Felipe Bragança Talks About His First Feature Film "Don’t Swallow My Heart Alligator Girl"

– by Jenny Karakaya
Courtesy of Berlinale

Courtesy of Berlinale

There is no doubt that the Brazilians have established themselves as some of the greatest creative minds in the world and therefore, it is no surprise that there was such a large Brazilian presence at this year’s Berlinale film festival. One of the most effective ways to raise social and political awareness is by the means of news, social media and especially films. Director Felipe Braganca has done just that with his first feature film, Don’t Swallow My Heart Alligator Girl.

The film tells the story and struggles of teenage love between a Brazilian boy and Paraguayan native Guarani girl, both caught between the violent conflict and continuous bloodshed on their respective borders. It was truly a pleasure speaking with Felipe and delving deeper into indigenous history in Brazil and South America. I hope this film will enlighten the world and perhaps bring some change and much needed peace to the natives in the region. See below what the director had to say about the film, history and what he’s planning to film next.

LRM: Tell me about this story and why you chose to tell it?

Felipe: It was basically in two short stories from a Brazilian writer Joca Terron, he is a writer. He was born in this region between Brazil and Paraguay. He wrote a book with like 40s, 50s, really short, short stories like two, three pages. More poetic talking about the atmosphere of this region and I fell in love with two of these short stories. One was about a ideal teenager love between a young Brazilian and a young Paraguayan girl. The other one was talking about kind of a meteorological mythic gang of motorcycle guys.

I had an intuition that I could mix the two ideas of storyline. I spent three years going to this region to know more about the region and more about the people and create the whole storyline of the film. Then I got connected with the people there and then started inviting them to be part of cast. Big part of the cast was local people. It is a mix of research in the place or social research with this poetic premise from the short stories.

LRM: So these were two separate stories glued together?

Felipe: Yes.

LRM: Tell me what you learned while you were there? Were you familiar this region's conflict?

Felipe: Everybody in Brazil had some past in the family with indigenous people. My grandmother was indigenous; she didn’t speak Portuguese, just Guaraní, which is the native language. I always had this idea to make a film with this- thinking about this Guaraní culture in Brazil. When I went there to the border where there is a lot of Guaraní people still there, who just speak Guaraní. The Paraguayan people they mostly speak Guaraní not Spanish, I learned that the conflict from the past is actually still alive and even stronger. Because every day more and more indigenous people in this region are being killed and they are being vanished from their lands.

It is something that is really silent in Brazil. Nobody talks about it. I didn’t want to make a film just talking about the social issue, but I thought it was something really important to think about our identity in Brazil nowadays. What is happening with the country even now with all this political crisis, because sometimes Brazil tries to forget where we came from.

We are basically a country, which were created via invasion. The Portuguese Kingdom invaded that land and we killed 90% of the population and still today we are still trying to-– the official story tries to hide all this violence. But in this border there it is still happening. In the border there you can see that history is still alive there and it was very strong.

When I talk to people they say, “Hey, I’m going to talk about, you know, this conflict between indigenous Paraguayans and Brazilians." People say, "Yes, yes, it is happening." It is not something that you are bringing from your imagination. It was very good to make this fact to the people there. The local people say, “Yes, just do this, Felipe, it is important for us. What you need to have- to open your door and talk about it."

LRM: So you are part Guaraní and Brazilian?

Felipe: Yes. I’m a classic Brazilian. I’m the cliché. My grandfather was African and my grandmother was in Guaraní and half of my family is from Portugal. I’m the classic Brazilian. I’m the cliché. But it’s crazy because most of the Brazilians are this mix. In general people try to forget or really don’t understand that-- something really crazy, people don’t know Guarani was, as spoken in Brazil as Portuguese 250 years ago. Then, the Portuguese forbid it. It got forbidden.

LRM: So both Guarani and Portuguese were spoken in Brazil at one time?

