Published  22/03/2019

Matheus Parizi – interview: ‘Artists are compelled more than ever to make work about what is happening in the street. Art has to be political.’

Matheus Parizi – interview: ‘Artists are compelled more than ever to make work about what is happening in the street. Art has to be political.’

Parizi talks about the current right-wing climate in Brazil, cuts to funding for the arts, and his new short film First Act, which he made as a direct response to the political events in his country


Matheus Parizi (b1983) is a Brazilian film-maker and theatre producer. His new short film Primeiro Ato/First Act (2019) premiered in Rotterdam. It follows two acting students, Andre and Gabriele, as they join protests in São Paulo against a new conservative establishment. Parizi’s second short film, and a prequel to a forthcoming feature, First Act is a direct response to recent political events in Brazil, notably the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the subsequent election of an ultra-conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro, two years on. Several days into his presidency, Bolsonaro dissolved the ministry of culture, in what many perceive as a direct attack on the Brazilian arts.

The Tuner (O Afinador), 2012. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 12 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Fernando Camargo, Marcelo Tomasini.

I caught up with Parizi after the screening in Rotterdam, to talk about critical realism, documenting São Paulo and the intensified relationship between art and politics felt by many artists working in Brazil today.

Izabella Scott: Your two short films, The Tuner (2012) and Primeiro Ato/First Act (2019), are both set in São Paulo. The same actor, Lui Seixas, plays a young piano tuner in the first film and a drama student named Andre in the second. Could you tell me about him? How did you meet him and develop this long-term relationship?

Matheus Parizi: I had conceived of The Tuner, a story of a guy name Paulo who works in his father’s piano restoration shop. He dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and as the film opens, he’s waiting for a letter from the conservatory, about an audition. I was looking for an actor who would bring a certain energy, and I met Lui in the casting process. He has a nostalgic quality – it’s something about his presence. He didn’t look like an actor. To me, he looks like somebody you might meet at a protest – a kind of hairy, left-wing, humanistic guy, who likes music … I came to film from theatre, and Lui mostly does things on stage. He also works in lighting design. Indeed, most of the time, he’s not working as an actor, but he is lighting other people’s plays. And I think this translates on camera. He comes very unarmed, very fragile. There’s something introspective about him, and a sense that he’d happily not be the protagonist – he’d instead be in the wings, lighting somebody else’s performance.

The Tuner (O Afinador), 2012. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 12 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Fernando Camargo, Marcelo Tomasini.

IS: The Tuner unfolds in the city of São Paulo, at a piano-maker’s workshop. It feels very much like cinéma vérité, as if the actors are untrained. How did you find the workshop? How much is constructed?

MP: The research phase is really crucial to the way I work. As if I were making a documentary, I go on location and spend time with the place, and only once I’ve observed from life do I start to write those places on the page. The conversations in the film are very documentary. I began looking for piano workshops, and the one that appears in the film had a specific feel to it. It was in this white lumpen neighbourhood in the east zone of São Paulo, which is family run. A lot of the dynamics you see in the film between the different members of the workshop came from watching this family. It felt like a mechanic repair shop more than a musical environment. Eventually, we found actors to play the parts, as if these people had spoken their own parts, it would have felt very artificial. Paradoxically, it would feel more naturalistic with actors. It was the same with First Act. First happened outside in the world, and it only went into fiction afterwards. 

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

IS: Primeiro Ato/First Act (2019), which premiered at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, follows two characters, Andre – played by Lui – and Gabriel. They meet in a drama workshop where they are being asked to recite Shakespeare, and they kick back against their teacher. To me, the film is about the disconnect between art and politics – the disconnect between the Shakespeare they are performing in the classroom and the protests and civil unrest that is unfolding on the street. Is this based on what’s happening in Brazil now?

