Star, producer, director: Helena Ignez is synonymous with Brazilian Cinema. A beacon of the Cinema Novo, she talked to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM during her recent invitation to New Zealand for the Film Society’s Brazilian season.

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IT MUST HAVE been an odd sight for patrons at a particular café on a sullen Sunday afternoon. An older woman being interviewed with the assistance of an interpreter. You might have thought she was famous, her striking eyes and undeniable presence would certainly have attested to that. But she is more than that – she’s an iconic figure in a country’s consciousness, a figure known to millions in a cinema mad country, and one of their great artists. She is Helena Ignez, in New Zealand to celebrate the Cinema Novo at the Film Society, and is impressively known as the Muse of Cinema Novo. She’s an actor, a producer, a theatre director, a cinematographer and a director whose forty year artistic career captures many of the highlights and the low-points of a turbulent Brazilian history.

She made her start slowly. At the age of seventeen, “I got into law school, I did two years of the course, and at the same time, I did two years of theatre studies. At that time, I thought my vocation was to act, not to be a lawyer. And in the same period, I produced the first movie of my career, together with Glauber Rocha.” She also starred in it, and was the beginning of a stellar acting career. It was a début short film entitled Pátio and was released in 1959. Rocha of course, is not just any old filmmaker. He’s regarded as the greatest Brazilian filmmaker in their history (his film Black God, White Devil was voted the greatest Brazilian film of all-time), and has an international reputation to boot. And as Ignez was quick to point out, “Martin Scorsese was quoted as saying he was one of the most important moviemakers in the world.” He was also ahead of his time – “unfortunately the Brazilian movies at that time didn’t follow Glauber Rocha’s texts, they didn’t go in the same direction.” Ignez also had more to do with Rocha than merely a working relationship. “It was privilege not only to get to know him, but to work with him, and I had a daughter with him.” (actor Paloma Rocha).

However, things quickly changed in Brazil. A 1964 coup saw a sudden shift to the Right, but it was only in 1968 when the “AI-5” (Institutional Act 5) was decreed when people really started feeling the pressure. The decree marked an increasing repressiveness of political freedoms, and artists, who had been hostile to the initial coup in the first place, found themselves targeted. The Cinema Novo films went underground, and became more symbolic and coded, yet as political and as angry as ever. “In ’68, Red Light Bandit was made and it was a very important movie that marks the period. And it wasn’t censored from showing the movie at the time because people didn’t actually understand what the name of the movie meant. They couldn’t get from the name what the concept would be. They thought Red Light Bandit was a thriller. It was almost after the release of the movie that the AI5 came, and it was almost impossible to work as a filmmaker. At this stage, the single feeling of making a movie, or trying to, would be a challenge.” The film starring Ignez (in a Godardian female role) was a huge success though – “in fifteen days it covered all the costs, and it was a profitable movie. It was impossible for the dictatorship to go and censor it then after the success.”

Red Light Bandit was made by Rogério Sganzerla, a precocious film critic and filmmaker. “Sganzerla used to do film reviews and critiques since he was seventeen in the main newspapers in Brazil – in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, the main centres. And he was very well respected by the cinema people. To work with him was as pleasurable as doing the first movie with Glauber, because he was very well known in Brazil and very respected.” Sganzerla is not particular well-known outside of Brazil, where “he’s studied in all film and theatre schools,” but his films are slowly gathering reputations in Europe and the United States. His film Sem Essa Aranha is reported to be quite remarkable – “it is a movie made in twelve shots, and the music is absolutely extraordinary”, and Red Light Bandit is gathering an increasing international audience. This was the beginning of a very successful artistic and personal collaboration – Sganzerla was Ignez’s second husband, and they worked together on a number of films (she acted in a large number of his films).

Even more, they formed the production company Bel Air, with noted Brazilian director Júlio Bressane. “Six movies were made between January and May [1970] in a very short period of time – we made six features. It was guerilla cinema and improvised. Because of the censorship we had to make them very fast, so we could release them.” However, the political repression became too much to bear. Initially, “having this pressure, it was actually a very creative period. But at the same time, it was unsafe; there was a lot of danger just working. During that period they [the Government] would just kill people, and they’d kidnap people and they’d ‘disappear’ them.” The six films “were edited in England, but they were finished in Paris at a lab called Éclair. And we stayed two years in England without being able to go back to Brazil. We were somehow obliged to leave Brazil, otherwise we would be put in prison. There wasn’t a second choice”. This period is also vividly captured in her short film The Beauty Queen and the Dinosaur.

However all this helped toll the death knell for the revolutionary Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal (the name given to the underground movement starting in 1968). However, she does point out that she doesn’t call it Marginal – “I wouldn’t use the word marginal, I would use the word Orson Welles used to describe his own films – experimental”. However the challenging Brazilian cinema did die out. “Cinema Novo in spirit became much more passive. Somehow it went into agreement with the period with the exception of Glauber Rocha who left Brazil.”

But happily for Ignez, she was able to return to Brazil and has pursued wider forms of expression. “I never really left the acting side. Right now, I’m working in a play and I had to train someone to be in my place this weekend because I was coming here [to New Zealand]. From the beginning, from the very beginning of my career, I always tried to balance and do a little bit of everything. At certain times, more acting, at certain times more producing and more directing, but I always liked to keep the three jobs”. Currently, she’s working on adapting Bertolt Brecht’s (who incidentally was a crucial influence to Rocha’s Black God, White Devil) first full length play Baal into a film. Having accomplished so much in her career, all Ignez wants to do is “make a very good feature movie, which would be her first. That’s what I wish”.

But her reputation will always be intact as one of the pivotal figures in an increasingly internationally renowned period of cinema. She can rightly call it “the golden period for Brazilian cinema.” And she’s also proud to admit that “what’s important about it is that even though the movies are poor in production, they are very rich in ideas”.

See also:
» Red Light Bandit