Tag Archives: Brazil

Aquarius by Kleber Mendonça Filho, or what should have been Brazil’s Oscar nominee

ladjaneBy Ian Merkel, PhD Candidate, History and French Studies, New York University

The Brazilian film Aquarius, released internationally last October, has been celebrated  by critics worldwide after its standing ovation at Cannes. On the front cover of the September edition of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Aquarius was applauded as “a marvelous and surprising act of portraiture”[1] and considered “triumphant, a one-woman show of strength, sensuality and indomitable staying power”[2]. This very Brazilian film managed to do something that Brazilian film historically has often failed to do: to present stories, characters, scenarios, and aesthetics that a more global audience can identify with. In the United States, Aquarius deserves our special attention after having been deprived, by the Brazilian government, of the possibility of competing for an Oscar.[3] But while almost all critics, Brazilian and international, mention the presence of the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga)’s maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto), few[4] analyze the relationship between them. In this article, we propose to demonstrate the very centrality of this question, as well as a broader critique of upper middle class privilege[5], within Mendonça Filho’s film.

International critics, to a large extent, have failed to address this question as they did for Mendonça Filho’s previous film, Neighboring Sounds (O Som Ao Redor), where themes of labor relations and the legacy of slavery were much more central.[6]  This may be because Brazil’s institution of domestic labor is unfamiliar to them and the film, unlike Domésticas (2001), and the more recent Casa Grande (2014) and Que Horas Ela Volta (2015), does not deal with it directly.  For most Brazilians critics, the institution of domestic labor is perhaps so banal, so omnipresent not simply in the film but in their daily lives, that it fails to garner special attention. These critics have reason to focus their energies on the larger politics of the film, particularly in the aftermath of the recent impeachment, considered by many to be a coup d’état.[7] But critics should also remember that Clara, the very protagonist of the film, is not without her own ambiguities. Although she resisted the military dictatorship[8]— and we imagine her to be a music critic and writer critical of inequalities on so many fronts– Clara proves incapable of criticizing the very institution of domestic labor that she depends upon in her daily life.

Identifying Clara as “good” and the real estate speculators as “evil” misses one of the essential takeaways of the film: namely, that all of us, to varying degrees, are caught up in a social and economic system that is exploitative, segregationist, and, although not overtly, racist.  This exploitation most often takes place at a distance. We know that the clothes on our backs are made by slave labor in Asia; the cellphones in our hands, with materials mined in precarious conditions in Africa and the Middle East; the produce we consume, cultivated either by poorly paid and mistreated labor, by multinationals that are destroying our planet (Brazil being a poignant example), or by both. We choose, however, not to remember these things—in psychology, to repress them— so that we can live our daily lives.

In the case of the Brazilian upper-middle classes, such daily exploitation is often much more intimate. In Aquarius, without cheap domestic labor, who would wash Clara’s clothes, cook her meals, clean her home, and allow her, as a woman, to have been able to pursue her aspirations as a writer? Clara, by most standards, is not only a good, but an excellent employer. Nonetheless, she is still the beneficiary of extreme inequality that makes it feasible (and in her mind necessary) to have someone working at her personal service, day in and day out.

Clara, like her friends, is conscious of this. Mid-way through the film, in the midst of growing tensions with her landlord, Clara dreams of an employee (a black woman) rummaging through and stealing her jewelry before her own eyes. The real thief throughout the film is the real estate company that owns her building. The company pressures Clara to leave her apartment and, when persuasion fails, make her life there a living hell. But in Clara’s dreams, her feelings of vulnerability are symbolized by a much more petty form of theft by an employee in her own home. Her friend Fátima (Paula de Renor), when looking over a family album of photographs in which she comes across an old employee, says quite nonchalantly, “we exploit them, they sometimes steal from us”. The naturality with which Fátima expresses this fact assumes a series of unspeakable truths: the recognition of employee underpayment, the expectation that employees will periodically steal, and the assumption of a given’s employee’s ability to be replaced when this inevitably happens.

