Can the Centre Hold?: The Films of Adirley Queirós

By James Lattimer

The periphery is always the centre in the films of Adirley Queirós, whether in terms of the people and places at the focus of his attention or the off-centre stylistic means he employs to explore their tribulations, and, by extension, those of Brazil. With this year’s epic, multiple-prizewinning Dry Ground Burning (co-directed with Portuguese filmmaker and academic Joana Pimenta, whose collaboration with Queirós began with 2017’s Once There Was Brasília) as perhaps their most prominent representative, These four feature-length works each burrow into different facets of Ceilândia and Sol Nascente, two neighbouring satellite cities perched on the edge of Brazil’s Federal District, which is also home to the Brazilian capital; the starry lights of Brasília may still twinkle in the distance, but the privilege they represent could hardly feel further away. Taken together, the quartet of films constantly build and expand upon one another as they forge a complex chronicle of recent Brazilian history, albeit one that shows total disdain for standard approaches to historiography.

Within the films’ instinctively malleable, sui generis filmmaking logic, effortlessly intersectional perspectives dominate, politics and their consequences seep into everything, time is fluid and impossible to pin down, and documentary is but one tool of many with which to probe Brazil’s disparities. While all four draw their force and inspiration from real-life events and frequently make use of specific documentary material, they are equally happy to dip into genres whose ties to the real are far less one-to-one. Collaborations with the same core protagonists reoccur across the different films: predominantly non-professional actors whose own experiences flow into their roles, even when they wander into the traditionally fictional realms of science fiction, the musical, the heist movie, or the Western, with the use of these genres often functioning as a canny additional layer of commentary. And when different genres and modes are blurred together so seamlessly, it hits all the harder when carefully placed nuggets of unprocessed reality suddenly shine forth from the mix. 

Is the City Only One? (2011) is at once typical and atypical. Unlike the films that will follow, it hews closer to conventional documentary territory and offers the sort of detailed context and background information will subsequently be eschewed—although the fact that the end titles list the protagonists according to roles alongside their (similar) real names suggests that some degree of slippage between reality and staging is already at play. On the other hand, the film establishes the same character structure that will become a convention of sorts, whereby a small group of loosely related protagonists, all of whom are from the satellite cities and none of whom are white, are observed going about their everyday lives.

Is the City’s group consists of Nancy (Nancy Araújo), a now-middle-aged singer who was once part of a children’s choir that sung a famous jingle to encourage those from the newly forming favelas in Brasília to resettle in the newly founded Ceilândia (where, like Nancy—herself a victim of resettlement—they would find disappointment); Zé (Wellington Abreu), a real-estate agent who spends his time driving through the bustling, rapidly expanding satellite city in search of lots to purchase; his friend Dildu (Dilmar Durães), a cleaner standing for office in the upcoming elections as a one-man political party to fight for the rights of the city’s disadvantaged inhabitants; and Marquim (Marquim do Tropa), a music producer in a wheelchair who Dildu commissions to write a jingle to help kickstart his moribund campaign.

Each of these carefully chosen protagonists plays a role in illuminating the past, present, and future of Ceilândia, as well as its relationship to the Brazilian capital. Supplemented by archival footage—including of Nancy’s own youthful performance, along with various other pertinent documents—Nancy’s attempts to grapple with the ambivalence upon which her career rests also narrate the troubling story of how Brasília birthed Ceilândia, while all the time that Zé spends in the car traversing both cities reveals their respective topographies, rapid development, and obvious differences. Meanwhile, even with the help of Marquim’s catchy jingle (which also plays over the closing credits), Dildu’s homespun campaign proves a Sisyphean struggle, the most agonizing expression of which comes when he stumbles across the Workers’ Party election cavalcade after his own one-vehicle parade has come to an unplanned stop. Whether in terms of jingles or of politics, it seems that success is less determined by content or merit than by where you come from, and the (lack of) machinery behind you.

Occasionally, the protagonists actively reference Queirós and the film team, who sometimes appear briefly on camera as they trail the protagonists in their various endeavours. To this latter end, the film is largely shot handheld and digitally for a sense of immediacy, augmented by a few celluloid passages to give additional texture to the already heterogenous material, inserting an extra degree of distance and timelessness and serving as the film’s most overt formal flourish. Yet, combined with the closing “cast” list in particular, questions of staging already arise—for example, did the camera really just happen to be on hand to witness Dildu finding the cavalcade only a few blocks away from where his car broke down?

