Can crime be a heroic and liberating act in a society falling apart? That’s the question posed by this epic film hybrid about a gang of women who succeed in a heist on the illegal gasoline market in Sol Nascente, one of the biggest favelas of Latin America. Berlinale, Jeonju, Sydney… the film took over the world festivals like a storm earlier this year and won all the main prizes, from Best Portuguese Feature Film at the IndieLisboa to the Grand Prize at the Cinéma du Réel. No wonder. It merges a fierce political consciousness with a bold cinematic form so powerfully and convincingly that only a few can compare to that. Kleber Mendonça Filho and his film Bacurau (2019) first come to mind, and this is no coincidence as both take place in present-day Brazil. Just that Joana Darc Furtado, the legendary Chitara, «gasolineira» who designed an improvised drilling system, with old pumps which seem like they were taken directly from Giant (1956), to steal oil from an underground pipeline, is a real, historical person, however fantastic her life story might seem. And even if the critics were fascinated by the plurality of genres, from thriller to musical, seamlessly intertwined in this more than two hours long tour de force, Dry Ground Burning reports about a practice that is common all over the world, from Nigeria to Brazil, wherever the major oil companies, supported by federal governments, are extracting crude oil. Forced to live with pollution and poverty created by this «industry,» local populations often deny legitimacy to local and federal authorities and also resort to robbing oil directly from the pipes. It is the world the public only learns about when it causes incidents or turns into environmental disasters, while the broader context is kept out of sight.
Here lies the true power of this film. It successfully addresses the two most urgent issues of the contemporary mediascape, the failing credibility of the major media venues and the need to make the voices of those who do not have power be heard. The credibility of mainstream media is particularly at stake here. Thanks to the primary news media, the international public knows about the charges of corruption and misconduct in the office of the first female president of Brazil, the socialist Dilma Rousseff, that caused her impeachment and removal from office in 2016, and about the corruption charges of the founder of the workers’ party, Rousseff’s predecessor and presidential candidate in 2018 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that led to Lula’s arrest during the campaign. Not many, however, are aware that these charges, which directly brought to power the actual president, the retired general Jair Bolsonaro, were mostly unfunded and orchestrated to meet this objective. Glen Greenwald, the investigative journalist and founder of the independent news venue The Intercept, who disclosed the documents proving that Rousseff and Lula were falsely accused, received death threats. Official charges against him, similar to those against Julian Assange, were fortunately dropped. The presidential elections coming up later this year, with both Lula and Bolsonaro as candidates, make the informative aspect of Dry Ground Burning particularly relevant. Chitara and her gang had direct political objectives, they founded PPP, Prison Peoples Party, and the simple program, presented by the candidate, their colleague Andreia Vieira, planning to remove the curfew and introduce basic facilities such as sewage, community schools, and bus lines offers a glimpse into the misery of life in favelas. On the other hand, of course, there are Bolsonaro’s supporters who declare that Lula is dead at their rallies. The social prestige and brutality of the regime’s security forces are well represented in the film by a military vehicle looking like a spaceship equipped with the latest surveillance technology.
Can the subaltern speak?
«I found the oil and now am flying around with UFO,» jokes Chitara at some point. Her self-irony shows very well the magnitude of her achievement. This is an important point to which the protagonist often return in their testimonies. Chitara, for example, recollects how her maternal grandfather predicted that all three – she, her half-sister Léa Alves da Silva and their half-brother – who all live in a favela, would end up as prostitutes and gang members. They did not. In the film, you will hear about their failures and their successes. Participating in this film and giving voice to the billions of anonymous, often unregistered inhabitants of world slums, is certainly among their most outstanding achievements. A few decades ago, the feminist literary critic Gayatri Spivak was unsure if the subaltern could speak. As they have no power, there is always someone in power who gives them the voice, mediates, interprets, and in this, their own particular interest might easily get lost.
Music and hope
The directors of Dry Ground Burning seem well prepared for this. Adirley Queirós has devoted most of his filmography to the people living in the capital of Brazil, and Joana Pimenta is affiliated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the institute that has already spawned projects with sensitive subjects such as Caniba (2017). They created a remarkably fluent narrative composed of sincere testimonies and powerful allegories. The long passages in which the film protagonist are given space to freely express themselves with words and bodily gestures. And skilful reconstructions of past events. Held together by the music, from the cheeky techno of Banda Muleka 100 Calcinha to the rap of DF Faroeste. Music plays a particular role in Dry Ground Burning; it is almost as if it were yet another way of listening to the subaltern speak. The songs are about feelings and dreams, desolation and hope. Like in the Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning in English) about the cold night in the deserted city, bodies burning united in one heart, exploding with emotion… A desperate situation where there is nothing but dry ground, yet still, there is fire, that is, passion, the desire for a new and better life.