Clara’s confrontation with Diego (Humberto Carrão), the grandson of the real estate mogul who is actively working to disappropriate Clara from her apartment, reveals director Kleber Mendonça’s not-so-stereotypical exploration of the upper-middle class existence of people like Clara. While certain critics regret Kleber Mendonça’s stereotyping of the young Brazilian businessman as a typical coxinha[9], Diego’s response to Clara’s provocations are indeed quite profound. Clara’s invective against Diego as an inheritor of family fortune, disguised in the language of “business” that his training in the U.S. allows him to use, certainly finds echo among the Brazilian left. But Diego’s bitingly sarcastic response to Clara, “you obviously had it tough,” gesturing toward Clara’s maid Ladjane who accompanied their argument, is equally powerful. Clara’s monopoly on morality against the exploitative capitalist crumbles in the face of her own reality.

After watching Aquarius, we obviously gain sympathy for certain characters and kinds of personalities more than others. Clearly, Mendonça Filho’s film is situated to the left of the political spectrum. But the film’s strength is to nuance our preconceived notions of good and evil. Clara, even as a woman on the left, a cultivated feminist who represents, to a large degree, progressive forces within Brazil, is still dependent on the exploitation of labor. In the United States, we have our own systems of exploitation laborer that that prop up middle class existence. In Brazil, however, such exploitation is often much more intimate, occurring within the confines of ones own home.

In recent years, the Worker’s Party government has brought domestic laborers out of the shadows and officially into the Brazilian workforce. Now, these workers are ensured, at least on paper, basic standards such as paid overtime, vacation, and employer contributions to social security. Many middle class people complain of the rising costs of having full time maids, and it may be the case that the current economic crisis forces even more of them to go from having someone work for them everyday to only once or twice a week. Nonetheless, domestic labor, as so many other employer-employee relationships in condominiums, houses, and businesses, remain the norm in Brazil. It is so utterly banal that even the left-wing critics of Aquarius are blind to it.

Mendonça Filho’s film is incredibly nostalgic for Brazilian cities in the 1980s and 1990s. His memory of a much safer, more humane Recife, less affected by real estate speculation and violence, may be accurate. However, it must not be forgotten that in those years, employees like Ladjane were considered as much appliances as they were as people. This, of course, is inseparable from the long history of slavery. According to architect, Lúcio Costa, “The Brazilian machine of housing, from the time of colony to Empire, depended on this mixture of beast and person that was a slave… he is what made the house function: there was a Negro for everything—from the little Negros always at hand for messages to the Old Negro nanny. The Negro was plumbing; he was running water in the bedroom, warm and cold; he was the light-switch and the doorbell; he sealed leaks and lifted heavy windowpanes; he was the washing machine and fanned better than a fan itself. Even after the abolition of slavery, the bonds of dependence and the comforts of patriarchal life […] persisted. During the first Republican period, the low cost of domestic labor continued to allow the bourgeoisie the maintain, without officially having slaves, the easy life of the previous period.”[10]

Aquarius, surely, may have its plot centered on Clara’s disappropriation. But it is much more than about the plight of the middle classes caused by real estate speculation. It is, in many ways, about the necessarily exploitative lifestyle of the middle classes, and the Brazilian middle classes in particular—even when they think of themselves as leftists. Aquarius will surely go down as a Brazilian and international classic. Aesthetically, its value is already recognized, as are Sônia Braga’s performance and the excellent soundtrack. But if Aquarius is to have a more profound impact politically, critics and viewers alike would do well to consider the exploitative nature not only of the real estate industry[11], but of people like me, you, and Clara.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/movies/aquarius-review.html

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/sonia-braga-makes-a-triumphant-return-to-the-screen-in-aquarius/2016/10/20/0966195e-948d-11e6-bb29-bf2701dbe0a3_story.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/world/americas/brazilian-politics-smother-a-films-oscar-ambitions.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/17/aquarius-review-rich-and-mysterious-brazilian-story-of-societal-disintegration

[5] revistacinetica.com.br/nova/o-pais-do-cinismo/

[6] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/neighboring-sounds-2013


[8] http://www.cartacapital.com.br/cultura/aquarius-e-o-dever-da-resistencia

[9] http://g1.globo.com/pop-arte/cinema/noticia/2016/09/aquarius-faz-reflexao-poderosa-mas-tem-vilao-simplista-g1-ja-viu.html


