Day One: Seminário de Cinema Brazil by Gideon Kennedy

In July 2010, Gideon Kennedy traveled with CLANDESTINE to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil where he screened the film and presented a paper for a round table discussion “The Subtle Border Between Reality and Fiction”. Here he writes about his experience.

Day One

After dealing with family emergencies and scrambling to tie up loose ends, I traveled 14+ hours (with quests for power outlets in Dallas and Miami) to show up in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Adolescent Airlines flew me the last and longest leg of the trip, from Miami to Salvador, the cabin buzzing from the headphones of a whole tour group of kids as they watched the in-flight movie, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS 2: THE SQUEAKUEL. Thankfully, the movie finally ended, the kids all went to sleep, and I was left in the quiet of the pressurized cabin, reading in the dark.

As we made our final descent into the city at dawn we passed over the famous Barra lighthouse and it seemed we saw the whole scope of the city, beaches inland, in this final glide.

Taxiing up to the gate, I get my first glimpses on the ground and already feel alien to my surroundings. Usually, before trips of this nature I study up on the city, on current culture and history, on basic phrases. But the past weeks had been hectic and the last 72 hours a breakneck whirlwind and here I’ve arrived, without an inkling of what to expect. Instead of travel guides to read on the way, I brought nothing but books of documentary theory to beef up on the basics, explore some of the new and test out my arguments. Consequently, I’m prepared for the most important conversation I’m supposed to have, but don’t ask me how to find the bathroom without the pictogram of the little man.

Upon arrival I immediately try to ascertain the percentage of Brazilians that would know English by a slew of totally random and completely arbitrary context clues: bathroom signage in both Portuguese and English = good sign; fire extinguishers only labeled in Portuguese = bad sign. I soon learn that a lot more of them know English than U.S. citizens know Portuguese, but still far less than an ideal number for my mono-lingual ass.

After being greeted by a festival representative and put into a taxi to take me to the hotel, the driver receives a call from the rep who had forgotten to ask me for something. The driver and I then start playing the worst game of Charades in the world. Our hands dance an impatient pantomime. It’s elaborate and after a while I really don’t think our lamentable attempts at sign even make sense to ourselves. We then both kinda huff and go back to what we were doing – him driving, me gawking out the window.

We pass billboards for the festival in several places, my first indications for exactly how big the festival is here. It’s fun to see all the cool pictures of Passolini, easily one of the coolest looking directors, peering through film strips, movie cameras and his black sunglasses, as if he’s shooting the people catching buses, riding bicycles, treading well-worn graffittied paths.

Each year at the Seminario, they do a different retrospective of a renowned director, including both films and discussions by some of the world’s most informed scholars. Last year was Godard. This year Pier Paulo Passolini. When I first heard this, I got all excited because THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW is, in my opinion, the best Bible/Christ film ever made. I thrilled at the thought of being in a dark theater with a huge screen seeing the Sermon on the Mount scene, in which actor Enrique Irazoqui breaks the fourth wall and delivers the entire speech in a driving staccato with nothing but the infinite sky framing his head and his burning eyes. And then I was reminded – it will be in Italian with Portuguese subtitles. Shit.

As we drive into town I realize that you can probably go to any city in any country in the world and not find a nice neighborhood near the airport. The reason is obvious, but it struck me especially as we drove past a huge favala, caved-in ceilings and open air shacks on dirt roads underneath all the noise and exhaust of airplanes taking flight to places far away.

I’m still early enough in the trip to think that the crazy driving is just the workings of a manic cabbie, another worldwide commonality I’ve found. It won’t be until the end of the trip that I realize first with Marcela and then with Marianna that you must drive crazy to survive. Lines in the road? Traffic lights? Mere suggestions. You will never beat back this confusion with the law so your best bet is to cajole, honk, curse and join in the teeming hoard of vehicular ants scurrying up and down the mountainsides.

