Can Distance Be Intimate?: In Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, Bodies Convey Violence, Pleasure and Change

The battle to rise above one’s prescribed destiny is what captivates Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro, who transforms his observations into films brimming with raw poetry.

A landscape covered in colorful discarded fabric and dismembered mannequins; a rugged cowboy delicately constructing a dazzling garment; the artificiality of a world existing between bare necessities and superficial beauty. These elements lace Neon Bull (Boi Neon in the original Portuguese) with a beautiful ambiguity.

Mascaro watches his characters’ bodies in motion from afar and builds a bridge of intimacy between them and the camera. Centered on the ever-changing state in which places, people and culture roam, there is no room for expectations and easy categorizations here. It’s this fluidity that fascinates the filmmaker and that make his latest narrative project a thought-provoking and sensual cinematic feast—with intellectual layers as subtle as they are potent.

MovieMaker had the pleasure to speak with the young auteur about his visually exuberant look at the Brazilian vaquejadas, the uncompromising characters he creates, and whether or not Neon Bull is “queer.” This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In Neon Bull we are guided into this world of cowboys and bulls by Iremar, the lead character in the film, who’s trapped between what he sees everyday and what he wishes to become. Where did Iremar come from? At what point in the writing process did he appear?

Gabriel Mascaro (GM): That’s a really good question. I wanted to make a movie about how violence and pleasure can inhabit the same body. Iremar was a character that comprises this very human dichotomy.

I wanted to make a film that involved the vaquejada [a horseback sport in Brazil involving bulls], but I didn’t know where to begin. During my research while writing the screenplay, I met a person that worked backstage with the bulls, cleaning their tails, and at night worked at a clothing factory. The way he ritualized the cleaning of the tails was very impressive for me. The fact that in this very sexist, hostile and dense environment, he could do something so subtle and sensitive, and at the same time hours later sit at a machine and work on clothing. That starting point was great because I met a person in real life that could serve as a departure for the fictional character of Iremar.

Juliano Cazarré plays Iremar in Neon Bull

Juliano Cazarré plays Iremar in Neon Bull

MM: Tell me about this country event known as the vaquejada. What’s their place within Brazilian culture today? It’s definitely a side of Brazil unseen in cinema.

GM: The country culture in Brazil is huge. The best competitors in the rodeos in Texas are Brazilian. There is a big connection between Brazilian agribusiness and American agribusiness, including even the artificial insemination of bulls. There is a lot of business between the two. The vaguejada assumes characteristics that are very unique to the Brazil northeast, but it’s not like a rodeo. The vaquejada takes place every weekend in a different city each week. It’s like a circuit. It’s like soccer; each weekend there is a different stage in the competition. It’s a great thing for them. Imagine a city where there is no cinema, no theater and no music. There are no cultural activities there, so the vaquejada encompasses an atmosphere where people can meet and get together. This is the great cultural event for cities in the northeast and other regions that have no access to culture. There are economists that say that it’s the second most important sport, if we consider it a sport because it’s not officially considered one, in the Brazilian economy after soccer.

MM: The artificial and the natural in the film coexist in the film. The characters live in a place that is hostile and rough, but they are still searching for was to tame nature and find beauty even if it’s artificial. Why was this concept crucial for you to tell this story?

GM: Yes, the idea was to construct an atmosphere of causes and effects in this space. It’s a movie about bodies inside a space that’s rapidly transforming. It’s a movie about the process of economic transformation in Brazil that has changed rapidly in recent years. The vaquejada is an allegory for this. It’s an almost cyclical event and the people that work in it live in a duality. The same box used to transport the bulls, moments later is their home. They put all the animal shit on the floor and transform this very dirty place into something very intimate. There is intimacy build after the dirtiness.

We also imagine this world to be cowboys, machismo and sexism, but the characters are challenging these expectations. These are characters that are not judging themselves, so the direction doesn’t judge the characters. It’s a film that is very generous and the characters are very generous with each other.

