On the ghosts we keep close and Brazilian cinema with Beatriz Seigner
Ivana Hucíková 15/1/2020

Beatriz Seigner is an award winning Brazilian writer, director and producer best known for her recent film Los Silencios which premiered at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. The film follows a widowed mother and her children trying to make a living on the Colombia-Brazil-Peru border after they were forced to leave their home due to the Colombian FARC conflict. The family finds themselves on an island where the borders between the dead and the living seem to disappear.

The film is now available for streaming on HBO GO in Slovakia and Czech republic.

Beatriz was recently in Bratislava for couple of weeks as a resident of the Pop Up Film Residency program which allowed me to talk to her in person about her relationship to filmmaking, her film Los Silencios and the recent situation in Brazil after the government stopped supporting independent Brazilian filmmakers.

IH: What brought you to filmmaking?

BS: I grew up in a neighbourhood of Sao Paolo where there was a lot of cinema theatres and where the Sao Paolo Film Festival takes place. So since I was a child, Id listen to people talk about films . My parents would go see a movie every Saturday and then theyd talk about it at home so films were always around me. Later I joined a theatre company that was doing some work in a favela in Sao Paolo and a friend of mine told me about a filmmaking workshop. I was 15 years old at the time so I decided to give it a try. We produced a short film at that workshop and it was a really nice moment because we got to show the film to the community in the favela. They were all touched to see themselves on screen and after the screening, they approached me and one of them told me: ”You know, I never thought I could be a hero!” which was for me a very powerful moment. I realized I could change someones life or perspective. I also experienced a moment of returning the favor back to the community after they agreed to let me into their lives with the camera. Its always very important to think about these things when we work with minority groups. We always have to have their dignity in mind. Because even when people only have a little, they try their best to make it work and they usually take better care of what they have than those who have plenty.

IH: What is your writing process like? How do you approach an idea before you see it as a movie?

BS: I pay attention to ideas and stories around me. I had a friend, who shared their childhood experience with me which had touched me on a very deep level because I kept dreaming about it. So I knew I needed to write it down in order to give it a form and then I immersed myself in the research. That’s when the idea began to have a more concrete shape and Los Silencios was created. During this process I had interview over 80 Colombian families living in Brazil, who shared their experiences with resistance and loss with me.
The ideas can come from anything really. But the research process is crucial. I interview many people but then I never come back to the recordings. I just have things from those discussions stuck inside me and that’s what I always end up using and working with.

IH: Following things that got stuck with you and then digging deeper to discover what they really mean to you sounds like a very emotion-based work process. Do you always trust your emotions or do you tend to involve rational thinking as well?

BS: It’s probably a combination of both. I made a habit of writing for 3 to 4 hours every day when my son is at school so I created a routine of sorts for myself to get me into the creative mode. I found out that it’s easier for me to create a structure of the story first and then fill it with the characters and stories than the other way around. The structure can change a lot and sometimes when you come to the end of the movie you realize it has to have a different beginning. I also like to make a timeline with different color paper stick notes for each character or a place in the movie which I put up on a wall and that helps me see the story better.  Though it can be a little chaotic, especially with kids…

(we were interrupted briefly by the little son of Beatriz, who wanted to share his mom’s tiramisu. When Beatriz asked him what he did with his tiramisu, he replied: “Grandma ate it all!” Grandma rolled her eyes and laughed when she heard him say that.)

BS: I’m here in Bratislava for 3 weeks now at the Pop Up Film Residency, where I am focusing on writing a new project. So it was interesting to start the first two weeks with just me and nobody else interrupting me while I work. As you can imagine that is quite unusual for me. I can’t afford to spend more than 3 to 4 hours a day on work due to my family and other commitments. Time is most definitely a luxury.

IH: Congratulations on your movie Los Silencios. It is truly a beautiful and poetic but also a heartbreaking film. Can you tell me more about your experience with working with people from the island?

BS: I wanted to make the movie with the people who experienced the violence in their real lives. One of them was a man who used to be part of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, which is a guerrilla movement involved in the continuing Colombian armed conflict starting in 1964) for something over 15 years. He has a line in the movie where he says: We are all sons of the same poor people.” We also had military people in the movie or those, who lost their parents to the war. I knew I could get a lot of testimonials for the film from them but what I didn’t anticipate was how strong their stories would be. We casted them for the roles based on themselves but we had no idea what they were about to say when we actually started rolling. And experiencing their stories with them while we filmed was a strong moment for all of us.

