important for driving home the idea that the collaborators are not villains created for the purpose of advancing the plot. They mean something: you think about real conversations you’ve overheard — I’ve overheard — with people from the Southeast talking about the Northeast as if it were a different country. Something clicks historically, socially, and in human terms.
As Juliano said, we were also thinking about which types of Westerns are most “Brazilian” in their sensibility. The classic Westerns of John Ford or Howard Hawks are too glossy. We wanted something rougher, like the Italian Spaghetti Westerns or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
But, to answer your question about conflict, the film is equal parts Western and war film. We had even toyed with the idea of Michael, played by Udo Kier, being executed at the end of the film in a prisoner-of-war style. Again, we were thinking about the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, and all of that. Finally, we opted for a ritual execution reminiscent of The Wicker Man.
But in terms of history, when you make a film set in the Sertão, it’s impossible not to evoke the War of Canudos (a popular uprising in Bahia led by Antônio Conselheiro against the Brazilian army). The museum in Bacurau is full of artifacts that recall that episode as well as others from Brazil’s violent past. Although, just as important as it is to evoke that memory, it was equally important for us and for the film to not explicitly mention it.
In Bacurau, there is a constant allusion to real-life figures, people from Brazilian history whose names need to be said aloud: for example, João Pedro Teixeira (a peasant leader who was murdered by the police in 1962). We organized a list of names that we felt would communicate something to Brazilian society. There was “Marisa,” Lula’s wife, who passed away after suffering terrible political persecution. Marielle (Franco) appears, too. The idea with these names is that the film would not pause a second in mentioning them, that they would enter right into the bloodstream of the film. Eighty years from now, someone will stop and ask themselves: “Who were these people? Ah, I see!” And that, in a sense, is part of what makes it a war film.
I like films that are “greasy.” Not that I have anything against perfectly constructed cinema, but I’m more drawn to films like the early work of Pedro Almodóvar, something like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! that leaves you with a “what the fuck” feeling. I wanted something like that for Bacurau, something that sows confusion in the best possible sense: the film begins as a rural drama, then all of a sudden it’s a thriller, an adventure film, then a Western, a war film, with elements of horror mixed in throughout.
Few people have mentioned Bacurau’s use of the war film genre, but that’s an important part of the conflict that you’ve alluded to. The coffins that figure prominently throughout the film are an allusion to that, a clear postwar scene. I drew the idea in part from Sergei Loznitsa’s incredible film Blockade, about the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. In that film, what appear to be the final scenes show people celebrating in the streets after the defense of Leningrad. But the actual final scene, moments later, shows a group of men being hung — there’s a sense of sadness and tragedy hanging over the events that is proper to war.
It’s interesting that you don’t mention the influence of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, because to an outside observer that would seem to be an obvious precedent. Much of Cinema Novo wanted to abandon Hollywood conventions and break with bourgeois artistic forms. By working within those genre conventions, were you trying to in some sense “subvert” them?
It was always our goal to strike a sharp contrast in Bacurau, combining disparate elements of commercial Hollywood films — using Panavision, adopting the Western format — with the Northeast’s faces, landscape, its harsh sunlight.
I suppose there is something potentially subversive in that combination. We took a certain risk with Bacurau: we wanted to use a certain commercial, Hollywood grammar as a vehicle, precisely to go against common sense, to make something that’s not entirely palatable, and to give expression to a feeling of rebellion.
We also wanted to make a film that was open to multiple different readings, while at the same time speaking clearly to issues intimately connected with Brazil: oppression, inequality, injustice, intolerance, and so on. These are urgent, serious problems in contemporary Brazil, and by combining that urgency with a certain open-ended interpretation, we were willing to take the risk of the film being misinterpreted — without taking that risk, there’s no art.
Speaking of the film’s different receptions, what has the film’s impact been in public debate? For many in Brazil, Bacurau has become a banner in the fight against fascism, state-led violence, discrimination, and a clear statement in favor of democracy; for those who were not fans of the film, it was seen as a kind of populist revenge fantasy . . .
