Gabriel Mascaro by Giovanni Marchini Camia

Cemeteries and mansions by the sea.

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Still from August Winds, 2014, directed by Gabriel Mascaro. Image courtesy of the artist.

After the documentaries High-Rise (2009) and Housemaids (2012), which explored the domestic realities of Brazil’s privileged urban class, Gabriel Mascaro turned his camera to the periphery with August Winds. Set in a remote coastal village in northern Brazil, the film expands the director’s artistic exploration of social divisions in his country. Working within a fictional framework for the first time, Mascaro uses the central story of a young couple—a local boy working on coconut fields and a girl from the city caring for her ailing grandmother and dreaming of becoming a tattoo artist—to initiate a meditation on life and death, with the coast’s rising sea level and its inherent destruction acting as a powerful metaphorical backdrop.

Although Mascaro includes himself in the role of a wind researcher whose arrival catalyzes the protagonists’ existential confusion, the film is uninterested in building a strong narrative. Rather, it is a careful observation of mood made up of a collection of snippets from life in the village, largely held in static shots that embed the characters in the setting’s sumptuous nature. Short, fragmented conversations are interspersed with gorgeous, effortlessly evocative images: the girl tanning supine on a fishing boat out at sea in front of a perfectly limpid horizon; the couple entwined in a post-coital embrace on top of a trailer full of green, freshly-picked coconuts; a cemetery on the beach, its graves eroded by the constant lapping of the waves. The result is beautiful, languid, and thoroughly melancholic.

August Winds was one of the finds at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, earning Mascaro a Special Mention at the awards ceremony. I spoke with the thirty-one-year-old director during the festival and he revealed how reality had dictated the direction of the film’s fiction before discussing his interests and principles as a filmmaker navigating the threshold between reality and fiction.

Giovanni Marchini Camia At the end of the film you show a cemetery on the beach. The way it’s being swallowed up by the high tide provides such a beautiful closing metaphor. Is it true that the cemetery was actually your starting point for this project?

Gabriel Mascara Yes. I did a long trip to the northeast of Brazil and I started to see big mansions that were being swept up by the sea. Then I found the cemetery on the beach. The cemetery in the film is real and the people still have this connection with bones that sometime come in from the sea. I interviewed people and heard stories of fishermen who would occasionally catch bones when they were fishing with their nets. So the cemetery provided a fictional structure to deal and interact with this background, this real situation.

When the sea is at high tide, you can’t walk down to water because of the mansions. The whole coast is like a fight between nature and big mansions. It struck me so strongly, the way this small village has become coexistent with these big mansions on the seacoast. At the same time, the residents have this connection in terms of their mindset about how the sea is destroying some part of their lives. Both poor people and very rich people are being swept away.

GMC And yet, when the protagonist tries to bring a dead body he finds in the water to the police, he finds himself completely disconnected from the rest of society.

GM The state has no control of his life and he lives completely marginalized from the state infrastructure. He finds the body, but the police don’t come; he tries to call them, but he has no address to give them; he brings the body to the police, but the police aren’t there. At the same time, the whole world is talking about the rising sea level, which brings in an international perspective. But this village in Brazil is experiencing it in a very specific way. That’s why I didn’t want to make a broad analysis of the international phenomenon, but to think about how this global event is incorporated in this very, very local reality—how they deal with the bodies washing up to shore. They have a saying there, that the people who die there don’t go to hell or paradise, they go to the sea.

I’m interested in how to represent this—how not to think about an isolated village in pure terms, because everything is connected. This is why we tried to connect the girl’s dreams of being tattoo artist, of punk rock—part of the soundtrack is No Wave punk rock from California—and use such relationships to deal with these subjects of life and death, real or fiction.

GMC All your films merge reality and fiction, fiction and documentary. This is the closest you’ve come to making a fully fictional feature. What were your intentions in this regard?

GM I like to reflect on how documentaries can be violent towards people and how sometimes fiction can be more honest than documentaries and their reality. That’s why I created this character of the sound researcher, who is played by myself—my first character. (laughter) For me, it was interesting to experience this tense relationship between an external character who comes into a local village and, in a way, reveals power relationships.

The first question people ask him is, “Do you make money with wind?” That’s the point for me: how you can think about this friction between different realities. The wind is part of the villagers’ life as well, more so than for the sound researcher—the sea levels, the tide, they’re all connected to the wind—so their expectations were totally different. He’d ask, “Can you tell me where I can find more wind?” And she asks, “You want noise?” “No, no, I want the sound of the wind.” Complete misunderstanding, lost in translation, because of different realities. I’m trying to show how making documentaries reflects that, in a way. I feel it myself, making documentaries, how violent it can be.

