Karim Aïnouz is part of a rare breed of filmmakers whose work manages to be both wonderfully profound and edgy yet totally engaging and entertaining. He has never been afraid to challenge his audiences and leave story strands unfinished so that they can appropriate them, as they will. If that is not enough, Aïnouz’s work is also extremely sensual and provocative as well. The 49-year-old Brazilian who directed the hugely successful ‘Madame Sata’, honed his craft working with gay auteur Todd Haynes in New York for the best part of 15 years, and then he moved yet again to Berlin and fell in love. This time as much with the city as with the men. It inspired him to write/direct his fifth and most personal movie to date about his new love and more importantly, his old one too. This was Futuro Beach in Brazil where he used to hang out as a kid and dream about the world faraway that he was missing.
This new movie is about lives that are lost and loves that are found, but mainly it is about the journey that one man takes on his voyage of self-discovery. It starts in the sizzling Brazilian sun where emotions ride high and takes on an evocative trail that ends a decade later on the damp mist-ridden German coast. It’s a thought-provoking visual treat that has been enchanting audiences around the globe and has now finally arriving on our shores. Our Contributing Editor Roger Walker-Dack took the opportunity to sit down with the filmmaker when he landed in London with the film and talk about love and loss, and a great deal about oceans too.
RWD: The way you portray both Futuro Beach and Berlin in your film seems almost like a personal love affair between you and these two places.
KA: It couldn’t be truer, and I feel close to them both for very different reasons. The Beach in Brazil was very near to where I was raised and where I got to hang out was a kid right up until I was in my twenties. It is like my ‘old’ home in a way and now Berlin has become my ‘new’ home for the past five years. It all started as a deep desire to do something in Futuro, which is so much more than just another place to me and when I started to develop the plot that began there, it made sense to me as the story evolved that the characters would move to Berlin.
RWD: How did you end up in Berlin in the first place?
KA: I was in NY for about 15 years working for the filmmaker Todd Haynes for most of the time, and then I got an artist residency grant to go to Berlin for a year. I really thought it would be a good city to start writing another film, as it is a neutral place and somewhere that I had visited but never lived before. For me Berlin was love at second sight as there was something going on then in 2004 that reminded me of the sort of freedom that I felt when I first moved to NY in the mid 1980s. There was a sense that everything was very open and that anything was possible, and a certain chaos to it all that was super exciting for me. There was this wonderful sense that the future was being made and that Berlin was being re-invented, and so that is why I decided to have my base there.
RWD: You start and end the movie at an ocean, why was that so important to you?
KA: Futuro Beach is on the North East coast of Brazil near Venezuela and the ocean there has been a very strong presence throughout my life. Growing up there the ocean was for a me a border that separated us from the world, rather than a place of paradise that most people think it is. I always had this image of a guy who would spend most of his time staring at the ocean and imagining perhaps what was on the other side. This after all is a city which is a place of migration that a lot of people leave. Others see the ocean as melancholic or an idyllic place but for me it was very much a place that you should cross to find out about the world. In those days Futuro was a very isolated place and was hard to get as there were no direct flights, and so the ocean was what linked us to the world.
RWD: Where did the actual story come from?
KA: It is a total original story in which I incorporated certain elements that were important for me. The first thing that I wanted to do in this movie was show my love for these two cities. Also at the time I started writing it I had just finished re-reading Moby Dick and this inspired me to want to make a movie about travel and adventure. I also wanted to tell a generational story and I wanted to write about a certain gay diaspora and about the generations who have to leave and go to urban centres to be creative. I was intrigued with the whole concept of re-inventing oneself somewhere far away from home.
I wanted to tell the story of someone who left, not solely because of his sexuality, and of the consequences when he needs to leave to reinvent himself. I had the idea of having a family that he left behind and I eventually developed that into the story line of the younger brother who would come and confront him. Suddenly everything seemed to make sense and the story came together came out of my desire to make a film about sexual diaspora and fear and masculinity.
RWD: You hit the ground running early on in the movie with very animalistic sex between Donato and Konrad which is both rough and passionate. How important was the sex and the fact that despite its eroticism you didn’t make it explicit.
KA: Konrad had lost his best friend and it was the first time that Donato had also lost some one that he had been unable to rescue. There was this deep and brutal sense of loss and there is nothing more for celebratory to life than sex, so I thought it would be an interesting and a beautiful way to let these two guys get together and deal with that loss through bringing life. This first time they have sex I wanted to make it more about physicality and violence and the desperate need they have for each other, and then to show the intimacy afterwards. It was very important that it was not a romantic relationship between these two men but something that was almost an animal bonding as the affection and the relationship would come out later as they got to know each other more.
