Lucia Murat Fought Against Brazil's Dictatorship, Survived Torture, and Made a Poetic Movie About It

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Lúcia Murat is among the most respected directors working out of Brazil, who despite her long-established track record, maintains a radical, revolutionary spirit as fresh as it was in the days of ’68. As an activist who was a first-hand participant in the fight against the dictatorship of Brazil and a victim of its human rights violations — enduring imprisonment and torture — she often focuses her camera on issues of injustice, accountability, history, and personal memory. But as a director, Murat has the rare ability to acknowledge the unique character of the time period she came from without getting stuck glamorizing a kind of radical chic.

Her latest work, A Memória que me contam (Memories They Told Me), finally received its due U.S. screening at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of its Iberoamérican Images series. The Fipresci-award winning film has a freshness and energy that feels like a spot-on reflection of our own time. With its own fluid ideas about sexuality and art it nonetheless recognizes that the politically charged days of the past still hold a powerful sway over us all.

Murat’s film revolves around the character of Ana, a key figure in the Brazilian revolutionary activities of the 60s who is now on her death bed. Her former revolutionary friends, comrades, and their (now grown) children gather at the hospital in a vigil around her. We see only the faintest glimpse of a wrinkled chin, a weathered, IV-embedded wrist, a greyed temple.

Once a daring blonde-wigged bandit who robbed and kidnapped in the name of the revolutionary cause, Ana suffered tremendously because of the torture she endured after her capture. The rest of her generation — thriving now as filmmakers, politicians, and artists — suffer a kind of survivor’s guilt as they watch her anguish.

For young artist Eduardo and his boyfriend Gabriel, who are both children of this group of activists, they struggle to define themselves uniquely against a generation that think of themselves as true revolutionaries who saw and did all worth doing. And it’s perhaps in the way that Murat weaves these younger characters into her story and the effortless grace that the actors Miguel Thiré and Patrick Sampaio lend to their characters that makes Memories They Told Me so fresh.

We got a chance to talk with Murat about her experience fighting against the Brazilian dictatorship and turning those memories into a fictional film.

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This film has a very personal side. Can you discuss the process of creating a work that is not a literal representation but rather a poetic one? How did you transmit the essence of those personal experiences?

I am part of this group [of Brazilian activists in the 60s] that the film portrays. As a student, I participated in armed resistance against the dictatorship, was arrested, tortured for three months, and detained for nearly four years. The film was conceived of long ago when we reunited around Vera Silvia Magalhaes, whom the movie honors. She was a very important person in our generation, but after the arrest and torture, spent much of her life alternating between bouts of mental illness and various other health problems. And every time she got sick we would gather together at the hospital. But it was only after her death, five years ago, that I could begin to write about it.

I was interested in a fiction film so that I could deal freely with these events and themes and could explore our survival and that of our children. In any case, the movie is inspired by this group but the characters were written to serve the drama being told and I didn’t feel constrained by the need to represent actual, real-life people. The two major differences of our generation — if we compare with say the experiences portrayed in The Barbarian Invasions [Denys Arcand’s 2003 film] — is that on the one hand we directly experienced and suffered the horrors of that time, through torture and murder, and on the other part of this same generation is today in power in Brazil. My film tries to work through these contradictions. But in the course of writing the film and during its shooting it began gaining a lyrical tone and with the character of Ana growing it became a kind of farewell to the utopia that she represented. As the film explores the theme of memory, which is non-linear, I could also free myself from a more traditional narrative approach.

The visual imagery is very striking in this work. Can you talk about your use of the different types of images in the film? How did you work with the director of photography, art directors, and others to create the visual tapestry of the film?

It was a collective work that was very interesting, especially with the director of photography and the art director. We began with a few fundamental concepts such as the fact that memory is fluid and that that this should be represented by the imagery in the film. After that, we all contributed ideas. For example, the scene in which Ana is underwater was created from a real phrase of Vera Silvia’s along with a reference to video art from an exhibition I saw in Paris. We thought the water and flow should be foregrounded in the film. We experimented a lot with glass, mirrors, and fountains so that throughout the film would have this feeling of fluidity.

Art was part of the movie because we had an artist who was a member of the older generation and also another artist in the younger generation. With this, we also sought to show what art was like in the 60s and what it’s like today, while trying to avoid caricatured depictions. One thing that always intrigued me was the fact that our kids are generally portrayed as alienated or drugged or only interested in making money, a simplistic narrative device to create a contrast to an older generation. So, I wanted to work with a new generation that is also concerned with social and artistic issues but that lives in what is now another world, one with new contradictions.

What does the word revolution mean to you? Do you believe in the possibility of revolution in the present or future?

I think that when I was young revolution was absolute, it was the fantasy of a new and perfect world. Today, it is a continuous movement in search of a better world.

This is a question that comes up frequently in the U.S., hopefully less so in Latin America, where there seems to be more recognition and work for female directors: Do you feel being a female director impacts the way your work is made or received? Why do you think there are more women who produce films in Latin America than in the U.S., and lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring Latina directors in the U.S.?

Perhaps because Brazil is a very unequal society, women from the middle class can raise their children as well as have a profession, thanks to the labor of other women, poor, usually black. I often wonder if our greater independence is because of this inequality, which is a terrible thing.

That’s the negative side. The positive side is that there are many middle-class women in Brazil that are interested in creating art and science. Today, in universities, there are a greater number of women in professions once considered male. For me, since I had come through a radical experience, confronting extremes like having to go underground and endure imprisonment, comparatively the “macho” world never seemed very frightening.

I think films made by women, when independent, tend to deal with issues more freely, which makes them more interesting.

It’s not a matter of participating in the industry because when we walk down the industry path it becomes about responding to the demands of the industry and not our ideas. So, I think that women only stand out when they can freely address their projects. And the majority of women filmmakers here are part of the independent world.

And finally, would you share with us what new projects you have in the works?

I am finishing up two projects. One is a documentary about the Kadiwéus Indians, with whom I worked 15 years ago on the film Brave New Land. The new doc is is an attempt to revisit the theme and see what has happened to them in the time since I worked with them, which was an amazing experience. And I am also working on a poetic fiction film about aging and death that incorporates Simone de Beauvoir’s writings and her book Une mort très douce .