*FSR traveled to Manaus, Brazil to attend and cover the 8th Amazonas Film Festival. See all our coverage here.*

I am in Brazil.

Those four words are easy to type and even easier to read, but the journey to make them a reality has been anything but. From Visa problems at the Brazilian consulate, to mechanical issues that delayed my trip by a full day, to a mix-up in Miami that left me forced to pay a few hundred bucks in change-flight fees, to a drunken blowhard in my seating row loudly insulting those around him until I commented and he promptly fell asleep. (To be fair, he may have actually passed out before I commented…) It was not a great experience.

But then my plane began to descend over Brazil, and the lush, vibrant rain forest spread out beneath me like a giant and deliriously green shag carpet dissected by the mysterious waters of the Rio Negros. The river resembles a dark lightning strike cutting a swath through the jungle, its main body constantly breaking off into jagged streams and tributaries until it finally meets up with the Amazon. It’s an awesome and belittling thing to see from above as it appears endless in every visible direction… and then you hit Manaus, a city of two million people sitting squarely in the middle of the jungle.

After a long but uneventful walk through customs I exited into the airport’s public space and a world where I couldn’t understand a single word of Portuguese, written or spoken. I should probably make it clear that this trip was my first to a country where I don’t speak the language. I took French in high school from a bitter old German woman, so I didn’t even have Spanish as a backup. (And my ability to recite Mein Kampf in French would most likely not come in handy.) It was both exhilarating and terrifying (about 70/30), and I couldn’t help but flash scenes from Elite Squad and Turistas through my head.

After meeting up with the folks charged with keeping me alive, out of jail, and with organs intact we headed over to the beautiful and historic Amazonas Opera House (aka Teatro Amazonas) for the day’s films. (Check below for my thoughts on each of them.) The theater is a beautiful building constructed in the late 1800s using thousands of pieces imported from Europe including furniture and tiles from France and marble from Italy. It’s a stunning sight, inside and out, and while it could stand some more comfortable seats and an improved sound system it is an amazing place to view a film.

After the second feature we were bussed to the Palace Rio Negros for my first Brazilian after party. The “palace” was at one time a governor’s mansion, and its former opulence was still quite obvious. Rooms were blocked off from the public, and attendants stood by to guard the precious furniture from excessive fondling and abandoned drinks. Unsurprisingly it was the ex-Canadian among us who almost left a wet ring on a very old-looking decorative table. International incident averted, we proceeded to enjoy the open bar and buffet (which I quickly came to realize is the official food group of Brazil).

You’d think the pasty white American journalists (there were four of us, five if you count the slightly less pasty Brit who joined us) would be quite the cause célèbres, but you’d be wrong. Instead the most prized photo op was with a man who looked like a sexy Johnny Galecki. Alfonso ‘Poncho’ Herrera is a Mexican telenovela star and was at the fest as a member of the jury. It seemed all of Manaus knew about it too as our hotel’s front entrance was swarming with teenage girls and the occasional boy at all hours of the day and night. I’ve seen girls go mental over young male celebrities before (I’ve been to Comic-Con during the Twilight years after all), but it’s an odd sensation to see that reaction towards someone who carries absolutely no recognition factor to you in the slightest. As the ex-Canuck pointed out though, it’s easy to forget that while America’s superstars often become the world’s stars the same rarely holds true in reverse.

My first day in Brazil was an experience in cultural immersion and a fantastic success. Between four good to great films and the company of some fantastically entertaining and engaging fellow journalists it set the bar fairly high for the rest of the trip.

SHORTS

Sunny (Brazil, dir. Ricardo Targino) – The first of the two shorts is about a young girl being sent by her family to stay with relatives. It’s a beautifully shot and subdued little film that lets sunlight play across the screen alongside the young girl’s shy and concerned expressions. Targino’s simple and effective short is more about visuals and atmosphere than narrative, but he still manages to convey emotion in the absence of a deeper story.

The Sky Downstairs (Brazil, dir. Leonardo Cata Preta) – Next up is this fairly brilliant animated short about a young boy named Francisco who suffers from a muscular defect that prevents him from holding his head up straight. It slouches forward causing his worldview to be little more than a series of shoes, sneakers and other footwear. He documents the events of his life with Polaroid pictures of the sky snapped out of sight and above his head at that moment in time. The images are a series of blue skies, clouds of different shapes and sizes, and the occasional plane… until the day his snapshot shows a pair legs connected to a falling body out of frame. There’s an Amelie vibe running through much of this gem, and when combined with a dark but creative animation style it makes for an oddly bittersweet tale about loneliness, longing and finding your way in the world.

FEATURES

The First Grader (Kenya/UK, dir. Justin Chadwick) – This is the true story of a Kenyan man who attended school for the first time while in his eighties. A veteran of his country’s Mau Mau Uprising in the late 1950s, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo) is 84 years old and desperate for the education he was never allowed while still young. Years of fighting in the war resulted in many more spent incarcerated in colonial prisons, and now, in the twilight of his life, he’s forced to fight one last battle. His desire to attend grade school comes under attack from locals with their own ignorances and agendas, but with the help of a kind, young teacher (Naomie Harris) Mr. Maruge’s desire for an education becomes an international quest for justice.

Inspirational films based on true stories have a slight edge over their entirely fictional counterparts because people are drawn to real life successes. That advantage combined with two charismatic and likeable leads helps raise The First Grader up a bit from its otherwise TV movie-like feel. Events transpire pretty much as you’d expect as Maruge and the teacher struggle against historical prejudices and misguided ignorance, but none of it ever really feels big or dramatic. Still, the lead performances are good and it’s ultimately a sweetly inspired story.

A Separation (Iran, dir. Asghar Farhadi) – An Iranian couple separates when they hit a major impasse in their future planning. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to move her husband and daughter out of the country to improve the girl’s opportunities, but Nader (Peyman Moaadi) refuses to leave his father who’s suffering from Alzheimers. Simin’s absence forces him to hire a housekeeper to watch over the old man during the day, but unforeseen circumstances and events lead to a confrontation between Nader and the woman that quickly grows in proportion and consequence.

This glimpse into an average Iranian family’s life reminds us that Fox News scares aside these people aren’t all that different from us. The core here is the disintegration of a family when faced with suspicion, lies, and cultural expectations, and the film does a fantastic job of finding suspense and drama in what could otherwise have felt like a very localized or underwhelming story. The acting is strong throughout, but Moaadi is mesmerizing as a man trying to save his family from falling apart and instead winds up falling deeper into trouble. Farhadi’s previous film, About Elly, features a stronger narrative, but both movies offer a fascinating look at a world most of us only know from the nightly news. Or more accurately, what we think we know.

*FSR traveled to Manaus, Brazil to attend and cover the 8th Amazonas Film Festival. See all our coverage here.*


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