I made a deliberate choice of bringing out people from both sides of the conflict and asked everyone if they were okay to share their experience because I didn’t want to cheat them into an uncomfortable situation. They all agreed to do it and they all had very strong motivations for it too, such as not wanting their own children to grow up with guns in their hands. At the beginning I thought they would talk about the peace agreement but I was surprised to see they talked about forgiveness which was definitely a much deeper and stronger experience than I initially anticipated. And not everyone was able to forgive but we could also see that people respected that and weren’t judgmental at all. These things are always more complicated in real life but what I was really grateful for was when I saw that this experience has brought them all a bit closer to each other. Even though it was really hard, it created a space for healing too.

These people belong there and the conflict is so alive among them and their community. They brought depths to the film that I with my limited experience with these things could have never imagined. And I also love working on the thin border between fiction and documentary as well.

IH: Which also brings us back to your first experience with filming in the favela – to be able to give back to the community and how important that is when making a movie about the real lives of people.
Who was a professional actor casted for this and what was your approach as a director to those who didn’t have previous experience in acting, especially with the kids and knowing they also come from a different culture and speak a different language than you do.

BS: We actually had only two professional actors the mother and the father. We rehearsed for over a month before the filming. I had a great Colombian casting coach with me, Carlos Medina, who was very experienced and I knew I could always rely on his help if needed. The only ones who read the script were the two actors because I didn’t want the rest to memorize the script word by word. I told them we would improvise a lot and discover the story together. So over the rehearsals they were introduced to the story and to the characters which was a very powerful experience for everyone involved. We made sure to include a lot of improvisation games, especially for the kids where we would play scenes from their characters life and their family which didn’t end up in the movie but it helped them better navigate the relationships and to kind of create a real memories of moments with their film family so that they could use that experience later while filming.

IH: Los Silencios beautifully depicts the notion of water. Its interesting how that means a different thing for each character. Was that your initial approach? Making water one of the protagonists of your movie, so to speak?

BS: Yes, exactly! The island we ended up filming at was really ideal for what I wanted to communicate. The houses are built on water which was a nice symbol of the grief the mother feels and the ways it comes in and then leaves. The final procession at the end of the movie takes place on the river which is also a collective form of letting go so water was definitely a very important element for the story, the characters and also visually. The island actually appeared only couple of years ago because of the climate change and the decline of water level in the region so the land just appeared there out of nowhere and people would simply move in. To this day it stays flooded for 4 months of the year and the rest of the year its over the water level. Also each side of the island belongs to a different country. One to Brazil, the other to Peru and the other one to Colombia.

IH: Which sounds like a land of everyone and no-one at the same time.

BS: Exactly. Nobody is from there so they are all basically immigrants. But at the same time they all fight hard to preserve that piece of land because they created a community there.

IH: Im glad you mentioned the immigration issue because I found this film to be a very interesting take on the refugee crisis in the world in general. You can take the experience of the family in Los Silencios to Mexico, to Europe or essentially anywhere in the world and their stories will be very similar.

BS: When we screened the film at the Cannes film festival, there was this one lady that approached me with tears in her eyes and told me:Thank you, I am now in peace with my ghosts. I am a refugee from Sarajevo. I had moved to France but I still live with them. Because I cannot leave them behind. And I used to be ashamed of that but not anymore so thank you!” That was the very first thing Id heard from the audience member after the premiere and to this day it is the most special one for me.

IH: Thats what really touched me too. One might think of this story as a very region specific one but then at the end you realize it is actually a very universal experience. We all have our ghosts that we dont want to let go.

BS: I love that notion too. That there are some ghosts who are here to take care of you and sometimes you take care of them too. Thats also why my intention was not to make them scary. The experience is definitely universal which brings me back to the water element as well. I thought about the conflict of the movie as a little drop of water that starts creating circles which means it becomes a conflict of the island and then a conflict of those who are dead and those alive which grows into a story about borders. It starts as a small particular story but becomes a universal one at the end.

IH: The movie uses a very specific visual representation for these supernatural entities which is as you say not scary but very specific and poetic in a way. Does that body paint have cultural significance for that specific region, Brazil or South America in general?

