Maíra Bühler spent five months in intensive coexistence with people addicted to crack cocaine for her latest documentary, Let It Burn (Diz A Ela Que Me Viu Chorar).
The Brazilian filmmaker, who holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a master’s degree in anthropology, dived deep into the lives of disadvantaged people living in a Sāo Paulo apartment building. What she uncovered were tragic yet deeply human stories of people on the wrong end of Brazil’s social inequalities.
Q: It feels sad to say, but I only tend to hear (or see in UK media/entertainment) crack addicts used as the butt end of a joke. Heading into this project, how did you perceive crack addicts and their sense of otherness?
A: People that use crack are people… that use crack. It’s very common to understand crack cocaine as a no way out drug, but this is not true. When I was filming I felt them very attached to life, fighting for a place in a society that excludes them systemically and mainly very self aware of their own trajectory.
Usually they are not considered someone that is capable of speaking for themselves, which is not true. They know where they come from and where they wish to be. They understand their fragility and also understand they need help but, of course, at the same time, they want to have their freedom and rights preserved.
Q: What is the attitude of the government and the people in Brazil towards people with crack addictions?
A: When I was filming they were beneficiaries in a municipal damage reduction program where they had access to health, work, social assistance and housing. The government understood that, together with health, crack cocaine addiction was a social problem. It affects the most vulnerable part of society – the poor, the unemployed, the ones that were in jail sometime before.
That was before 2017. Since then things are changing very fast. Now we have a far right president and most of the people that were once treated as citizens are now living on the streets, not having access to their rights and being treated as criminals, in very violent environment.
In this new government the politics of drugs has changed and now there is no “damage reduction programs”. The government has just approved a law that makes it possible to put them in clinics against their own will, and most of the clinics are religious. Also we are facing a lot of torture, slavery and mistreatment accusations against this kind of place. So, things are changing very fast here.
Q: What led you to this particular apartment building in downtown Sāo Paulo?
A: I started to develop the film in 2014. At this moment I made a kind of ethnographic research and made friends (characters) on the streets. They used to be in other hotels, much more precarious and not necessarily as part of a damage reduction program.
When I finally got the money to film, in 2016, the mayor had started this program and the characters were moving to this hotel. I just followed them.
Q: You spent five months in intensive coexistence with the characters. Did you have any reservations about this approach or was it necessary to capturing the characters as truthfully as possible?
A: The film was being built with them. They were watching us and understanding slowly what we wanted to do. My reservations were in the sense of (of course) respecting their limits and filming only when I was invited to.
The notion of true in cinema is very interesting, I think we were together constructing an experience of how was life in the hotel. I like to remember this ideal that I learned with Pedro Costa that in any reality there is fiction, there are delusions. And of course, in any fiction there is a reality background.
Q: How did you find the experiences of getting close to these characters? How accessible were they and their stories?
A: They were very nice people and as soon as they understood we were not the police very open an trustful.
Q: There is a beautiful scene of the characters singing in the trailer. Do you have any notable stories or memories to share from your time filming?
A: Me and my crew we were very touched by the experience of being so close to such a saturated experience of life. I made very good friends and we all had our heart softened.
Q: Can you tell us more about your background and how it has shaped your anthropological approach to filmmaking?
A: I studied anthropology and still do. I love to read it and whenever I need to do or think about something I go back to it. I was formed in São Paulo University where I also have a Master’s degree. I’m very influenced by authors of the post-social anthropology (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, Bruno Latour).
So, basically, I like to make a kind of film that the aesthetic shape of the film is not constructed before the field but in relationship with it. It is aesthetic research, a narrative research that has to do with relating to people and trying to understand their concepts, not being a hostage to my own way of seeing and trying to open my creative process to be affected, transformed.
Q: ‘Let It Burn’ recently at Sheffield Doc Fest and is picking up awards on the festival scene. What do you hope international audiences take away from this film?
A: I want people to understand there is life and love and fear and humour and pain everywhere. Even where we usually think there is only death. In a time when hate is on the cover of newspapers around the world, I think I want people to have empathy, be touched and transformed by each other.
Q: What is next for you? Any ambitions to share?
A: Now I want to release the film in Brazil, I’m very focused on it. I also have a new project, I’m just not ready to talk about it yet. I’m still in the middle of the adventure of discovering how it’s going to be. But, of course, is about alterity and a social space where people also think it’s impossible to feel connected with – but of course, it’s not.