On the Power of Sisterhood and the Limits of Nostalgia: An Interview with Brazilian Director Karim Aïnouz

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THE OPENING SHOTS of Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz’s sensuous drama based on the novel by Martha Batalha, could hardly be more visually — or aurally — alive. Water drops from lichened rocks to the symphonic swell of insects; birdsong greets the quiet rush of sudden waterfall. Two sisters — one tall and lanky, one petite but voluptuous — lose sight of each other in the underbrush. “Come on Eurídice. It’s going to rain,” says the shorter, darker one, as monkeys scramble up a tree. “Guida!” cries her older sister, clambering through the gnarled green in a prim knee-length skirt. Their cries echo back and forth through the forest, a desperate crescendo allegorizing the epic loss that will soon unfold.

Against this sweltering, vertiginous backdrop — think 2D Avatar meets Picnic at Hanging Rock — Aïnouz’s midcentury Rio is gritty, lurid, and gorgeously real. Multiplanar shots throw into relief the lush depths of daily life, Aïnouz’s painterly attention to color and light imbued at every turn. Yet, however vibrant and liberating the city may feel, the 1950s world that Guida and Eurídice inhabit could hardly be more confining. Eschewing the values of their imperious father, an “ignorant Portuguese man who thinks [they’re] living in the last century,” Guida absconds to Greece with a swarthy sailor, while Eurídice dreams of auditioning for the Austrian Conservatory of Music. When the former returns home without a husband a year later, the family unravels, and the sisters are kept in the dark about the other’s livelihood. Chronicling this experience of separation through epistolary voice-over, Invisible Life exposes the inextricability of systemic patriarchal control from the hidden lives of women, while honoring the strength of female bonds that transcend the boundaries of family, race, and class. 

In person, Aïnouz is warm-hearted and garrulous, eager to talk about the film’s provocative themes and subsequent controversy in his home country. The following is an excerpt from a conversation with the director in mid-December.

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EILEEN G’SELL: I’d like to talk about representations of women in your movie, specifically the depiction of sisterhood. Guida and Eurídice don’t share the screen that often, and most of their relationship is built through letters. While Guida makes an impulsive decision to take off with a Greek man, becomes a pariah, and so on, her life doesn’t end up that much worse than her sister, Eurídice, who plays by society’s rules. How did you view these sisters’ separate circumstances but shared plight?

KARIM AÏNOUZ: Particularly, with Guida, I was really trying to look at a few things. I was trying to honor certain practices that were happening in Rio and other cities at the time — like networks of solidarity between women. Particularly in the case of Filomena, who runs the neighborhood daycare. That part was in the novel, but I was very interested in the neighborhood informal daycares of the ’50s and ’60s. That, for me, was the tip of the iceberg — these very informal networks of family, solidarity, and support. But she needed to be illegal, invisible, to continue these traditions. It’s very hard for both sisters. But it was important to look at the women who were outside occupied, official spaces in society. In the case of Eurídice, it was about conformity. In the moment that she has fulfilled what she feels she needs to fulfill — by the time her daughter was five years old — she could maybe begin her life again. It was very hard for both of them, but no matter where they were — either in the space of tradition and normativity, one breaking away with relation to men and to family, the working, and the legal world — there was no way to be free: you either became an outlaw or became pathologized.

This was in the book, obviously, but I wanted to paint that in different colors. For me, it was important to explore in relation to medicine in the 1950s with relation to women. I did a lot of research on that, and on legal matters — to explore this on a very concrete basis. For example, for Eurídice, there was no proper way to have an abortion, and I imagine that for Guida, who is off the grid, there probably was a network for that. The two characters allow me to paint a fresco of what was happening for women in that world at that moment. 

Even though Filomena, as a former sex worker and a Black woman, is arguably the film’s most disenfranchised character, she is also the character who seems the happiest. Her life does not unfold as tragic, and despite her extraordinarily difficult circumstances, she is not a victim. How would you describe her role?