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Still from August Winds, 2014, directed by Gabriel Mascaro. Image courtesy of the artist.

GMC The film feels very free and fluid. I imagine you worked from a set of ideas rather than a very concrete script?

GM A lot of the situations are very fictionalized, but obviously, we tried to incorporate some real, amazing moments that happened to us. We created some fictional structures and tried to use the real elements to break these fictional structures. For example, the skull with the golden teeth was total improvisation. The encounter with the fisherman was real, so the actress was acting the role, but the fisherman didn’t know that he was part of a scene and he just recognized the skull.

GMC That was an actual skull you found?

GM We found a skull but we put in the golden teeth. That addition was fictional, but he recognized the skull anyway: “I met this guy 40 years ago, he had the same two golden teeth.” I don’t know if he was lying for my benefit or not, but that’s the point: even I don’t know where the fiction starts and the reality finishes. The boundaries are completely mixed. What is fiction flourished into real, and what was real became fictional. At the same time, we started editing during production so that we could change directions while shooting.

GMC What were some of the more major changes that came about by working this way?

GM For example, the character Shirley didn’t exist at first. The actress lived in the village for two weeks, and built a relationship with the grandmother. The first scene of the film we shot was the talk with the grandmother about ghosts, where she says she sees ghosts and sees her parents. That turned out to be so central to the film, so we then developed this character who didn’t exist before. We were completely open to ideas that could improve and develop what would work in terms of fiction and documentary.

The relationship didn’t exist at first, the actors created it through their preparations. But that character was completely based on what happened. The first thing we shot was their conversation and it was so amazing that I started rewriting the script to develop that situation.

GMC The film, just like High-Rise and Housemaids, is very observational. Could you elaborate on your approach?

GM I’m really interested in power relationships. Housemaids was about a very specific situation between adolescents and their housemaids, while in this film it’s the relationship between my external character who is doing very weird, very technical, research, and the village and how it connects. When I arrive, I bring the storms with me. That’s what the art and documentary and fiction does by entering their lives—it brings a storm. The art brings the meaning of something and also the inutility, because, ultimately, the character of the wind researcher is very weird: what’s the use of researching the sound of the wind? Making films is a bit like that, trying to find the use in apparently useless things, useless moments.

GMC As a filmmaker interested in filming social realities, but not in a strict documentarian sense, do you have an ethic? What’s your opinion on the responsibility of the filmmaker?

GM In this film, I try to problematize exactly the ethical experience of being in contact with other cultures, with the otherness. That’s what’s weird about the character of the wind researcher. He comes from a very outside world and brings these ethical contradictions into the village. It’s also a reflection of the ethics of the documentary experience. Making documentaries is also a gesture of violence. You are violating reality. People have a very naïve idea of documentaries as a very positive strategy for describing reality, for showing and representing people and otherness. In this film, I was trying to say that this relationship can also be very violent, very tense. It’s a problematization of the ethical relationships within these asymmetric worlds.

GMC And the villagers themselves, how did they feel about your presence? Did they find it weird?

GM Sure, they thought it was weird. Sometimes they weren’t too happy, because we spent a lot of time telling them to please be quiet, to not switch on their radios because we were recording and so forth. Yet, I also don’t want to legitimize the process. The process was not necessarily about making people happy, you know? That’s why I wanted to say and show how making films can also be violent. By making films, you’re always intervening in reality and you are dealing everyday with shifting relations and expectations.

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Still from August Winds, 2014, directed by Gabriel Mascaro. Image courtesy of the artist.

GMC Since you recognize that it is a violent act you’re engaging in, where do you set your boundaries?

GM I think if you cross boundaries, it’s nice to at least show how crossing boundaries is part of the game, part of dealing with the representation of otherness, part of playing with the subjects’ expectations of how you’ll represent them. Dealing with reality is a very complicated subject. (laughter) At the same time I’m not worried about crossing borders because that is part of my research. My interest in making films is an interest in crossing ethical borders, and how these ethical boundaries can be problematized within the film.

For example, in Housemaids, I had no contact with the housemaids. My relationship was with the teenagers, the bosses of the housemaids. I said, “You’re going to film your housemaid for one week and then you’ll give me the raw material and I’m going to edit it together to make the film. You deal with her about payment and about whether she wants to be part of the project or not.” That’s why your question is important, because crossing boundaries is part of the project and it’s really part of the film. Throughout the whole film you can feel how uncomfortable that is. The asymmetry of power relationships is part of the game.

August Winds screens on January 18 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City as part of their exemplary First Look Series. For more on the work of Gabriel Mascaro, click here.

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic and one of the founders and editors of Fireflies.

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