Maya Da-Rin’s feature film debut tells the story of Justino, an indigenous Brazilian worker divided in between Manaus, the city where he works as a harbor security guard, and the Amazon rainforest that is mysteriously calling him back.
WEEKEND: You have previous experience with documentary-filmmaking. How did you decide to enter the feature film scene with a film like “The Fever”? What was your inspiration?
Maya Da-Rin: The initial idea was born while I was shooting two documentary films in Amazonia during which I met some Indian families who had left their villages in the forest and moved to the city. I wound up getting close to one of these families and the relationship I established with them inspired me to start writing a fiction film. I therefore decided to shoot the movie in Manaus, a city that I had previously visited a couple of times and which had always intrigued me as being an industrial hub located in the middle of the forest.
In a way, my starting point is based on true stories. They interested me mainly because they were stories about people who I could come upon in my day-to-day life. We are all aware of how cinema has the propensity to exoticize indigenous peoples and tends to see them through a romantic and positivistic prism, as remnants of that which western cultures were in the past and not as the contemporary complex societies that they are. But the project’s initial argument was much different from what it turned out to be. It took six years of work and innumerous trips to Manaus before we were able to begin shooting.
"We are all aware of how cinema has the propensity to exoticize indigenous peoples and tends to see them through a romantic and positivistic prism, as remnants of that which western cultures were in the past and not as the contemporary complex societies that they are."
Making “The Fever” was a really long project and took you many years before you even started shooting. Did your initial idea change during the process?
Yes, for sure, and they keep changing nowadays when I watch the film. During each different projection I come across something new, that I hadn’t taught or noticed before. I believe that films are living independent organisms in a certain way. Even if we try to direct them, we can never control entirely the process and what will come up from it. That’s the beautiful part of the job; creating something that has freedom.
The film is shot in the Amazonas and the location plays an important role in the film. Can you elaborate on this? What did it take for you to get close to the indigenous families?
Finding the locations and writing the screenplay walk hand-in-hand for me. In The Fever, the screenplay was written during the time I and one of my co-writers, Miguel Seabra Lopes, spent in Manaus. During our research we visited some Indigenous communities on the outskirts of the city while accompanying the daily grind of port employees and nurses working in public health clinics. We experienced situations that were later incorporated into the screenplay, as well as we were able to imagine many others that would not even have occurred to us without these experiences. I think that this is a method that I inherited from my previous work with documentaries, and that translates much of my interest in filmmaking: being close to people and listening to what they have to say. It is very difficult for me to imagine a film while sitting in front of a computer.
In that related to film locations, I was interested in working Justino’s relations with the places he frequents and the contrasts between them. In the forest, for example, Justino can be seen always at the same level of the vegetation, surround and camouflaged by it. It’s a place in which the distinction between figure and backdrop is very tenuous. But then, at the port, we have immense concrete patios filled with containers. Besides the difference in scale between the people and machines, there is a clear and distinct separation between the figures and the backdrop, between the people and their environment. It is a naked space, bare, where Justino seems to be much more vulnerable. On the other hand, the corridors between the piles of containers, allude to the labyrinthine sensations we experience when walking through the forest. And Justino’s movements as he goes his rounds as guard often make me think in those of a hunter prowling about in the forest. I endeavored to use these relations in the images, mise-en-scene and editing. Despite being subtle associations they accumulate throughout the film and are important in constructing the character.
Most of the characters in “The Fever” are inhabitants from the Amazon region. Could you tell us about the casting process? Why did you decide to cast among the indigenous communities?
Casting was a long process that lasted over a year and counted on the collaboration of a team of young filmmakers and actors from Manaus. For me, previous acting experience was not important. I always wanted to work with people who knew the story that we wanted to tell up close. As people of many different ethnicities have migrated to Manaus, I decided not to determine the characters’ origin before casting the film. In the process we visited the native communities of Manaus and São Gabriel da Cachoeira, extending invitations to those interested in participating in the film to come talk with us. I interviewed more than 500 people to finally find the actors who play in the film. Reginaldo caught my eye because of his strong presence and the precision of his movements. Rosa in turn had something hidden, like a secret, something I was looking for in Vanessa’s role. Both of them had previously acted in minor roles and this was the first time they participated in a more intense filming process.
