Monday, November 8, 2010

Amazonas Film Festival spotlights local and international culture

By Sarah Sluis

The Amazonas Film Festival suggests a jungle location, but the festival's center couldn't be anything different: The Teatro Amazonas, a European-style opera house in the midst of Manaus, Brazil. In the late 1800s, the city had a monopoly on the rubber trade, creating a sophisticated populace with rubber barons wealthy enough to import European stone for their buildings. The building could have been indistinguishable from an Old World opera house, if not for the fact that instead of rolling out the red carpet, they would place rubber on top of the paving stones in order to dampen the noise of the horses and carriages pulling up to the porte-cochere.

P1000906 If the Manaus citizens of a century ago wanted to import everything European, this year's festival is about developing and celebrating local culture. After six years of being run by the French PR company Le Public Systeme, the festival has been reclaimed by the local government. The reimagined festival has dialed down the celebrity while emphasizing the films and stars important to the region. There's also an emphasis on including Manaus citizens in the festival. There are filmmaking workshops, community screenings in remote areas, prisons, and hospitals, and even one and four-minute films playing at bus terminals.

The premiere on Friday night reflected the festival's emphasis on "local." Government officials like the Secretary of Culture, Roberio Braga, received the most attention, as did many of Brazil's soap stars. The nationally-run programs make their stars instant celebrities, and actors often work back and forth between television and film for their careers. The first short film, "UaYNA: Tears of Poison," featured indigenous actors and had a folklore touch, leading to an enthusiastic round of applause, Waste Land, the opening night feature selection, also inspired intense discussion and received a positive reception from the crowd. The documentary centers on the Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who decides to create portraits of trash pickers at a giant landfill, Jardim Gramacho. The pickers earn their living by searching through the refuse for recyclable materials, and Muniz uses these materials in order to create his works of art. Given the film's sometimes critical look at Brazilian society, it was interesting to see it with a local audience, who had their own observations about poverty in the cities.

The selection of culturally specific films continued through the second night. The short film "Recife Frio" (Cold Tropics) brought peals of laughter from the opera boxes. The documentary-style short investigated how a sudden and permanent cold front, caused on by a meteorite, affected citizens in the coastal town of Recife. Interviews with a Santa Claus, a rich Brazilian family living in a beachfront condo, and a hotel owner helped shape the story. In one scene, a boy switches rooms with the family's maid because the tiny room was warmer, mixing humor with social bite. Silly details, like the boy using his hair dryer to keep warm and the maid using an iron to heat up her bed, added even more laughs. The feature selection, the Chinese film Aftershock, was also rooted in place. The historical drama was like a Chinese version of the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor, with a jingoistic tone and many overwrought moments involving the love and obligations between family members.

Speakers during opening night singled out the festival for bringing film to areas outside of Brazil's two main cultural centers, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janerio. During the reception the second night, a party attendee reflected on the attitude. Brazilians prize film as "culture with a capital C," British expat Adrian Barnett put it, "like France, it's about �big C' culture." When I met with Braca, the Secretary of Culture, he also referred to Manaus' Francophile past, adding that during the rubber days everyone "lived like the French and spent like the British." During the economic contraction that followed after Malaysia established cheaper rubber plantations, most of the intellectuals left the region. Now that Manaus' economy has recovered, it's time to bring culture back.

The festival also has a focus on environmentalism. The conservation of the jungle in Amazonas is a point of national pride, and there's also the hope that culture plus a pristine jungle environment will elevate the city internationally. The Amazonas region is in fact remarkably well-preserved compared to other Brazilian states (98% remains jungle). Barnett, a biologist, mused that some of that can be attributed to the vagaries of local politics, like not having a soybean farmer elected as a politician. The environmental enthusiasm of those at the festival is real, but also reflects the viewpoints of a group of people who are "like Greenwich Village," he said, more liberal and artistic than the general population. Secretary of Culture Braca expressed hope that Amazon's natural environment could turn it into a popular location for film production, as well as cultivate interest and knowledge in the region abroad. For those new to Manaus, there's also an important lesson to learn. "There's no crocodiles running around in the streets," he joked.

The Amazonas Film Festival runs through November 11, so stay tuned for more updates.

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