35-year-old pine tree comes down
Why Obama’s trip to Brazil was a success
US President Barak Obama’s first official trip to Brazil this past week was a resounding success because most Brazilians love all things American, but more importantly because Obama is the first American president of African descent.
Brazil is a melting pot of ethnicities, with a much higher level of intermarriage between the races than in the United States. And that despite the fact that Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery in 1888!
Unfortunately, Obama did not once mention his blackness in Brazil, perhaps because, as this American commentator wrote here, he’s afraid of the right-wing backlash that would accuse him of favoring ‘black’ Americans over white ones if he did. It is indeed sad that the president felt restrained from fully reveling in all of the joy and pride that Brazilians felt in seeing him everywhere he went in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro. A 46-year-old businessman in Rio told the New York Times that Obama was “an inspiration”.
Even Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, in the joint press appearance with Obama in Brasilia last Saturday, mentioned the fact that he was the first US president of African descent, and that she was the first female president of Brazil.
Rousseff looked nervous in this her first hosting of a head of state after her swearing in as president on Jan. 1. Obama, an old pro, smiled warmly and waved at everybody. The difference in body language between the two was noticeable.
The first lady Michelle Obama as usual was noted for her at times dubious fashion choices, such as when she stepped off Air Force One at the Brasilia air base wearing what looked a red and black, sleeveless cotton dress. It looked like she was going to a picnic and not arriving on an official visit! Later she redeemed herself wearing a cream-colored tailleur to the presidential palace, and then later removing the jacket to reveal a one-shoulder top when she went to watch Brazilian students perform capoeira.
President Obama was distracted by the beginning of the coalition air strikes in Libya, which he announced officially in a televised broadcast from Brasilia last Saturday. This caused most major Brazilian newspapers to headline the next day: “Obama launches Libya attacks from Brazil”.
What is really important about Obama’s visit to Brazil, is that it marks a new chapter in US-Brazil relations which had reached a low point last year when then Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva instructed his ambassador at the UN to vote against further sanctions against Iran. This infuriated the US, which already was not happy with Lula’s close relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his support of the Castro brothers in Cuba.
President Rousseff immediately began to distance herself from some of Lula’s policies last year by publicly criticizing the mistreatment of women in Iran and sending signals to Washington that she wanted a new start to their relationship.
Lula was invited to the official luncheon that President Rousseff held for Obama last Saturday at the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, but did not attend claiming a prior engagement, which was probably best for all concerned. For while there are still many disagreements between Brazil and the US, especially on trade and tariff issues, both presidents seem intent on building a better relationship than the one left by their predecessors.
Hip replacements, moving to Georgia and chocolate-dipped strawberries at the Qatar national day
ON FRIDAY night my mom and I went to the Qatar national day reception at the Naval Club in Brasilia. The club is beautiful, with a huge swimming pool and cascading waterfalls that lead down to the main function hall at the shore of the Paranoa Lake.
Many twists and turns in 113 Sul murder case
THE INVESTIGATION into the brutal August 2009 murder of the rich elderly Villela couple and their maid in their sixth floor apartment in the 113 Sul quadra of Brasilia, has so many twists and turns that it is becoming hard to follow at times.
The case remains unsolved more than a year after it was committed, and four police chief investigators have handled the case, the latest one bringing back to Brasilia a surprise confession from the former doorman of the Villela’s building, saying he had murdered the couple because he held a grudge against them.
Leonardo Alves, the former doorman in question, but who was no longer working in Brasilia when the murders took place, initially told police that he had committed the crime with his two nephews, that they had not used gloves, and that they did not clean up the crime scene afterwards. Given that Jose Guilherme Villela, 73, a former judge on the Superior Electoral Court, his wife Maria Carvalho Mendes Villela, 69, and their maid Francisca Nascimento da Silva, 58, had all been savagely stabbed more than 74 times, and that police found the bodies in the apartment without pools of blood, puts his testimony into serious doubt. Investigators at the time said the crime scene had looked like it had been professionally cleaned up, and that they did not find the fingerprints of the murderers in the apartment, which means that gloves were most likely used.