MP: Andre and Gabriel are trying to give art purpose – that’s how their friendship forms. They are bonded by a joint desire for art to be more connected to life. It’s really based on what my friends and I have been going through in Brazil over the past few years. The far right has risen up to lead the country, and artists are compelled more than ever to make work about what is happening in the street. Art has to be political. This January, Jair Bolsonaro, our new far-right president, dissolved the ministry of culture just three days into its new administration, reducing it to a secretariat. It was a specific move: Bolsonaro intends to kill funding for the arts, which he considers to be leftist, and something fostered by the socialist governments that preceded his rule.

IS: When did this feeling of needing to be political, and to make engaged art, begin? Is it as recent as Bolsonaro’s election, or has this been a climate for some years?

MP: It began in June 2013, with a set of protests known as Brazilian spring. They were public demonstrates that took places in many cities around the country, and which began as protests against increases in the price of metro tickets, but grew to represent a whole number of issues. But they were kidnapped by this new right – the “alt-right”, as they like to call themselves. That’s the thing about protest: it can be very useful to create the conditions for a coup. And these protests were actually very weird protests. Early on, they were ambiguous, made up of many groups – some right wing, others left.

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

When they began on 13 June, the agenda was clear: to challenge the raising of public transport fares. But by late June, there were two million people on the streets, and the message had changed in ways that were very suspicious. One of the slogans was “no parties”, and the protesters insisted that they were “neither leftwing nor rightwing" – which now we know very often simply means: rightwing. From July 2013 onwards, the political situation in Brazil began to deteriorate, in what led to a coup, removing from power our then-president Dilma Rousseff. Dissatisfactions rose up, which really went back to the 2008 economic crisis, but they were put to use by rightwing politicians and business executives, who began to team up … I consider the protest against Dilma to be very misogynist in its nature. During Dilma’s televised speeches, it was common for rightwing commentators to call her a cunt. “Tchau, Querida” (Bye, Sweetie) was a misogynist motto used by the supporters of her impeachment in 2016. It got to such a grotesque point that people had these car stickers that they put over the fuel tank, so that when they filled up the car, it would look like you were shoving the pump into her mouth. The charges against Dilma were criminal administrative misconduct and disregard for the federal budget (“fiscal peddling”). This was a technocratic move to force an unconstitutional impeachment – fiscal peddling is a minor and common technical practice; if this were a criminal offence in the US, Obama would have been impeached. I should say that I’m not blind to the mistakes of Dilma’s administration, which was terrible in the demarcation of indigenous land. But what we witnessed, following the protest of 2013, was a brutal level of misogyny on a national level directed towards the socialist government. It was in 2015, when there were a new set of protests, this time against Dilma and her party, that I began to really become politically engaged.

IS: Did you take to the streets?

MP: Yes. There is a scene in First Act when Andre and Gabriel leave the drama workshop, and they join the street protests, in particular a protest at the São Paulo assembly in 2015, where students and activists protested against the cuts proposed by the pro-business governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, who was trying to pass a 30% cut to the arts budget. The footage you see within my short film is documentary – I went to the protest with Lui, who had by then become my friend. After we shot The Tuner, we maintained a relationship. I had not yet decided to make First Act; at this point, I was really caught up in the political situation, and Lui was too.

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

IS: That’s fascinating – Lui really passes as the character Andre in that footage. There is a vérité tempo to that film, and the footage folds in quite invisibly. The audience might never know that it came before the overarching narrative of First Act.

MP: For me, the political situation really came before First Act. It was the landscape for its conception. Most of the people acting in it are activists, friends and colleagues. The teacher leading the drama workshop, Fabrizio, is an Italian performance artist I know, named Alvise Camozzi. I knew I wanted to have Alvise in the film in some way, so I began to go to classes at the Culture Institute, Oswald de Andrade, in São Paulo, where Alvise was teaching. I went to observe him without saying too much. Some of the actors in First Act came out of that workshop. Eventually, I took Lui and a second actor along, to play the two friends, Andre and Gabriel. I wanted the film to have a sense of critical realism.

