Jô Serfaty is a filmmaker and screenwriter, Master in Cinema from Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), with the dissertation “Periferias em movimento; notas sobre as margens no cinema contemporâneo” [Moving peripheries; notes about the margins in contemporary cinema]. Started working on film editing of the film Brasília 18%, by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Since then, directed and scripted five short films: Confete (2012) and A Ilha do Farol (2017), co-working with Mariana Kaufman; Peixe (2013) with Diogo Oliveira; Sobre a Mesa (2015) and co-direction of the short movie Imóvel (2016) by Isaac Pipano. The short films launched themselves into the challenge of experimenting hybrid languages, mixing documentary and fiction.
Her first feature film, Sun Inside, premiered at Mostra Tiradentes [Minas Gerais] and received the Helena Ignez 2019 award for the assembler Cristina, offered by the Critics Jury to a female highlight of the event. She won six honorable mentions at the Brasilia festival (2019), Doclisboa (2019), Mar del Plata international festival in Argentina (2019), Janela Internacional de Cinema (Recife, 2019). The film is being exhibited at thirty festivals around the world between 2019 and 2020.
Her works have been at Lincoln Center (NY), Gotemberg Film festival (Sweden), Documenta-Madrid (ESP), Edinburgh Film festival (Scotland), and others. She has also worked in education and film-making projects in the public-schools system and today she is a director from the International Academy of Cinema (IAC). She was one of the responsible for conducting the first exhibition by the filmmaker Claire Denis and Jia Zhang-ke in Brazil, which was attended by both.
Currently, Jô Serfaty is developing a science fiction script for “Sistema Solar” [Solar System] series, by her production company Fagulha Filmes. And, co-working with Isaac Pipano, she writes “SELVA” [Jungle], the script of her new feature film.
Jo, your career as a movie maker is happening for years and you made, between writing and direction, 5 short movies and now is on your way to release your first feature film, Um filme de verão (Sun Inside). The question may sound a little bit obsolete, but I think it still makes sense in times where culture and arts are being so neglected and underestimated here in Brazil, so: Why film maker?
I believe now, more than ever, that cinema and arts has the power of guide us in the direction of a logic production of life, to project ourselves in relation to a future and to build meanings and imaginations beyond what are the manifestations of our concrete realities. It may seem contradictory, but I believe that when faced with a project of real and symbolic violence, sustained by a project that denies science, arts and culture it is very important to think about how Cinema can harbor not only ideas and demands, but also make people create the world they desire and imagine.
Despite this, it would be naive to say that Cinema thought in this way would reduce this abyssal condition that places us among one of the most unequal countries in the world in social, racial and gender terms; no, it doesn’t diminish, but it produces other sensitivities that allow us to escape from a binary, racialized and white-heteronormative model of life. There are films, speeches, bodies that summon other worldviews, be they queer, Afro-futurists or Amerindians, freeing certain forms of representation/figuration from the confinement of aesthetic captivity¹ (CINTIA GUEDES) and the logic of imprisoning transparency. But this process cannot be done above the domain of who always had the power of creation and production of narratives, imagination cannot be a privilege of only one social and racial class. This problem is exposed to us, what make me wonder that we are going through a pedagogical moment. A moment that requires another state of listening, observation and a practice linked to ethical engagement. An engagement that makes me recognize my privileges and understand, for an example, the place I occupy as an academic white woman of middle class in Brazilian society. This recognition leads me to have a greater awareness directly into the production of images that I am composing, in my relationship with the world, in the power relations intertwined in the construction of the images.
This pedagogical moment is a process of deep learning, and I think we are still in the process of understand about how to deal with these effects. Somehow, with film making, I have learned that we cannot reverse and that we need to produce escape routes to explode the captives of this patriarchal and neo-colonial world. When I refer to film making, I am not only talking about the production of films, but the spaces for training, debates, research and speech events, popular schools of cinema, such as the school recently created by Lincoln Péricles in Capão Redondo [Rio de Janeiro]. In this broader sense, cinema can be a destabilizing instrument of this status quo, which creates other conditions for possibilities of listening spaces, sensitivities and crushed dreams, erased stories, unpredictable alliances, which would not have been composed if not through cinema.