Filomena is a queen. In the book, she is an old prostitute with no teeth, with syphilis, very decrepit. And I thought, there is no one more generous in this fabric of society than Black women. The generosity of Black women in these social contexts is extraordinary; they are devoid of so much, and yet they give so much. Filomena is a symbol of resistance in a very positive way. She is ostracized because of her class, she is ostracized because of her job. But when I translated this into the film, I wanted her to be luminous.

She dies in the book, and I thought it was important that she die in the film. But I refused to shoot a dead Black body. For me, this is something that we’ve seen so many times, especially in Brazil. The way we see black bodies is eroticized or dead. When I rewrote the script and cast Bárbara, who is the actress who played the role, it was so important that this death was a passage — that we did not shoot her dead, but that we shot her in transition to something else. For me, all of that was very important, to show Filomena as a queen. A lot of the women in my family had a lot of trouble with men — particularly my grandmother, who was born in 1905, and had two daughters. Her husband literally went to buy cigarettes and left her, when my aunt and my mother were two and three. And yet I’ve never seen my grandmother complain in my entire life. She died at 108 years old. She was not a force of nature, but she had such integrity. I think the Filomena character is like that. Resilience is so important to her character.

It’s so important when you do a period film. I don’t know if I’d ever do a period film about Marilyn Monroe, but I think I’d love do a period film about the Cuban singer Bola de Nieve. It’s a chance to honor certain histories that we don’t know — like these networks, especially during periods of communism, like these networks of daycare. The invisibility of these networks was so important. And it was important that, decades later in the film, this informal daycare becomes a school. It’s almost like the legacy of Filomena and Guida become formal under the auspices of the law.

The end of the film does not feel like a canned happy ending — it felt very realistic, and relevant to the present day. Which brings me to the Bolsonaro administration’s censorship of Invisible Life. Which themes and messages do you think they are most concerned about?

Listen, I have been asked that question for days now, but I want to go there now with you. I’ve been refraining from answering, because I never got an answer. When I wrote the letter to the administration, and there was silence. I was talking to a wall. I don’t know, and I would like to know as well. But since you asked me and today is Friday, we’ll consider it again. [Laughs.]

This film was financed by another government, another president. Many things have been happening in Brazil in the last six months, you know. In any fascist government, culture is also a place of critique, so it’s also made the villain. We’ve been made the villains for almost a year now, since this guy was elected. Brazilian filmmakers have been winning international awards all year, and no congratulations, no nothing from the government. It’s crazy. It’s not very smart, actually. There was clear censorship about LGBTQ films. The three people who were running the National Film Agency — one is an evangelical priest, and one is a woman, a politician, who blacklisted something like 60 filmmakers at the beginning of the year.

I cannot really answer your question, I can only imagine the reasons. So two weeks ago, all the posters of Brazilian films in the corridors of the National Film Agency were removed. It feels like an act of vengeance to something threatening, and perhaps because the evangelical church does not like images. With Invisible Life, it was a screening for the technical staff of the agency, and it was censored. But this woman is really for films that portray heroes, religious themes — she’s very in tune with the agenda of the present government.

So essentially your film just wasn’t uplifting enough?

I don’t know how my film is threatening this agenda. But since all this happened, this woman was fired. It’s a mess. It was a crazy mess. And it’s a classic case of this new government. What happened to this film is not actually that interesting. What is interesting, is really great, is that the staff of the National Film Agency asked for a public viewing of the film last night in Rio and about 800 people went. And then there was another free, public screening in São Paulo, in connection with a political collective group. And all of this was as a result of the letter I sent. I wrote it in 10 minutes. I was so angry, and I think anger is great. It’s not hate! There was censorship, yes, but they can never prove it technically. But this has all spontaneously triggered resistance from, and in, a public space.