There’s no mistaking the degree of staging on display in White Out, Black In (2014), as the Ceilândia it shows is a very different beast from that of Is the City, not least in name. An opening title that locates the film’s action in “Old Ceilândia,” a place that can’t be found on any map, immediately thrusts the film in the realm of fiction. Bathed in wan sunshine by day and cast in long shadows by night, this eerie vision of the city has been scrubbed clean of its former hustle and bustle, a likely consequence of the regular night patrols and the hard-to-obtain passports necessary for passage to Brasília. Two of the film’s three protagonists are familiar faces, however: Marquim do Tropa returns as some version of himself, a music producer and DJ now ensconced in a streamlined, neon-lit studio; while Dilmar Durães now plays Dimas Cravalanças, an agent of the Brazilian state sent back from the year 2070 to collect evidence of past crimes against the Black community and the marginalized. They are joined by Sartana (Cláudio Irineu Shokito), a solitary man with a prosthetic leg who, it turns out, both are looking for. 

Even with its science-fiction stylings and loose quest narrative, White Out, Black In still spends significant time observing these three men’s everyday lives, which are only partially the product of invention. While Cravalanças’ appealingly lo-fi video calls with his future employees and his attempts at time travel in a metal container clearly belong to the realm of fantasy, Marquim’s radio shows, Sartana’s attempts to source protheses for other people, and the time they spend alone are structured by testimonies (often in voiceover) that could not be more real. As progressively emerges, both of the men’s disabilities stem from a police raid on a regular Ceilândia dance party called the Quarentão on March 5, 1986, where white people were allowed to leave while Black people were made to stay, with violent, lasting consequences. Photos of that very night repeatedly flash up onscreen, serving for the viewer and Cravalanças alike as evidence to contextualize the state’s crimes, as well as embodying the sort of parallel functions all four films typically extract from documentary material—at once a means of giving a fictional plot real-life consequence, a prop to advance said plot, and a suggestion of what a counterarchive of Brazilian history might hold, its continual visibility everything. 

Queirós’ patient observation of Marquim and Sartana’s daily lives also gives considerable, unshowy attention to the specificities of their respective disabilities, whether dedicating suitable duration to the lift rides that Marquim must take every time to enter his studio, or highlighting Sartana’s intricate knowledge of the different types of protheses. This decision shouldn’t be as striking as it is, but if films that give centre stage to people with disabilities are already a rarity, when said people are also Black and marginalized in terms of class, the prodigious set of intersections being addressed here becomes unique indeed. The same sense of many ideas being explored at once also extends to genre, as Marquim’s radio shows function much like unconventional musical numbers. In particular, his opening rap monologue over a tune once played at the Quarentão comes across as paradigmatic of how the singing in musicals acts as a conduit for feelings that are otherwise inexpressible, given an extra twist here by the fact that these feelings are real. 

But it is the approach to science fiction that represents the film’s most ingenious use of genre, starting from his deliberate omission of any temporal marker from the opening intertitle. With the past defined via the date of the Quarentão raid, and the future established as the moment over 80 years on when the crimes of the state can finally be tried, the great, amorphous expanse of time created in between represents a refusal to pin down the film’s reality to one single present, allowing instead many possible ones to flow together at the same time: real, fantastical, or somewhere in between, but all of them Brazil. If Brasília has always sold itself as a city of endless future, thus sidestepping any critiques of its contemporary reality (an idea also evoked by Pimenta’s 2016 short An Aviation Field), perhaps the most logical counterposition is to insist on the primacy of the present. 

The explosive protest mounted by Marquim that brings White Out, Black In to a close is echoed in far more muted fashion in Once There Was Brasília (2017), which retains the science-fiction setting, the fluid approach to time, and many of the other coordinates of the previous film in order to hollow them out. Here, a now taciturn Marquim once again sets a revolt in progress, whose dramatic highpoint in the final half hour is a choreographed show of force (with distinct shades of Mad Max [1979]) aided by Andreia (Andreia Viera)—who has recently been released from the capital’s dystopian-looking prison system after killing a man who groped her at a bar—and WA4 (a bearded Wellington Abreu), an intergalactic warrior from a planet called “Sol Nascente” who has crash-landed a few decades too late to complete his mission: the assassination of Juscelino Kubitschek, the former president of Brazil and political architect of Brasília. However, the aftermath of this call to arms is as radically static as the protracted, largely plotless hour spent building up to it, as the trio are observed in an even more emptied-out, purely nocturnal vision of the Federal District awash in yellow light, or in the confines of WA4’s spaceship, both of which now brought to strikingly austere life by Pimenta’s atmospheric, high-contrast photography. 