A significant part of your short-movies are partnerships with other directors and collaborators, which requires the project itself to be more important than the small vanities of an author, for an example. I believe that making and signing a film in partnership with someone can be a great language experience if these two people have the work as their main focus, even more than their own film ideas and concepts. This aspect of film production has been very common in contemporary Brazilian Cinema and has given interesting results ranging from Good Manners (Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra) to the very famous Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho). How did this aspect of production collaborate in the construction of your language, your own voice as a director?
I think that Cinema insists too much on this policy of authorship. In fact, it is a way of individualizing a work that is done collectively. Since my first short-movie Confete [Confetti], made in partnership Mariana Kaufman, I can’t believe I stopped being an author just because we shared the direction of the film. In this partnership, we encourage ourselves to take even more risks in the movie’s aesthetic choices. As it was my first short film, maybe I would have backed off on some choices by myself. This idea that the director is dominated by certainties when arriving on set is a lie and, if it happens, it going to be bad for all the rest of the team that is subordinate in the filming process. My processes require an exchange, a negotiation, a sharing, and for me this is the lust of cinema: knowing how to listen to those who share the film process with me. Does this methodology make me less of an author? I don’t think so. For me, it reveals the collective character of film making and ends up not making of the voices and desires of the team working on the film invisible. This collective dimension was even more radical in the film Sun Inside. The script was a collective creation since the beginning of the project. Therefore, we understand that this collectivism would not occur only in the script, then, before creating a project called Diário de Férias [a vacation diary] (comment in detail below). The collaborative feature reverberates in the process and resonates in the film format, structuring itself as a mosaic, a bricolage. I believe that this film could not be conceived any differently. In general, as you well mentioned, great filmmakers like Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliana Rojas have found in the partnership a way to mix languages and make our own process less predictable. This is because they do not feel any threat to the idea of authorship, they understand film making as a way of sharing worlds, of building friendship, a space to produce bridges and connections that renew our view of the world. In this sense, these alliances are pretty good, deviating the creator from this modern status of the author – solitary and ego-destructive – and further affirming its collective and inviting attribute. Perhaps, this displacement implies the author or the team to recognize their flaws less than their certainties.
The short-film A Ilha do Farol, directed by you in partnership with Mariana Kaufman, sounds very much like an archaeological treatise where the image – or rather: the absence of it – also constitutes the loss of a memory. It seems like that language that the film claims to have been lost, like an island, has become a huge mystery whose marks, now, only reveal themselves as souvenirs marked by time in us. Sun Inside, by the other hand, seems to want to answer that question, somehow, because the vivid language of these young protagonists (and the image that is made of it) always seems to point to the future, as if, from now on, these young and vivid bodies are projecting and keeping that language that was lost in A Ilha do Farol. How does this relationship between Cinema and Memory happen for you as a director?
This is a very good question. I never associated the two films in this way, but it makes a lot of sense. The short film Ilha do Farol, directed together with Mariana Kaufman, proposes an anti-adventure trip, that is not structured as a bow of defeat and overcoming, as we see in the stories about exploration and indigenous lands exploration in Brazil. The film seeks to evoke the arrival of Portuguese invaders coming from caravels as they entered the sea through Guanabara Bay, inhabited, in the 16th century, by indigenous Tamóios and Tupinambás. Sea through which the slave trade also crossed the Atlantic in the 18th century. The film’s proposal was to retell fragments of these stories, reimagining forgotten and hidden facts by a certain official history of the city of Rio de Janeiro.
The thread that guides the narrative is an interracial family that launches themselves on a boat towards to the Ilha do Farol [a lighthouse island], to a dystopian promise, to the future. The film plays with temporalities: the present is represented by the family adrift, the past is made of fabled stories written on the cards and the future is represented by the image of an island that can never be reached. The combination of these timelines sparks a film about the failure of a trip, about the deception of the past that makes impossible for time to go ahead to the future.
