The opening film at the 2018 Open City Documentary Festival takes audiences from Regent Street Cinema in Central London into the favelas of Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
It’s an intimate look at life balancing everyday banality with the omnipresence of gang violence inside a typical Brazilian slum. More specifically, it’s about the lives of women in this unforgiving environment.
Debut feature filmmaker Juliana Antunes’ documentary is adverse to dramatisation. Instead dwelling for so long on the spontaneous real life conversations or moments of the film’s two main subjects’ lives that it loosens its grip on attention hard earned in a number of brilliant scenes.
Neighbours Andreia and Leid are the central ‘characters’ in a steady coming and going of faces and names. The two women share an intimate relationship that is surely nurtured by the hostile environment. It’s difficult to imagine such close, often physical, bonds between women in more developed areas of the world.
Andrea is a beautician of sorts, earning money by giving manicures to the local women. Leid is waiting for her husband to get out of jail while raising their four children. Andrea wants out of her life inside the favela. It is her dream to escape to the seemingly more peaceful neighbourhood of Baronesa.
That this is the title of the documentary makes clear the sentiment behind the film: life inside a favela is no real life for a woman at all. The women there might exhibit tenderness in a number of scenes, but they’re also hardened by their surroundings.
They speak with slang, using ‘Joe’ or ‘bro’ as equivalents to ‘mate’ or ‘friend’, they drink cans of beer and shoot the shit smoking cigarettes in the yard. They even banter bluntly about masturbation like blokes in a pub.
It isn’t a typical documentary in many respects. No one looks at the camera, there are no statistics and there isn’t a central narrative that builds to some sort of significant closing thought.
Antunes spent five years getting to know her two female ‘leads’, familiarising herself with the life of a favela resident. She chose to tell the women’s stories with restraint and understated normality.
Artist, activist, filmmaker and general nuisance to the Chinese State, Ai Wei Wei, took a similar approach in his documentary about the ongoing refugee crisis, Human Flow.
Baronesa is a carefully considered piece of realism that will deservedly cut the ribbon on this year’s Open City festival of thought. It’s just unlikely to be the most affecting of the films on offer.