RWD: You gave us a hint at this point that it may have been a movie at a romance but in the end it was much more about making a search for self-identity. Was that important to you?
KA: I was interested in both things, not just self-identity but about how two men can relate to each other. The emotions are quite mixed up in the film; there is the romance, there is the question of self-identity, and finally there is also the question of brotherly love. The romance was interesting but just as a triggering point for someone to find out what is real as I was always very resistant of having them together 10 years later. It was important that they had more than a passing moment and something which was very deep, but at the end of the day I wanted to make this more about a character who has to discover himself and the road he has to take to get there.
RWD: Do you consider this a ‘gay film’ per se?
KA: On one hand yes, I think absolutely. I used several of the gay clichés: the motorbikes, the soldiers, the lifeguard, so on that level it is a super gay film. (laughs) I wanted to use all the elements of masculinity and virility and how one man relates to another. I like to think of this almost as a gay masculine melodrama whatever that means. (laughs)
RWD: The relationship between the two brothers is extraordinarily wonderful, yet you were an only child.
Are there any parts of the movie that are autobiographical?
KA: There are a lot of the parts of the film that are, but I hasten too add I am not married to a German man(laughs). Asides from the fact that these are the two cities that I live in, there is the music, and also that I have been a serious swimmer since I was a kid. In fact this is my fifth film and is by far my most personal so it was even more challenging to make it entertaining and relevant to other people.
RWD: It is a stunning visual film particularly when you allowed the camera to linger longer than usual in many of the scenes. Was this part of you wanting to leave us somewhat stranded on several aspects of the story that you left unfinished?
KA: Absolutely. There are two elements there. I had imagined this movie like an old school slide show when you have image after image. I wanted to make this as a series of portraits of certain situations and like a poem. For that reason I wanted to do a movie where not everything is shown or is explained, just like between one slide and the next slide when there is something you can fill in. For example I did shoot scenes with the brother’s mother and she had the answers to some of their character’s questions. But I decided to edit her out and leave those particular questions unanswered, which allows the audience to fill them in and appropriate the film for themselves. So not wanting to spell it all out I hope that I left enough time in those long shots for you to work it out.
RWD: Often when you take an approach like this in a movie and leave unfinished strands to the story you end up with either getting rave reviews or quite vitriolic criticism. Was that true for you?
KA: (laughs) It is so true. Some people cannot stand it but I wanted to take a risk, because the whole film is about taking risks anyway. When we screened the movie in Berlin the first review was from someone who really got it, but the very next one, I think from a French reviewer, totally hated being left high and dry as he called it. It was something that I needed to do as an artist because a lot of independent cinema plays it too safe, and that is not a path I could take.
RWD: You had some rather inspired casting, can you talk me through your process.
KA: Wagner Moura is someone I have known for a long time and always wanted to work with but I never had a suitable project for him before now. In Brazil he is a superstar and national hero because of his role in Elite Squad which won the Golden Bear in Berlin and was the biggest box office smash in Brazil ever. I thought that there was something about the character of Donato that would be a challenge for him as is totally unlike most of the roles he has done up until now.
For Jesuíta Barbosa’s character I need to find a local boy from that region who had same musical accent when he spoke, and who was new and a total fresh face. We actually took a year to cast him and saw a lot of people, but when he came into the room I immediately knew that there was something really special about him.
I didn’t know Clemens Schick until we did a casting in Berlin and I saw there was a roughness to his Aryan look that I thought was interesting because I didn’t want to cast a classic blonde German guy. I saw a danger in him that I thought he would bring to the party.
So I had three men from three very different places who had three different trajectories. Clemens is very much an established theatre actor, Jesuíta was a newbie, and Wagner was a huge movie star and I thought it would be interesting to mix them together. When the film came out in Brazil we had a great opening week but by the 3rd day there was an enormous outcry against the film because people could not accept that Wagner their favourite action movie star could be doing an edgy gay film like this.
RWD: When I first saw this movie I summed it up in my review as melancholic and mesmerising but now one of the overriding memories that remain with me was the fact that it has a message of hope, especially from that wonderfully dramatic final scene.
KA: You are right. In all the films that I have done there is this feeling of different kind of families, and a different kind of connection between people. It was important for me that the story allowed the viewer to witness the hardness they went through and the joys that they shared. It was also essential to me that we end our journey with the characters but that the characters can go on with their lives.
It’s funny I am huge fan of Fassbinder but I could never end a film like he did always on a downer. I am from a culture that is optimistic so I think it is important to always have some kind of redemption and some kind of hope.
RWD: What’s next for you?
The next film is probably a road film that I wrote about a guy looking after his father hiding away in the mountains of Algeria. I am half Algerian but I have never ever been to the country yet, so it will be a new adventure that I am undertaking.