Wahrmann on Memory and Collective Trauma in “Avanti Popolo”

Going into this year’s Latinbeat film festival, programmer Marcela Goglio remarked on what she saw as an exciting trend in the region’s cinema: “Latin American films express more of a sense of identity beyond national borders, and more of a sense of interconnectedness than in the past.”

The best example of this new transnationalism is also the lineup’s only Brazilian entry, Avanti Popolo. Its director, Michael Wahrmann, was born in Uruguay but lives and works in Brazil. His first feature takes its title from an Italian labor movement song and an award-winning political film from Israel, where he spent much of his childhood. In it, and in Wahrmann’s previous two short films Avós (Grandmothers) and Oma—both are available to watch on his Vimeo channel—he explores his own complicated national identity.

“It’s always been a question for me, how to make Brazilian films,” Wahrmann shared during a recent interview with FilmLinc Daily. “My first short films are very Jewish films and they are very personal and autobiographical. In a way, the solution I found to this problem of how to make Brazilian films was to make my films about myself and to put those stories wherever I was.”

Wahrmann considers Avanti Popolo to be his first attempt at making a “real Brazilian film” and, in it, he shifts his focus away from himself and onto the history of his adopted home, namely the oppressive military dictatorship of the late 60s and 70s. Set in the present, the film focuses on a middle aged man, André, who moves home and tries to revive the memories of his emotionally detached father with Super 8mm footage shot by his brother before he disappeared over 30 years ago.

Despite the specificity of the story, it is immediately clear that Avanti Popolo is not only about Brazil. In the film's opening scene, a car roams the streets of São Paulo at night as a radio announcer introduces political folk songs from various Latin American countries, urging his listeners to remember that they are part of a larger, shared history.

“There is something about Brazilians and other Latin American countries where they don’t think they are in the same continent,” explained Wahrmann. “There’s Brazil and then there is the rest of Latin America... This is why, in the beginning of the film, we made this annunciation: Listen, we are talking about all the histories together.”

Similarities certainly abound in the histories of Latin American countries from colonialism through the dictatorships of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but for Wahrmann, it is the way in which societies deal with “collective traumas” like these  that is the key to their national identities. In this, he sees something distinct about Brazil, a fact which shocked him when he first moved there eight years ago.

“Brazilians don’t really deal with their traumas from the past,” he maintained. “Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, almost in the beginning of the 20th century, and no one speaks about it. Some people’s grandparents were slaves, and they don’t speak about it. And it’s the same with the dictatorship. It’s very different than other Latin American countries, where [the dictatorships] are openly discussed. Brazil is the last country in Latin America to have a truth commission, which only began last year.”

Political history is just one aspect of Wahrmann’s filmmaking. He is also concerned with the communion of past and present in the form of generational conflict. The protagonist in Avanti Popolo fails to connect with his aging father and is haunted by a frustration—one Wahrmann admits to sharing—over having been too young for the revolution that martyred his radical brother. In Avós (Grandmothers), a young boy is given a Super 8mm camera by his grandfather, which he uses to film his grandmothers as they practically force feed him their home cooking and complain that he favors the camera over their gifts of socks and underwear. In Oma, Wahrmann documents (again using Super 8mm) his own failure to communicate with his aging German grandmother the last time he visits her before her death.

Wahrmann’s use of film and filmmaking as a device in his work is revealing of his ideas about history and memory. In what he identifies as the “most important scene” in Avanti Popolo, André takes a Super 8mm projector to be fixed by an eccentric filmmaker so that he can show his brother’s films to his father. He praises the machine’s ability to “resist time,” but just moments later complains about how long it takes to rewind, surmising that it’s probably the reason film died. When asked if he thinks film is, indeed, dead, Wahrmann claimed not to have the answer.

“I don’t know if film is dead, but all three of my films talk about the end of films and what is personal and what is public,” he elaborated. “My first film, Avos (Grandmothers), ends with the boy saying, ‘Grandfather, what can I do with this camera?’ and he answers, ‘There’s nothing to do with it.’ It was my final project in university. I studied cinema for four years and in the end I said, okay, what do I do with this? Here [in Avanti Popolo] it is the same question, what do you do with all these films?”

Wahrmann sees this as being tied up with the political themes of his feature. He describes the central issue of Avanti Popolo as the “end of ideals.” André wants to show the films to his father, in part, so he can move off the couch and into his brother’s empty room, which their father has kept closed since his disappearance. The man fixing the projector, meanwhile, regales André with a description of his restrictive filmmaking movement Dogma 2002, in which the only visual material allowed is found film, and presses him about what he will do with his brother’s footage.

“This is the moment where you have this guy who actually wants to fix these memories, and show them to his father, but with one objective: to get a better place to sleep,” Wahrmann explained, laughing. “He doesn’t really care about his father, he just wants to get out of this old sofa. And the other guy has these crazy ideals about dogmas and making films. In a way, this is the key of the film, confronting this contrast between these crazy ideals and André’s egocentric pursuit.”

Broken machines are another commonality in Wahrmann’s work. In addition to the projector, the radio announcer from the beginning of Avanti Popolo returns at the end of the film to play the titular revolutionary folk song, but the record is scratched and he must instead sing it for his listeners. In both this film and in Oma, the blindness of the elderly—literally broken eyes—plays a fatalistic role. Wahrmann describes his films as being about frustrations that are tied in with memory, but also with the act of filmmaking, itself.

“I made this film, but nobody will watch it,” he lamented. “I’m doomed to a very small audience and it’s okay; that’s the film I made... It’s a very hermetic film, in a way, that will not be shown to many people, even in Brazil when we release it. I made this film and I will probably make another film like this that nobody will see. And it’s like a broken machine.”

Avanti Popolo literally translates to “go forward, people,” and Wahrmann notes that, in the film, he is also expressing his own frustration with the death of ideological movements. When asked about the recent protests in Brazil over increased bus fares, he discussed what he refers to as “Facebook manifestations.”

“People ask for these little things, don’t raise the bus fares, but what about the other stuff?” he challenged. “In Brazil, the minimum wage is $300 per month. A Big Mac costs $6. It’s more expensive than New York and the minimum wage is really low, and nobody talks about it. This is a real social issue to discuss in the streets. These are not popular manifestations. [Laughing.] I call them ‘hipster manifestations.’ We need something to do. We need meaning in life. Let’s go and occupy something. And then it ends and a week later there is nothing to show for it. Obviously I am in favor of manifestations, but they feel a bit empty to mean. And this is, a bit, what Avanti Popolo is about.”

Avanti Popolo screens July 13 at 5:10pm and July 14 at 12:45pm in Film Society's Latinbeat film festival.

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