Scene of Babenco, Tell me When I Die. Photo: Courtesy

Documentary about filmmaker Hector Babenco, Brazil's Oscar 2021 candidate, portrays a 'heart that didn't want to stop beating'

Bárbara Paz's directorial debut, the film "Babenco - Tell Me When I Die" competes for a spot among the nominees for best international film and best documentary. Paz talked to LABS about it

Ler em português

“I decided to tell this story so I can forget it,” says Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco in his testament film, directed by his widow, Bárbara Paz. The renowned filmmaker died in 2016, at the age of 70, victim of cancer. Paz’s first film, Babenco – Tell Me When I Die, was officially confirmed as a candidate participating in two Oscar categories this Thursday by the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film competes for a spot among Best Documentary and Best International Film final nominees. The final list of 15 films for each Oscar category will be disclosed on February 9th. 

READ ALSO: How Latin America Has Treated Its Ethnic and Racial Minorities

Breath, Keep breathing

The film, which starts with scenes with water, drops, and Radiohead’s song for a movie Exit Music (For A Film), is also a documentary poem, which mixes cuts from famous Babenco films, such as Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman with everyday scenes from the couple’s life, and proposes an affective immersion in Babenco’s life during his wrestling against death. Vacation in Paris with a sudden trip to the hospital. Medications, treatment, even the filmmaker’s hallucinations under the influence of drugs in a hospital bed, describing the reality of his dreams to his partner, who, in one scene, dances in the rain to the sound of Singin in The Rain while Babenco films her.

Bárbara Paz made her film debut with a documentary about her husband, filmmaker Hector Babenco. Photo: Felipe Hellmeister / Courtesy

In a conversation with LABS, director Bárbara Paz explained the film’s title, photography choices, phrases by Babenco in the documentary such as “J’aime le marginal” and “I decided to stay in Brazil because I think Brazil is a country in that reality surpasses fiction to a much greater extent than in Argentina, “in addition to the ongoing crowdfunding for the film’s Oscar advertising campaign, available here

READ ALSO: Netflix releases trailer of Brazilian original series “Invisible City”, mixing thriller with the country’s folklore

LABS – The name of the film, at first, was Polish Corridor. Why did you change?

Bárbara PazYes, it has gone through several titles. The title is always something very difficult to achieve. It is very interesting that when “Babenco, Somebody has to Hear the Heart and Say: It stopped” (the doc’s name in Portuguese) came, we saw that it was that tit; there was no other. 

READ ALSO: The “dolores” of a nation that sees in the economy its biggest phobia, and in the dollar its way out from chaos

It started as a “Polish Corridor” when I registered the project in the [incentive] law. I was doing an independent project, and one day Hector said that I had better submit the film because I was spending a lot of money. That was just before he died. And to register, you had to have a title in the project. And he always said that his life had been a “Polish Corridor” because he was always so beaten up, so much so that a phrase in the film is “after success, the storm always comes.” So we thought that the Polish Corridor was a beautiful title.

But he didn’t think it was a good title for marketing. When he was gone, that was the title yet. During the editing, screenwriter Maria Camargo called me and asked me what I thought of “Babenco: Someone Must Hear the Heart.” I said: but the phrase is “And say: It stopped.” Then she said she thought it was too big, but I said that big is beautiful. I always wanted to make a movie with a big title; I love it. I love one by Roy Andersson, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” it’s beautiful. 

The name has also gone by “A man who dreamed of films,” there were several titles. But what was really the one in the project, Polish Corridor. For example, Pixote‘s first title [a film by Babenco] was “The World is Round Like an Orange.” 

Advertising poster for the documentary Babenco – Tell me When I Die. Photo: Courtesy

READ ALSO: Maradona was not just a football player. The legend doesn’t fit the sport

LABS – And what does this title mean to you?

Bárbara Paz – This is the film of his life. He really died like that. His heart didn’t want to stop. He had four cardiac arrests. This was surreal because when we came across this phrase that he spoke to me at a certain moment, I was shocked.

It really happened the way he said it was going to happen—a very strong intuition. “When the time comes, my heart will stop, but it won’t want to stop beating,” he said. And that happened, four cardiac arrests in one night is a lot. The title means everything to me. 

LABS – Why did you decide to do crowdfunding?

Bárbara Paz – We had no feedback from public agencies except SPcine (Sao Paulo’s government funding partner for films), which has been our partner since the beginning. It is the only public agency that is with us, apart from our co-producers Globo Filmes, Canal Brasil and Itaú. From Ancine (Brazil’s government funding partner for films) we had no return. 

