In 2002, Karim Aïnouz’s first feature film, Madame Satã, premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes with a trigger warning attached. One of the first queer feature films to come out of Brazil, it presented an unvarnished representation of a real-life character—João Francisco dos Santos, a street-smart drag queen—which evidently caused concern for the festival organizers. In the event, half of the audience walked out, incensed by a tensely homoerotic sex scene. The same happened at Madame Satã’s premiere in Istanbul (where I happened to be in the audience). I knew that the rejection had nothing to do with the quality of the film but with its raw viscerality, too threatening to those unprepared to acknowledge their own desires. Ahead of its time, the film, to this day, has not received the attention it deserves, either as a queer cult classic or as an outright film classic in any terms.
While the New Queer Cinema had championed earlier edgy depictions of queer life, Madame Satã has never been retroactively added to its pantheon, nor has it been properly recognized in Brazil for initiating contemporary queer cinema there. Such is the fate of a film that pushes boundaries and defies the circumscribed representational expectations for films from the periphery. I can hardly think of a more sure-footed directorial debut or a more explosive entrance onto the scene of queer cinema. Yet on its twentieth anniversary this year, there is still no DCP (digital cinema package, for showing 35 mm quality in theaters) and far too little international recognition of this film or its extraordinary director.
Born in 1966 in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, Karim Aïnouz studied architecture in Brasília and cinema studies at New York University. After Madame Satã, he went on to make O céu de Suely (Love for Sale, also known as Suely in the Sky, 2006) and Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (I Travel Because I Have To, I Return Because I Love You, 2009), codirected with Marcelo Gomes. Both were invited to the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival and won a number of international awards. In 2008, Aïnouz directed Alice, a thirteen-part series for HBO Latin America, and was then commissioned to make O abismo prateado (The Silver Cliff, 2011), which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. His installations have been shown in such contexts as the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial (1997), the São Paulo Art Biennial (2004), and the Sharjah Biennial (2011). As if this weren’t enough, he also has several accomplished documentaries under his belt, including Zentralflughafen THF (Central Airport THF, 2018) and O marinheiro das montanhas (Mariner of the Mountains, 2021).
At the time of this interview, Aïnouz was at work on his first English-language feature, Firebrand, about Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr. This project comes on the heels of the success of his exquisite tropical melodrama, A vida invisível (The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão), which won the grand prize at Cannes in 2019 in the Un Certain Regard section, enjoying a very different reception than did his freshman foray there.
To call Aïnouz a metteur en scène might seem an insult, as if suggesting he is less an auteur than a craftsman, but perhaps it’s time to resuscitate the term, given the emphasis he himself places on the craft of filmmaking. He is keen to point out that filmmaking is not magic and requires no divine inspiration, that one simply has to know the craft and be in command of it. This attitude—and the very real skills that undergird it—have allowed him to exploit the full range of the cinematic medium, working deftly regardless of crew size, budget, even mode or genre. His documentaries are as powerful and carefully wrought as his fiction films, while his passionate vision can be felt as much in the films for which he was commissioned as in those he has initiated himself.
I have known Karim Aïnouz since before he started making films. We met in New York City in the late 1980s. He was magnetic and enigmatic, with a seductive smile and an infectious laugh, flirting with everyone in the room. But it wasn’t until I saw his first film, an experimental short entitled Seams (1993), that I understood what lay beneath the surface of his lighthearted yet evasive exterior. It was in this film that he reveals an acute sensibility forged in a household run by strong, powerful, yet loving women: his mother, his grandmother, and his great-aunts. His father, an Algerian of Berber descent, left his mother before Karim was born. He inherited an Algerian name but no other patrimony. Seams is a love letter to those who raised him, a promissory note for the debt he felt he owed them. The films he’s made since then are, in effect, full recompense: he pays tribute to strong women caught in the intractable traps of patriarchal domination, while also expressing his own hard-won desires and deeply felt political allegiances.