IS: In Rotterdam, you described the film as autobiographical, and said that, in particular, you identify with Andre – our Lui. Is he a kind of alter ego? How does this affect your friendship?

MP: It was Juliana Lobo, my co-writer, who first said: Andre is you. In some way, there are parallels between Andre, Luis and I – after all, Lui and I were both going to the 2015 protests, we formed a friendship, we were trying to assist the struggle against the right, and the film grew out of that – but, in order to make a film, I think you have to maintain a critical distance. If anything, the film is a chronicle of my community, as we processed, responded to, and even got very disheartened with, the protests. One experience I had, which is almost directly transposed in the film, was a set of acting workshops in 2017, with [the Lebanese actor and playwright] Rabih Mroué who was in São Paulo for the International Theatre Festival. One day, he gave us a photo of the protests against Dilma in 2015, and asked us to tell a story. When it was my turn, I tried to speak about the day of Dilma’s impeachment, in May 2016. There was a vote in the senate that suspended Dilma’s powers, and her vice president, Michel Temer, became president in her place. I was trying to talk about my feelings on the day of the vote … I started stuttering, letting out this cry of injustice, even anger. The depth of feeling made it impossible to talk. You see this quite directly played out with Andre in the film, during a presentation in the drama workshop. Speaking about the protests, he gets so choked up, he can’t really articulate himself at all.

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

IS: Your two films sit ether side of the political protests: one in 2012, before the very first set of protests had begun, the second in 2019 when Bolsonaro has taken power. The films quite clearly show this arc – The Tuner is still about class struggle, but the politics is more nuanced. First Act is quite clearly a response to political unrest.

MP: Yes, First Act really is responding to the political events. I felt that life was unfolding as videograms before my very eyes – take the 2015 protests at the assembly, for example, which you see in the film. There was a moment of euphoria: the students managed to stop the cuts – but it was a shortlived victory. A few weeks later, the bill was passed. Those cuts have had a real effect on cultural life in the city. There were programmes incentivising different cultural movements in the periphery of São Paulo, which have been cut, and there is a huge problem of payments to exhibitions and festivals in Rio, Brasília, Curitiba, Salvador, Fortaleza, São Paulo and Recife, which are no longer being paid in the usual instalments by the federal savings bank (Caixa Econômica Federal). Lots of venues are closing, too. In São Paulo, Caixa has cut its sponsorship of the Cine Belas Artes, an arthouse cinema that may close in two months. It’s really a worrying landscape.

IS: In the last scene of First Act, Andre and Gabriel look at the footage they made of the protests – the protest against cuts at the assembly, where protesters took off their shoes and threw them in the air. Gabriel says: “It’s naive – we’re naive.” I wondered about this moment. Is there an exhaustion with the mechanism of protest? Do you – they – feel disillusioned, exhausted?

MP: It’s hard when you go to so many protests, and as a general arc nothing seems to change. On the one hand, in terms of the film’s narrative, I’m advocating for a level of critical thinking within protest culture. The shoe-throwing – perhaps it’s immature, and here needs to be a feedback loop. But also, there is the bigger question of whether or not the mechanism of protest is working. The reality is this: after years of protesting against the right, Bolsonaro is in power. How do we address the fact that, although huge numbers of people protested, there has been no change in the system. Protest doesn’t mean what it used to mean. The system doesn’t change – and that’s very troublesome.

