Politics behind the camera
by Victor Guimarães
The alliance between the manifested desire to discuss class relations in contemporary Brazil and the search for unconventional approaches to the filmed subject has become a constant presence in the films of Gabriel Mascaro since his second feature film, High-rise (2009). Assuming different forms and achieving very distinct results, this double gesture – shared by films such as Pacific (2009) and Câmara Escura (2012), by Marcelo Pedroso – reaches an impressive radicalism in Housemaids (2012). In the three shots that precede the appearance of the title, we are introduced to one of the most audacious strategies of filmic construction in recent cinema: a small group of Brazilian adolescents – there will be seven along the projection – received a camera in order to make a documentary about their family’s housemaids and hand over the footage to the director. Everything we see on the screen is those images, edited as a fascinating drama (which strength was also examined by Fabio Andrade, here in the magazine).
The image succeeding the title is a large, white house, with a showy surrounding garden. On the soundtrack, we hear a radio announcer: “There was once an island, where lived the love, joy and other feelings”. A cut takes us directly inside the house: Vanuza, the first maid, irons clothes while listening to a morning message on the radio. The gesture in the editing is eloquent: Housemaids wants to penetrate the interior of the island, to enter the homes where love and joy mingle with oppressive labor relationships, affections mix with powers, veiled domination with possible resistance. The “infiltration dispositive” (as named by Mariana Souto, in an essay published in Devires magazine) engendered by the film is the gateway to the everyday life and the anxieties of these seven characters, that we get to know one by one.
A dispositive is also an island, surrounded by boundaries on all sides. But it is only from this calculated circumscription – we see these relationships, these images, these gazes, and never abandon them – that the film can find its unpredictable bifurcations. The panoramic structure of High-rise now gives way to an editing style that favors the constitution of dramatic blocks centered on each of the houses. While maintaining the narrative autonomy of each plot, the editing weaves underground relations between a story and the other: the scenes of daily work, the interactions between employers and employees and the reports of the hardships of life in and out of the house pervade the entire film, and patiently densifies the issues and the senses. In this proliferating structure, which makes the relationships between who shoots and who is being filmed the central focus of our attention, a scriptural trace jumps to the eye: the multiple and intense variations of the imaginary space behind the camera as an aesthetic and political figure.
If the stories of these lives touch us deeply, this is due to more than the narrative content placed on the scene. Housemaids is a film that makes the attention to the points of view not only an unavoidable question for the critic, but a condition for the spectator experience. Each shot of the film defies what Jacques Aumont, in L’oeil interminable, called a “radical cleavage” – ubiquitous in classic cinema, still majoritarian nowadays – between the space of the drama (made by the relation between onscreen and off-screen and everything that belongs to the scene viewed by the camera) and the space of enunciation. The question of who holds the camera, of how a person shoots, of which forces inhabit the frame and its borders is not a detail of the fruition, but a vector that installs us in the scene and surprises us all the time.
Under the rigor of the dispositive – but also due to the power of editing –, everything we see on screen is permanently impregnated by a gesture that we know doesn’t come from the filmmaker, but to someone fully inserted in those relationships. The gaze of the person who shoots remains in question, as well as the negotiations for the film to be done. In Vanuza’s small bedroom, the boss’s son films the hands of the maid when she finds a photograph depicting a birthday cake. “Remember? My cake!”, she addresses the space behind the camera. But she immediately rephrases, still uncertain about the possessive pronoun appropriate to the situation: “My cake, your cake, you know, Claudomiro Neto?”. Unseen in the image, but intensely present in the scene, the teenager rushes to interrupt her: “yes, my cake that was made by you”. In the smallest gestures, in the little speech acts exchanged between the two sides of the camera, the affections overflow, the powers leak: the character who occupies the scene draws our attention as much as who is filming.
This mode of attention imposes, at first glance, a Brechtian distancing effect: from the beginning, the evidence of the relationship between who occupies the center of the image and who remains “offstage” are constantly suggested in the operation of the film, and requires us to look at each shot with an eye on the scene and another in its construction. This is how we follow the expropriation of the body and speech of Lena, a character always relegated to the off-screen space; that’s how we perceive how Sergio permanently refuses to say what is expected from him, until the moment that he escapes from the Christmas celebration to eat alone in the garage. In the complex game that the film invites us to witness, the traces of interaction are deposited on image and become a touchy subject: continuing a gesture that is already present in Pacific, Housemaids asserts itself as a sort of ethnographic essay about the gazes and the points of view, recognizing in every gesture of mise en scène a way of looking at the other, a way to take a position in front of the world and in front of oneself.
