Review: Dry Ground Burning
by David Katz
- BERLINALE 2022: In the Brazilian favela of Sol Nascente, an all-female crime ring makes a play on the illegal gasoline trade in this bracing docu-drama mashup by Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta
A cliché in cultural writing, which has gladly gone out of fashion a little, is reflecting on how turbulent times tend to produce great art. But at times, we can return to this well and observe how the current situation in Brazil is leading to work with such a kick and fight to it, that combines ardent political awareness with a forward-thinking form. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau [+see also:
interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juli…
film profile] is one of the key works of this movement, and now in its wake, we have Dry Ground Burning by co-directing team Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, trading the former film’s remote backcountry for its sprawling favelas, whilst echoing its love for the peak 80s sci-fi of George Miller and John Carpenter. The film premiered in Berlinale’s Forum section, where it was one of the best-received in that strand.
Dry Ground Burning also springs out of another fashionable notion which has enraptured much global art cinema this century: that there need be no rigid distinction between documentary and fictional modes. Queirós and Pimenta’s filmmaking here takes this idea and runs with it, knowing its audience (and how vast will it eventually grow to be, we wonder?) will tolerate long, fully devised passages, folded in with bursts of obvious actuality, and that the ‘actors’ are playing on a knife edge between performing and merely being. We’re given a pleasurable form of whiplash, or jump, when on two occasions the filmmakers will pause a scene we think is playing out as fiction, for a character to suddenly turn directly to the camera in the middle, and narrate something coldly factual.
It’s a film designed to be empowering: the overall throughline concerns acts of resistance to the status quo in Brazil, and a secure sense that criminality can be a heroic, liberating act in a sick society. Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado, playing a character heightened from her real life) is a gasolineira, who’s devised a makeshift There Will Be Blood-esque derrick system to steal oil from an underground pipe. She has the ‘product,’ with a place in the male-dominated criminal hierarchy all for the taking: she barters a deal with the biker gang known as the ‘motoboys,’ who act as a Hell’s Angels-esque de facto security team for the favela, offsetting the authoritarian rule of the militarised police forces.
All this is seen from the point of view of Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), her ex-convict sister, recently released from prison, and looking to not so much ‘go straight’ as find a secure income source that isn’t as unstable, unpredictable or violent as the drug trafficking she was convicted for.
The preceding two paragraphs could read as a far more conventional film than what Dry Ground Burning is, but the filmmakers choose to stretch this character set-up like taffy (or motorbike wheel rubber) across a more observational and immersive method, offering long takes and extended duration sequences of the police’s very sci-fi-looking armoured van, an evangelical preacher’s service, and a Bolsonaro rally. The way Queirós and Pimenta cross-cut between them is ultimately a little unsubtle, giving no ambiguity to their politics, and not invoking the sisters as anything but heroes or messianic inspirations, let alone anti-heroes.
Its overall ratio is far more proportionate to creative documentary, immersing us in a feverish, combustible world, than crime thriller, in the final tally-up, although we can feel the filmmakers' glee in allowing these real inhabitants of the slum to play act as pulp icons, just for one day or one film screening, to paraphrase David Bowie.
Dry Ground Burning is a co-production between Brazil and Portugal, staged by Cinco da Norte and Terratreme Films.
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