Upon arrival at the hotel, 7am local time (two hours ahead of Central, for those that want to keep count), I quickly get a room, drop my bags, and catch a disturbing sight – all the plugs in the room are labeled 220v with red stickers and they are made for two round prongs. Instead of rest, I now have cause for alarm, as the only version of my paper that I have with me is trapped in my laptop, which does not work unless plugged in. I then begin an earnest hunt for a converter (just to be safe) and an adapter. The front desk claims to have adapters, but they are out. I watch a few minutes of the 1980s cartoon version of Alvin and the Chipmunks in the lobby as I consider my options and worry that these fucking chipmunks are going to chase me through this country like I’m an accidental bad guy in one of their squeaky misadventures. I then turn into the English-speaking clerk’s big chore of the morning. Help me find a nearby store where I can purchase the items. I wish I would have gotten her name or picture as she took all of my harried demands in stride and insisted, upon my profuse apologies, that it was good information for her to learn so she didn’t mind me taking her time. A kind lie. She called a store, explained the situation (dumb American on the way), and gave me a paper with all I should need to show the next taxi driver and the clerk at the store. I went, probably got overcharged, and then saw my new problem – while this converted power, it did so for devices with the same types of plugs. Again with a hideous and crippled sign language to try to explain that what I had was three prongs (make three prongs with your fingers and you’ll see how ridiculous I looked) and this only took the same two round prongs. I was then told, in so many words that I did not know, that I was S.O.L. on the adapter there. So I took the converter, returned to the hotel, harassed the same clerk, and was off to another store, this time inside a mall where I was to confront an even more apathetic clerk that the last guy. I tried explaining that we had just called and someone had said they had the part. He said something to the effect that they don’t reserve items. But we called five minutes ago. So he gives me one thing and quite understandably moves on to a customer he can understand. I then scour the aisle he got it from, pick up another piece that I think could work in conjunction with the one he gave me, purchase them, and pick up another cab back to the hotel.

The hotel, by the way, is gorgeous. Nice amenities, but most impressively it overlooks the sea. Even the lobby’s fire extinguisher (not in English) looks like some objet d’ art, placed upon a legged pedestal and cordoned off by a yellow line on the marble floor. Also, the festival itself has some cool branding, with the requisite tote bag and t-shirt some of the cooler ones I’ve seen. Passolini looking like a badass in shades on everything doesn’t hurt.

So I go to plug in all my random devices and notice a new problem. Everything on the converter’s box makes it look like the color red equals 220v, while black equals 110v. But, on the sides of the device, the stickers that label which side is which are reversed – the red outlet has a sticker that says 110v. The black says 220v. What’s even more alarming is that the stickers are both peeling at the edges and hold on no better than a post-it note. So, now the dilemma – are the stickers right or is the box right? I side with box and plug in my phone first as a test (since it’s a brick now anyway). No pop. No smoke. No lights out. Just a charge sign. I laugh as I imagine thwarting the cruel prank of the RadioShack guys on me, the lost foreigner. So I swap the stickers, plug in my computer, make some corrections, save and ready it all to find a printer. I then nap briefly, clean up, change and head out. In the festival office on the bottom floor of the hotel I find a printer I can use and print two copies, all in time to catch the last bus I can take to the theater before our roundtable, and then my film, begins.

The theatre is the Teatro Castro Alves, named for a famed 19th century poet, and it is magnificent and modern. Throughout the festival the lobby plays lounge to a series of video installations. A local bookstore has a display for the festival of film-related books and comics. I’m directed to this as staff figures out what to do with me. Ah! There’s a copy of Charles Burns’ BLACK HOLE, a comic I’ve wanted for some time. In Portuguese. Damnit.

I’m rushed into the auditorium but soon discover that I might be the first to have arrived. I meet Marcela, the roundtable coordinator, and she is incredibly kind, albeit disappointed that I won’t be needing the video display, as I don’t have the powerpoint that I initially planned.

Finally I get a look at the room that had me intimidated just a few days prior. Let me note that while I don’t get stage fright, I made the mistake of looking at pictures of the room beforehand and feeling more pressured than usual. This, combined with lack of sleep, hesitations about translation, and general wonders about what to expect and what was expected of me had given me serious nerves. I go up on stage to the table, set up my notes etc. and soon meet one of the other panelists.

Michelange Quay is American, born of Haitian parents, and currently lives in Paris. He’s in the festival with his film EAT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY. Though I hadn’t seen the film at this point, I take a liking to him immediately, as he reminds me of my old college friend Manav. We joke around a bit on stage, test the headphones we will soon be using for the direct translation (U.N. style) and then are shoo’ed off so the audience can be let in. I sit on the front row with the other two panelists, Alcoforado Paulo (with DocTV in Brazil), and Malu Fontes (Brazilian journalist and professor). We nod politely to each other, already sort of aware that we don’t speak one another’s language.

After everyone’s in, and there seems to be quite a crowd, far more than I expected for a Tuesday afternoon, the house lights dim, the festival intro video plays, the M.C. takes the spotlight at a podium. Mind you, no one has told me how any of this is going to go down. I was told that I would have 30min, more or less, to speak independently and that Q&A would happen with the audience. Presumably, the others would have something of the same. But the order? Anyone’s guess. Who speaks first? Will we take Q&A after each speaker or as a whole at the end? Are we expected to ask each other questions? Will there be a moderator or will we have to look out to the audience to pick? Who will do the picking? All questions I had, all soon to be answered as it happens. For now, I almost miss my name being called for me to take the stage and my place at the table, as I am still unfamiliar with the Portuguese pronunciation of my name. Which, to my English ears, sounds something like, “Jid-Eo’ Kennde”.

