When a Movie Becomes a Movement: The Accidental Politics of 'Aquarius'
The team behind this year's Brazilian standout is not afraid to speak out against the injustices in their country.
Kleber Mendonça Filho may have written Aquarius intending to show simply one woman's struggle with a greedy construction company, but as his home country slipped further and further into political unrest, it became something much more.
"At the time we shot it in 2013, it was the quiet before the storm," said Filho at the 2016 New York Film Festival. "Things started to go downhill politically soon after, and then that’s when the country got very divided in a very simplistic way. Of course, there were the leftists and the people from the right wing; that’s basically how sophisticated the whole division is right now in Brazil."
"You write the things you would like to hear."
The film tells the story of Clara, a 65-year-old widow, cancer survivor, and last resident of the Aquarius, a building she has lived in for nearly all of her adult life. The neighboring apartments of the aging complex have all been abandoned, only to be acquired by a construction company resolute in forcing Clara out so they can destroy it and build something new. Unfortunately for them, Clara is set on staying.
Due to the strong parallels between Clara's plight and the plight of the people of Brazil, the film has now taken on a new meaning. Her fight with the construction company and the shady tactics they employ to take advantage of her can be seen through the lens of an entire citizenship's struggle with a corrupt government. The people of Brazil had found their champion in an unlikely hero, as Aquarius garnered international acclaim and provided them with a protagonist whose story was their own.
"When I was in the middle of it, I kept thinking of all the other films that have been picked up by society and politics where the situations just went completely out of control," said Filho. "I think it’s a beautiful thing."
"We just thought it was very democratic and national to say, ‘There is something wrong, something strange going on in Brazil.’ And it really hit a nerve."
Much of the film's success in the political sense can be contributed to Filho's yearning to find a platform to decry injustice. "You write the things you would like to hear," he explained. "It’s what your characters say and it seems to strike people in the best possible way. When it doesn’t strike them in the best possible way, it makes them angry. They react against the film. It’s a beautiful thing, even if there are a lot of ugly things taking place."
Unsurprisingly, those that did react against the film were employed by the Brazilian government. The cast and crew of the film made their biggest statement at Cannes, where the film premiered earlier this year. On the red carpet, they staged a protest against the suspension of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, holding up signs that read “Brazil is experiencing a coup d’etat” and “54,501,118 votes set on fire!”
Filho explained the reasoning behind his protest saying. "This year, as things got more dramatic, we went to the Cannes Film Festival to present the film. At that time, the whole impeachment process had begun after a very dramatic April 17. It was a historic day in Brazil congress. When we went to Cannes, they had slashed the ministry of culture, so we just thought it was very democratic and national to say, ‘There is something wrong, something strange going on in Brazil.’ And it really hit a nerve."
"It was picked up by international media," Filho continued. "Of course, the film itself has a strong point of view in terms of how society works, so we got a lot of support from millions of people and we got a lot of attacks. We were on the front line."
Brazil decided not to choose the film to represent the country for next year's Foreign Film Oscar, despite the fact it has been the most widely praised product to come out of the country in decades.
The actions at Cannes inspired copycat protests all around the world, including Sydney, Munich, and Paris. "It became a symbol for something," Filho said. "And when it finally opened in Brazil on September 1, it kind of became a cultural phenomenon, because it seemed to play with the idea of catharsis."
The government responded by giving the film a harsh 18+ rating—extremely rare in Brazil—for "explicit sex" and "drugs." Filho was justifiably suspicious of the decision, along with much of the international media. He said it was "highly unusual" and that "other films which are even stronger sexually had gotten 16 or 14."
Brazil decided not to choose the film to represent the country for next year's Foreign Film Oscar, despite the fact it has been the most widely praised product to come out of the country in decades. Sonia Braga, who plays Clara and was also on hand discussing the film at NYFF, expressed her confusion and disappointment in their decision. "It was like a back and forth of not understanding that we were only using our rights as citizens, individually or as a group," she said. "In a democracy, that’s what you should do when you don’t agree with the acts of a few."
She took her anger a step further. "In my view, it’s not a government that should decide who should represent Brazil—it is the audiences," she said. "The decision of not choosing our movie to represent our country at the Oscars is the decision of a government that I do not recognize."
So where is the line drawn between political activist and filmmaker? Or are the two inextricable? Braga believes if you are given the opportunity to express the thoughts and feelings of a people who have been oppressed through a platform with wide appeal, then it is your duty to do so. "I think that’s the job of the artist," she remarked. "Every time I've played a role in my life, it was a channel for me to speak to the people that I’m interested in, the country that I love. I think this movie is very special in that sense."
According to Braga, the director has an even more important role. Braga likened Filho to "an archaeologist and musician at the same time. He digs as much as he can and defines what he finds. He digs a little bit deeper to find the treasure within it."