MM: The idea of transformation is very present in the film, but it’s never overbearing or blatantly explicit. It’s in the most mundane interactions that we see these changes. 

GM: Yes, that’s true. There is transformation in life and here there are quotidian, small conflicts that emerge between the characters. There are no great dramatic or existential transformation, but there are many small moments that say a lot about minimal, everyday conflicts. There is a mixture between a documentary-like naturalism and an atmosphere that’s almost very surrealist, disconnected from the real world. Images and sounds serve a purpose beyond narrating a story or revealing new information; it’s more about the feeling they are trying to convey.

MM: Can you tell me about the intention behind the sequence in which we see a large space covered with discarded fabric and mannequins? It’s a visually stunning moment in terms of its cinematography and theme.

GM: Sure. It’s very complex. In the region of Brazil the movie was made in, they had installed an industrial factory to make clothing. This is a region where there is no water. It’s a desert. The life of this town is permeated by ambiguity, so I tried to make a very ambiguous movie. It’s a world beauty can be perceived in different ways. That scene, with its cemetery of mannequins and trash from the dresses, is colorful and seductive, but a short time later those materials will be perceived not as beauty but as trash. The film plays with expectation, breaking them all the time.

Time creates different layers in which we are, little by little, immersing ourselves. For example, the moment when one of the men is ironing his hair is a very comical moment. Here is a cowboy using this machine to straighten his hair, but then in the same take, without cutting or without changing anything in the cinematography, we perceive that the woman in the group is admiring the way he takes care of his body and his hair. We enter this scene in a comedic way, and then we enter into another layer of this unique world. We see the way she admires the man taking care of himself—another layer of intimacy that moves beyond prejudice.

MM: This is your second fiction film after August Winds since you previously made documentaries. Was this transition difficult? Why did you choose to tackle this particular story in a narrative feature?

GM: This movie, curiously, was in development five years ago. While I developed the screenplay I made documentaries, but somehow I knew this one would be fiction. But I don’t think about the worlds of documentary and narrative fiction as distinct.  I think there are fictional strategies and there are documentary strategies. It was very important for me to have observed the real world, but also have the freedom to construct a character based on a real person. It was a great learning process, especially because the actors in the film are very recognized actors in Brazil. It was the first time I’d worked with such experienced actors.

MM: How challenging was it to mold their performances to fit the naturalism required? Were they all in tune with your vision?

GM: This movie received a lot of generosity from the actors, a lot of dedication, as they and I understood, learned from and collaborated with each other. I remember thinking, “Fuck, the scene with the pregnant woman is going to be very difficult.” Some actors thought it was very dangerous and didn’t want to do it. They were very cautious.

Then there was a moment shooting the sequence where the men are showering. This was a very expressive moment of change in the way the actors had immersed themselves in the project. After they watched this scene, they understood the honesty and the distance that we were after, between the camera and the body. It’s a movie about the body in a place of transformation. For me this was a central theme, to find the perfect distance between the body and the camera.

Also, cinematographer Diego Garcia was seducing us with light. The actors then were enthusiastic and very eager to do their scenes as I wanted them. We then were able do the sex scene the way I wanted to. The light influenced the actors’ performances by creating an atmosphere of intimacy.

Maeve Jinkings as Galega in Neon Bull

Maeve Jinkings as Galega in Neon Bull

MM: Tell me about this distance between body and camera. We usually equate intimacy with close-ups rather than wider shots, but in Neon Bull the opposite seems to be true.

GM: It occurred to us early on that with these characters, the more we got the camera closer to them, the more we started to reproduce certain stereotypes. When we were further away, we were constructing something very powerful and special and entering a type of intimacy that’s very intriguing and paradoxical. That distance is the intimacy. The more distance we have from them, the more intimate we are with the characters. It was a very happy discovery, which was constructed slowly. We also didn’t do many takes, for the same reason. We thought a lot about where the camera was. We had to be precise, strong and radical, and take risks. It was a great challenge.

MM: Masculinity and gender stereotypes are subverted in the film. How did you tackle these conventions and surpass them?

