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Beautiful women
Full of attitude 
Their bodies in flames
Burning until the dawn

In 2019 it was announced that Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro would impose a range of “filters” on national film agency Ancine to influence the types of films eligible for state funding. One of these was a preference for films that pay homage to Brazilian heroes. A recipient of federal support prior to such institutional shifts, MATO SECO EM CHAMAS (Dry Ground Burning) is the new feature co-directed by Adirley Queirós (ERA UMA VEZ BRASÍLIA, 2017) and Joana Pimenta (that film’s cinematographer, here making her feature debut after a number of experimental shorts), and one can imagine that the duo’s bold portrayal of women carving out a life on certain mainstream fringes isn’t exactly what Bolsonaro has in mind when he spoke of “national heroes”. That’s not to say there is any a shortage of bravery and integrity in its narrative of the local legend of Chitara—“the queen of the Quebrada (hood)”, as the song goes—and the group of women around her who made a name for themselves in the criminal underworld of Sol Nascente, the city on the periphery of Ceilândia that provided the setting of Queirós’ previous two features.

Family affair

Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and her sister Léa (Léa Alves) are often filmed smoking, reminiscing about their upbringing. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, in this film they are sisters with different mothers, each daughters of the famous Lasqueira, “the most feared thug in Ceilândia”. They recall his life, his escapades, and his adventures with a mix of pride and melancholy, aware that they now carry the family torch. Chitara runs an illegal oil rig and she invites Léa, recently released from prison, to join her women-run operation, while Léa herself dreams of running a brothel one day and jokes that she herself would have to try the women out first before giving them the job. Working and living together empowers and connects them as sisters, finally realizing their father’s dream of one day bringing them together. Even if set outside of its walls, however, the spectre of prison feels pervasive, especially for Léa, whose ins-and-outs of the carceral system give the story and the film a cyclical structure.

Even if set outside of its walls, however, the spectre of prison feels pervasive, especially for Léa, whose ins-and-outs of the carceral system give the story and the film a cyclical structure.

Other women in the collective have dreams of their own. Andreia (Andreia Vieira, who previously played another fictionalized version of herself in ERA UMA VEZ BRASÍLIA) is running for deputy candidate of Sol Nascente with her own political party, the People Prison Party. She wants to fix the city’s sewage system, to build community colleges and local clinics. She also wants to legalize mototaxis, eliminate the city’s 9:00pm curfew, and decriminalize partying. Rapping her platform while riding around a boisterous advertising truck, accompanied by dancing, motivated women, Andreia defiantly positions herself—and the people she represents—in opposition to the oppressive ideologies and systems that permeate the world around her. 

Scorched earth

MATO SECO EM CHAMAS shows the contradictions between legality and illegality written on the very soil of Sol Nascente. Where there was once an illegally run oil rig that empowered a group of women and fed families, soon will lay a federal prison, which the film shows under construction by way of mandatory, unfairly remunerated inmate labour. There is an attempt, as in recent films by the Brazilian Kleber Mendonça Filho, to conceptualize and effectuate a form of justice on its own terms. But the difference is that here the momentary glory does not come in the form of what might be interpreted as a Hollywood “happy ending”. Rather, it is contextualized within a dystopian, apocalyptic dreamscape which remains, nevertheless, very much rooted in reality. Prison is always either a close memory or around the corner; it is practically inescapable, the destiny of too many former inmates in a system that economically depends on its perpetuation. In the context of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and following a year which saw the largest prison massacre in Latin America in recent history (in Ecuador), this film is extremely relevant, timely, and necessary. The question is what can cinema do for Léa, if anything? 

Pimenta and Queirós might argue that cinema is an alternative, speculative way of life. And that the creation of (anti-)heroes and (anti-)legends from the favelas is a means of empowerment. The gesture extends from the tradition of Jean Rouch’s MOI, UN NEGRE (1958), in which young Nigerians who had migrated to the Ivory Coast in search of work write and perform fictionalized versions of their stories. Similarly, MATO SECO EM CHAMAS offers women from Brazil’s periphery—perhaps themselves former prisoners—the ability to be protagonists in a film that will be internationally screened. But the question might also be, what can cinema do for those who do not see—or choose not to see—the Chitaras and Léas around them? After all, everything suggests that Chitara, Léa, and Andreia are fine on their own; they do not need a form of cinematic representation to “save” them. It is perhaps the people at the pro-Bolsonaro rallies we see in the film whose prejudices might be challenged and eyes opened if they could somehow see this film. Although what they would choose to see here is another question. 

MATO SECO EM CHAMAS takes the viewer to the heart of Sol Nascente; it is a story about women, love, family, strength and endurance. It is also a tale of constant surveillance, of having all the odds against you, of a cell—or death, or disappearance—waiting at the end. And how, despite all of that, life continues, family continues, love continues, and story-telling continues. And therefore, cinema also lives on, in spite of—or because of—it all. 

Libertad Gills is a filmmaker, writer, and teacher, based in Guayaquil, Ecuador. 

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