Marcelo Gomes • Director of Portrait of a Certain Orient
“I want to talk about the human being in context, not about the context itself”
- The Brazilian director breaks down his story of a migration process that takes his characters from Lebanon to Brazil
We talked to Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes, whose latest work, Portrait of a Certain Orient [+see also:
interview: Marcelo Gomes
film profile], was presented in the Big Screen Competition at IFFR. The film is set in the late 1940s and tells the story of a migration process from Lebanon to Brazil, in which various encounters will change the fate of the protagonists.
Cineuropa: Is there a contemporary event that inspired you to adapt the book by Milton Hatoum? Is this tale related to the many stories of migrants today?
Marcelo Gomes: I am curious about people who have to leave their homes for political or social reasons. My first film was about two migrants – one is a German man who travels to Northeast Brazil, where he meets a man who wants to move to the south in order to enjoy a better life. When these encounters happen, when you meet someone with a totally different background to yours, there is an experience of otherness. When this happens, not only do you understand yourself and your culture better, but you also learn how to respect the differences between cultures. I think that otherness and alterity are very important topics to talk about because there is a lot of fanaticism in the world – there are people with many prejudices who hate each other because of their differences. We can see this happening in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In the book, there is not a passage in which the author talks at length about migration, but I felt it was necessary to talk about it. It’s a radical process of alterity. The main characters travel from the Middle East to meet indigenous people in the middle of the Amazon, and when I saw these images, I thought, “How beautiful!” At the end of the 1940s and 1950s, people were escaping from Europe because of misery and other people from the Middle East because of the war. At the same time, indigenous people were being expelled from their land by Brazilian farmers, and I felt it was important to add this story to the film. The book was written in 1989, but I shot the film in 2022, and given the present context, I felt I had to talk about these issues.
Could you talk about Brazil, the country that Omar, Emir and Emily go to, in the 1950s? At one point, Omar says, “It’s the right place to make money,” but at the same time, we can also see the indigenous population in the Amazon trying to defend their land.
In the book, Milton Hatoum describes Manaus at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s as a cosmopolitan city, and I wanted to have many people on the boat speaking different languages to reflect this idea. Manaus was sort of a Babylon because in the middle of the war, the USA made an agreement with Brazil to produce rubber for military purposes – a business that had been interrupted in the 1930s because it wasn’t so profitable. So many people arrived in Brazil to escape war but also to produce rubber in an industrial capacity; there were opportunities in the Amazon. At the same time, many people from Brazil were moving to the Amazon and stealing land from the natives. I found this aspect crucial because when I made the film, we had the Bolsonaro government, which was supporting the farmers in order to expel the indigenous people from their land and supporting the miners as they explored the Amazon. It was a very violent move against the indigenous people, and I felt compelled to show it.
What is your relationship with the history of Brazil? You have come back to it after Joaquim [+see also:
film profile], where you dealt with the birth of the nation.
I love history, and Brazilian history in particular, and it was amazing how the history of Brazil is taught in school as if it were some kind of paradise. Of course, that was not the case. Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries was a terrible country. It was not a human country; it was just this wild place where the Portuguese used to kill indigenous people, enslave Africans, exploit the country and give nothing back. The past carries a lot of wounds that we have to understand. And I think the more we understand the past and the more we understand the present, the goal of not making the same mistakes that we made in the past is more achievable. But sometimes it's difficult.
The last four years in Brazil have been a big mistake because people have forgotten what we've learned from history. But I love to talk about these moments that are very complex for humanity. The period after World War II was a very complex moment for the country, as was the decolonisation process from the Portuguese. But I want to talk about the human being in context, not about the context itself.
Are you working on your next project?
Yes, I am working on a TV series by HBO that will deal with the HIV epidemic in Brazil in the 1980s, and I am also about to finish a documentary on the brain and dreams.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.