Alves, 44, was tracked down in a small town of Minas Gerais after a police investigator listening into a wiretap overheard two prisoners in the Papuda jail talk about the murders. Police found that the former doorman had opened several shops and allegedly sold some of Mrs. Villela’s gold jewelry to persons in that state.
The 46-year-old daughter of the Villelas, Adriana, who is an architect, has been the main suspect as the mastermind of the murders from the beginning, though she maintains her innocence. Police investigators found out that she was receiving a monthly allowance of R$8,500 a month (around $5,000) from her parents, and that she often argued with her mother over money when she would ask her for more. Her father headed his own law firm, which was a lucrative practice that made millions for him in legal fees from famous clients, which included former Brazilian President Fernando Collor, who was impeached in 1992 for corruption only two years into his term.
Now in a new twist, the ex-doorman Alves this week told police that Adriana had indeed paid him and his accomplices to murder her parents, and most horrifyingly, had been present in the apartment when they were executed. The police say they believe him and are trying to put together a case against the daughter. She had been previously arrested and held for a few weeks during the course of the investigation, but was eventually let go for lack of evidence against her.
The civil police of Brasilia have bungled the investigation from the start, with the first police investigator being yanked off the case by her superiors after she listened to a fortune-teller and followed false clues that she had planted. Police later found out that the fortune-teller was a friend of Adriana, and that the daughter of the Villela’s had told her to go to the police with her clues.
Police investigators say that Alves and his two accomplices used at least 15 mobile phones in conjunction with stolen SIM cards, to cover their tracks. Knives that were supposedly used in the murders have never been found; with police even diving in a river in Minas that one of Alves’ nephews said he had thrown it in.
Adriana’s lawyers have insisted that Alves was motivated to kill the Villela couple because he had several heated arguments with them when he was still the doorman of their building, with an especially heated one after he brought a locksmith to break into their apartment, without their approval, to fix a leaking pipe when the couple were away on a trip.
But police investigators have a long list of suspicious behavior committed by Adriana, and the rebuttal of these doubts by her lawyers has not been very convincing.
Police say they found a partial fingerprint of Adriana’s from her parent’s apartment that will be able to place her having been there between the 28th and 31st of August, 2009, when the murders took place. Adriana emailed the Correio Braziliense newspaper last week to insist that she had never been to her parent’s apartment during that period. She claims her last visit to the apartment was on Aug. 13, 2009, to have breakfast with her parents and give her father a birthday present.
Investigators also point out that Adriana went out of her way to create an alibi for herself on the night of Aug. 28 by calling several friends at night to have dinner with her, and they also noted her absence that night a party that she had been invited to. Adriana claims that she did eat dinner with a friend in the Vila Planalto, but that she went home at 8:30pm because she was tired.
Adriana’s strange behavior in relation to her daughter Carolina was also noticed by the police, who said that Adriana tried to dissuade her daughter from going to her grandparents’ apartment to have lunch with them as she did once a week, after Aug. 28 but before the bodies were discovered. Carolina had repeatedly asked Adriana where her grandparents were since they were not answering their phones. Investigators note that Adriana did not call her parents or attempt to visit them in their apartment from Aug. 28 to 31.
Adriana’s lawyers have pointed to the changing testimony of Alves as proof that the police are coaching him in what to say in order to bolster their premature conclusions. Unfortunately for Adriana, her alibis are not very good ones and she continues to be the main suspect as she remains to benefit the most financially from the brutal murder of her parents if she is found innocent.
Erik de Castro talks about his new film ‘Federal’
SOME cinema-goers in Brazil were surprised last month when Erik de Castro’s new film “Federal” was released just days after the blockbuster “Tropa de Elite 2” had opened. They rightly believed that “Federal” would be unfairly compared to “Tropa”, which had a much bigger budget and opened on nearly ten times more screens than Castro’s film.
In the following interview, Castro, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles in the 1990s, talks about the timing of the release of his film; what it was like working with Selton Mello, one of Brazil’s most popular actors; why he thinks the sex scenes in “Federal” were not excessive, and why he thinks Brasilia is the capital of cocaine.
