In the darkness of a nightclub, hairdresser Porck and firefighter Dayana try their luck as Brega singers while plotting their course from studio to stage. Gestures are followed by melodies about love, betrayal, luxury and power in an experimental documentary about how pop music is experienced as a new form of labour in the Northeast of Brazil.
Fernanda Brenner: Can you tell me about the preparation process of You are seeing things, from the research to the script, and also how you choose the cast and locations?
Bárbara Wagner: The film takes its title from an old Brega song in which a male singer imagines being betrayed while he’s at work. The theme goes on about his suffering and true love, until a female voice cuts into the tune saying that “it’s all an illusion from his heart”, and that he’s “seeing things”. We took those lyrics as a starting point to reflect on what the image of Brega is made of today. Traditionally seen by an elite as a kitsch music style performed by ‘poor yet glamorous people’, but that today became a huge media phenomenon produced by popular artists who know very well how to deal with their own image, the subject presents itself as an urgent matter to be approached by audiovisual documentary form.
Benjamin de Burca: Brega emerged in the 70’s as a sort of contrast to Bossa Nova, rooted in a formula that combined romantic melodies with unpretentious lyrics often considered of ‘bad taste.’ Today it evolved into a good humoured form that presents the body and voice of youngsters living in the peripheries of Recife, in the Northeast of Brazil, where we are currently based. Only very recently they started gaining access to technology in order to make their own audiovisual material. It’s not a coincidence that music videos made exclusively for Youtube are the catalyst of that new industry, similar to Funk in Rio and São Paulo, or Arrocha in Bahia. We started looking more attentively at it in 2013, following local singers, DJs and MCs from recording studios to nightclubs. We also documented the making of their videoclip productions. That’s when we understood that the majority of these artists are part of a generation that is experiencing making a living from music for the first time. Many of them do keep a double life as security guards, street vendors, bricklayers, motoboys... dreaming that someday they will reach thousands of online followers.
BW: It’s a sign of the times resulting from the policies introduced under the Workers’ Party government, which indeed raised people’s power to consume. When we cast actual members of the Brega scene to participate in the film, Dayana and Porck—her as firefighter and singer, him as a hairdresser and MC—seemed to synthesise these thoughts. For them, as it is for us, art is an uncertain and precarious form of affective labour. In order to approach these ideas differently from the usual exotic take on the subject, we chose shooting the whole film in a black box. In the dark, under LED lights, among moments of silence, we wanted to depict how the characters work their own image and voice into the world of spectacle. The nightclub ‘Planeta Show,’ where both of the protagonists perform in a regular basis, was then quite a natural location for the film.
FB: Looking at your photographic work and also the films, it seems that you always manage to convey the vulnerable side of your subjects. The film is set in a nightclub, where gestures are accompanied both by Brega melodies and ‘technical noises’ such as a metronome, and the characters are seen in intimate ‘backstage’ situations apart from the highly sexualised and ostentatious imagery of the video clips. I was struck by this constant shift between vulnerability and self-esteem you explore in the film. Can you describe how you dealt with the characters playing themselves and how this process unfolded?
BdB: The interesting thing about singers and dancers in the Brega industry is that they are already very practiced in ‘playing themselves’ in terms of how they perform via online platforms, videoclips and concerts. So our participation in recording their process of managing their own image is not unimaginable. From casting to tech-scouting and scripting, we developed a methodology in which trust runs both ways so that we learn to become able to echo the subjects’ ideas about success and visibility. Unlike conventional narrative cinema, we do not tell people what to do. Unlike observational cinema, we do not restrain from engagement. The plot is therefore developed in an active relationship with the subject, and in the end we never really control what the result should look like. More than that, audiences must find for themselves what the message mean to them.
BW: Also, a lot has to be said about how we shoot what we shoot. Our closest collaborator is cinematographer Pedro Sotero, who has a very fine intuition and precise understanding on the impact of his camera work and positioning. In other words, we are never too close as to be celebrating what we portray, neither so far to be just implying some distant criticism. It’s about what I have been trying to reach as a documentary photographer in the last 15 years: we are both there, camera and subject.
FB: This is the second time you look into Brazil’s—or more precisely Recife’s—reality through its musical styles. Music is something immensely important to Brazilian culture, and when one pays attention to the countries’ popular music is easy to acknowledge that Brazil is one of the world’s most miscegenated and, at the same time, unequal countries in the world. How do you see Brazil’s complex reality reflected in its musical culture?
BdB: Recife is a contradictory city located at the edge of economic and political power in Brazil. Here, illegal real state developments are replacing entire communities historically connected to its mangroves. Yet the place maintains its powerful popular music scene that runs from an inherited tradition of African festive and religious rituals to a quite accelerated incorporation of American pop influences. Our first film is on Frevo, which in Portuguese comes from the verb “ferver” (to boil) and derives from 19th century Capoeira moves, originally executed on the streets and strongly connected to black people’s resistance to slavery and oppression. Today it has become an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO and is mainly performed by a generation that already learnt to dance on stage for an audience and, of course, for the camera.
BW: It’s called “Faz que Vai”—after the name of a Frevo step that infers a moment of imbalance—and portrays four dancers in their ways of articulating that virile popular dance with gender and socio-economic issues. Not by coincidence they are all youngsters who live in peripheral areas of the city, are gay or transgender making money by dancing Frevo during Carnival and other pop styles through the rest of the year. For us, the film is not only a comment on the aesthetics of that musical form, but an observation of a social scope that has the highest rates of homicides of transvestites, transgender and homosexuals in the world. Dancing on stage is their weapon of resistance in a country that often sees itself as a racial democracy in a fantasised way.