Karim Aïnouz’s outsider status in Brazil, as someone with a “foreign” name and a queer identity, has particularly informed his last two feature documentaries, Central Airport THF and Mariner of the Mountain. Central Airport THF was shot in Tempelhof, the Nazi-built airfield turned community park that also doubled, at the height of the influx of Syrian refugees, as a cavernous migrant “accommodation center.” Tempelhof is essentially in Aïnouz’s backyard, the director having made the Neuköln neighborhood of Berlin his home thirteen years ago. Witnessing how men with Middle Eastern names and swarthy complexions were being treated in Germany reminded him of his own initial reception upon moving to Paris at age nineteen, where he remembers encountering suspicion and outright racism at nearly every turn.
Mariner, which he made immediately after finishing Invisible Life, is his reckoning with his Algerian/Berber roots: in it, he searches for connection in the land of his father, only to find that any sense of belonging remains elusive. After the death of his mother in 2015, he was finally able to make the journey to that unknown yet ever-present place, but the film is nonetheless circumscribed by and devoted to her memory.
Aïnouz has become known as a consummate “women’s director.” He’s made a series of films with intriguingly complex female leads: Love for Sale, The Silver Cliff, Invisible Life, and the forthcoming Firebrand, in addition to the HBO series Alice. Yet it would be a mistake to pigeonhole this eclectic and expansive filmmaker in this way, as it would omit his considerable contributions to experimental and queer cinema. His experimental feature film I Travel Because I Have To played the festival circuit and went on to screen in the Sharjah Biennial. While the film, about a Brazilian geologist who throws himself into the planning of a hydroelectric dam after a painful breakup, was largely overlooked by critics and audiences, those who did review it considered it a one-of-a-kind gem the likes of which have rarely if ever been seen in cinema. It is stunningly original in all aspects.
As for his contribution to queer cinema, in addition to Madame Satã, Aïnouz made Praia do futuro (Futuro Beach, 2014), about a lifeguard who fails to save the life of a German tourist only to encounter the drowned man’s travel companion, who soon becomes his lover. Praia is perhaps Aïnouz’s most autobiographical fiction film, given its premise of a gay Brazilian man who leaves his home in Fortaleza for Berlin—albeit with many deviations of plot and character. It premiered in the competition section of that year’s Berlin Film Festival, but it didn’t connect with audiences in the way he had hoped. In the wake of that disappointment, he had a five-year dry spell, his longest stretch without making a feature film. He worried he would never make another fiction film again, until he was approached to adapt Marta Batalha’s first novel, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, for the screen.
Parallel to his prolific career in feature filmmaking, Aïnouz maintains an art practice, with short films and installation work showing at major museums and biennials. A book of his photography is due to be published next year. I spoke with Karim Aïnouz during the late winter and early spring of 2022 in London, where he was in preproduction for Firebrand.
Alisa Lebow: Let’s begin by addressing what we might call your insider/outsider status. You have expressed many times that you have a complicated relationship to being Brazilian, and more recently this tension has really begun to define your filmmaking.
Karim Aïnouz: It’s a good place to start. I think it begins back at being born in a place that I felt was my place, but also not my place: there was always something different about me; I was something of an oddity. Every time I had to say my name, or a teacher would say it, I was marked as an outsider. If my name had been Pedro, I think everything would’ve been different, I wouldn’t have had to explain myself all the time. But when, every time you say your name, you get cues that you’re different, that you don’t belong, it marks you. I never felt I completely belonged in Brazil, and that’s been a ghost that has inhabited my life since day one. It also gave me the urge to leave that place and learn for myself where that name came from.
Remember, too, I am from below the equator, from a place that was even remote in Brazilian terms. And when you’re from the periphery, you always want to experience what life is like in the center.
If I had stayed in the country where I was born, I would never be making films—because I would never have had access to the means of production, to the world in which privileged people live, and to the resources they take for granted. I think I only began to make what I make because I had moved far from where I was born. But eventually, I could only continue to make what I make if I went back to where I was born. This insider/outsider status was very much part of a dynamic that, at some point, I stopped thinking about as a problem, but instead as an asset.
Lebow: You left Brazil in the late 1980s and moved to New York City. What made you leave, and why did you choose New York?