However, this procedure does not prevent us from projecting our entire body in those lives (the lives that expose themselves in front of the camera, but also the lives that nestle behind it). In fact, it is the request of another approach, the construction of another place to the drift of the viewer. When Alana crouches to shoot Gracinha wiping the dust deposited under the couch, or when the same character decides to stay up late to spy on the maid in her nocturnal habits, who films and who is filmed acquire an equal dramatic status. The space in front of the camera and the space behind it are not two worlds apart, but permeable places in deep connection and constant interchange.
In a dramatic climax of the film (that we receive with a disconcerting jolt), we are in the car with Vanuza, who drives the children to school. Until then, who inhabited the space behind the camera had been Claudomiro Neto, the teenager responsible for filming her. When Neto says goodbye and leaves the car, however, we realize that he kindly hands the camera to the maid, nevertheless scolding her for mishandling the buttons on the device. Briefly, she is the one who occupies the space of enunciation, directing her gaze to the teenagers on their way to school. This powerful inversion, however, only reaches its maximum potency when a new and decisive change of viewpoint shakes the structure that was until then taking place in the movie. Patiently adjusted on the dashboard, freed from the hand, the camera is now pointed at the one who, moments before, was observed by others.
Alone, away from the bosses, as if in a mirror, Vanuza turns the frame into a receptacle of an unexpected performance: driving the car and directing the scene, accompanied by a romantic song by the Brazilian singer Reginaldo Rossi, she sings the lyrics (“if love sucks and makes you so miserable / quickly nip it in the bud / proper care is necessary / so you don’t hurt yourself”) and weeps copiously, inscribing in each verse sung an incalculable heartbreak. “But I hurt myself”, she says, connecting the romantic formula to the singular experience, inaugurating a multiple and unlikely dialogue involving the singer, the listener, the distant love… and, of course, the spectator. When Vanuza films herself and the power of speaking coincides with taking over the camera, the politics fractures and reorganizes itself along with the cinematic scene.
Near the end, in the broken interactions between Luiz Felipe and Lucimar, a new variation pervades the space behind the camera and challenges what we believe concerning that universe. In the beginning of that seventh part of the movie, the camera captures the moment when the teenager goes the maid if she allows him to make the documentary: the roles of documentarian and boss are mixed in the uncomfortable acceptance by the maid/character; disagreement is exposed. However, during the sequences assembled by the montage, we realize that this seemingly authoritarian figure who had settled in power of the enunciation progressively reveals different nuances, and seems to grow increasingly interested in investigating the complex emotional relationships existing in the house: confronting the mother, sometimes instigating a critical stance in his talks with Lucimar, the teenager tries to unravel the intriguing mystery of these childhood friends who became mistress and maid. Although the answers are both evasive and soothing, the discomfort caused by the instigation coming from behind the camera is strongly deposited on the images.
Even more potently, in observational shots (in which the interaction becomes less present), the enunciation affirms itself in a highly provocative mise en scène. In a shot in the living room, the frame is broad enough to materialize – with an impressive power of synthesis – the division prevailing in the house: at the left side of the frame, mother and daughter get out through the front door, on their way to the street; on the right side, framed by the kitchen door, Lucimar continues her everyday boring routine. Spaces, times, occupations and possible transits of employers and employees configure worlds apart, which the film scene – by virtue of how it is shot, but also by how it is edited – shows and dislocates before our eyes. In a final camera movement, all the complexity of relations between the gazes is rekindled once again: along with Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” on the soundtrack, the camera pans up and down a set of photographs, moving from the tickets for the concerts of international artists displayed at a panel on the wall – indexes of the economic power of the bosses – to the iconic photograph – carefully adjusted on the table – which portrays the maid and the mistress, still children, already so close and so inescapably distant. Between Luiz Felipe’s question (“Do you believe that you have freedom?”) and the positive response by Lucimar (at this point, absolutely unbelievable) that puts an end to the film, the verses of the old Dylan song still seem to resonate: “How many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free?”
When it becomes a key space for the investment of the viewer’s sensibility – in a huge amount of figures that multiply in each shot – the space behind the camera acquires a mutant form, turning a movie that casts a beautiful and necessary look at Brazilian reality into a fruitful territory for the discovery of unexpected powers of the cinematic experience. Questioned by housemaids who answer the youngsters, exposed when the teenagers film themselves, put into question in each image, that space – so important to the theory of photography and so despised by the thinking about the cinematic art – becomes a political place par excellence. The wound in the heart of the Brazilian documentary opened by Aloysio Raulino and Deutrudes Carlos da Rocha in Jardim Nova Bahia (1971) finds in the relationships between the gazes in Housemaids – employers and employees; who observes and who is observed; the interviewer and the interviewed (or the one who bravely refuses to answer) – not the soothing healing of the end of a line, but a new exposed wound that continues to bleed. When the space in front of the camera and the one behind it constitute an inexhaustible dramatic space in which affections go beyond the limits of the frame and powers become sensible in every shot, it’s the body of the spectator that can no longer be the same.
* Originally published in May 2013. Translation by Victor Guimarães.