This prioritizing of atmosphere over the few small islands of narrative makes Once There Was Brasília the most demanding of the four films, although there is method in the all-pervading stasis and hush. Aside from conjuring up the feeling of an unchanging situation that has long since become interminable, the film’s frequent wall of silence forms a suitable backdrop that allows the documentary material—here, the politicians’ speeches that ushered in Dilma Rousseff’s controversial 2016 impeachment, which was presumably unfolding at the time of filming—to reverberate all the louder. Heard in voiceover, and often also listened to by the characters and inserted into the temporal indeterminacy of the science-fiction setting—an eternal present tense that, once again, lies somewhere between a real past and an uncertain future—these various claims and counterclaims on democracy are endowed with a fascinating multivalency. The sound of the centre disintegrating is heard live and in real time, documentary evidence of this process is archived and put on display for future reference, and the ghostly, disembodied voices reverberate across Brasília’s central esplanade until their words hit Ceilândia—both so near and so very far, as it has always been. 

Sol Nascente is far from a distant planet in Pimenta and Queirós’ latest work, which shifts the focus onto Ceilândia’s neighbouring district and brings women to the forefront for the first time. Clocking in at 153 minutes—almost an hour longer than the longest of the previous films—Dry Ground Burning feels epic not only due to its running time, but also because it expands their scope even further, advancing the principles they established even as its numerous direct callbacks to its predecessors gives it the bearing of a summation. So this means yet more shifts between yet more genres; lengthy observations of all manner of everyday tasks, whether authentic, imagined, or some combination of the two; a fresh set of intersections that are rarely seen onscreen; and intrusions from real life, along with their accompanying documents, that are piercing enough to cut through all the supple mixing of modes.

Dry Ground Burning’s nominal lead is Chitara (Joana Darc), who has tapped into the oil pipeline that passes under Sol Nascente, set up a makeshift refinery, and is now selling the gasoline to local bike gangs at prices negotiated with the not-always-implicit threat of violence. She is supported in this endeavour by a whole gang of other Black women, including her sister, Léa (Léa Alves), and Andreia Viera, another returning face whose namesake character in the new film has also set up a political party to stand up for the rights of the many in Sol Nascente who have served time. Although her makeshift campaign initially feels like a reiteration of that of the hapless Dildu from Is the City (right down to an early encounter with a political rival with much greater means), it ultimately reaches a different conclusion when it produces a cavalcade of its own, replete with flag-waving women and pounding music. The odds may still be stacked against such grassroots political action, but such movements are growing. 

Alongside sustained observation of the daily tasks involved in keeping the refinery running—including holding price negotiations and delivering the end product, both of which are mainly shown bathed in the same yellow light familiar from Once There Was Brasília—Dry Ground Burning devotes just as much attention to following all the other things that make up these women’s lives, with the degree of staging involved left deliberately vague: friendly chit-chat, family time, trips to church, or pumping parties. The parties both give the film its title—one mid-tempo song tells of the beautiful women of the hood, “united in one heart, like dry ground burning” (an image that cleverly overlaps with that of the gasoline sample burning after being poured onto the ground and ignited to signal the start of sales)—and provide one of its most memorable scenes, in which a busload of women bump, grind, and eventually make out. Here and elsewhere, Léa’s queerness is presented and lived out with a total matter-of-factness—most winningly in a jokey conversation between her and her sister about how easily they could have hooked up—that belies the radical gesture of its representation onscreen. 

If the spaces and significance Dry Ground Burning gives to music makes the film reminiscent of a musical, the set-up suggests a heist movie (an impression that is duly borne out by the gunfight that interrupts Chitara and Léa’s final heart-to-heart). Chitara’s historical undertaking is talked about almost as if it were a legend or fable, with the fact it is said to have taken place in 2019 once again gently smudging where exactly in the present we find ourselves, while science-fiction trappings are also evident in the police vehicle that prowls the streets.  Furthermore, the rugged landscape—a great, wild, lawless expanse whose riches are up for grabs, as “civilization” (i.e., Brasília) has still not encroached upon it—also conjures up the Western. These genres and their markers are blended together so skillfully that there is no clear delineation as to where one stops and the other begins, with only the sharp edges of the moments of undeniable documentary able to slice through the cohesion. 

The first instance of this is the pro-Bolsonaro rally, which serves as a timely, sobering reminder of what everything in these films is set against: a centre that still makes up a majority and may continue to do so come this October’s elections, assuming the entire political system even holds. But, when considered in the context of the universe of these films, this pales in comparison to the moment when, during an apparent monologue, one of the characters suddenly mentions Queirós’ name for the first time since Is the City Only One? and turns out to be speaking to Pimenta, going on to wonder how the film can continue in the way it was planned now that another of its characters is back in prison, with photographic evidence soon following to make the documentary face of this reality abundantly clear. Of all the many moments of alignment between Pimenta and Queirós and their ever-evolving cast across this whole, still growing filmography, this one reveals that such cinematic endeavours are ultimately just as fragile as the people and situations they portray.