Felipe: Yes, exactly. Everybody was speaking both language day by day. But then the Portuguese realized that for them it could be less control of the society, so they forbid Guarani. That’s why this language now is just with these indigenous people living in the small cities or far away from the big towns.

LRM: Do you understand it?

Felipe: Just a few words. I had to study a little bit more to make the film because they had like 10-15% of the scenes, the dialogues are completely in Guarani. I needed to learn a little bit more and memorize things. But that is not a language that we use in the day to day [life]. It is so sad in a way because you feel that's part of your culture, part of your identity. But if I want to learn Guarani in Brazil, it's more difficult than if I want to learn Korean. [It’s tough] to find school, to find teachers. They don’t teach it. They don’t teach it in universities. This is crazy.

LRM: Wow. Do they still teach it in the Paraguayan schools?

Felipe: Yes, because what happened, during the war Brazil killed like 90% of the Paraguayan population. And who survived? Mainly the indigenous women. They kept the language alive in a very strong way that even today, the Guarani language is like the second official language in Paraguay. Officially, Paraguay speaks Spanish because of the colonization. But Guarani is there because of the indigenous women, they kept the language, they kept the memory. When you speak to the Paraguayan people, they speak Spanish with you a little bit, but then they start speaking in Guarani between themselves. You know they’re talking about you.

LRM: Yes, of course.

Felipe: They are like, "Who is this guy?" "Okay. Why are you talking about me?" They go, “No, no." They are discussing in Guarani. The language also became a weapon in this conflict there, because they understand the oppressor but the oppressor doesn't understand them. They know Portuguese a little bit, they understand Spanish, but we don’t understand them. So they can have these secrets. They can speak things that we don’t understand.

LRM: How do they feel about you making this film? Were they excited that you are bringing this subject of conflict and murder to light?

Felipe: Yes. It was really strong because every time I came with the storyline-- because I work with a lot of known actors and shooting all in real locations. I was like, “I’m going to tell stories, a love story, but the social background is this and this”. Everybody was like, "Yes, it happens all the time." Like forbidden relationship between Paraguayans and Brazilians falling in love or even friendship. Because the people get friends but they're not really comfortable because the two societies say, "No, don’t trust Brazilians or don’t trust Paraguayans." and they were really excited, “Oh, let’s show what happened”.

One thing that probably was very strong in the film, is the Paraguayan motorcycle gang. I was mixing in my casting some Guarani people from Brazil and Guarani people from Paraguay. In the friendly rehearsal I put them together and said, “Hey, guys, in the film, is a fiction. You’re going to be all part of the same gang, but some of you guys are Brazilians, some of you are Paraguayans. Is it okay for you?” They said, “Felipe, there is no Paraguay, there is no Brazil. This is all Republic of Guarani. All these lands here are Guarani. You created these borders, we don’t agree with it. Of course, we are together in your film. We are the same people.”

They don't respect day by day this idea of the border. They said, “No, I visit my brother”. They said, “Brother both sides of the border?” They don’t care because all that land for them is still Guarani land. This war between Brazil and Paraguay created this artificial border for them. They don't believe in this border. They were really proud to say, "No, in the film we'll be finally together." At least, in the fiction we're the same-

LRM: In the film, the young girl appears to be the leader taking charge. Do you feel the women play the alpha role in this culture?

Felipe: Yes. The thing is because of the war, the women-- Brazilian killed 90% of the population and almost all the men. Yes, for me Basano, the young girl, she represents the women [as] they have the memories, they're more conscious about the past, what happened before. Because they have this oral tradition to be telling stories from generation to generation. The women there or this feminine power is stronger to keep this memory and keep this culture going on.

The men they're more like they want to solve the problems fast and they die in the roads and they disappear in violence. They die young. Most of the families I visit there was basically women because their men died young. Or they're traveling to try to find money, or they're working some farms far away they and sometimes come back with some money.

It's a really sexist society, really macho men society. But in the silence you see that the women are keeping the culture alive. For me Basano represent this capacity of one, keeping the memory, and trying to challenge this macho men society, which is really strong. I think these younger women and these young girls that they have this energy. They don't want to obey men anymore.