BdB: We are now just finishing our third film, this time looking at the recent wave of evangelism dominating public debate in Brazil. It’s called Terremoto Santo (Holy Tremor) and concentrates on different aspects of Gospel music produced and performed by young preachers, singers and composers living in the sugar cane areas of the Brazilian Northeast. This summer, we will embark in the adventure of researching on Schlager for the Skulptur Projekte in Münster. If its true that the heart of a culture is in its popular songs, then it seems we still have a lot to do making documentary musicals.
Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Búrca, Estás vendo coisas (You are seeing things), 4K, colour, sound 5.1, 16min, 2017, Brazil
Courtesy: the artists and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Cinematographer: Pedro Sotero
Executive producer: Carol Vergolino
Sound design: Daniel Turini and Fernando Henna
Original Soundtrack: Dany Bala, Tiquinho Lira and Carlos Sá
With: MC Porck, Dayana Paixão, Leydson Dedesso, Neguinho Do Charme, Alan Kassio, Italo Monteiro, Jurema Fox
Supported by: Fundo de Incentivo à Cultura do Estado de Pernambuco (Funcultura), The Arts Council of Ireland, 32nd Biennial of São Paulo, Solo Shows and Dubcolor.
Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca Brenner, F., Wagner, B., & de Burca, B. Vdrome. Retrieved 19 October 2021
One Hundred Steps
review by Sanne Jehoul
For the past eight years, filmmaking duo Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca have been developing a hybrid practice that infuses a documentary-fiction blend with musical performance. With an emphasis on socio-political, historical and geographical layers of different musical genres, they collaborate with the artists in their works to excavate hidden and marginalised histories, from Brazil to Canada to Germany. Their latest film ‘One Hundred Steps’, which was shot during the pandemic and premiered at Berlinale this year, was informed by Irish filmmaker and writer Bob Quinn (º1930), particularly his documentary quartet and book ‘Atlantean’. Quinn’s diversions from the dominant Eurocentric views on Irish heritage and history exposed the influence of North African culture on the Irish, a result of the trade travel across the Atlantic seaways, providing an anti-colonial counterpoint to mainstream narratives.
As Quinn’s work involved tracing connections between traditional Irish song and dance (sean-nós) and Arabic equivalents, his relevance to Wagner and de Burca’s practice is only natural. ‘One Hundred Steps’ begins looking out of a window in Bantry House in the south west of Ireland, an aristocratic 18th century stately home. Wagner and de Burca’s musical performers start off as visitors in the house, which today is a museum exhibiting the abundance of art and artefacts collected by the Earls of Bantry on European travels. Shot in black and white, the film from the outset emphasises the status quo preserved in these privileged spaces that, as the artists say, “stood for empirical knowledge”, determined by an elite. The camera slowly and carefully moves through the house’s exhibition rooms, much like we would as visitors in these spaces, yet in this case the centrepieces it rests on are the subtly provocative performances by traditional Irish musicians, sean-nós singers and dancers, who “are never represented in the house, but they perform in it”. This first chapter closes with a young singer walking up the titular one hundred steps found in the estate’s gardens and looking out over the house and grounds, positioning herself above this symbol of the landlord class and excessive private wealth.
The second part of ‘One Hundred Steps’ moves to Marseille and mirrors the structure of the first half, this time taking place in Musée Grobet-Labadié, a bourgeois townhouse built in the 19th century for a rich local politician. This house too exhibits the wealth of art collected by its former owners over years of continental travels. Here, Wagner and de Burca provide a stage for North African musicians living in Marseille, a city that is home to over 150,000 people from the Maghreb region — immigration that is of course linked to France’s colonial past. Presenting these lavish rooms as if within them time is frozen in favour of an old elitism, the film points towards a need for more meaningful engagement. The performers therefore provide dynamism and are able to claim space by occupying it with their own cultural heritage and presence in the city. In one scene, three men play a game of cards, scored by urban street sounds, blending what is a casual daily outdoor setting for Marseille’s real inhabitants with the pristine delicacy of the sitting room.
In both parts, those who would never have had access to these spaces in the past are given room for expression of a rich culture and identity, providing musical evocations of marginalised histories and cultures as opposed to the pretence of truths on offer in collections tied to colonial history. The performers hold these spaces in these moments — in the words of Wagner and de Burca, “a form of negotiating with that history” — and through doing so infuse it with a more complex and layered past. In contrast, when we hear the museum tour guides speak of the collection portraits on display, the camera refuses to make those portraits visible.
Wagner and de Burca’s approach of centring these musical traditions and connections to address the gaps in dominant narratives is effective because, instead of offering anything as a straight factual counterpoint, the performances themselves demand reconsideration. ‘One Hundred Steps’ might feel weighty, the density of its historical, cultural and socio-political framework palpable and seemingly hard to penetrate, yet this plays in favour of its thesis. Like the artists’ other works, it urges audiences to be responsive and attentive to obscured yet significant stories in a manner that prioritises interpretation and expression over didacticism. We receive these performances without elucidation, much like we might receive the collections in these houses, but they work as interventions, as invitations to be less passive about our engagement with presentations of art and history. The film’s geographical span of two countries that each have links to the North African region also firmly places it in the context of modern Europe, and the often underacknowledged contributions of marginalised communities on our societies.
Bob Quinn himself appears in the Bantry House chapter, standing over a piano before he picks up his camera to film the musicians behind him. Wagner and de Burca here insert the analogue colour footage shot by Quinn there and then, a vibrant segment that works as celebration, interrogation, and homage to the body of work that provided a starting point for this film, but also a consolidation of the collaborative intent at the heart of their practice.