Friday 28th October, 18.30, The Ritzy
Out of the 5 films I picked from the 197 shown at this year’s London Film Festival, Estamira was the one I had been most looking forward to. Promised “another distinctive documentary of marginalised life” by the producer of the excellent (if overlong) Bus 174, I was left frustrated. With only half an hour gone the only thing I was looking forward to was the end – or at least a change in direction form the incessant and claustrophobic focus on one woman’s cosmic ramblings.
Marcos Prado’s film records 63 year-old Estamira over the course of 3 years from her corrugated-iron house on the Jardim Gramacho refuse heap. The chaos and confusion of the smouldering piles of rubbish seem to symbolise the confused state of Estamira’s mind. She appears as the classical Brazilian malandra figure, bursting with language – including her own dialogue – but also with rage and confusion. And for over half the film we simply have to listen to her.
During long speeches that sometimes last over 10 minutes we are left to pick our way through Estamira’s ramblings and strange metaphorical framework for the world – the “astrobodies”, the “cosmic remote control”, the “punsters in reverse” – in search of sense or meaning. There are occasional soundbites of wisdom (“to spare is wonderful because he who spares will always have”, “life is cruel, it has no pity”) but there is also much that is clearly delusional, fueled by a rage against the God and people who have deserted her. She is certainly not, as some have suggested the Shakespeare of Brazil.
By the second hour my heart sunk every time Prado returned to his subject. Her family briefly sketched the shocking mistreatment and cruelty of her life – including rape and forced prostitution – but it was increasingly frustrating not to be given a wider perspective on her situation. In one dreadful scene we are shown the inside of a mental institution with patients drugged and lying on the floor without being told anything about it.
Unlike the beautiful contemplation of Oliveira Cézar’s The Hours go by, Prado’s distanced approach didn’t lead anywhere and left us unsure of how to feel. Learning of Estamira’s past suffering and witnessing her current mental health only confirmed to me that we should not be listening to her for so long – at least not in this way, trying to unpick her madness piece by piece. Rather than “refreshingly unsentimental” as the Festival guide put it, the intense focus seemed at times cruel. Although aware of her condition in moments of clarity (“I’m crazy, I’m loony, I’m mad, I’m insane. All four of them”), there are times when Estamira looses control in the chaos of her schizophrenia. When does impartial, detached filming become exploitative and voyeuristic?
Perhaps this is slightly unfair. There are some beautifully captured scenes and moments of humour and sentimentality too. Estamira’s relationship with fellow refuge dweller Joao has the innocence of a childhood romance and the approach of a tropical storm with the swirling rubbish and slow spirals of the vultures is truly awesome. The most touching moment comes when the elfin Pingueleto presents his house (a few cardboard boxes) and introduces his five dogs with undisguised pride.
There are also shocking moments including the glimpse of a dead body under the rubbish heaps and Estamira extracting jars of preserved food from between the mud, slime and used MacDonald’s wrappers. But it was at just these points that I wanted to know more. Who are these people? Why are they there? How much do they earn on the dump and why do they stay? It seemed lazy on Prado’s part to condense the whole situation down to one figure.
The Film is certainly intense and its main character is not easy to forget. With the footage we are given, though, Estamira should have been an hour at the most. There is a great film in there somewhere but the audience had to work too hard to salvage what we could from amongst the piles of rubbish.