Saturday, May 22, 2021

Cannes 1984: The Quilombo Utopia

Antepenultimate day at Cannes 1984. 

The Quilombo Utopia 

Search as we may, there is no subject more beautiful for a filmmaker than the staging of what does not exist. Or what no longer exists. Or doesn’t exist yet. Or has existed, but without leaving any trace. Or what should exist (even if we don’t know how). In short: utopia. Filmmakers are already wearing themselves out trying to scrutinise what surrounds them (reality), how are they going to make us see what we have never seen and which only exists “revised and edited” by legends or by our dreams? Certainly not from where we are currently, them and us. Isn’t the beauty of cinema to show us what is at our disposal when we want to film something that has happened without really having happened: utopia? 

Political films can be divided in two unequal groups. The bigger (indefatigable) one is made of social observations, denunciations, reality checks and forward-looking scripts. The smaller one is made of colonies, communities, “liberated zones” etc. Scripts no longer looking at the future but asking rather “How can we remain where we are today? How can we continue like before?”. Utopia, when protected, goes nowhere. 

The Brazilian Carlos Diegues might not make it to Cannes winners list, but Palmares* is the name of a group of villages that, for a century (the seventeenth), led a struggle against the Portuguese and especially against slavery. Quilombo tells the story of two turning points in this struggle: the power transfer between Queen Acoti and Ganga Zumba, and the one between Ganga Zumba (guilty of believing he could make a pact with the whites) and Zombi do Palmares who fought hard before being defeated in turn (but Palmares will keep on living, for Palmares, like any symbol, is eternal). 

Twenty years ago, Carlos “Caca” Diegues, one of the pioneers of the Cinema Nuovo, had told that story in Ganga Zumba, the title of his first film. The theme there was only the struggle for freedom, not so much utopia. Quilombo is both a sequel to and a commentary on Ganga Zumba. The question becomes: free yes, but what to do with this freedom? What kind of society to build with it? Diegues says there is a parallel between this story in two parts and the history of contemporary Brazil, before and after “liberalisation”. What to do with a relative freedom of expression when one is a Brazilian filmmaker, a slightly official one, and regularly present in international festivals? What to say? 

First, say something wise. “I no longer believe in an apocalyptic, trivial and sad cinema,” says Carlos Diegues, among other constructive things, at his press conference. The utopia of the blacks in Quilombo is indeed neither apocalyptic, unbelievable or sad (and even if the film isn’t really “convincing”, it is pleasant to watch). We can see people fighting while dancing, dying without hesitation, joyfully renouncing property, accepting the other, and mixing African gods with the crucified one. They know no contradictions other than those related to power and its transmission, to the right strategy and behaviour to adopt toward the whites (who are amusing as shopworn conquistadors). 

Diegues, who has a real taste for the music hall (Xica da Silva, Bye Bye Brazil), never films better than at a distance, where everything becomes a party, a scene or an open-air dance hall. It’s clear that he has no desire to embrace the tragic side of this story of free slaves who take longer than planned to become second-class citizens of modern Brazil (multi-racial society, my foot!). Gilberto Gil’s beautiful music follows suit. 

So much so that a doubt – a horrible doubt – grips the audience: are we witnessing a rosy “everyone’s beautiful, everyone’s nice” kind of vision? Everybody is certainly very beautiful (from the great Zezé Motta to the energetic Antônio Pompêo), but talking of kindness is a bit too much. Is Quilombo a film on utopia or is it Quilombo that is a utopia of a film on utopia? (In the hollow stretches of political life, utopia is a topic that suits everyone). For real utopia (from the one described by Comolli in La Cecilia to Jim Jones’ horrible deeds) isn’t always so rosy. 

* In French, the Palmarès de Cannes refers to the Cannes winners list. 

First published in Libération on 22 May 1984. Republished in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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