LRM: Is there still conflict in the region? Are dead bodies showing up in the river as they did in the film?

Felipe: Yes.

Courtesy of Berlinale

Courtesy of Berlinale

LRM: Were there any inspirations or films you had in mind while filming the motorcycle scenes?

Felipe: I wanted to make this idea of this mythology about these motorcycle gangs. They're more than just real motorcycle gang. They have some mythological reference. In shooting it, my reference was these '80s action films, which for me is imaginary of young people in Brazil who see these films in TV shows or internet. That's something that I wanted to talk about because the film is talking about this conflict of culture. Something that we have in Brazil really strong is sometimes the film makers try to deny or go away from. It's like we're bombarded all the time with this pop culture from US and Hollywood and this helps or it creates also the idea of manhood we have in Brazil.

They want to be cowboy in the movie, they want to be motorcycle guys in the movie. I wanted to bring this spirit of the film because that's how they're feeling themselves. I wanted them to be in the motorcycle gang they dreaming to be in. A motorcycle gang with the spirit.

LRM: Can you talk a bit about your style of direction? Do you improvise a lot or do you have a precise idea and script in place when you start filming?

Felipe: My process is that I rehearse a lot. I draw all the scenes. What I do, I think, I memorize everything in the film in a way that then I don't need the script anymore. Not because I think this I need to go-- not that I don't need but I think that I can go beyond the script. Because actually, I memorize all the dialogues and everything, and with the actors too. When you have rehearsals and with all you draw, you have everything in mind, then you're free to, I would not to say improvise, but to keep the creative process ongoing.

Making a movie is like telling a story, but every time you tell a story it's a little bit different. I try to keep the best version of the story for the moment I'm filming. So, kind of repeating but there's something new.

LRM: Do you hope to achieve some sort of political and social change with this film?

Felipe: Yes, we never know exactly how you're going to be as a director of a movie. But something that I'm really proud is because is the first feature film in Brazil with this kind of complex storytelling and mixing actors and directors that are really using indigenous actors in their film. That's something, maybe it's smaller but important. The more the film go around and people see the film and say, "Oh, he's really working with the indigenous actors and actresses." Because there's this idea like, "Oh, how are you going to work with this indigenous people, they don't work well, they don't know how to act?" I said , "No, I want to work with them."

If I can change some things maybe some people see the film in Brazil and start to understand these are indigenous people they are there. They are smart, they intelligent, they are artists, they are intellectuals, and they can be part of the creative process. They don't want to be just objects of study. They can be artists. Because for me all these, they are artists working with me. This is good.

LRM: Do you think that the government will acknowledge this conflict or do you think they will give any pushback?

Felipe: Is very dangerous here in Brazil. For example, I was with Cauã Reymond, who's Fernando, the motorcycle guy. He's really famous in Brazil. He's a big star. He was the guy who came to the border with me to work with all these new actors. We are visiting, for example, some indigenous village that are not in the film. But I wanted him to know more about the cultures. One week after I left the place I was shooting, a group of 10 farmers came with big trucks to this village.

The thing is nobody in Brazil are fighting against these big farmers in this region. It's very difficult. Even the government we had before, which was painted more like concerning about the social issues, they don't touch this part. They don't touch this land issue in Brazil. That's why the indigenous people suffer so much. Because their identity is their cultural thing is connected with the property of land.

LRM: What do mean when you say they do when the farmers arrived with trucks?

Felipe: They arrived with a big car like trucks. Exactly like the one we have in the film, the silver one. You create something and then one week after when I was in Rio, people send me a link how this all happened. I was like, "Oh, my God." Exactly. But the picture even more epic than the film. Was like plenty of their cars, they came to the village, and they destroyed everything.