QUESTION: Why was your movie released shortly after “Tropa de Elite 2” in Brazil? Didn’t your distributor realize that it would face stiff competition since it is a police/action movie too?
ANSWER: That’s a long story. To make it short: we had no option. “Tropa” is a blockbuster. “Federal,” which was called “a masterpiece” by a film critic in Rio shortly after its first screening at the Rio International Film Festival, is more in the path of a cult movie now. That’s okay, though. “Blade Runner” was indeed one of my influences!
Q: Why did it take so long, from the inception of the script in 2001, to the filming of “Federal” in 2006, and then finally to its release this year? Was it because of a lack of funds?
A: Film production in Brazil is a tough endeavor. Also “Federal” was a completely independent production, from a first time feature filmmaker, out of the Rio/São Paulo axis — and it had a lot of action. We shot in 2006, than it took us a few years raising the money for its conclusion and proper release.
Q: At the beginning of “Federal”, the opening credits say that the movie was made with the support of the Prefeitura do Rio, which confused me. For a moment I thought I may have come into the wrong room and was about to watch “Tropa de Elite 2”. Was your movie edited in Rio?
A: No, but the whole sound editing and mixing process was done in Rio. Riofilme invested in the production, as a co-producer. Jose Wilker was the president of the company and he liked the screenplay a lot.
Q: How was it as a director to work with Selton Mello, who is considered a star in Brazil? Was he difficult to direct? Why isn’t he promoting the film right now? Is it because it took so long after the film was finished for it to be launched that may have lessened Mello’s enthusiasm?
A: The same as it was with any of the almost forty actors and actresses that I had on my cast on “Federal”: a creative collaboration. Also, I just didn’t see him as a star. I’ve known Selton since 1995 when I invited him and he accepted to be in my first short film shot in Brazil — I had a few others shot during my student period in Los Angeles — called “Reason to Believe” (1996). I showed ‘Federal’s script to him in 2001, right before the Sundance Lab Institute selection, and he promptly accepted. He was not difficult to direct at all. Like I said, filmmaking is all about creative collaboration.
As for the last question, why don’t you ask him about it? He’s currently dedicated to his own projects that he is producing and directing and that is happening at the same time of “Federal’s” release.
Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained about the various sex scenes in the film, saying they were gratuitous and too explicit. Did you include them on purpose to “spice” up the story?
A: To me they’re very organic. Sex is something that is part of our lives. So some cops in “Federal” do have a lot of love to give to their ladies…and vice-versa! I think people should relax more with sex scenes in films — and enjoy it. Truth is I’ve heard a lot of people who loved them in “Federal”!
The “spiciest” one, the scene of the character Rocha (Christovam Neto) and his “blonde” is the favorite of a lot of people, including my film professor Tom Stempel who defined it as: “My kind of sex scene: fast, funny and keeps the story going.”
Q: In the movie one of the characters says that Brasilia is “the capital of the powder,” a reference to the trafficking and consumption of cocaine here. Don’t you think that cocaine as a drug was more widely consumed here in the 1980s, and that nowadays, at least among the younger generation, ecstasy and crack have taken over as the drugs of choice?
A: Other drugs come and go, but cocaine is always there. I don’t see a character like the diplomat Sophia consuming crack or ecstasy. Cocaine made our point. Cocaine is the classic drug. And that phrase (“the capital of the powder”) didn’t come from me. It came from UnB Professor Argemiro Procópio, PhD, one of the consultants of the script. He’s the author of many books about drug trafficking and how it affects our society. One of them “O Brasil no Mundo das Drogas” (“Brazil in the World of the Drugs”) points out Brasília as one of the cities where drug consumption, especially cocaine, has grown more than elsewhere in the entire country.
And that has a reason: cocaine is an expensive drug and Brasilia has a lot of rich people. Period. Big shopping malls brands come here, great fashion stores, hip and very expensive concerts, and cocaine too. That’s historical in this city but no one seems to care or talk about it. Professor Argemiro dared me: “I dare you to put that phrase in your film.” Well, it’s there.
