Subtly disguised as a narrative focused on teenage courtship that reaches across national borders, Brazilian director Felipe Bragança’s Não devore meu coração (Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl) is much more of a political statement than viewers may capture at first glance. Laced with gorgeous imagery that takes advantage of the rugged natural beauty of the region that divides Brazil and its landlocked neighbor Paraguay, this drama set between two worlds at war presents an intriguing look at an obscure chapter in the history of Latin America. The story serves to denounce the abuses committed against an entire ethnic group.

Infatuated with Basano, a tattooed Guaraní girl who acts as the leader of her community’s youth, Joca, a Brazilian boy who aspires to become a virile hero, spends his days trying to convince the mystical young woman that he loves her deeply. Uninterested, she deflects his efforts resolutely, and is more concerned about how her people are losing the battle for territory against the boy’s compatriots.

Meanwhile, young men from both sides assert their power by racing each other on motorcycles, an almost ritualistic competition that is at once both dangerous and honorable. It’s a masculine world for sure, but the Alligator Girl stands tall as a form of resistance not only to the male energy and the constraints that afflict her, but against the voracious force of pseudo progress seeking to eliminate both region’s indigenous heritage.

After his Sundance Film Festival world premiere, director Felipe Bragança helped us decode the underlying themes in his debut feature via its characters, each of which embodies an important aspect of the ongoing conflict between Guaraní people and wealthy Brazilian landowners.

Basano – The Alligator Girl

She is a kind of queen that has magical knowledge, which we can’t explain but that is special about her culture. She can’t escape being controlled by these macho figures, but at the end she is able to construct her freedom. The film is really about the way Basano becomes free of this male control, the obligation to marry someone she doesn’t want to, and to not repeat this subjugation from male characters in the region. She represents the freedom we can still find.

The film is based on two short stories by Joca Reiners Terron, a Brazilian writer who grew up in this border. In one short story, he describes an idyllic love he had when was a teenager. He was in love with an indigenous girl there on the border, a Paraguayan girl, and in this story he talks about this girl who is kind of a magical leader in the region. This region is very violent, so women there are the ones who take care of the memory of the region and all the violence from the past.

I started to go there for research, and the main goal was to find the Alligator Girl. I needed to learn more about the young people in this region. For four years I visited the region doing interviews and I discovered this really strong tradition of women from there. They are the ones who know the stories from the war better than the men. They are the ones who take care of the Guaraní language.

Women are the ones that are trying to change the environment around them because the conflict is between the men. The men are fighting, dying, and disappearing, so most of the families are comprises of women. You enter any house and there are only women inside. Guys die young or they go to work far away and never come back. I needed to find this really special girl who could represent the memory of the war and the process of keeping the Guaraní language alive.

Joca - The Brazilian Romantic

Brazilian culture in the region really connects with country culture or with what we would consider a “macho man” society. All the romantic music in Brazil comes from this region. Our country music comes from this region. The songs are always from the point of view of the boys who are talking about the girl they love or about the girl that left them. I wanted to create this character that could talk about the fragility of this idea of a “macho man” or hero in the region. All the boys there grow up with this pressure that they have to be the best cowboy, the best biker, or the guy that gets the most beautiful girls.

I wanted to create this teenager, Joca, who is somehow going through this process that is very common where he lives for all the boys, but when he falls in love with Basano he creates a noise in this idea of being a hero. She says, “No, you can be everything you want, a boy with all these romantic ideas, but you are still oppressing me. You are trying to control me. You are trying to tell me what to do.” The boy starts to feel that something is out of place. I believe there is a new generation of young boys in the region who live in a border between fragility and the heritage of this hyper-masculine society, but they don’t feel comfortable anymore about it.

Joca has a strong relationship with his older brother, who is in a sense the embodiment of this iconic macho hero, so he is in between this dream of being like his powerful and beautiful brother, and dealing with this girl who says, “No that’s not enough. That’s not going to convince me that your love is true and not just an attempt to control me.” As a man, I wanted to talk about the really complicated moment we are living in Brazil where all these old, white men oligarchs are in power, and just like at Sundance, all the new ideas and movements are emerging thanks to women.

I wanted to talk about a boy who understands that al his efforts to save the world will be useless because change is not going to come from him, even if we want to believe it. I don’t think the film is pessimistic because the idea is to show that this boy will grow up and understand that his vision of macho men heroism is going to fail, and that Basano will be free and create something new. As a man is difficult to say anything about this moment in the world, it’s like, “Defeat me again girls please! Defeat these patriarchal societies. Do it!”

