The Clown, with Paulo José and Selton Mello

When discussing Brazilian cinema in the US, only a handful of movies are usually mentioned. The classic 1959 drama Black Orpheus, by Marcel Camus (Barack Obama wrote in his memoir that it was his mother’s favorite film), Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976), and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) have resonated with American audiences for decades. More recently, Barreto’s Four Days in September (1997) and Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (2002) were international sensations. Even though Four Days in September starred the American actor Alan Arkin, all of these movies focused on ethnocentric Brazilian themes or settings—favelas, Carnaval, São Paulo street life and crime, dictatorial rule. And while a number of these themes play out in the 30 films to be screened at the 16th annual Brazilian Film Festival in Miami (August 18 to 25), there are also movies positioned to appeal beyond the local market, especially now that the country’s filmmakers look increasingly for success on a broader stage.

Director Meirelles, who was one of the festival’s curators in 2011 and is a native of São Paulo, wishes that Spanish-language films weren’t the only foreign imports that attracted a substantial following in the United States. Nevertheless, Meirelles and a few other filmmakers are committed to making movies with an eye to the international market. Brazilians Walter Salles, who directed the superb The Motorcycle Diaries, and José Padilha, now preparing the remake of RoboCop, are looking abroad, too. Salles’s On the Road, for instance, starring Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee, is based on the eponymous novel by Jack Kerouac, the most famous literary figure from the ’50s Beat Generation, who crisscrossed this country seeking truth and whatever else that compelled him. You can’t make a more American-themed film than that!

In anticipation of the Miami festival, I spoke with Fernando Meirelles on the state of Brazilian cinema today.

Jeffrey Lyons: Why are so few Brazilian films shown in the US, beyond niche releases?
Fernando Meirelles:
I believe this question should be addressed to the American distributors, but I guess the main problem is our language. That immediately cuts off 80 percent of a potential audience. We know that American audiences are not used or very keen to watch subtitled films. Another reason probably has to do with a lack of interest in stories not directly related to the US. Even films like Elite Squad, which won at Berlin [International Film Festival in 2008], or Elite Squad: [The Enemy Within], which had a better box-office [take] than Avatar in Brazil, didn’t have a good run in the US.

How important are the US-based film festivals for getting US distribution?
I’m not sure a Brazilian film has ever been sold based on one of these festivals, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

What might be the breakout movies, or the actors or directors to watch in Miami?
I’m one of the producers of Xingu, so of course I like the project very much. It has João Miguel, one of the most celebrated Brazilian actors today. The photography is a highlight [by cinematographer Adriano Goldman]. Also to note is the fact the Indians featured in the film still live in their tribes.

In the US, Spanish actors are much better known than Brazilian stars.
Spanish-language films are much more popular in the US, so it’s understandable Spanish actors are known here. But there are Brazilian actors working in the American market now: Alice Braga (I Am Legend, Predators, On the Road, The Rite), Rodrigo Santoro (Che, 300, I Love You Phillip Morris, The Last Stand), and our biggest star, Wagner Moura, who just shot Elysium.

But perhaps the fact they’re not household names signifies that Brazilian actors stay true to their origins and culture rather than “going Hollywood”?
A good actor can make more money in Brazil than if they work abroad, so why would they try? The star system [in Brazil] is based on TV. However, Alice Braga is quite unknown in Brazil because she started in the US and never worked for TV. For directors, “going Hollywood” always feels like a trap. The studios run the show.

Who are the Brazilian directors whose work you follow?
José Padilha, Walter Salles, Cao Hamburger, João Jardim, José Eduardo Belmonte, among others.

What are the most important themes in Brazilian film today?
From my point of view, the themes related to environment. As you know, we have 40 percent of the forests on the planet, which serve as a lung for the whole world. These forests are threatened by our model of development in its obsessive struggle for growth. Xingu is a film that addresses this.

Are there any cult or emerging cinematic styles?
José Eduardo Belmonte makes very experimental films. Also emerging is a new generation of young filmmakers who worked in advertising. They know how to tell a story, know the grammar of filmmaking. In the last 10 years, there was an explosion of new film schools in Brazil, so I believe we’ll experience the “shock” of this new generation in a few years as it comes to the market.

How many films are made annually in Brazil? What sort of budgets do they have?
Last year there were around 105 feature films made—30 percent of them as documentaries. The budgets ranged from $100,000 to $7 million, which was the case of Xingu. I believe the average is something around $1.5 million.

Most major American studios are run by businesspeople focused on the bottom line, not “movie moguls” in the old sense. Is that true of Brazilian film companies?
In the last 40 years, most of the production companies in Brazil were owned by directors who would produce their own films, so our cinema was very “auteur” or author-oriented. But that’s changed in the last few years. The big production companies now are led by producers, who are more numbers-focused—which is good and bad at the same time.

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