Q: I found many of Michael Madsen’s lines as a corrupt DEA agent to be very cliché! Him saying that Brazil has the best coffee in the world and that he needed to “fuck” a Brazilian woman made me squirm. Were these the original lines in the script or did he improvise?
A: Original lines and Michael loved it! Sam Gibson originally was a one-scene character, who was supposed to be a kind of a comic relief in the story, with all those lines and purposely cliché. His character grew in the story and some of the cliché lines stayed. That’s all. We had a ball on the set with Michael.
I’ve heard different opinions about Sam’s sense of humor and for me that’s what “Federal” and any good film — or art form for that matter — is all about: Not having consensus.
Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained that the storyline is not coherent, and that you failed to adequately link the various scenes. How do you respond?
A: I don’t. Others have congratulated me for the script and the way that the edited film kept them tight in their sits, waiting for what was going to happen next. These people understood the film thoroughly.
I had as an editing consultant on this film — and who is also a dear friend — Roman Polanski’s editor, Academy Award nominee Hervé deLuze (“The Pianist”). He had read the script and appreciated very much the way Heber Trigueiro (“Federal’s” editor) and myself were conducting the rhythm and pace of the film.
Again, film is a very complex art form. Either it hits you, or not. If everyone understood it the same way, it would be too boring. That’s why cinema is so great: cinema is disagreement. I might like a film that you hate and vice-versa.
Q: In the scene of “Federal” where the federal police surround the chacara of the head of the NGO, the police shoot a stream of bullets into one of the cars trying to escape from the scene. Is this standard procedure for the police? To me it seemed like overkill. I would have thought that they would just shoot out the tires to get the car to stop so that they could get the passengers alive. Instead, they stop the car but have also killed everyone in it!
A: Come on, give me a break! It’s a cop movie! They were being shot at. So, let’s kill the bastards!!
At some point in a movie like this, it is a matter of kill or be killed. This was one of those moments. It’s like a modern Western.
Q: What was the reaction of the Federal Police to your film? I read the comment of one policeman online who said that your movie shamed the Federal Police for showing them to be so corrupt.
Do you agree with this, or do you think “Federal” showed them in a more nuanced light?
A: Again the arrow hits you according to your own perceptions and thoughts. If this guy felt this way, who am I to disagree?
There were a lot of people at the Federal Police who knew about this project ever since its screenplay was written back in 2001. One retired deputy, to whom I showed the script in 2002, said to me that everything that was there was true.
I’ve heard about federal policemen who saw it and liked it very much. I just think that I’ve shown the cops, their wives and even the criminals in a humane way.
The Federal Police Department is a very big place and I’m sure you would get a lot of different opinions there.
Q: What are your next projects that you are working on?
A: I’m working right now on a romantic vampire thriller called “A Lenda de Cândida” (“Candida’s Tale”), which I wrote with my “Federal” co-writer Érico Beduschi back in 1999. Diler Trindade will produce this one.
Also, I have yet another police story called “BR-306” (“Route 306”), written by myself, which is being developed with producer Marcus Ligocki, from Brasilia, for his company Ligocki Z Entretenimento.
Currently I’m finishing my production company’s (BSB Cinema) third World War II documentary, called “Brazil and the Battle of the Atlantic”.
The previous ones were “Senta a Pua!” (directed by myself), about the first Brazilian fighter squadron in WWII and “A Cobra Fumou”, about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) in WWII, directed by Vinícius Reis.
‘Federal’ fails to make plausible link between drug traffickers and politicians
THE new Brazilian film “Federal” by Erik de Castro, that opened nationwide on more than 70 screens across Brazil on Oct. 29, is a labor of love that had been percolating in the head of its director since he was 16 in 1987.
Twenty-three years later and after several rewrites at the Sundance Institute in the US, “Federal” has finally made it to the big screen. It is the story of a small group of federal and civil police officers in Brasilia who are hot on the trail of international drug trafficker Carlos ‘Beque’ Batista (Eduardo Dussek). Led by a serious yet affable Vital (Carlos Alberto Riccelli), the group includes a young and idealistic federal agent Dani (Selton Mello), a street cop called Lua (Cesario Augusto) and a feisty federal agent named Rocha (Christovam Neto).