[10] “A máquina brasileira de morar, ao tempo da colônia e do império, dependia dessa mistura de coisas, de bicho e de gente, que era o escravo. Se os casarões remanescentes do tempo antigo parecem inabitáveis devido ao desconforto, é porque o negro está ausente. Era ele que fazia a casa funcionar: havia negro para tudo – desde negrinhos sempre à mão para recados, até negra velha, babá. O negro era esgoto; era água corrente no quarto, quente e fria; era interruptor de luz e botão de campainha; o negro tapava goteira e subia vidraça pesada; era lavador automático, abanava que nem ventilador. Mesmo depois de abolida a escravidão, os vínculos de dependência e os hábitos cômodos da vida patriarcal de tão vil fundamento, perduraram, e, durante a primeira fase republicana, o custo baixo da mão de obra doméstica ainda permitiu à burguesia manter, mesmo sem escravos oficiais, o trem fácil da vida do período anterior.”

COSTA, Lúcio. “Depoimento de um arquiteto carioca”. In: Centro dos Estudantes Universitários de Arquitetura. Lúcio Costa: sobre arquitetura. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 1962

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/world/americas/brazil-president-temer-corruption.html?_r=0

Defense Research in a Shifting Security Environment

Posted July 26 by Colette Perold — PhD Student in NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication


AMA_ACE_6928_87_0001; Arquivo Nacional

On May 18, Brazil’s interim Foreign Relations Minister José Serra used his inaugural address to lay out Brazil’s new foreign policy plan, a ten-point schema that resisted an easy close, to the surprise of many: “But if I had to add one more,” he said, “I would name one that we have to act on…the protection of our borders.” He argued that Brazil’s landed borders are where Brazil’s organized criminal networks develop, where arms and goods smuggling meet drug trafficking, harming the Brazilian people and Brazil’s economy.

A week later, on May 25, the interim government announced the creation of an Executive Committee of Border Coordination and Control, composed of the ministries of defense, justice, and international relations, with support from at least twenty agencies, including the federal police, the federal reserve, the intelligence agency (ABIN), and the armed forces. Interim Defense Minister Raul Jungmann announced the committee would bring an additional 15,000 troops to the border, with additional arms and resources, at a total projected cost of R$9 billion.

On July 8, interim Minister of Justice Alexandre de Moraes announced in an interview with news outlet Istoé that the ministry would be augmenting the size of Brazil’s National Force from 1,500 troops to 15,000, and—once the Olympics are over—focusing their work also on Brazil’s landed borders.

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Chronicle of an Omission Foretold: The Place of Concrete Poetry in the History of Digital Literature

Visual Poetry pieces by Augusto de Campos

Video Poetry works by Augusto de Campos exhibited during July in São Paulo

Milton Laufer, PhD Student at the Spanish and Portuguese Department.

As a PhD Student in the Spanish and Portuguese Department, my research focuses on the development in Latin America of what is known as digital literature. By this I mean a particular way of thinking about texts which is not constrained by the bounds of the device called “book”, which lays in between many other disciplines, like the visual arts, video art, and computer games. This involves not only a new paradigm, or at least a broader paradigm, in our way of conceptualizing literature, but also a meaningful political dimension, a democratization, in the sense of how cultural goods circulate—including but not limited to the Internet—and, most importantly, how they are produced: in the same fashion espoused by the avant-garde movements, in digital literature the boundaries between the producer and the consumer are blurred, calling into question not only ontological concepts like creator, art-work, and reader, but also legal ideas that have traveled a long and undisputed path, like intellectual property. Though the first two works of digital literature date back to the 1950s (Strachey, 1952 and Lutz, 1959), it was only during the past decade that a field of scholarship focused on this literary form began to emerge. In this time, digital literature has become a vital object of inquiry, not only because its trajectory is difficult to anticipate, but also—and more importantly—because it sheds light on our understanding of literary production in a broader sense.

