Vazante: The abject gaze (English Version)

by Heitor Augusto*

This is a translated version of my review of Vazante, originally published in Portuguese, my native language. Click here to read the Portuguese version.

There is a large gulf between the director’s intentions or aspirations that form the basis for making Vazante and what is seen on screen. A careful viewing of Vazante leads to a disturbing diagnosis: it is a seriously ill film which blights a portion of the population which has been historically harmed, whose lives are perceived as less valuable, whose wounds may never heal because of constant exposure to toxic depictions.

The first characteristic from Vazante that might catch the attention of a viewer accustomed to art house cinema is its apparently rigorous mise en scène. The film seems interested in a harmonic composition of dramaturgy, cinematography, pace, framing and sound atmosphere. It presents itself as a work that contains every element needed to validate it as a legitimate art house film – a tag commonly taken as synonymous with being critically analytical, profound, reflection driven, anti-capitalist, at the left of the ideological spectrum.

But here is the contradiction: Vazante‘s technical rigor and obsession with visual reconstitution of the past is far stronger than any real concern with how black lives are portrayed in the film. The film is directly engaged in emulating visual themes from Debret and Rugendas but it is by no means equally concerned with understanding the impact of certain vicious images in our world today or with real character development, especially those of a darker hue. It seems what really matters to Vazante is the various shades of black and white in a supposedly lyrical, cinematic shot of the distant horizon than to avoid repeating, reiterating and viciously restating forms of violence against black bodies and minds.

Take the character of the overseer, Jeremias. Why does he disappear so suddenly, especially after he’s strongly established as an antagonist of the enslaved? Why are we exposed only to his acts of torture and not to the master’s? It is a matter of how the auteur‘s gaze manifests itself in the film. Surely Jeremias, the dark-skinned overseer, is historically accurate as an archetype, that’s not the point. The point is: who is interested in keeping this character undeveloped? Why does Vazante omit the essential dynamics of slavery in Brazil as regards a character like Jeremias? Why is the audience denied a complex portrait that could allow us to comprehend this archetype’s role in controlling the bodies of the enslaved? What is the purpose of this flat, mono-dimensional depiction?

If it lacks solid dramaturgical and developmental elements, in terms of race the role of Jeremias – once again, not its historical existence, but the way it is shown in Vazante – is irresponsible and, alongside other choices of the film, demonstrates a contemptuous gaze. Vazante is an example of the peculiar blindness of white liberal artists who have yet to profoundly investigate the blind spots caused by their existence in the world as white individuals. Here is how such blindness manifests itself: “How can my work be seen as violent and denigrative if I have knowledge, education, ideology, that is, if I’m on the right side of history?”. The misunderstandings and violence perpetrated by Vazante are a reminder that until white filmmakers reflect on the implications of their whiteness, especially when an integral part of the filmmaker’s subject is “The Other”, black people will keep being assaulted by stones disguised as plums.

That is the melancholy contradiction of a film which claims to offer a critical discourse, diverging from the racist paradigm brought by Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves. Yet, in the process, Vazante takes a violent swipe at the lives and the sensibilities of those that the film attempts to represent: black people. That’s the contradiction – or perversion, if one opts for a less polite approach. It is a work that presents itself as an historical account of what was done to black bodies throughout Brazil’s social formation, but denies any meaningful possibility of agency and autonomy to black characters and, worse than that, to a black spectator.

Being myself a resisting spectator [1], where am I in Vazante and where is it in me? The “villain” (the patriarch) is white, the character who disrupts the patriarchal machine (the girl brutally transformed into his wife) is white; the catharsis belongs to the white; the action is done by the white, the reaction is also by the white; the white kills, the white becomes insane; the conversation starts with the white and closes with the white. That is the dynamics of a film whose topic is the violence of the process of miscegenation in Brazil and the social relationships in enslaved 19th-century Brazil. Is there another way to describe this other than perverse? Or is it seen as normal that a black spectator is left alone and treated so rudely in such poor dynamics of spectatorship?

La toilette de l'Odalisque-ed
La toilette de l’Odalisque (between 1821 and 1897), by Léopold de Moulignon [2]
On abjection

In June 1961, in Cahiers du Cinéma‘s 120th issue, the critic and filmmaker Jacques Rivette established an analytical paradigm for examining a work which contains, by the nature of its content or by its choices of staging, unavoidable ethical issues. Rivette’s article, “On abjection” (“De l’Abjection”), was initially concerned with Kapò (1960), by Gillo Pontecorvo. The french writer begins by setting the basis, stating that:

The least that one can say is that it’s difficult, when one takes on a film on such a subject (the concentration camps), not to ask oneself certain preliminary questions; yet everything happens as though, due to incoherence, inanity, or cowardice, Pontecorvo resolutely neglected to ask them.