You see that the government pretend it's not happening because they are afraid of these guys not in politics also. Because these guys; some have representation in the senate, in the parliament, and everything. I think it's a noise that we're starting to create in Brazil, starting to face this problem. Because I realized for many years nobody was talking about it. People were saying, "No, no, no. There is some reservation area for the indigenous and they're happy." But it's a lie because a little part of the indigenous people have some land. Most of the indigenous people are still being killed.

LRM: It’s sad to see how much conflict is still ongoing in Brazil.

Felipe: There is a kind of idea in Brazil that the indigenous people are romanticized and they're from the past. Almost as if they are legends. They're alive and they're trying to survive. Some people say, "Oh, yes, we came from the indigenous." We don't come from the indigenous. The indigenous people are here and we're part of them. This is something different.

Accept that they live here and they're alive. They're still there. It's not like, "Oh, it happened in the past." No. They're still there. They're still being killed now today. They kill like 300 indigenous people every six months

LRM: And the Brazilians are killing them?

Felipe: Yes. There is a private militias in that area paid by the farmers. Crazily, it's legal. They got to make a law that if they think their land is in danger, they can make militias kill them. It's a long-term to solve this problem. It's not easy.

LRM: What kind of film are you or will you be making next?

Felipe: This is my first solo feature. I've co-directed some films before and I make some short films. What I feel in this film, and I think I want to go further with this. I want to make a science fiction by this year.

LRM: Science fiction?

Felipe: Yes. I'm writing two science fiction projects. What I think really is very important, for me, I like as a Latin American, I want to have the same freedom of creativity and talk about the cinema history then other countries. Because sometimes people want Latin Americans to make films about Latin Americans. No, I want to make films that deal with my past and with my identity. But I want to create a dream, because I think filming is about creating dreams. What makes the future strong is if we create our dream.

I want to create a film that gets connected with our mythology and our style. I don't want to be obligated as a Latin American filmmaker to make this the social melodrama, talk about our problems But sometimes it's what they want for us.

LRM: What kind of science fiction film do you want to make?

Felipe: More around time traveling.

LRM: What would be some of your favorite science fiction films that you've seen or some of your favorite directors?

Felipe: I like the comic films. Actually, I love the comic books. I read a lot of the French comic books, dreamy science fictions about the future and then that's it. Some old Soviets forgotten science fiction from the 40s and 50s, which are really amazing. I'm discovering this as I'm making research in the Ukrainian and Russian film archives. You discover so much treasures there.

LRM: You want to create your own original?

Felipe: Yes. I'm studying. The same way I studied the 80s film to make the motorcycle gang universe. I'll be talking basically about time traveling and utopia.

LRM: Utopia?

Felipe: Yes. I think it is something important with what’s happening in Brazil now. We don't know where to go and we need to start imagining how it's going to be the future and where we came from. I’m going to do again with this idea of identity and now dealing with spaceships.

LRM: So you get something for the people to dream about?

Felipe: Yes, and that dream is what make you keep creating who you are. Because what is happening in Brazil now is you have this really depressing moment there. Now people want to make the population feel guilty. Like, "We made a mistake, our country is broke and you should be ashamed about what you are,” and then you have to cut all the money for science, education and future because we are not good enough to have to have all these things.

We need to be basic because we are poor country. I’m like, "No, we have to create. We have to be ready to dream. We are like one of the cultural importance in the world. Come on." We are the future. Of course, there is this idea in Brazil-- Stefan Zweig was Austrian writer.

He came to Brazil after the war and he wrote a book and said Brazil is the culture of the future. It became part of our day by day, this idea, "In the future Brazil will be amazing." Because just after the Second War people came to Brazil and said “Oh, my God, this is paradise. This is going to be the next empire of the world" and it never happens."

LRM: In your films it can happen. This is why you are going to write the science fiction.

Felipe: Yes, or maybe I’m going to play with this idea that someway, some day we are going to be the country we dream to be. Then how it’s going to be and what we are going to do with that when we get there. It's like when you go to this future you dream about, what you do when you get there.

Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Felipe Braganca, Don't Swallow My Heart Alligator Girl, Berlinale