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CLACS Hosts Series on the Legacy of Brazilian Slavery

João Reis, Where Slaves Were Slaveholders, Poster

João Reis, Where Slaves Were Slaveholders, Poster

Written by CLACS MA Candidate Constanza Smita Ontaneda Rehman-Khedker

Tomorrow, Thursday April 30th, CLACS will be proud to host a series of events on Brazilian Quilombos, with a live performance by Rio de Janeiro’s Maga Bo and BNegão. These two consecutive events are part of a larger series that focuses on the history, culture, and current affairs of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Starting at 5pm, distinguished historian João José Reis (Universidade Federal da Bahia), will discuss the history of slave-owning slaves in Brazil in a presentation titled “Where Slaves were Slave Owners, the Case of 19th Century Bahia.”  

Born in Brazil, João José Reis received his PhD in History from the University of Minnesota.  He has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Princeton University, Brandeis University, the University of Texas (Austin), and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris).  Reis has also been a Research Fellow at the University of London, Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences (Stanford), and the National Humanities Center.  Currently he is a Professor of History at the Universidade Federal da Bahia.  Reis’ books include Slave Rebellion in Brazil: the 1835 Muslim Revolt in Bahia (The Johns Hopkins University Press) and Death is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (North Carolina Press), among others.  This lecture is co-sponsored by the Africa Diaspora Forum at NYU and Fordham University.

Quilombo do Presente e do Futuro, Poster

Quilombo do Presente e do Futuro, Poster

Later at 7pm, Maga Bo and BNegão will present “Quilombo do Futuro: The Contemporary Social and Cultural Resonance of Brazil’s Maroon Communities.”  Their performance will use the notion of runaway slave communities as an onset for the interaction of traditional and contemporary music in the country.  Runaway slave communities known as quilombos, were a fixture in Brazil during the colonial and early imperial eras.  Even after emancipation in 1888, quilombos remained part of the Brazilian social and cultural landscape.  Following the 1988 Constitution, which granted quilombo descendants land rights, they also became formally acknowledged communities with their own self-managed territories, a public recognition of a centuries-old settlement pattern.  Today’s comunidades quilombolas serve as gathering points for current practitioners of Afro-Brazilian culture as well as reminders of Brazilian historical development.   Maga Bo and BNegão will be joined by Professor Mariléa de Andrade (Universidade Estadual de Campinas) who will situate the artists’ work in a social context by addressing some of the contemporary challenges and successes of the quilombo movement in present-day Brazil.

The globetrotting U.S.-born, Brazil-based Maga Bo cranks out music that’s often described as transnational bass.  It’s just as heavy on the low-end as it is melodic in its use of traditional acoustic instrumentation and street recordings.  With well over a decade of production experience from his mobile studio that he has set up all across Africa, South America, India, and Southeast Asia, Maga Bo has released genre-bending, mind-blowing albums on venerable labels like Tru Thoughts, Post World Industries, and Soot.  He has worked and performed in over 40 countries including performances at WOMEX, Mundial and Transmediale.  His latest project, record label and compilation series Kafundó, is bringing to light Brazilian bass music essentially unknown to outside its home country – an effort that earned praise from Vice Media.

BNegão is a versatile vocalist and songwriter who was instrumental in Planet Hemp, one of Brazil’s pioneering hip-hop ensembles.  He later struck out on his own to form BNegão & Os Seletores de Frequencia, something like a Brazilian Bad Brains — their albums jump from punk to dub to hip-hop to soul just like the DC band did back in the day.  BNegão won the Orilaxé Prize for best black music singer in Brazil back in 2004.  His band’s 2012 album, Sintoniza Lá, won the MTV Video Music Brasil award for best album.  Later in 2012, he was part of the official Rio de Janeiro cultural delegation to the London Summer Olympic Games, where he performed in the closing ceremony in homage to the Afro-Brazilian musician Chico Science.  He and his band are currently recording their third album.

Maga Bo Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/magabo

BNegão & Seletores de Frequência: http://bnegaoseletores.com.br/

African Diaspora in the Americas as the Focus of Upcoming CLACS Events

Written by William Ramirez, NYU CLACS MA Candidate

In April and May CLACS will be featuring a series of exciting events focusing in the history, culture, and current affairs of the African Diaspora experience in the Americas. These will feature insightful discussions with distingished scholars, performances by renowned artists, and experts on the topics of the Haitian Revolution, 19th Century Afro Brazilian history, the resonance of today’s Quilombos, and the figure of Cuban slave revolt leader and artist Jose Antonio Aponte.