Aïnouz: I left Brazil because I wanted to get out of a country that is highly homophobic and marginal. First I moved to Paris, then to New York. I didn’t leave Brazil in order to make movies, though: I left because I needed to breathe. It was only in New York City that I felt I could make something that I would never have been able to make if I had stayed in Brazil. But when I started to make things that were relevant to me, I couldn’t get funding in New York: they were seen as too Brazilian.
So after fifteen years away, I had to go back to Brazil. And when I got back there and made my first feature film, Madame Satã, I realized that the idea of home is a construct. Brazil is, of course, very much part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.
Lebow: And yet, despite fifteen years in New York and more than a decade in Berlin, you’re essentially still known as a Brazilian filmmaker. Do you struggle with that assignation?
Aïnouz: The main reason I am considered a Brazilian filmmaker is because the world of cinema is so identified with nation. It cannot cope with the complexities of someone’s identity and needs to pin you down. So, yes, I’m a Brazilian filmmaker—but that’s problematic. When you look up a filmmaker in Wikipedia, if they’re American, they’re just filmmakers; but if they’re from India or Turkey or Brazil, or wherever, then they’re identified by their country of origin. In that system, inevitably, I’m a Brazilian filmmaker.
Lebow: Let’s talk about your first feature. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Madame Satã. I cannot believe you made such a bold film as your first feature. It is such a fierce first impression to make in the world!
Aïnouz: It’s wonderful to talk about this now because I think I need to go back to that place. But at the time, it was not a place I knew I was occupying. It was just what I needed to do and I didn’t give a damn. When I think about the dialogue in that film, I think: How did I dare? It’s really good to reflect on this now because I want to get back to that place of sheer, uninhibited daring.
I’m not someone who remembers pain, in general, but I do remember the pain of making that film. It took eight years to get off the ground. It literally hijacked my life. I was in a depression for a year because of that film. You can’t imagine what it took to get that film made. In the beginning no one would talk to me about it; in Brazil, they treated me like I was a freak. Eventually I got some money from France, went back to Brazil, and found an actor, but he was actually a singer and at the last minute I had to let him go, because he was releasing an album and wasn’t showing up for rehearsals. I mean, I loved him and worked with him for a year, but he was so erratic that at the end the production company gave me an ultimatum: either you get rid of him or the film stops. And then Lázaro [Ramos] came in with only two weeks left to rehearse, and I thought: This is not going to work, it’s impossible. And he thought the same. But in the end, he was amazing.
Lebow: I remember you telling me, after working on the script for Madame Satã for years and storyboarding it out meticulously, that on the second day of shooting, you just threw the storyboard away. Who does that? I have never forgotten that story. What were you thinking?
Aïnouz: I was thinking this could be my only shot. I may never make another movie again. The performances that these kids were giving me were so brilliant. I just wanted to be present for the moment. I remember I actually did exactly what was in the storyboard on that first day, but when I saw it, it had no life. It was completely lifeless. And then I said to myself, “You know, this is not the way to go.” Then I just let myself be carried by what was happening, what the actors were doing, and I just went with it.
Lebow: That’s flying!
Aïnouz: It’s flying without a net. And I think it’s important to go back to that feeling. I’m really proud of that film. Someone asked me, at a recent twentieth-anniversary screening, what I would change if I were to make the film today. And I have to say, my first response was that I would change nothing. I almost never rewatch my films. But I wanted to see if, after all these years, it still held up. I’m so pleased to say that I think it really does. Maybe I would like to redo the English subtitles, which I translated, because I don’t think they really convey the incredible color and texture of the Portuguese dialogue. But the truth is, I wouldn’t make this film today, given how much has changed in those intervening years. At the time I made it, there was very little queer representation and almost no representation of Black Brazilians. There were also very few women directors and almost no Black directors in Brazil. Today, I wouldn’t be the one to represent a legendary Black queen. I think it would have to be made by a Black director—of which there are now quite a few, I’m happy to say.
Lebow: The other gay-themed feature you made is Praia. That is a transnational film in the classic sense, with elements of your journey from Brazil to Germany, fictionalized of course, with entirely different characters and motivations. In many ways, it contains your loves, your passions, your itinerant sense of home, more than any other film you’ve made to date.
Aïnouz: And it also has an aspect that we haven’t talked about yet in terms of transnationalism: the queer diaspora.