Once we are all introduced, there we sit, adrift on stage in the boat of our table with microphones for oars.

Michelange takes the lead. Seated at one end, he sets the order. I can’t speak for everyone (the audience is a dark mass just beyond the bright reflection of my microphone’s metal net), but his extemporaneous speech, in English no less, sets me at ease. At one point, he has the audience singing Prince’s “Purple Rain”.

Next is Alcoforado, who speaks at length about DocTV Brazil, something like Brazil’s PBS, their broadcasting and their original productions. He has some interesting things to say about their selection process and how their documentaries are made. Meanwhile, I’m also acclimating to live translation, as I listen to a voice in my headphones tell me what the guy sitting directly next to me is saying. Though I’m intrigued by the inner-workings of these productions and how they get made, I’m left wanting to hear more of his thoughts on the subject at hand, namely the roundtable’s topic, “The Subtle Frontier Between Reality and Fiction.”

And then I’m up. I thank the festival, make a few jokes about being woefully monolingual, and present my paper, tentatively titled for its first line, “Story is Primary.” Once I make a few minor revisions, I’ll post it here in case anyone is interested. I may actually expand it in the future as well. As it is, I hope it briefly sums up mine and Marcus’s views on what we do and what we consider the overarching goal of all our work, namely the exploration of this territory between fact and fiction.

I probably read a little too fast, as I soon forget about the live translation that everyone is listening to in their headphones. But I think my points get across and I receive a healthy dose of applause afterwards.

Malu speaks next, makes some good points and talks more to the journalism side of things, as well as the Brazilian broadcast media. And then we’re open to questions.

I receive quite a few and it seems many are concerned about the U.S. news media and the 24-hour news cycle. I try my best to allay some of these fears while still accounting for the potential dangers. Michelange and I riff back and forth on the subject, as he has the unique perspective of having once lived in the U.S. and now only visiting from time to time.

All in all, it goes well and I’m surprised that we are never at a loss for questions. With no prompting other than to open the floor, the audience controls the questioning, simply raising their hands to be brought a mic. The questions are all good and the two hours of Q&A fly by. We finish up when someone realizes that we are starting to eat into the time they need to set up for the next screening, namely our film CLANDESTINE opening for the feature, WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE.

I have just enough time to run out and have a coffee with Michelange in the lobby before going back in to wait. And panic strikes. Will our film be subtitled? We sent them a dialogue sheet but never heard much back about it. We never subtitled it. Will it be live translated through headphones? Or will people be left with nothing but images and gibberish? I go talk to the tech guys and the projectionist. They say they’ll find out. And then I’m reassured that it is now subtitled. I meet Susan Korda, producer of WILLIAM KUNSTLER and renowned editor, and speak briefly as we wait to introduce our films. They group our introductions together. Due to time, we only do these introductions. No Q&As after the films. Again, we have a sizable audience numbering in the hundreds.

Sure enough, CLANDESTINE is subtitled in Portuguese with a separate synched projector beaming the words just below the image. Very cool to watch. In fact, I do nothing but “read” the subtitles, fascinated by how well they are timed to the actual narrations. My only worry is how fast it all goes. I realize how much better it would be to dub the narration tracks, as the words move so quick that you are constantly having to choose between reading and watching. But the applause is great all the same.

The feature film fascinates me. I’d highly recommend it. Kunstler was a famed radical lawyer who defended everyone from the Chicago Seven to Native Americans to suspected terrorists. The film reminds me something of THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA, but has the personal touch of the subject’s daughters having made the film.

Afterwards, Susan and I get some drinks with the festival crew and shoot the bull. We discuss each other’s films and I’m sure at some point I geek out, albeit briefly, on the fact that she cut FOR ALL MANKIND, the ’89 doc about the mission to the moon (nominated for an Academy Award and, even more impressive, since released by Criterion). Eventually we all head to the official afterparty. As it turns out, the festival afterparty every night is in a small upstairs bookstore, near an outdoor café. A small cool bookstore with a bar. And a DJ every night. It is what I dub the Disco Biblioteca. And it’s a blast. For a while I’m stuck with my giant briefcase, packed to the gills with not only my precious electronics but the weight of the power converter, and my back, shoulders and neck are all feeling the strain. Some nice soul eventually tells me that the owner is trustworthy and that I can leave my bag with her behind the counter. I do so, only to quickly retrieve it again as we leave. I’m grateful to go, exhausted as I am. I’m wrung out, physically, mentally, emotionally.

As big a fan I am of personal endurance tests, this was one I still have a hard time believing I pulled off. If someone described the three-day-long day I just had and all the things I did in that time, I wouldn’t believe them.

Back in my hotel room, I collapse in hysterics and laugh myself to sleep.