BS: People in the Amazonia use these colors a lot. They dress in neon colors, they paint their houses in neon colors. I was very intrigued by that so I asked them why they keep using them everywhere and someone explained to me that they use a lot of ayahuasca for healing rituals there. And in these rituals, many people experience seeing the spirits of their ancestors and nature around them in those colors. So I decided to use this concept in the film as well. It allowed me to make the characters of the film understand their own death step by step. You can see the colors from the very beginning of the film but only a few ones and theyre very small. But they grow and become more dominant as people realize their spiritual existence.
As people from South America, we always want to stay true and somehow connected to our indigenous ancestors who are with us in our rituals or in the way we see life. I wanted to reflect on that too and the colors enabled it beautifully. The ever present connection to our ancestors.

IH: The cinematic approach of the camera reminded me of works of Lucrecia Martel. They were static for the most part and you almost didn’t use any close up shots, not even in the moments with strong emotional struggles. How did you create the cinematic language for Los Silencios?

BS: I work with a great DP, Sofia Oggioni and when we were getting ready for filming we had a few things that were very important to me in mind.
One of them was – violence is outside of the frame. Most of the time violence is only echoed as a memory or a sound. Thats how you understand the context of it. For instance theres a moment in the movie when a boat passes but it seems like a sound of a helicopter approaching. And this specific approach comes from Lucrecia yes. She does a lot of this too. We actually used more than 27 mics at the same time to record the sounds of nature. All of which comes to life when you see the movie in a movie treater where you can hear the movement in the sound and not only see it on the screen. I also decided to use a little distortion in the sound whenever a ghost would be present. For those scenes we enhanced the sounds of nature which subconsciously gives you feeling that something is out of place.
The other thing I had in mind for this was to film a lot of scenes at night. I wanted to have those scenes really dark with almost black parts in the frame to again symbolize death and things we dont see.
And the last thing was the lighting of the scenes. Theres always just one small source of light in the scene – a lamp or a candle and the rest of the frame is pretty dark. Which to me also symbolized our assumptions about different people, cultures or immigrants. We dont know their stories, we just see a little fragment of their lives and the rest is hidden in the darkness for us.

IH: What is the situation in Brazil in terms of cinema and making movies at the moment? We hear a lot of Brazilian filmmakers speaking up about the changes in financing and overall attempts of the government to erase the voices of those who might pose as an opposition to the current president. What has changed for filmmakers since Bolsonaro and how are you dealing with that?

BS: Its been honestly very difficult. Were hopeful this is just a phase but its highly unlikely. The government has stopped any form of public funding. The National Agency of Cinema is sort of blocked at the moment. The president only allows for certain kind of films to be made, specifically Christian films. If the films dont portray Christian values, he will not agree for the National Agency of Cinema to continue. Its hard with Bolsonaro, because he consistently says so many horrible things that its just hard to know what he means for real. They have cancelled a grant for an LGBTQI series but the producers managed to come through with the project anyway so its really hard and also hard to tell what will happen next. Its not looking well though.
I think I will finance my next project only with the financial support of co-producers from abroad. Its very hard to accept any kind of Brazilian financing at the moment because you have to submit the accounting documents to the government and if they find (or invent) a mistake or an issue in them, you might have to return all the financing or even end up in jail. The same goes for essentially any art form in Brazil at the moment, not only cinema. Anything that deals with queer people, queerness or the dictatorship period of our history is being censored.
We had a case of a whistleblower within one art institution who described how they were asked to go through peoples Facebook profiles and see if they are openly against the government. And in case they were, they would stop the sponsorship of their work. This is very sad especially now, because Brazilian cinema today is very strong. We have a lot of films premiering at the best film festivals around the world and receiving a lot of awards and nominations. The whole world is watching Brazilian films and celebrating our cinema except for our own government. That means that more than 300 000 people who work in the art will most probably not be able to continue working or provide for themselves and their families.

IH: What are you working on at the moment?

BS: The story is set in the contemporary Sao Paolo society and follows a group of radical Christian people. I know how it sounds but its actually a love story and deals with a love triangle in a setting that is based on very dogmatic Christian values. Its going to be very different to Los Silencios. I like taking up different topics for new projects.
Here in Bratislava, I am able to write approximately 10 pages a day so Ive put together the whole structure for the movie together with my mentor Joëlle Touma. Now, I just have to finish the draft version of the script and translate it. I am also finishing working on a documentary that I filmed in Africa.

IH: Fingers crossed for all your future projects and thank you for finding the time to talk to me!

BS: Of course!

Los Silencios
Los Silencios
Los Silencios
Los Silencios
Los Silencios
Los Silencios