Once There Was Brasilia

(Era uma vez Brasília, Adirley Queirós, Brazil, 2017)


Reality Wreckers


I am a huge fan of White Out, Black In (Branco sai, preto fica, 2014), which was my introduction to the unique filmmaking approach of Brazilian Aidrley Queirós. That very low-budget work, made on digital video, was a captivating mix of documentary and fiction, musical celebration and mordant social commentary – not to mention a bracing double-punch of Utopia and Dystopia, both strained through a science-fiction grill.


Once There Was Brasilia (is the truer sense of that title the more Leonesque Once Upon a Time in Brasilia?) takes away almost all the dance music and the detailed documentary aspect, concentrating instead on conjuring a political sci-fi premise – but sci-fi that is plopped down in the same type of real places and spaces that Queirós generally films. Like its predecessor, it alternates between the particles of a small nucleus of characters, at first separated but eventually brought together.


Agent WA4 (Wellington de Abreu) is in a spaceship hurtling toward earth in 1959, with a mission (that will help his family back home get a housing allotment) to kill the Brasilian President of that time, Juscelino Kubitschek. But a glitch in time hurls him forward. Down on our planet in 2016 – in the rundown “administrative region” of Ceilândia that appears to operate, for all intents and purposes, as a police state – several others, such as Andreia (Andreia Vieira) and Marquim (Marquim do Tropa), are in a state of waiting and preparation for the hopefully revolutionary action ahead. Other, nameless prisoners in a line get shuttled around on trains (real-life commuters gawk in puzzlement at this incursion of fiction into their daily routine).


So much for plot synopsis. The narrative incidents that make up the film are easy to take in as brute spectacle, but hard to make out or cohere in any conventional way. Some bazooka-style weapons at fired (at whom or what, it’s difficult to say). Some empty cars are set alight. In one tremendous “special effect”, WA4’s spacecraft crashes to the ground from above the frame. There are transmissions (mainly aural) buzzing in and out constantly – some official, others pirate. There’s a downscaled Thunderdome-style tournament played out and broadcast live (although no technology for that is visible) – possibly a rehearsal for the militant war to come. There is the most comically underplayed and minimally staged car chase in cinema history: one vehicle parked in a dark lane is crossed by another, they both drive (not speedily) down to the end of this passage as the camera stays exactly where it started, far away; the lead car turns a corner, while the pursuing guerrilla team is heard frantically conversing in aural close-up: “Turn! Chase him! Shoot him!” Eventually this attack-car swivels around and listlessly returns to its initial spot.


Everything visible is ruins, junk, the scrapyard. That goes – as in White Out, Black In – for the spacecraft itself: a bunch of hubcaps, cut-off doors, levers, sheets of metal, a few buttons on a computer keyboard, info sheets stuck to the walls. And it’s always unfussily rocked back-and-forth from off-screen. Down on the ground, the other figures roll around in wheelchairs with strange earpieces, or wear construction-site visor masks; the central “set” is just an overpass bridge under which trains occasionally trundle. And the visiting alien speaks Portuguese! Well, why not, when in most American SF movies they speak English?


It’s not really the “digital age” yet in this sink-or-swim vision of Ceilândia: electrical sparks and gasoline flames count for more than the Internet or mobile phones; insurgent revolution here is still running on the Third World shortwave radio model. The marginal citizens that Queirós assembles, and with whom he collaborates, work with what they’ve got: the stories they tell and imagine, the images and installations they manage to stage or project, remind me (to go way up the budgetary scale for a moment) of the “Reality Wreckers” spare-parts musical ignited into son et lumière during a sequence of Francis Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982).


Queirós employs the bricolage, junk-art style of a certain “underground” cinema that is sunk deep into its own enabling condition of vicious precarity: Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, or George Kuchar forever. But while there’s some humour (not a lot), there’s no Camp whatsoever in Once There Was Brasilia. Nor is there any veneer of well-designed Steampunk/Terry Gilliam stylishness. A closer comparison would be the work of F.J. Ossang – also marked by low budgets and much talk of the catastrophes and counter-revolutions occurring somewhere off-screen – but even he achieves a hip ambience that is at one remove from the proudly bashed-together, held-by-string contraptions of Queirós.


It’s tough to know whether Once There Was Brasilia is a paean to revolt or a sad ode to its inevitable failure – along the lines of Kôji Wakamatsu’s interminable and overrated United Red Army (2007). The characters here are right in the midst of the shit, but seem far from their central targets in government. Queirós trades on powerful images of lit-up assemblages, cars, monuments  – as did Bertrand Bonello in Nocturama (2016) and Larry Clark in The Smell of Us (2014) – but the affect is as ephemeral (and vague) as it is momentarily stirring. The film can’t really conclude with anything but its three central figures, idling nervously on that overpass, on the lookout for danger, and ultimately gazing out at us: cinema’s greatest cliché, alas, the open-interrogation question mark.


The Utopian fiction just can’t “take hold”, can’t materialise itself in reality; maybe that’s Queirós’ theme. (As it was, from a different, well-heeled angle, Godard’s theme in La chinoise [1967].) There’s only the iconography of a revolt, as kids might dream it between themselves as they play with toy guns and discarded pieces of stuff from the garbage tip. Meanwhile, the real-life performers must busy themselves and fill time with the most mundane yet hypnotic tasks: looking out a window or a grill, steering a wheel or checking a dial, self-administering an injection, or smoking, smoking, smoking – even when piloting a spaceship! It’s a veritable documentary on cigarettes in contemporary, impoverished, madhouse Brazil.

© Adrian Martin 21 March 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search