Hereupon, Rivette puts forward questions on realism, weaves a comparison between Pontecorvo’s Kapò and Alain Resnais’ Night and the Fog to eventually return to Kapò, delivering the words that, though interminably quoted, never cease to be fundamental to comprehending a film’s mise en scène:

Another thing: a phrase of Moullet’s has been constantly cited, left and right, and usually foolishly enough: morality is a matter of tracking shot (or the Godard’s version: tracking shots are a matter of morality); one has wanted to see in it the height of formalism, so that one could criticize its “terrorist” excess (to reclaim Paulhanien terminology). Look, however, in Kapo, at the shot where Riva kills herself by throwing herself on an electric barbed-wire fence; the man who decides, at that moment, to have a dolly in to tilt up at the body, while taking care to precisely note the hand raised in the angle of its final framing — this man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt. For several months, people have been breaking our balls over false problems of form and content, of realism and fantasy, of script and mise en scène, of the free actor or the regulated actor, and other dichotomies; let us say that it is possible that all subjects are born free and equal by law; that which counts is tone, or emphasis, nuance, as one will call it — that is to say, the point of view of a man, the auteur, badly needed, and the attitude that this man takes in relation to that which he films, and therefore in relation to the world and to everything: that which can be expressed by a choice in situations, in the construction of the storyline, in the dialogue, in the play of actors, or in the pure and simple technique, “indifferently but as much”. [3]

Jump cut to Vazante. The camera slowly travels over the body of the enslaved African (Toumani Kouyaté) at the moment of his resistant act of suicide – remember Emanuelle Riva’s character jumping on the electric fence in Kapò? The camera emphasizes the judgmental stare of a “House Negro” woman toward a “Field Negro” woman systematically raped by the master, implying she was lascivious. The camera shows a delicate white teenager touching the grass as if walking in the lilies of heaven. There are numerous shots in which black bodies are as irrelevant to the framing as generic tapestry on the walls. The auteur‘s gaze instigates the audience to show empathy towards the raped white teenager while denying the same compassion (or even screen time) to the black woman who is the victim of the same act of violence. The gaze lingers on the enslaved in chains without even a minimal awareness of what it might do to a black spectator.

Plain and simple: abject.

Quick exercise of imagination: what if Vazante, rather than being about enslavement and miscegenation in Brazil, was an historical account of the Holocaust seen through today’s lens: would it treat its Jews in the same way that it treats its blacks?

A couple of paragraphs above I wrote that the film had one specific perversion. And that is the fact that white artists seem to not be interested in understanding what has been mistakenly done by their peers in the past when trying to portray black lives through cinema. I feel that most of the objections that can be posed against Vazante could have been anticipated if the filmmaker had taken a careful look at what was said in certain circles about Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1986). Both Spielberg and Daniela Thomas are white filmmakers respected by their peers, obviously revered in different environments, but both with cultural resources and privileged access to power in order to be at the center of the discussion.

Several things that were written about Spielberg’s film take us straight to Thomas’. And yet, don’t white artists learn anything? For example, the fertile debate promoted in the pages of Black Film Review in the issue of 1986 (Vol 2, nº 2). With the headline “Four critics on The Color Purple” and with high of sense of humor the publication provided its readers with a multitude of critical analyzes on Spielberg’s gaze.

One of them was the article by Earl Walter Jr, titled “One Man’s View”, in which he states: “The Color Purple exposes and sensationalizes deep divisions in black family life, trading wholesale negative images in pursuit of Oscars. It is the only movie about a black family to reach the national theater market in at least eight year. Where else can we look to balance the devastating images in this film?” [4].

In 2017 Brazil the question remains the same: Where to look? The large majority of feature films, especially the works which reach regular theaters, have white filmmakers at the helm. In short films, fortunately, we are witnessing a significant increase of black filmmakers who are providing multidimensional portraits of our existence, offering images that are motivated by suffering, but engaged in going beyond diagnosing it or fetichising bodies. The recent affluence of short films tell us that extra portions of oxygen are in urgent need.

“Where to look?”. Of one thing I have no doubt: certainly not to a film like Vazante. Not anymore.

*Heitor Augusto is a film critic, lecturer and journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. His articles have been published in various magazines of film criticism, publications of film retrospectives, as well as books. He lectures on film history and coordinates workshops on film criticism. He works as a freelance curator and has served on the selection committees for film festivals and production funding. He can be reached at heitoraugustod@gmail.com or @ursodelata on Twitter.

[1] The concept of “resisting spectator” was explored by the scholar Manthia Diawara in the article “Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification and Resistance” (1988). He is not alone in that field: bell hooks has also examined issues of spectatorship, providing an additional take on gender, in the article “The Oppositional Gaze. Black Female Spectators”.

[2] I first discovered this painting in 2016, while attending the lecture “O negro na história da arte”, by Brazilian scolar Renata Bittencourt. More on the Moulignon’s painting can be learned at http://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/collections/catalogue-des-oeuvres/notice.html?nnumid=21131

[3] For this article I’ve used excerpts of David Phelps’ and Jeremi Szaniawski’s translation, available at http://www.dvdbeaver.com/rivette/ok/abjection.html

[4] The full issue, as well as the complete files of Black Film Review, are available at http://lrdudc.wrlc.org/BlackFilmReview/index.php

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