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

I think right now, we on the left have got to a point of cynicism. Legalism is very questionable in Brazil today. This is something that’s very hard to talk about. Once you think the legal system won’t have an effect, then, logically, you have to find another way. Armed resistance? This was one of the questions debated by the left, after the 1964 coup d’etat. A lot of people in the Communist party thought it would make things worse – that it would give the military dictatorship permission, a clear argument, to come down hard on the movements against the dictatorship. I don’t condone violence – but at the same time, it gets very hard when you have an impeachment of the kind that removed Dilma from power. And it gets very hard when you see the killing of a leftwing city councillor, Marielle Franco – a black woman, a feminist, a human-rights activist who spoke out against police brutality – was assassinated on the streets of Rio in March 2018. What’s more, our former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who planned to run for presidency in 2019, is in prison. He is still in prison. And he was put there so that he wouldn’t win the election. He’s a political prisoner. So when things like this start to happen, when you witness legalised violence, you stop believing in the state. There is an appetite for this in Brazil. It was criminal, but it was legal – they have a whole constitution that made their actions legal. So, where do we go next. I don’t have an answer, but film is my way of thinking through these questions. 

IS: Jorge Neto, who plays Gabriel in First Act, is an Afro-Brazilian, and his friendship with Andre, a white Brazilian, shows some of the difficulties of intersectionality. Different experiences. How did you meet Jorge?

MP: As with Lui, it began in a casting call. He was a theatre actor, too, and very connected with the African-Brazilian movement, which has really blossomed in the past five years. He could bring this new perspective, these new things to the film. I talked to him a lot and he helped a lot to construct this character of Gabriel, his unique point of view. Gabriel as a character goes through things that Andre’s character, a white youngster, does not go through. It is a viewpoint of Gabriel informed by his biography, ethnicity and social group. Informed, but not defined – making an effort to respect his subjectivity as a character, his individuality and his personal critical thinking. We tried hard to stick to complexity, to tridimensionality, and look for this logic of critical realism that guided First Act. Both Gabriel and Andre are protagonists here, so we tried to reach a balance. First Act is the prequel to a feature film named Coup that is still in the development stage. It begins where First Act left off, when André and Jorge have founded a theatre company together – something they speak of in the last moments of the film.

First Act (Primeiro Ato), 2018. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 19 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Paula Pripas.

IS: Have you secured funding? In the current climate, are you concerned that you won’t be able to make this film?

MP: In the current climate, films that engage directly with politics spark rage – so, yes, I’m worried. The government is trying to suppress certain topics, films made about body politics, or protest, even films that don’t talk directly of politics, but show different ways of living. Often the repression happens at the level of circulation. An example is Wagner Moura’s film Marighella, which premiered at the 2019 Berlinale. Its premier in Europe was followed by a rightwing campaign against the film – by people who had not even seen it, but had seen clips of his Q&A on YouTube, and they knew he was making a film about Carlos Marighella, a Marxist insurrectionist from the 1960s. Moura will face huge problems with distribution in Brazil, and he has famous actors! And, indeed, this was his directorial debut, and he himself is a famous actor, who was once loved by the right, when he played a hard cop in the movie Tropa de Elite [Elite Squad] (2007). But now he wants to talk about the life of Marighella and the armed resistance against the 1960s dictatorship, and he is immediately in trolled.

The Tuner (O Afinador), 2012. Brazil. Fiction, drama. 12 min, HD. © Matheus Parizi, Fernando Camargo, Marcelo Tomasini.

In terms of my feature, we are looking for the right strategy, talking to people outside Brazil. We feel hopeful that we can secure money outside Brazil, but the problem is that people often want you to raise some money inside your country first, before you get it outside. And here in Brazil, since Dilma’s impeachment, the market for film-makers has gone cold. Since the coup against Dilma, there has been an aggressive campaign to portray all film-makers as ideological Marxists, and that argument has been repeated so many times that it has found traction, and there are more excuses than ever for culture funds being cut. But even as I say this, it feels small to talk about in comparison with what else is going. We just had 20% cuts in education and health. There has been a growing wave of violence – four murders by Bolsonaro voters during his campaign. The Amazon rain forest is being cut down. Brazil is becoming a dystopia. I hope that people outside Brazil will support the films and film-makers of Brazil, so that we can keep talking and processing this moment.

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