The Motorcycle Gangs – Tribal Groups in the Modern Age

This is a cowboy society. 30 years ago everybody would be on horses. There is this idea of the guy on his horse who builds everything on his own, a self-made hero, who discovered the region, founded farms and created cities. Nowadays, this Golden Age of Brazilian colonization is in the past, the most brutal violence is in the past, but there are echoes. If you talk to the young men, now talking about men between 20 and 30, they all have a connection with the idea of having a motorcycle instead of a horse. People don’t want to have a car, they want to have a motorcycle. They like the idea of being alone and do everything alone. The machine is part of their bodies in a way.

It’s interesting because the Brazilian part of the border is much richer than the Paraguayan side. The ones in Brazil are not necessarily rich, but the big farmers are all Brazilians. The motorcycle is something that could be very expensive and show off, but the Paraguayans since they can’t afford them, they build fake motorcycles resembling the fancy ones that the Brazilian have with fake pieces.

There is this competition where the Brazilians want to show off that they have money, and the Paraguayans say, “We don’t have the money but we can reproduce what you have and what you do with our hands.” That’s why there are these symbolic competitions. The region is really empty with a lot of farms, so the idea of controlling territory is very common there and it has to do with the roads, because the big roads are being created for big trucks, but they have also become a great place for races. They say that people are dying now there because the roads are good and these guys race. The visual concept of the motorcycle gang is a bit mythological.

Father – The Racist Establishment

The father was developed from the idea of these big industrial farmers. Normally these families come from the south of the country and they are from Italian or German origin. The Brazilian government invited them by telling them they didn’t have to buy the land because it was empty, but of course, it wasn’t empty because indigenous people lived there. These men have feel like they came to a place where there was nothing and created everything themselves. I wanted the father to be this man who feels like emperor that created everything from the ground. This is something that Fernando carries with him with suffering

During the Brazil-Paraguay war we killed 60% of the Paraguayan population living in Brazil, and 80% of the men. That’s why the Guaraní resistance is connected with the women’s resistance because when the war ended there basically only women left. That’s why are Guaraní warrior is a girl.

In Brazil I’ve heard people say, “Oh he is Paraguayan, but he is cool.” There is this idea in the Brazilian side of the border that the indigenous people represent the past and the poverty of the region and for the country to be rich it needs to be white and industrial. Farmers there are not small farmers. They are all industrial farmers. They make billions of dollars per year in that region. The Guaraní people didn’t have a specific territory. They are nomads. About 50 years ago an anthropologist told them, “You need to protect your future, let’s find you a place or a protected area.” They kind of accepted but not fully, because their culture and their language is all about traveling.

The farmers don’t accept that and they destroy their forests, and when the indigenous people travel from one place to the other and then come back a year later, their land is already controlled by a farmer. The biggest genocide to take place in South America in the last 50 years happened in this region. On the Paraguayan side the Guaraní people have small cities. They have the Popular Army of Paraguay, which is organized by mostly Guaraní people. There are some more radical groups that attack farms because they know that 50 years ago that land was theirs.

When you try to talk to the farmers about this they say, “Indigenous people don’t work. We are developing the country. What do they want to cultivate here? Jaguars?” Joca and Fernando’s father is one of these industrial farmers. People in Brazil don’t like to talk about it because there is this fake cliché that Brazil is a nice and pacifist country, but this was the only official war the country went into. If we talk about what we did to the Paraguayans this idea of being a pacific country disappears. The Brazilian army was created specifically to take back part of the Paraguayan territory. A lot of farmers are part of the senate, so their interests are protected and they don’t want to talk about this subject.

Mother – The Agent of Change

The mother saved Joca from the father’s influence. She is melancholic, sad, and depressed but she managed to save Joca from this influence, and because of that he becomes someone different and that changes the history of the region. In that sense she wins, but it’s a really sad victory. We don’t know why she left the father. She states that the father is a bad person that she doesn’t like, but then she makes a joke about killing the indigenous girl, so she is not nice or humanist person, but maybe there was something that the father did that was too much and that crossed her limit. Even if she grew up in a very conservative family who probably also raped the indigenous land, something got to her and she decided to leave him.

Telecathe – A Man Caught in Between Cultures

Telecathe is in the original short story and he’s part of this Paraguayan people who live on the border, and who decides to try to become Brazilian. This is very common there. While I was doing interviews on the Brazilian side, a lot of people would come out and tell me, “I’m actually Paraguayan.” They hide and try to become Brazilian. I wanted Telecathe to be the leader of this Brazilian gang, but actually all of his sense of leadership and his knowledge about the region comes from the fact that he is in the middle of these two cultures. He mentions his mother was an indigenous Paraguayan, and probably his father was a rich Brazilian guy. I wanted this Brazilian gang leader to carry this past because he is actually part of the other side too. That’s why when he is angry he speaks in Spanish or Jopará.