In this sense, memory is not a drawer that opens, where you can find the past organized. Memory is cyclical, it is like a diffracting (diffraction) sea that doesn’t follow a line. It reminds me of Edóuard Glissant’s definition of the refractory Caribbean Sea: “The Caribbean Sea, a sea that differs from the Mediterranean because it is an open sea, a sea that diffracts, while the Mediterranean is a sea that concentrates. It is not just a sea of transit and passage, but a sea of ‘encounters and implications’ ”. This idea is somehow in the short film A Ilha do Farol, because the memory represented in the film is not linearly articulated, it is like the diffracting sea. It appears through the retold cards of the past and creates a sense of fable by the present in the flow of this journey, where you get nowhere.
Sun Inside’s narrative is established in the present. The film material is the daily life and the imaginary manifestation. The film extracts its poetics from experiences and affective relationships. But, even in the present, this is not a condition that prevents them [protagonists] to move to other possibilities. We were interested to build a space that would produce desire, activating the vital powers of the authors-characters and, in this way, not enclosing them in previous frames and models of fixed representations, but to produce images with a movement atmosphere. As lines that escape capture, respecting, in this way, the right to opacity (GLISSANT), the right not to see or reveal everything about the filmed person, deviating from a colonized, classifying and hierarchical look that tends to create totalized and limited frames. In this way, I believe that memory does not manifest itself as an encapsulated and closed past, but as fragments and erasures. Fragments, for example, that we can find in Caio’s body, when he sings the Umbanda [a hybrid Brazilian religion] songs, updated in the scenic performance. In the presence of her grandmother in the yard, a constellation of images: tracks that find a land in the present.
This youth that Sun Inside is able to capture so well is also full of identity and personality, which makes the image that is built of it through the film contextualize this restlessness of the young body in this world, that can never follow or understand the storm of things that happen in a teenager’s body. About that, how was the researching process, the approaching with these teenagers and how did they directly contribute to the construction of Sun Inside?
Before find the age cut of Sun Inside, I met the characters of the film at a public school in Rio das Pedras, a favela located in the West Rio de Janeiro, when as a film teacher in the project “Imagens em Movimento” (Moving images) for an entire school year. As returning from the July vacation break, I proposed to the students a task that consisted of building a narrative about their vacation experiences. The students said very little, and complained about the lack of things to do during this period. They had occupied their days with domestic tasks to help families at home and surfing on the web when free time. They barely left the neighborhood, because the transportation ticket, provided by the government of Rio de Janeiro, does not work during the vacation period; therefore, they were unable to move around the city when with time to do so. The neighborhood is the second largest slum in Rio de Janeiro in terms of population. It is also the birthplace of the militia, where the “crime office” operates.
The militia operates under an authoritarian and coercive regime that governs and subjects 130,000 residents to their power practices. As Junior, one of the movie characters reported: “They make money from our fear”. The desire to propose a project, in this context, emerged during the holidays, and then came the “Diário de Férias” (a vacation diary), project that was contemplated by Rumos Itaú Cultural [a financing program that provides funds for the realization of artistic projects. It is sponsored by a private bank]. During two months of 2015’s summer, under a heat of 40 to 45 degrees, we settled in a space close to the residents’ association.
The project consisted of creating a laboratory space with transdisciplinary practices to harbor the sensitive and aesthetic experiences of these four teenagers during their two months of vacation. We tried to establish relational territories where subjectivities could find gaps in their [protagonists] materiality, some artistic, others existential. The Vacation Diary was a methodology developed to build space to the sensitivity of the young people who were part of the project. In this project they experimented from performance practices to the creation of poetic texts. It was a creative immersion experience. This was how we have the desire to make a film together with them, but inviting them to be part of the creative process of the project. From the Diary to the filming of Sun Inside, two years have passed. During that time, we handed the camera over to them, but only Junior really filmed himself, presenting us with an incredible material that was very similar with images from American experimental directors’ performance videos, like Bruce Nauman and Samuel Beckett. This composition by Junior caught our attention, and instigated us to create a script based on the produced material. During this period, I also started attending the CAIC school, where Caio had invited me to watch and film talent show presentations. The script was nourished by the contact with the creative production of the four teenagers. Faced with a world of images and possibilities, I invited Isaac Pipano and Ricardo Flogliatto to develop the script with me. Ricardo had already worked at the vacation diary project. They not only worked the previous script of shooting, but also collaborating with the montage. During filming, the script was molded to the opinions and suggestions of the characters, who contributed by bringing ideas and improvising with dialogues during the staging and also with suggestions and guesses in the editing process.