De Castro is wildly ambitious in trying to set out telling a story that will illustrate how drug dealers are linked to corrupt politicians in high places, but he fails to paint a convincing picture. Instead, he has produced an interesting look into the lives of policemen, some good others corrupt, in their daily fight against the menace of drugs.
The opening scenes of policemen looking over the body of a murdered drug dealer in the garden of a posh house could have been filmed anywhere in Brazil, but soon De Castro has policemen chasing after another suspect in the satellite city of Ceilandia in an action sequence that involves the traditional dance/martial art that originated with Brazilian slaves called “capoeira”.
The director, who is a native of Brasilia, filmed the entire movie on location in super-16mm that was later blown-up to 35mm. This shows. At the Parkshopping cinema that I watched “Federal” at, the screen was left with a blank space on either side, as the projected film did not fill up the screen entirely. The use of traditional film, instead of digital video, gives the film a cinematic feel that De Castro was aiming for. One reviewer of the film however complained that the scenes looked washed-out and monochromatic, compared to the sweeping and brighter shots of Brasilia’s famous skyline that the director scatters throughout the movie to constantly remind us just where this police thriller is taking place. I found his lighting to be very naturalistic, giving the film a realism that is often missing from other Brazilian films, especially those produced by Globo Filmes that tend to be super-glossy and perfect looking.
Unfortunately, the film’s acting and script deserve less praise. Some of the actors either overacted their parts, such as Michael Madsen as the American Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sam Gibson, or under-acted their parts such as Selton Mello did with Dani. Here the script is also very much to blame, with Madsen saying such clichéd things as: “Brazil has the best coffee in the world!” and “I’ve been in Brazil for several days now and I haven’t even fucked a Brazilian woman yet!” His forced hilarity was over the top and made me squirm in embarrassment. He came across as the stereotypical obnoxious American: Loud, tacky and over-confident.
On the other side of the spectrum, Melo played Dani so low-key that at times it seemed like he was on tranquilizers and sleep-walking his way through the story. Melo is a big star in Brazil, so having him in an independent and relatively low budget film like “Federal”, which was produced on a budget of R$5 million (approximately $2.9 million), is considered a coup of sorts. But not only is Dani moping throughout the movie, he also has an annoying conversation with Vital near the beginning of the film after he sees that a suspect has been tortured for hours by his civilian police colleagues.
“How can we justify this torture?” Dani asks Vital.
“I think that if I had been a policeman during the military dictatorship I would have joined the guerrillas and fought on their side,” he says, referring to the 1964-1985 period during which Brazil was under strict military control and Marxist guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped diplomats.
“This is our job, this is what we do as policemen,” Vital replies.
I felt like Dani needed a slap in the face from Vital, and a good tongue-lashing. While I’m sure the Federal Police is full of principled and honest agents, Dani’s constant whining and depression throughout the movie made one want someone in the film to suggest to him that maybe he wasn’t cut-out to be a federal agent after all!
Script problems aside, it is clear from seeing “Federal” and from talking with the director (see my interview with him in the next entry), that De Castro loves Brasilia and is trying to showcase the city in this film. I like the capital too but it would have been better if De Castro had been subtler in including shots of the city in the story.
For instance, twice in the film Dani is shown standing next to his motorcycle at the JK Bridge that links the Plano Piloto to the Lago Sul district of Brasilia. This is the most beautiful bridge in Brasilia, and one of the most unique in the world. Its graceful white arches stretching across the Paranoa Lake have become an iconic landmark of the capital. But we already know that Dani lives in a small apartment, which if you live here would know that the superquadras that house most apartments here are not really near the bridge. Which brings me to my point: The shots of the bridge seem gratuitous and do not appear as a convincing part of the narrative.
De Castro also finds it necessary to show us just how human each of our policemen are by showing that each one either has a vigorous sex life or not. At the cinema that I watched “Federal” at, I heard teenagers behind me groan in desperation at some of the protracted and rather explicit sex scenes, which seemed gratuitous and did not do much to advance the story.