I don’t think the problem with Brazil is the government, but the Brazilian elite. The Brazilian elite has sealed a pact with the devil — the government is the devil. They’re not bad; they’re barbaric. The Minister of Family said something like, “You cannot go to a rock concert, because at a rock concert, people do drugs, and then they will have sex, and then they get pregnant, and then they have abortions. So rock concerts are pro-abortion.” It’s nonsense. It’s interesting, but whoo! They are a bunch of clowns — murderous, criminal clowns. What’s most puzzling in all of this, is how can this government have this veil of the local elite?

The way in which Invisible Life depicts marriage, the nuclear family, and men in general is not flattering. The men are not villains, but they are often clownish. The first time that Eurídice and her husband have sex is one of the most awkward, awful marriage night scenes I’ve ever seen, but it’s not predatory.

Yeah, yeah. I was not judging any of my characters.

But I can see how a conservatively minded person might find your whole film an affront to the normative nuclear family and everything it stands for.

[Laughs.] Oh yes, I hate the nuclear family. It’s not that I hate, you know, but …

Here we have Filomena, Guida, and all these stray kids running around — and they’re the ones who seem to have more fun, to laugh more, to smile more, to support each other more. You celebrate different kinds of kinship networks while exposing the traditional nuclear family as a fraud.

Yes, exposed is a good word.

In an interview for Variety, you said the film was “anti-patriarchal, but not a feminist film.” Can you explain that distinction?

Do you think a man can make a feminist film? I did not want to occupy that space. I feel like, that’s your space. But maybe I’m wrong. I guess the problem with that statement is that it’s a binary statement. Yeah — maybe I can make a feminist film. I was thinking that, as a cis-man, it was more precise to talk about the film as anti-patriarchal. I felt very uncomfortable to say that I was making a feminist film when there is so much struggle about the position of women in the world now. I felt I was kidnapping a place of speech that I should not.

One of the most devastating characters in the film is Guida and Eurídice’s mother. She has the most economic power, and yet is easily the most tortured woman in the story — terrified of her husband, willing to betray her daughters’ relationship. How did you build her character? 

It’s in the book, and she dies of sadness. And there was a moment in the script that we thought that the daughter would also try to find her daughter — she would go to hospitals because she knew that she was pregnant. We thought she could slip some money to Guida, secretly. But I thought it was important that this woman was completely aligned with the father, completely aligned with these values. She was 200 percent invisible. I have the feeling that some viewers may say that it’s not possible for a mother to do that. But that’s what’s so interesting — something like that was possible. People may say that a mother would never something so fucked up. But that’s very essentialist.

That thinking suggests that women can’t be aligned with patriarchy, or benefit from it — and of course that’s not true.

Of course not. I was thinking of a fresco in this film, with at least four female archetypes: the character of Filomena, the character of Guida, the character of Eurídice, the character of their mother. These main characters are all archetypal for what women were performing during that time. And with the men in this film — they are clowns. One of them — Gregório Duvivier — is a clown in real life, the biggest Brazilian comedian today. But he’s also a great actor. It was important for me to show, look who was in the head of this family. He’s shorter than her, he loves her, but he’s a total product of patriarchy, a piece of the game. But the hardest characters to draw were the men, because if they were just villains, it would not make sense. The film would not be a feminist film.

But, I think, two things: the men don’t change much from that time to today. One of the actors — who plays the father — wore the actual clothes of his grandfather in the film. And that’s the thing: we could see this type of man today, sitting here with us, maybe in short sleeves instead of long sleeves. But the women in the film — they change a lot.

On the cover of the Brazilian version of Time Magazine last year, the new president [Michel Temer] — who is not an elected president but was the one who took on Dilma’s place, and is 78 or 80, with a wife that is maybe 36 [Marcela Temer], who is white and blonde. She was on the cover for all this nostalgia for the traditional family, the nuclear family, and on other magazines with headlines like “Beautiful,” “Shy,” and “from the Household.” It’s this constant calling back. In the beginning, my film was not about that, but it became about challenging that. In Portuguese, we say, “Like a butter commercial.”

Like a poster family?

I wanted to implode that from the inside. There is a huge nostalgia for that time, and for those values. And I wanted to perform an autopsy on nostalgia.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).