BARONESA follows the lives of two women in the favelas of Belo Horizonte, director Juliana Antunes observing their lives and interactions with others in the neighbourhood. Despite a feeling of purposeless drift at stages – the constructed realism of these ‘observed’ scenes feeling a bit rudderless – a commendable outlook and focus is pursued that gives some genuine insight into the lives of the subjects.
Poverty is front and centre, but the film’s primary focus are the hopes and aspirations of these women and the conversations that punctuate their daily lives. Andreia – the primary focus – wishes to move to neighbouring and slightly less deprived Baronesa. Leidiane raises children against a backdrop of violence.
For much of the film violence is just that: a backdrop. Dramatised and (whisper it) oft-glamorised violence in the favelas is mentioned, primarily through the vehicle of male friend Negao, but never really seen. The film opens with dancing to club music, we have an almost flirty conversation with Negao about alleged parentage of children, the women chat very candidly about sexual encounter and experiences. Through the conversations and actions, the impact of the wider community is clear in these vignettes, but not through explicit events on screen.
“The perspective of the film is refreshingly female – the testosterone-driven gun fights and gang wars of the typical favela chronicle (narrative or documentary) give way to subtler cues.”
The perspective of the film is refreshingly female – the testosterone-driven gun fights and gang wars of the typical favela chronicle (narrative or documentary) give way to subtler cues. Sharing a line of coca casually in the house, disciplining by heavy-handedly threatening to cut a child’s penis off, recounting a sexual assault that almost certainly ended violently, and perhaps mortally so.
This is the grind required to get through life in this environment. It feels quite deliberate that Juliana Antunes shifts from a scene of a group dancing – which ends on a gun drawing pose – to a forlorn stare into the middle distance out a window. These are ultimately distractions, clearly demonstrated when a gentle staged conversation is abruptly interrupted by automatic gun fire.
As interesting as the perspective is, the meandering days give rise to a slightly meandering film. The menagerie of scenes doesn’t always seem to flow easily, which robs the film of a little momentum. That isn’t to say Antunes’s approach falls flat – there is much to unpick from the varied topics and conversations covered – but that it doesn’t have quite the inertia to support an hour plus running time. Having said that, a differing perspective from the normal hyper-violence of the setting is well worth viewing.
BARONESA is the opening film at the 2018 Open City Documentary Festival on Tuesday 4th September, where director Juliana Antunes will be present for a Q&A. Read other coverage of the festival here.