I did not mind those scenes so much. What bothered me were the rather sketchy performances of the bad guys: The head of the NGO, Eliezer Gallo (Adriano Siri), who also funded a church (in which he hid a drug manufacturing lab in its basement) seemed to me like a flimsy caricature of shadowy power brokers in the capital. And the reverend of the church, played by Andre Amaro, was cartoonishly funny in the way he led prayers, raising his arms and uttering foolish words. It just made me laugh.
The point that “Federal” makes very well though is that Brazil has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The country has thousands of kilometers of extremely porous borders with Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Much of that border is in the Amazon jungle, and as such is very difficult to be policed effectively by Brazilian border guards. Just last week, Italian police announced they had seized several tons of cocaine that had been smuggled from Brazil into Italy by sea, hidden in a container of agricultural machines.
While De Castro succeeds in showing us just how corrupt or honest various anti-drug smuggling policemen can be, he utterly fails to paint a convincing picture of the relationship between international drug dealers and political leaders in Brasilia. Which is a shame really. Perhaps he can do that in “Federal 2”.
Mercado Cobogó: Trendy design in Brasilia
HAVE you been looking for a shop in Brasilia that sells beautiful, design-progressive decorative objects, leather goods, stationary and jewelry? Then look no further than the Mercado Cobogó located in the 704/705 quadra of the Asa Norte.
The store-cum-café will be one year old in January, and is run by the thirty something couple of Mariana Dap and Ph Caovilla.
“I’m an artist and always wanted to have a space like this,” Mariana told me on Saturday when I visited the store for the first time.
Installed in a large and airy space, with exposed concrete beams and high ceilings, the store has many fun and pretty objects to tempt one. Delicate, lace-like necklaces and bracelets made of thinly-cut silicone in gold, silver, green, black and purple hues would make elegant gifts for any woman. A glass stand showcases the avant-garde silver and gold jewelry of a Brasilia-based designer, with prices in the R$200-400 ($117-235) range.
I especially liked a colorful bed throw from India, which in the single-bed size was priced at R$195 ($114), and a pair of black and white ceramic salt and pepper shakers in the form of Miró-esque women with huge breasts and butts for R$35 ($20). I also liked a white woodcarving of Saint George slaying the dragon, which was priced at R$197 ($115).
I bought a Zoot rollerball pen in navy blue resin with canary-yellow accents for R$45 ($26), a cute, pocket-size Monjojo Cahier notebook with a illustration of Little Red Riding Hood on the cover, and a 3-D bookmark with a moose on it.
The store also features a Brazilian line of feather-light necklaces and bags made from recycled fishing nets in a surprising range of colors. I especially liked the small-leather goods of the São Paulo-based Dafna Edery, who had beautifully finished wallets in red, aqua blue, green and brown leathers. I bought a small wallet for R$78 ($45), and highly recommend her goods which rival anything you would find in Europe or the US.
Once you’ve tired of shopping you can sit down at one of Cobogó’s outside tables and order an espresso and a slice of homemade chocolate cake.
In the basement of the store, Mariana showed me the communal workspace that she shares with a web designer, consultants and various other small businesses.
“We decided to try and have a communal work space that we shared with other small businesses,” Mariana told me. “But it was difficult in the beginning because some people were suspicious that the rent for such a work space was so cheap.”
For around R$450 a month ($264), one can get a small workspace in which to put a desk, chair and laptop. The rent includes free Wi-Fi Internet access, electricity, water, a bathroom upstairs, security and a discount at the Cobogó café.
There are only a few spaces left, so if you’re interested contact Mariana on tel. 3039-6333.
“We don’t have any stock, so what you see on the shelves is what we’ve got, so things do move fast here,” explained Mariana. “But we get new things every week, so it’s always worth it to pop in regularly to see what ‘s new.”
— Mercado Cobogó is located at 704/705 Norte, bloco E, lojas 51 to 56, and is open from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 7pm. Driving on W3 Norte, turn into the 704/705 quadra at the intersection with the Carrefour supermarket. Head towards the 900 block and you’ll see one of the biggest trees in Brasilia. The store is to the left of it.