GM: We wanted to make a movie about a universe that has many preconceived ideas. When we think about cowboys, many things come to mind. We wanted to deconstruct this, and this deconstruction had to be very organic and honest and not purely rational.

Iremar is a sensitive cowboy. That’s the superficial layer. But for this to be organic, we had to fully enter this duality in his body, which involved a lot of research to know how to use his body. He is also not a gay cowboy, which would be another stereotype. The movie goes beyond the idea of sexual identity or gender identity, but it was important for us to expand the possibilities of the body for experience. Bodies in the film are eroticized, but they don’t subscribe to a specific identity. These bodies are fluid.

It was curious to read a review at the Hamburg Film Festival in which a critic described Neon Bull as a queer movie. There are no gay sex scenes, but there are sex scenes that are not heteronormative. It’s a movie about cowboys without heteronormalcy. We didn’t want to reproduce the idea that a sensitive cowboy is gay; that’s not the question. It’s possible to be a sensitive cowboy and be free to have different experiences. The sex scene with the pregnant woman is about this. It’s not a scene that’s proving anything. It’s not about proving his sexual orientation.

MM: Tell me about the young girl character in the film, Cacá. She is immersed in this masculine world, growing up without being treated as a child.

GM: In the screenplay, the character was actually a boy. We spent about five months to find the right boy to play Cacá. We couldn’t find one, and suddenly a girl arrived to the casting call and said, “I know you are looking for a boy, but I can do it.” It was a great discovery because we hadn’t thought about it for a girl, but we changed it and Cacá became a girl. However, we did it without changing any situation just because it was a girl rather than a boy. Everything stayed the same. The adult characters don’t treat Cacá in an infantilized manner. They treat her as an equal.

Alyne Santana plays Cacá in Neon Bull

Alyne Santana plays Cacá in Neon Bull

MM: The striking image of the neon bull we see in the film is almost otherworldly, though we know its real. Why did you feel the metaphor of a neon bull encompassed everything that story explores?

GM: That’s the hardest question [laughs]. The movie is a reflection of a unique culture in transformation. It’s about a place that is changing economically very quickly and there are people there that don’t want to leave the places they live in. A lot of the films, literature and art about Brazil are about people that want to leave—leave poverty among other things. I wanted to make a film about people who don’t want to leave, but who want to change their lives.

A “neon bull” is a spectacle, which represents the access to consumerism that is present in these lives. It’s their first access to buying things, and it’s like a colorful party. But these colors, just like in the scene with the discarded colorful fabrics, also represent trash. A neon bull is something that could be part of a dream, but it’s also something strong and physical. It’s the junction between the culture of spectacle of the contemporary world, and also the culture of a geopolitical body that can question the system.

MM: How has the film been received in Brazil, specifically in the region where the vaquejadas are an important part of the cultural identity?

GM: Since the vaquejada culture is very celebrated in the Brazilian northeast, the movie was screened in places that had never seen Brazilian art-house films. It was curious to see the reactions of people who had never seen this type of cinema. It was very interesting politically, even. They have a very different perception of cowboys and would say, “This movie is not realistic because a Brazilian cowboy would never dream to be a designer. It’s absurd. It’s not possible. No real cowboy would ever dream to work in fashion.”

Of course, like I said, I actually met someone like that during my research. Brazil is changing very fast. I tried to capture this world in transformation. In a way the characters are suspended in this ambiguity. There is no big conflict in the movie. The conflict is between what our expectations of this world are and what the characters actually present. I also didn’t want to create a naïve atmosphere to celebrate the culture of the past. I never thought, “Oh, poor things, they are losing their culture.” No, I think of human beings as beings that can be transformed. Culture is in constant transformation. For me, cultural preservation doesn’t exist. You don’t preserve culture. Culture is something that’s alive. I wanted characters that are alive and can be transformed. That’s why they are in conflict with the contemporary world. MM

Neon Bull opens in theaters April 8, 2016, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

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