I think it is important to say that, throughout this process, we realized that we were not only interested in lives, but in what they created to live. This is certainly an element that connects the film to this vitality that you mention. It was not the condition of scarcity of that peripheral space – elements already so codified in the production of images about these territories – that interested us, but this creative, fabulous and imaginative dimension. Dimension that crossed and crosses the bodies of these teenagers, although it was not previously given, it was often necessary to summon it. That is why I think it is so important to always mention the Vacation Diary as a space for creation and exchange that guided our perspective towards affirming and producing this inventive dimension of these characters.
I believe that the Brazilian documentary has sought to get closer to youth, especially black and peripheral youth, in their ills, struggles and victories. I think that some good films have been able to achieve this approach: since Coutinho’s Last Conversations, which seems, to me, to be a long and important step in this path, passing directly through the genocide of black youth in Police Killing (Natasha Neri and Lula Carvalho), even more stripped-down films such as Your Turn by Eliza Capai, that uses the image of young and peripheral bodies to revisit, with great vigor, important episodes in our recent political history. How does Sun Inside contribute to this approximation process and where does it clash with that? And more: how does he actually position himself in this discussion?
I believe that the interest in produce portraits of this generation comes also from a bigger social presence of these peripheral youth in the university academy during the years of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) government, and from the digital inclusion provided by this government, that opened many gaps for young people to glimpse other possibilities of life beyond their social territory. When Coutinho proposed to make the feature Last Conversations, the peripheral and black youth was starting to occupy spaces as universities and political debates. This youth became a political actor, no longer a spectator of history. The Cinema started to be interested in hearing their voices, because they became living proof of social transformations that our country was going through at that time, and also because they were directly affected by the violence of the State, dying by police weapons in the slums, that are always trying to exterminate the future of an entire generation. This genocide intensified with the legitimation of the far-right governments ascension. So, I believe that films about youth – mainly peripheral – realized that these young people are bodies that cross [timeline, the system and their reality], because they bring out the wishes of the present and the aspirations of the future. If they die by State [police] weapons, Brazil is killing a whole country’s right to have a future. The question that arises for us, filmmakers, is: how to deal with this complex universe, that transmutes all the time? How to capture the insurgent vitality of this generation at the height of their yearnings and experiences?
Now, focusing more on the films you mention, [it is] curious to ask this question, because I was recently with Isaac Pipano in a virtual debate about the film [Sun Inside] with students and professors from UNIFEOB [São João da Boa Vista University] in Fortaleza, Ceará. At the occasion, a Sociology of Art professor, Danielle Cruz, made a very good observation when comparing Sun Inside film to Last Conversations. She said something that I found really interesting: Sun Inside produces a space of intimacy and performance, which distinguishes it from Coutinho’s approach, that uses the devices of interviews and conversations with the people filmed. Although we know that, for Coutinho, it didn’t matter if the characters’ speeches contained truths or lies, but how they talk about their lives. In this sense, performance becomes also an important element for the construction of the speech.
What Danielle noticed is a bet on the artifice in the scenic game in Sun Inside, the construction of an artificial and performative world for other layers and imaginary of this youth, as well as the staging within the domestic spaces, gradually creating a relationship of intimacy and closeness to the characters. Unlike Coutinho’s films, where words, language and voice are more centralized to the construction of the film, in Sun Inside we believed that discourse was not enough to materialize the subjectivities of these characters in a constant process of transmutation of themselves towards the world.
Eliza Capai’s feature, Your turn, is an extremely important film for having the good intention of telling Brazilian history at a time when schools were being taken over by the occupations of high school students, affected by the presidential coup against Dilma Roussef. It was the beginning of the Brazilian defeat by the far-right, but the narrative of this defeat is made by the young people directly affected by the conservative storm that took Brazil. I was very moved when I watched the film, because it shows young people taking the course of history, even though, sadly, we know that the story did not ended as we would like it to.
