Lo-Fi Sci-Fi: "Once There Was Brazilia"

30 November 2017

In a particularly compelling scene, one protagonist—a likeably humble, wheelchair-bound soldier of the edgelands—observes from the margins, a silhouette carved from a hard-edged urban-nocturnal chaos.

I was reading, as the plane touched down in Porto, Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums. ‘The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood. Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.’

In Adirley Queirós’ Once There Was Brazilia—screening in competition at Porto/Post/Doc—we encounter one such setting: Ceilândia, one of many satellite cities built on the outskirts of Brasília, during the 1970s, to inhabit the working population who had built it. Queirós, a Ceilândia native, emphasises the everyday in this ostensibly futuristic milieu: chain-link fences, noisy highways, pockets of light emanating from streetlamps. The film, which follows several disparate outsiders—one traveling to Earth from another planet—in the process of their coming together and in their eventual efforts to (I think) assassinate the president, foregrounds a kind of rust-under-florescence mise-en-scène. While I wasn’t always able to follow its plot, I was immensely taken by both its texture and atmosphere.

In 2015, at FICCI in Cartagena de Indias, I was on a jury that gave a prize to Queirós’ previous feature, White Out, Black In (2014). This is tonally similar to that film: it advances its high-concept fiction through a lo-fi methodology—by necessity rather than design. The makeshift interior of a long-ago off-written car must double for a spaceship; an intergalactic traveller grills meat on a barbecue; atmospheric smoke comes from... well, someone smoking. When not a great deal is happening, Queirós frames his tableaus in such a way that they acquire a certain robustness. He lets us know that not a great deal is happening, too, through the very stasis of the shot—and through the repetitions of the imaginative sound design, which evokes an entire world (one that's falling apart, or has fallen apart) beyond the image. In this way, during the longueurs, I was reminded of another end-of-times urban polemic: Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs.

Unlike White Out, Black In, events here take place largely at night, which lends a natural sense of simultaneous peril and hope to proceedings (that hour in which both dread and optimism regarding the coming day take pride of place in one’s mind). One satellite, Ceilândia, is illuminated by another: the moon. In a particularly compelling scene, in which helicopters roar overhead and we hear the recorded false promises of (I was later told) Brazilian politicians booming through a megaphone, one of the film’s protagonists—a likeably humble, wheelchair-bound soldier of the edgelands—observes from the margins, a silhouette carved from a hard-edged urban-nocturnal chaos.

Other images linger. Uniformed prisoners, all women, being transported in one of the cross-city metro carriages that connect real-life Brasília with its satellite boroughs: in a startling scene that reveals Queirós’ limited mode of production, we wait with a new batch of prisoners on a platform as one train pulls in, its passengers alighting and looking at the cast and crew with expressions from an 1890s Lumières film. This sense, of working with what you have, infuses the film with its quasi-steampunk poetics; in its funniest moment, the spaceship of which we’ve only thus far seen the inside comes crashing to earth—resembling a half-regurgitated junkyard artefact. It reminded me, very much in fact, of Children of Men, and of its persuasive use of present-day cultural signposts (old cars, London’s red buses, Battersea Power Station) in evoking a future without hope. Mark Fisher opened Capital Realism by discussing that film: ‘Children of Men,’ he wrote, ‘connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbours only reiteration and re-permutation.’