I think it is super important: I come from a generation where being queer, being gay, being out, was really just happening in a few places in the West. And these places were huge cities where people came from all over the world. No one knew who they were. They could be anonymous. That was the trigger that pushed me out of Brazil, dreaming of a place where I wouldn’t have to hide who I was anymore. I already talked about how my name always sounded out of place in Brazil, like I didn’t belong, but I should have mentioned that being queer also signaled my outsiderness and really prompted my departure.
Praia is an interesting one. I really need to see that film again. It was another really hard film for me to make. I think I actually created lots of wars in the middle of that production. I made it hurt so much that I haven’t watched it since its opening at the Berlinale in 2014.
Lebow: I remember that premiere: you were in competition and seemed unusually nervous.
Aïnouz: Yeah, I was really nervous about that film.
Lebow: You had started to do films for hire then—like the TV series Alice—and you had really become very pragmatic, perfecting the tools of your trade, expanding your repertoire. But Praia took you back to a much more personal view.
Aïnouz: It was particularly hard because the film was not well received, either by the German queer community or the German audience more generally. For me, that was a mystery that I’ve never fully understood. I remember there was a German radio presenter who interviewed me who was really aggressive, saying: “That guy didn’t have a visa and he needed to have a visa.” People really seemed to get stuck on this detail, in a xenophobic and homophobic way. Still, I had a lot of freedom when I was making that film, and I tried everything I wanted to try. It really is a very personal film. That freedom is worth remembering.
After I finished Praia, it was the longest period of my life that I spent without making a movie, and there’s a reason. Praia was not sold anywhere. No one offered me any projects after that. I didn’t really understand by then that queer films don’t sell unless they’re really palatable, unless you have stars.
Lebow: Are you saying there’s a very limited market for gay male films?
Aïnouz: There are obviously examples like Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] or Call Me by Your Name [Luca Guadagnino, 2017], but these are films I don’t find interesting. I do want to make more gay films, though. I don’t have an infinite amount of time left; it’s not like I have fifty more years. It takes three years to make a movie, so if I do the math, there are not that many more films to make. There’s an adaptation of a Spanish book that takes place during the Spanish Civil War—that’s a gay story that I would so love to tell.
Lebow: Now that you’ve been living in Berlin for more than ten years, do you envision yourself making more films there, or working as a German filmmaker with German funding and support?
Aïnouz: I’ve lived in Germany since 2009, and although I’ve continued to make films, I have only made one film in Germany—in 2018. So it took a decade of living in Germany to make my first German film, and it’s a film that I made as a way to embrace the city that I had been living in for all these years. It was really liberating for me to finally feel that I could tell stories about the places that I don’t come from.
Zentralflughafen THF didn’t begin as a movie about Syrian refugees, though: it began as a movie about my backyard, which is, in effect, Tempelhof Park. Tempelhof is the airfield of a former Nazi-era airport. After the airport was decommissioned, the community banded together and pressured the city to turn it into a huge park. Later, during the Syrian Civil War, its hangars were used as makeshift shelters, and I felt I needed to somehow incorporate that into the film. Making a film in Germany felt like the second round of a boxing match: for many years, I was anchored in the space of Brazil, with stories that had to do with the characters there. But now I feel that I’m actually being able to exercise my transnationality much more than I could ever do before. I feel I’ve earned the right to make films and tell stories from any part of the world.
Lebow: Tempelhof is a small production. It’s a documentary made in a low-budget, artisanal style. In fact, it’s a film about outsiders and refugees, with whom the audience identifies in a profound way.
Aïnouz: It’s a film that is about Germany, but inhabited by non-Germans, so it’s very much a mirror of something that I lived in France, too, when I first went there in the mid-1980s. There was a profound sense of not belonging and not being welcomed in France, feeling all the time like my presence was a threat. Tempelhof is a very urban, very German space, suddenly inhabited by these foreign bodies that are arriving there, and the film, in part, is trying to understand how they can occupy that space. I love living in Berlin; it feels very much like my home. I really want to make a fiction film in Germany. It’s a space that really inspires me.
Lebow: Now you are back to making “women’s films.” I remember that when Invisible Life won the prize at Cannes, you were so surprised. Why?