At this point, Sun Inside is not centralized in this fight. I can say that he approaches Coutinho’s Last Conversations by being interested in how these young people build a meaning to their lives, whether through music, religion, friendship or the imaginary. Both [films] are more focused on the character’s individualities and the way they develop the performances and narratives to represent their singularities. In this sense, I believe that Sun Inside focuses more on a micro-political sphere, extracting its poetics from everyday life and intimacy; Your Turn seeks to bring out this youth facing directly the State, in a confrontation with a power project. I think Your Turn and Sun Inside can be very complementary films, which helps to perceive that the youth in Brazil is mobilized by a desire for the future, escaping the over-coded portrait of the black young lives from slums that are placed in a frame of subordination, crime, conditioned to the determinism that society has about the marginalized territory where they live.
In addition to dealing with being young, black and marginalized in Brazil today, there is also an approximation with the experiences within the public school as a space for diversity, formation and resistance. We can mention, again, Your Turn (Eliza Capai, 2019) and “Eleições” [Elections] (Alice Riff, 2018) as recent films whose narrative crosses these relationships and goes through these very primordial institutions, even if with many difficulties in Brazilian education. Sun Inside brings, precisely, the approach of young people to this place through the bonds of friendship, and then the distance from the summer holidays. In this sense, how was the process of writing the project and script based in this theme? And afterwards, how did it go with the recording?
I met Caio, Karol, Ronaldo and Junior through school, as a film teacher in a school project, and I wanted to start the film in that space and with that link. At first, I noticed through Caio, mainly, a School beyond the classroom, taking place in spaces out of the classroom: meetings in the courtyard, lunch in the cafeteria, talent shows, poetry presentations, June parties, etc. There was where they managed to meet to spontaneously express their creativity and concerns. Then, we started to film at CAIC school, Rio das Pedras [Rio de Janeiro], and Andre Malraux, in Leblon [Rio de Janeiro]. Right at the beginning we understood, me, Pedro Pipano (photographer) and Guilherme Farkas (sound), that it was better to start with a certain distance, in order for them to get used with our strange presence. Gradually, they were inviting us to get into the spaces and the camera was also approaching their faces. In this space of the school, we tried not to control the filming too much, differently from the moment after the holidays, where we had a script with staging proposals. At school, the goal was to register the space in a documentary style and film them more as a collective than a singular body. For us, it was important to put them in groups – never individually – because the school, here, represents a collective space. However, the school as institution was not the focus of our project, but only a solid tool to build a collective space that would give space to another, more slowed, time of the holidays. Unlike Alice’s film, Eleições [Elections], where the school is the axis that connects all the characters, the central narrative portrait. Eleições structure the school’s microcosms in a very good way, reflecting the Brazilian macro-political issues. Both Eliza Capai’s film and Eleições are films conceived by the context of public schools’ occupations and, in this perspective, [both films] make this space visible as a ground of political and aesthetic disputes for this youth. Sun Inside was also sensitive to this emerging political context, which can be seen in the prologue, where students are celebrating the victory of their group on school games, a representation of political achievement that came from occupation’s movement. However, Sun Inside leaves the school, because our interest was to make the school visible as a collective space, a vivid and transcendent place, to approach the subjective processes that occurred during vacations, once suffocated when inside the school.
Sun Inside‘s script was written by Isaac Pipano and Ricardo Flogliato, shared and collaborated by Caio Neves, Karollayne Rabech, Junior Souza and Ronaldo Lessa. The creation process happened in this way: after the Vacation Diary – two years later – we created a schedule; we presented it to the characters in the staging laboratory, guided by Ricardo. We brought the written scenes and molded them to the characters’ improvisations. We didn’t start from something ready, from a framed portrait, the idea was to be contaminated by the way the four [characters] imagined their lives, building spaces for their sensitivity and a place to exist through Cinema. As the teenagers did not have a closer relationship with violence, it was important for us to avoid this path. Thus, we created a script where characters haven’t a have a psychological profile, but it was with an open and closed line of strength, at the same time. For each of them, we designed a trajectory, from one place to another, throughout the narrative. I like to think of the film script as a weaving practice, where the sum of events shapes a framework full of starting and ending points, as if the characters were strength lines that sometimes intersect, sometimes deviate, intertwine, knot and that sometimes produce a new shape, lines that affect and are affected by the world around them. In this sense, it has to do with what the Vietnamese filmmaker and researcher Trinh T. Min-ha writes about his process: “Instead of merely talk about the production of images or meanings, one can approach the manufacture of images as a network of underground current [thinking/acting] and counter-current [opposite think/act]: a manifestation of forces”. These forces to which Trinh refers do not end the flow of people filmed, but they are forces that vibrate in different ways, in alliance with other people, groups, objects and schools, distinguishing themselves throughout the film.
