Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in June 2020.
Since Gabriel Mascaro’s much-celebrated Neon Bull / Boi Neon (2015) a film I wrote about in 2016—is streaming again in the U.S. now that MUBI users have access to a substantial part of their back catalog, it’s as good a time as any to dive into the director’s own back catalogue. A considerable portion of Mascaro’s past work is currently streaming (some of them for free, others on demand) on the Vimeo channel of their production company, Desvia Filmes (and, while you’re at it, make sure to check out other hidden gems, such as Jonathas de Andrade’s excellent O Peixe, which was on display in New York as an installation at The New Museum in 2017). Mascaro’s name started gaining a more substantial international presence with his first fiction feature film, August Winds (Ventos de Agosto, 2014), but his work had been circulating in Brazilian festivals at least since the release of KFZ-1348 (2008). A documentary feature (available on YouTube, but only with Spanish subtitles), co-directed with Marcelo Pedroso, KFZ-1348 tracks the past owners of a Volkswagen beetle with the license plate that makes the title. In the film, the car is a device that allows the filmmakers to explore histories of class, property, and obsolescence, at a time the automobile industry was the posterboy of a new rising middle class in Brazil.
The description of KFZ-1348 sheds light on the context where his work first took shape, as well as some of its original characteristics. Perhaps better known today for his fiction films, Mascaro was one of a handful of young directors making documentaries following specific guidelines, a practice associated with Foucault’s idea of dispositif, or apparatus – summarized by Agamben as a “a thoroughly heterogeneous set consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, and philanthropic propositions, supporting a certain manipulation of relations of forces, of a rational and concrete intervention in the relations of forces, either so as to develop them in a particular direction, or to block them, to stabilize them, and to utilize them.” In Brazilian documentary, the term was popularized by the luminous work of Eduardo Coutinho, and its various applications can be traced in films as distinct as Sandra Kogut’s A Hungarian Passport (Um Passaporte Húngaro, 2001), Ivo Lopes Araújo’s Saturday Night (Sábado à Noite, 2008) and Pedroso’s masterful Pacific (2010).
In Mascaro’s early work, the dispositif often bordered fiction. In films such as Avenida Brasília Formosa (2010) – created with a DOC TV grant, a very important and short-lived program (2003-10) that funded over 150 highly experimental documentaries, made by filmmakers from all different states in Brazil, to be screened on public television – and the excellent short Ebb and Flow / A Onda Traz, O Vento Leva (2012), the director sketched some of the mise-en-scène strategies that would later make the foundation of his fictional world in August Winds, Neon Bull, and Divine Love (Divino Amor, 2019). In other films, the dispositif became the central device that triggered the films themselves, accessing a phenomenal reality that arises out of the intervention of the apparatus. That’s the case of the wildly-fun short The Adventures of Paulo Bruskcy (As Aventuras de Paulo Bruskcy, 2010) – a self-reflexive collaboration between Mascaro and artist Paulo Bruscky entirely shot on Second Life – and Housemaids / Doméstica (2012), this week’s recommendation and my personal favorite.
In Housemaids, Gabriel Mascaro selects seven teenagers from very different backgrounds, and asks each of them to make a documentary about their housemaids. This simple dispositif makes visible and audible a complex web of relationships – the conveniently invisibilized dispositifs, following Foucault’s broad definition of the term -, exposing both the threads and the gaps that create the Brazilian social fabric. While the film is circumscribed to its moment in time, what it reveals remains timely: the first fatal victim of COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro was a 63-year old woman (name undisclosed) who worked as a housemaid and was infected by her boss, who’d traveled to Italy and had not told her employee that she might have contracted the virus.
Housemaids is the dispositif-documentary in its most political form: the restraint of directorial control turns the film into a collaboration that is both productive and inevitably asymmetrical, which in turn mirrors the manifold relationships being captured by the cameras. After its release, the film generated a book of essays edited by Victor Guimarães, which includes my 2012 review, as well as contributions by critics such as Jean-Louis Commoli, Nicole Brenez, Marco Antônio Gonçalves, and many others. The book is also available for free.