Aïnouz: Because I was like a beaten dog. On a personal level, I had just lost the two most important people in my life: my mother and my grandmother. I had made a gay movie [Praia] that failed to make an impact. I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to secure the funding to make another fiction film. Invisible Life came five years after Praia do Futuro, and that was a very long five years. It’s the longest break I’ve had between fiction films, so when Invisible Life came along, I was really just happy to make another movie. I had a great relationship with my producers. It was a fantastic experience for me: I could do the postproduction as I wanted; I could have any music that I asked for. I remember calling Rodrigo [Teixeira, one of the producers] two weeks into the mix and telling him that I’d found the music for the end: a tango by Amália Rodrigues. And I expected him to laugh at me and say, “Are you fucking crazy? Do you know how expensive that’s going to be?” But he just said, “That’s great, let’s go with Amália!” The conditions in which I was able to make that film were really wonderful.
But then I sent the film to the Berlinale—and they refused it. I had thought Berlin was my territory: I had done two movies there; I had been living there for a decade. But they turned it down.
Lebow: And then Cannes took it!
Aïnouz: When Cannes accepted it, I didn’t need anything else. Prizes were the last thing on my mind. Also, the film was not in the main competition: it felt as if I were in the same place I had been seventeen years before, back in the Un Certain Regard section where Madame Satã had premiered, almost as if I hadn’t been making films in the intervening years. Then, when the film won the prize for best feature in Un Certain Regard, I did feel recognized. It was a great reward.
Lebow: Mariner of the Mountains, an essay film about your relationship to Algeria, is a return to the personal register for you. It’s the film you made immediately after Invisible Life, but it brings you back to where you began with Seams, almost like a sequel made thirty years later. To me, it seems like the film you’ve always intended to make. But you waited until your midfifties to do it. Why now?
Aïnouz: I don’t know if it’s a film I was always wanting to make. I think it’s a voyage I’ve always wanted to make, but not necessarily as a movie. The voyage had been postponed and postponed, and it became clear there was something tragic about it. I thought that could be translated into an interesting film. If I had gone to Algeria at age twenty-three, there wouldn’t be any movie there. But for various reasons, I wasn’t able to go then. I got older. I started making films, and filmmaking became my way of writing, my preferred mode of expression. Let me back up. My mother never wanted to go to Algeria, where my father—who abandoned her when she was pregnant with me—is from. And yet it was a trip that I couldn’t really picture making without her. Once she became seriously ill, I started to think about, in some sense, making that trip for her. It would have been a huge betrayal to make the trip when she was still alive, yet the trip was somehow only conceivable as a dialogue with her. By 2014, when she was already very ill, it had started to become clear as a project for me. When my mother died, I knew I had to make this film.
Lebow: I hear all the resonances of a good melodrama: a journey or quest, postponement and tragedy, betrayal, fidelity, guilt, love. It’s all there.
Aïnouz: And don’t forget the ghosts! It’s about being haunted and it’s about revolution. You know, I think that’s what melodrama is, at the end of the day. I think it’s the most politically effective genre. It has all these elements of our family: it’s about revolution, it’s about ghosts, it’s about betrayal. It’s about guilt, and, oh yeah, love.
Mariner is not a movie I’ve always wanted to make, but it became something I needed to express, and it had to be expressed in film because that is my craft. I couldn’t write a book about this; it had to be a film. And by then, I really had all the [conceptual] freedom in the world to do this any way I wanted. It didn’t matter to me whether people thought of it as a fiction film or a documentary. For me, the greatest thing about that film was that I made it at a point in my career where I could do whatever I wanted to do.
Lebow: Yes, that sense of creative freedom, of your being able to fully express yourself exactly as you wanted to, is very present in Mariner. I think that is why it seems like such a joyful project, despite the intensity of your family story, with all the tensions and melodrama and sense of not belonging. Actually, I sense this in all of your more experimental documentary work, especially your essay films. Is that because you aren’t hampered by the big productions or burdened with crews, investors, actors, and so on?