I don’t know if I conceptualized too much, but in practice we worked this way. There were changes in the filming lines, such as Caio’s trajectory. He was in the process of becoming a Pai de Santo [relevant positon in Umbanda’s religion], but decided to change and migrate to the protestant church. There was no way not to include this transformation in the film. Thus, the script’s structure was sensitive to events, open to situations that occurred in the characters’ lives, which required a constant negotiation. In one of these negotiations, we realized that the film needed to summon a more performative dimension, capable of inviting them to experience other alterities, as was the case with the K-pop video clip with Karol and the forest scene with Caio. Such scenes were only possible when Ancine [Brazilian national film making agency, extinct by Brazilian government in 2020] funding came in, a year after the first shoot. We already had a version of the film and it was clear that we needed to invest in the materialization of the imaginary, that is, in the staging of performances, to intertwine and fill this fabric with other lines. Only in this way did the tapestry tracing of the film seem to us up to the depicted lives.
How was the film reception by the public at the Brazilian festivals where it was exhibited and how do you think Sun Inside can resist for the next years (the question even looks back to us, because it also serves the film making: how to resist the stormed times that we are living now and the ones that are yet to come)?
The [Sun Inside] debut in Tiradentes [Minas Gerais] was very sensitive, the audience of the festival was extremely warm with Caio, Karol, Ronaldo and Junior. There, they understood the meaning of make a film, and enjoyed the recognition offered by people, even if just for a few moments. Here in Brazil, the film was shown in the main festivals, I tried to follow most of the exhibitions. Throughout this year, we heard many young people from the peripheries to express a desire to see themselves on the screen, out of this approach of violence and misery. Many of them felt connected with the characters, close to the dilemmas experienced by them, and were deeply moved by the way that the film led them. It was interesting to release this film in the year of possession of the worst President that Brazil ever had. The Cinema was involved in an urgent answer to the conservative rise of the far-right in politics. Therefore, most of the films exhibited along with Sun Inside were committed with this action. Through it all, Sun Inside was interpreted almost like a dystopian film. I received these impressions as compliments. Satisfied by taking people out of lethargy and pessimism state without romanticize any reality and producing relief beyond this political storm that we are going through, which made me think that we have to resist the very idea – already worn out – of what has already been captured as resistance in common sense. For this reason, I find it interesting to turn to Leda Martins Marques, a performance and performing arts researcher, whose question that raised in the debate about Torquato Neto’s film [directed by Eduardo Ades and Marcus Fernando, 2017] is very relevant to this conversation. Leda talks about how Torquato refused to “turn his aesthetic into commodities”. And yet, asks at the end of her speech: How to escape the precipice, if not also inventing language?². Putting it in dialogue with your question, how to escape this abyss, if not also reinventing the very idea of resistance?
I do not think it is a question to answer immediately, but I believe the importance of this discussion to suspend already established beliefs about the production of images that deal with the subject of resistance. I believe that a radical process of reinvention can only take place in connections with other knowledge of authors previously unnoticed; like so many black women, queer, indigenous artists, which comes to the surface with a great force. Singularities that deconstruct any easy idea about resistance, but also produce new enchantments with the world, to continue to exist in this country haunted by delusion. Thus, we remember that there are other versions of Brazil, acting underground and in other directions, and which can emerge at any moment.
1 It is an expression used by the researcher and performance Cíntia Guedes, in the Tiradentes debate, to refer to the confinement frames in the production of black people image representation.
2 Lecture on the film about Torquato Neto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVG8d-Mg_9M