We already expected the government not to give feedback because the culture spent is being frozen in the country right now. Like every artist, we will not be paralyzed, it is not because of a public agency that we will stop doing the campaign, so crowdfunding was my idea to sell some things [to raise money for the film]. We have a book, in addition to the film I made a book about Babenco, we also sell the film, it’s a grocery store (laughs). 

We are talking about dollars for the campaign, and everything is very expensive, five times more than our currency. It is a gigantic campaign that does not yet have an American distributor because it was a very unexpected and very fast thing; it was late November when Brazil was chosen to represent the Oscars country. 

Our goal in crowdfunding right now is to raise BRL 200,000 and, in the second phase, another BRL 300,000. It is BRL 500,000, but it is only $100,000. You can only buy a few ads with that. But we can do it, in that short time, we are in the best media outlets, we are doing Q&A, we are in the race to reach the shortlist. We have to hope that people see at least the film. We know that a campaign is very difficult, there are many films, many wonderful films. I have seen incredible films worldwide, but we have to try. 

I made this film as a handmade patchwork. I started doing it with my money, then I had supporters with my co-producers, but everything was very little. I’m finishing this phase of the Babenco film as I started, taking a little piece from here, a little piece from there, and making this poem film. It is a film made from the inside out. In crowdfunding, there are Hector’s films and movie posters available. Anyone who can help is very welcome. 

LABS – In the film Babenco said “Argentines think I am Brazilian and Brazilians think I am Argentine”. How do you see that?

Bárbara Paz – In Brazil, they thought he was Argentine, and in Argentina, they thought he was Brazilian. He had this lack of a root of his own, but he chose Brazil to live; he loved Brazil, especially São Paulo. São Paulo was his city; he lived here for 42 years, he did his work here, despite the whole world, he always came back here. He found Brazil much more interesting than Argentina. 

READ ALSO: Why emergency basic income programs are so necessary in Latin America

LABS – Hector said that he decided to stay in Brazil because he thought Brazil is a country in which reality surpasses fiction to a much greater extent than in Argentina. How do you see this relationship with Latin America in his films?

Bárbara Paz – Hector was making a cinema of [social] denounce. Since his first film, apart from the documentary about Emerson Fittipaldi, since Lúcio Flávio, Passageiro da Agonia (Lúcio Flávio, Passenger of Agony), a film from 1976, during the military dictatorship [in Brazil].

He was very brave. Even though he was not Brazilian, he settled here and made films like Lúcio Flávio, Pixote, Carandiru, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, filmed here in São Paulo. He considered himself a marginal filmmaker; he wanted to talk about it [the social distress in Brazil]. He thought he had to talk about it. But in this film, I didn’t explore it.

In this film, I explored Babenco a lot. Here in Brazil, talking about social drama is not just a full meal; it’s a banquet. And an unfortunately daily banquet. If you want to explore society on the outcasts, you can do it. Unfortunately, we still live in a “City of God” in our country. 

We sell boxes of Hector’s films; we sell works of art that several artists donated to us for the campaign. It is very interesting to see how the Brazilian people, especially the Brazilian audiovisual ones, the people who love cinema, are helping each one in a way they can afford. 

These emblematic films such as Pixote, Cidade de Deus (City of God), are a harrowing reflection of our country. Big names that made these films, like Hector, are a reflection of our country. Pixote at the time was not welcome. He talks a lot that Pixote at the time was not understood because he was an Argentine talking about something that is not part of him, talking to the slum kids. And that still happens. When talking about A Brincar in Campos do Senhor (At Play in the Fields of the Lord) about the Amazon rainforest, 30 years later, there are so many people who have not seen this film. People who don’t know Hector’s work.

I wanted to make this film so that young people who did not know his work would like to know it.

He did Lúcio Flávio, and then he did Carandiru, which is also a social critic cinema. It is also on the margin. Brazil has a huge cinematic branch; you can see it from all sides; Brazil is cinematic; it is not for nothing that the world watches our country. When you go abroad with a film, you realize that the world loves Brazil. It loves Brazilian cinema. We have to continue this. 

LABS – Are the crafted blurs in the film on purpose?

Bárbara Paz – I was asked this question in Venice, and then Julian Schnabel (painter) told me not to answer that or to answer why the film is black and white. People ask this a lot. But it is because it is the film I wanted to make; the blur is because I wanted to make it.

Many of the blurred scenes are from a lens that I use to give a subjective [image] of him [from Babenco]. It is a process that I wanted to do. Why do we always have to clean it? Why isn’t the blur beautiful? Isn’t life so blurry? There are so many elements that I could talk about, but Julian Schnabel told me not to explain the blur, which is just to be felt. Some things are not explainable.

One thing I can tell you, it has nothing to do with the [fact of being my] first film. It has to do with aesthetics, taste, choices, and feelings.