On Monday April 27th, the Spring 2015 Colloquium series Latin American Spring Colloquium, PosterIndependence in the Age of Revolution will feature professor Madison Smartt-Bell (Goucher College) who will discuss his upcoming biography on Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the fathers of the Haitian Revolution, and his growing significance in Haiti. His lecture is titled “Dessalines Disembodied.”

Thursday April 30th, CLACS hosts two events on Afro Brazilian history and current affairs. Starting at 5pm,  distinguished historian João José Reis (Universidade Federal da Bahia), will discuss the history of slave-owning slaves in Brazil in a presentation titled “Where Slaves were Slave Owners, the Case of 19th Century Bahia.” This lecture is co sponsored by the Africa~Diaspora Forum at NYU and Fordham University.

Later at 7pm, on the second event of the night, Maga Bo, both a DJ and producer residing in Brazil, and BNegão, a vocalist and composer recognized for his Afrocentric hip-hop, dub, funk, and punk music, will present “Quilombo do Futuro: The Contemporary Social and Cultural Resonance of Brazil’s Maroon Communities.” A performance which uses the notion of runaway slave communities as an onset for the interaction of traditional and contemporary music in the country. Brazilian scholar Mariela de Andrade (Universidade Estadual de Campinas), will situate their performance in the larger scope of the current challenges and success of the quilombo movement in Brazil. This event is co sponsored by The Consulate General of Brazil, The Brazilian Studies Center and ILAS at Columbia University.

Friday May 8th and Saturday May 9th, a one-of-a-kind two-day conference hosted by NYU, centered on the leader of the 1811-1812 massive slave rebellion in Cuba. “José Antonio Aponte and His World: Writing, Painting, and Making Freedom in the African Diaspora,” features renowned scholars from NYU, and other distinguished institutions in the U.S. and abroad, will discuss the visionary leader, his legendary “book of paintings,” and the future direction of “Apontian” scholarship.

Aponte Symposium, Poster
All of the above mentioned events will be held at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU (map) For more information on these and other upcoming events, visit the CLACS website. You can also find the latest information on the events on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #ClacsEvents.

Becoming a Paulista… for now

A memorial to the trailblazers of Brazil in the Parque Ibirapuera in São Paulo.  For an excellent analysis of this sculpture and the bandeirantes more generally, look forward to Barbara Weinstein's forthcoming work, the Color of Modernity.

A memorial to the trailblazers of Brazil in the Parque Ibirapuera in São Paulo. For an excellent analysis of this sculpture and the bandeirantes more generally, look forward to Barbara Weinstein’s forthcoming work, the Color of Modernity.

I’ve been in São Paulo for only about a week, but it’s been enough time to get a feel for a Brazilian city that is much more like New York or Los Angeles than it is to anything I’ve experienced until now.  Until this research trip—in which I am not only delineating my thesis but also researching various archives at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and across the city—my entire perspective of Brazil was that of the nordeste and the Amazon, indeed the poorest regions of the country.  Now I’m in the land of skyscrapers, more intense social segregation, and chic hamburger joints like one in which everything on the menu is named after a Tarantino character or movie.

My project, which deals with the foundational period of the social sciences in Brazil (roughly 1930-1960) lies at a critical moment for understanding the tensions between nationalism and internationalism that colored the ways in which elite Brazilians—and Paulistas in particular—imagined themselves and the broader national polity.  Continue reading

Avoiding the Copa

Out my window

Out my window

Although most people that I’ve talked to who are not Brazilianists have been jealous about my ability to do research in Brazil this summer, I have, from day one, been quite unenthused about the prospect of being here for the World Cup.  This is not because I am uninterested in futebol, but rather, because of the many practical difficulties that it arouses for getting around and getting things done.  Roads are congested, lanes are closed, bus and metro workers around the country are striking over their working conditions (when public money is going to stadiums and the like), and many public institutions have special holiday hours.

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