How was the process of combining two different worlds and cultures into one project?
The film is also about the encounter between different cultures and it has been something present during the whole shooting. It was not easy; it implies a constant translation between different worlds, values, habits, ways of relating and understanding the other. In addition, there was also the question of language. The film is spoken in portuguese, Tukano and Tikuna and language was a key point in our rehearsals. Since I do not speak Tukano, as we built up the scenes, we would alternate between Portuguese and Tukano. While repetition resulted in the actors feeling more at ease with their parts, the changes in language created an instability and a freshness that is often lost in the rehearsal process. When we would fall back from Tukano into Portuguese, something would have always changed in the scene. Sometimes dialogues had changed, while in others a change could be seen in the actors’ posture or their movements. We also talked a lot about translations from one language to another, what couldn’t be translated, what was lost or gained in each new sense.
At the end of a day of rehearsal I would write down what we had done in the screenplay in Portuguese. We went as far as to begin translating the screenplay into Tukano but soon realized that this would stifle the work being done. The screenplay doubled as a guide to the main intentions of each scene. As it was written in Portuguese, the actors had to think of what they were going to say in the scene, not unlike that which we do in our daily life, instead of repeating lines they had memorized. On the film set, the actress playing Justino’s daughter in law, Jussara Brito, was put in charge of translations, jotting down the variations in the dialogue in each take in Portuguese to better guide us during the editing process. But all the actors actively participated in this translating process in which the text was recreated.
Sound also plays an important role in the film. How did you work with the relationship between image with sound?
Sound is a very important element for me and I try to begin hearing the film as I write the screenplay. But it is usually while looking for locations that sonorous ideas begin to take shape. While doing sound research, sound director Felippe Mussel noticed the similarity in the forest’s high pitched insects with certain machinery used in the port area. We consequently became more attentive to ambience sounds and, while editing the sound, we endeavored to create compositions using the sounds coming from the port and forest up until the moment we were unable to identify their origin. They are repetitive sounds that lead to a hypnotic state of mind resulting in the film’s feverish dimension.
Your film came out in a time with political turmoil. How does the film relate and correspond to today’s political climate in Brazil?
"The Fever" was shot 6 months before the elections but the present government never hid its hatred and prejudice of indigenous people. Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro promised that he wouldn’t give to the indigenous people one inch more of land if he was elected, a declaration that goes down the same path of one of his speeches from 1988 when he stated that “it was a pity that the Brazilian cavalry had not been as efficient as the American that exterminated all its Indians”. Discourses revolving around the integration of the indigenous peoples into Brazilian society, one that guided his presidential campaign, conceals his true objective of freeing native reservations for farming and mining activities. On his first day as president, he tried to transfer the National Indian Foundation, responsible for demarcating and regulating the indigenous territory, into the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, led by rightwing “ruralists”.
"We are the only species that exterminates itself, something that has gone on for centuries of colonization and continues still today when we close our eyes to the hardships suffered by immigrants and refugees or when acting with indifference to global warming and deforestation."
If many native people migrate to the cities nowadays it is also because life on the reservations has become more difficult due to illegal deforestation and the trespassing of miners. But living on reservations continues to be the option chosen by thousands of natives. With no right to the land, their only hope is to join the great masses of cheap labor in service of the interests of elitist slave-mongers. I believe our society today is ill because it is unable to relate to alterity nor support differences. We are the only species that exterminates itself, something that has gone on for centuries of colonization and continues still today when we close our eyes to the hardships suffered by immigrants and refugees or when acting with indifference to global warming and deforestation.
In the Tukana language, there is no word for nature nor is there any distinction between humanity and the environment. Mankind is part of the world. And not unlike humans, all creatures that act intentionally are considered as being “people”. Or, in other words, they are individuals and not objects. This totally changes the way relationships are carried out in society. A very different premise from our own which has always denied or been suspicious of the humanity of others.
What can we expect from you in the future? Do you have any future projects you would like to share with us?
Right now I'm working on a short film shot on 16mm on soybean monoculture farms in southern Brazil. It’s an experimental, almost abstract film that I’m making together with Felippe Mussel, "The Fever"’s sound director. It has also been a research for my next feature film, which tells a story about a family of workers from a soybean monoculture farm.