We never set out to make a political film. In fact, it was almost the opposite path: we started by wanting to make a film that we believed in, simply put. And the end result assumed great political relevance. We wanted to make a film about Brazil and Brazilian culture, and, as it turns out, you can’t do that honestly without dealing with social conflict.
Among some sectors, the film was welcomed (or denounced) as a “political film” and, in others, as pure entertainment. There were those viewers less concerned with the political dimension, and they also found a lot in the film. That, in my opinion, is actually the best kind of cinema, the kind that can work on multiple levels and play with different audiences.
Of course, Bacurau is full of politics! There’s no denying it. It’s a film about Brazil and its history, so it is inevitably political. But I think the key when working with political materials is to remain honest to the human drama. If you are making a film with real people in mind, the politics emerge naturally.
Juliano, the film crew, and I were overwhelmed by the impact that Bacurau had. We never expected that it would trigger something so powerful in the imagination of millions of Brazilians. Nowadays, when people hear a political candidate talking bullshit, they immediately think of Tony Junior, the piece-of-shit mayor of Bacurau. It’s been remarkable to see the film become part of the larger culture.
To be honest, Juliano and I are not entirely sure why this has happened. I suppose we always felt drawn to working with a certain set of ideas that are universally understandable: injustice, lack of respect for others, how the poor are treated, the horrors that the rich are capable of. People can grasp these ideas in almost any part of the world.
Traveling throughout the world, we saw the most remarkable things. In Sydney, Australia, we met people who told us: “Bacurau reminds me of an Indigenous village where I worked for twenty years as a social worker.” We heard stories about the Aborigines and the history of Australia, which is very different from that of Brazil, but at the same time not so different. In Los Angeles, everyone wanted to talk about Trump’s border wall, about white people’s perceptions of Latinos, and so on.
In Brazil, the thing that shocked me the most was that many people were scandalized by the film’s treatment of the divide between the South and the Northeast. For millions of Brazilians, that divide is completely apparent, but other people felt that we were being offensive in giving that issue such prominence. But, again, if you live in the Northeast like we do and go somewhere like São Paulo (in the Southeast), you’re immediately hit with culture shock — suddenly all of the economic and racial issues of Brazilian society come into sharp focus. All we did was put that focus into Bacurau — we didn’t exaggerate or make anything up. But, again, some people felt it was offensive to talk about that social division so openly.
Were you at any point concerned that central aspects of the film would be lost on an international audience because of the Brazilian — and not just Brazilian, but regional — references? For example, the film is full of references to Brazil’s colonial history that people outside Brazil might not pick up on.
That’s a hard question to answer, because the film was made very intuitively and without the kind of overarching architecture that your question suggests. I would say that reality itself presented us with the elements you’re alluding to.
For example, we went looking for a house to shoot the villains’ hideout. We found the house, and only then did we notice that inside there was a sign reading “saudade da casa grande” [expressing nostalgia for the colonial plantation era]. That house belonged to a cotton plantation in Rio Grande do Norte, and the sign was from that era — just as we found it. Not only did we not want to remove any part of that era, we wanted to put it into the film.
Another remarkable thing was that at that same plantation house we found American-made cotton-harvesting equipment: cotton gins. The moment we saw that, we knew it would become part of the film. It kind of drove home the point that even if the Brazilian colonial experience is part of the film’s background, colonialism is not a uniquely Brazilian experience.
When the film started to screen internationally, people in Brazil took a conservative stance. There’s a term in Brazil — “the vira-lata complex” [Brazilian inferiority complex] — that led many to think that a film that was so Brazilian, it couldn’t possibly play well in the United States, or that the film would be taken as anti-American.
The film in fact feeds on the heritage and love of American images and cinema, but it also questions the role of the United States in history — that’s the only way one could construe it as “anti-American.” Bacurau was well received and well understood in the United States and in other countries. This provincial way of looking down on a Brazilian-made film says more about the current national mindset than anything else.
A lot happened in Brazil during the ten years it took to make Bacurau: Dilma Rousseff was reelected in 2014, only to be ousted two years later in a coup; socialist councilwoman Marielle Franco was assassinated; and in 2018, Bolsonaro was elected. What was it like to make a film inspired by the history of Brazilian society when that history was shifting so radically?