Bakurau Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019; Brazil; Fr.) Sonia Bárbara, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino
Viewed 4th April 2020; collective Star and Shadow viewing on MUBI
SPLAT the rat movie
Filho and Dornelles ‘Bakurau’ is made with a sense of urgency. They are saying what is happening in Bakurau is happening now in Brazil: people are being murdered. But we can do something, together we can fight the forces that would kill us.
In the penultimate sequence of the film the good folk of Bakurau watch as the murderous scumbag mayor, Tony, is led away. He is naked, bound and tied backwards on a mule which will carry him into the cactus dominated scrubland where he will die. This one’s for you Bolsonaro must have been the thought of the millions of Brazilians who flocked to see Bakurau which is a thinly disguised allegory of the state of affairs in the largest South American country.
Filho and Dornelles have made their film as a direct political statement as to what is happening in this land. A polemic pointing the way in which Brazilians can take on and oppose the forces ripping up their society and their county: only by being together.
Brazilians are being butchered. Butchered for private profit. The activities of the mining companies killing thousands; the pollution they cause poisoning millions. The Amazon is being felled at a rate that is destroying the life of the people who live there and will hasten the process of catastrophic global warming. Whereas it is Brazilians themselves who often seem to be overseeing the destruction, it is the unseen forces from the US and Europe who are the real instigators, spilling the blood of Brazil, the disregarded collateral damage of their private gain.
Two factors make Bakurau work. Firstly its allegorical content neatly enfolds the different layers of exploitation at work in this neo-colonial rentier economy. The mayor, Tony, the Bolsonaro shoo-in, is paid off to do the metafixing. He provides the conditions for the sting: squaring off the people with false assurances, cutting off their water supply, interrupting the communication networks so that the victims either cannot be heard, or better still, seem no longer to exist, become non-people. Once Tony has sold out to the exploitation powers, these managers of death can move in for the kill. Literally as scripted by Filho and Dornelles, the Americans can walk into Bakurau and enjoy the pure pleasure of distraction, shoot and kill the people there. In actuality what happens is that the outsiders come and pollute the water, build unsafe damns, strip forests, control the highways and rivers, kill people who get in the way. But it amounts to the same thing: death.
And there is no one to protect them – except the people themselves. Everyone else is bought. For besides the big cheeses such as Tony, there are a multitude of local middle managers who are needed to organise the day to day operations of exploitation. These necessary peons are held in contempt by their paylords but besides doing the useful dirty work they are also expendable nobodies who can be fed to the crocodiles at the first sign of trouble. They are no help. It is only the people, the oppressed who can stand up and fight.
In Hollywood and now increasingly European films, the people are mostly absent. People do not exist as an active force. In our movies the Western individuated ethos dominates to the exclusion of all other themes. Cinema tells the stories of individual protagonists, the scripts relate: overcomings, reconciliation, transformations, conversions etc. But accounts of socio-political relational networks forming the basis of change and oppositions, accounts of shared common struggles, are not told. The people as a category exist only as objects and data, consumers to be manipulated, divided up into categories processed by algorhythms to be the raw material for political and commercial collation and manipulation: a process called consumer choice.
Of course arguing against the above depiction of their industry film producers might say that their scripts and scenarios simply mirror what society has become. There is little left of the old collectivities. There are no communities no proletariats no Unionised workers in large monolithic industries. There are no people for the film industry to represent, only isolated functionaries locked into systems from which they can either try to escape or within which they can redeem themselves.
The reply to this is that of course the Cinema Industry itself is part of the same system and employs a late digital capitalist development strategy. Cinema is a huge industry, dominated by multi-national corporations that itself utilises the same population control devices as governments. Cinema’s commercial strategy has been to produce films that target specific demographics. Movies that stratify and strategically divide up its audiences into marketing categories predicted by age gender status and known proclivities. Cinema itself has become one of the socio-industrial elements dividing us.
But in ‘Bakurau’ Fihlo and Donnelles have made a film in which Cinema unites people – the people are present. It is the victims as the people, who finally understand what is happening to them and that there is no alternative to active resistance. Bakurau is touted in the publicity as a Western, but if the supposed model Western is a movie like the Magnificent Seven, this is a misrepresentation. Bakurau has nothing in common with this movie in which the people cower in their houses whilst Bronson McQueen and Brenner get on with the action. In Bakurau the people do call in the help of the local village bandito, but it is the villagers who decide to take on the outsiders and collectively defend themselves. In the end they kill them all, mostly Americans, symbolically entombing the last survivor in a deep pit built in the middle of main street. Lest they forget.
During Corvid 19 plague we in the industrialised economies are going to be pushed back into a deeper individuation, becoming for government and industry atomised units at the end of a telephone number. The experience of Hong Kong does show that this does not have to be defining situation for the people, that the tools used to control them can also provide the means for organising and defining opposition. Filho and Dornelles’ ‘Bakurau’ points to us that the moment to resist must be taken or lost forever and that resistance by people has to be defined by the resolve to see it through.