Aïnouz: No, it has nothing to do with that. It’s not about the money or the crew. It’s about narrative. About being free from the constraints of narrative! It’s the relief from causality, storytelling, all those codes that you need to follow. Of course, you don’t have to follow them faithfully, but you’re always working within and against those constraints when you have a certain amount of money invested in a product like that.
Lebow: You would never call Mariner a product. That says it all.
Aïnouz: Right. Back when I made Seams, and my other experimental film, Viajo, I didn’t make them to tell stories. They were diaries: not necessarily ones that were supposed to be published, more like diaries that were kept somewhere, and if someone saw them, great, but no problem if not, because they didn’t cost anything (relatively speaking). I think that’s the arena where I can have more fun, where I can just let myself go. It’s my favorite playground.
I didn’t start out intending to make feature films. I began to make features because I needed to pay the rent. My shorts and experimental films didn’t pay my rent, and I was living on assistant editing jobs, festival programming, and teaching, then trying to make films [in between]. Feature filmmaking became a job. And it’s turned out to be an extremely pleasant way to make a living—but it is also that. It’s fantastic, don’t get me wrong. No matter how much I complain, I devised a really good job for myself!
Lebow: Back to Mariner, I’m really interested in how you designed Mariner, how you crafted your voice-over and managed to find just the right personal register. It appears so natural yet so poetic, with no false notes.
Aïnouz: Well, I don’t think it’s very mysterious: it’s just trial and error. It’s not magic, it’s just knowing the craft. For instance, one of the things that made Mariner possible is knowing what can be done with the available technology. It’s like being a musician who plays in a huge orchestra; when you play solo on your own instrument, you know what the chord is made of, you know how tight it should be and when to loosen up. It’s not about talent, it’s about craft.For instance, there’s not a single second in all of Mariner of original sound. Everything, the entire soundtrack, was done in post. It’s about manufacturing cinema.
It’s not about manufacturing writing: I didn’t write anything, and I think that’s why I had so much fun. I hate writing: writing is all about anchoring ideas. And cinema is about exploding ideas. The standard postproduction deal for a film, certainly a documentary, is twelve weeks of editing, maybe twenty-four weeks. But I asked for fifty-two weeks of editing. I said: because you’re not paying for anything to do with development, give me my editing time. And then we had a four-week mix. That’s unheard of: a television program has three days, a feature film has three weeks. But for this documentary, we had four. I had two sound designers; I had twenty days to do the color grading. And it was all done in the same huge studio where I made Invisible Life. So I didn’t treat this film like a small film! I gave it the same treatment that I would give a feature.
Lebow: For me, some of the best documentary filmmakers are people who have experience making fiction films. I remember reading that Chantal Akerman had seventeen or eighteen tracks of audio when mixing D’Est. She used the tools of cinema. She didn’t make any arbitrary distinctions between fiction and documentary, or narrative and experimental, or whatever. It all got the full treatment.
Aïnouz: Exactly. It’s the effect of the real, it’s not the real. So the question is: How best can you achieve the effect of the real? And that is not what you look at; it’s what you sense.
It’s interesting. Mariner of the Mountains was made right after Invisible Life, a classic genre film made at an incredibly high technical level. I postproduced Mariner with the exact same team and the exact same facilities as Invisible Life: same composers, same sound designers, same color grader, same studio. I don’t believe in a binary dividing documentary and fiction. I think one thing feeds the other.
Lebow: You mentioned that you didn’t write anything for Mariner, but the script is incredibly personal and point-perfect.
Aïnouz: That’s right, I basically recorded things while I was in Algeria and sent the transcription to Maurilio [Hauser], one of the writers who wrote Invisible Life. And he is the one who wrote that narrative. It’s completely constructed, and within that recipe, or formula, I could find the space to play. Sometimes I think I’m more of a photographer than a filmmaker. I feel much more at ease as a photographer, or even better, as an amateur Super 8 filmmaker, than I do as an industrial filmmaker.
Lebow: OK, but don’t underplay your work with actors.
Aïnouz: It’s true, I love actors. Actors are so generous. There’s a degree of playfulness that I adore. I can spend the whole day with them, just trying things out. I just say, “Can you do it like this, can you do it like that, can you experiment with this?” Their capacity for play is endless. And there’s also something akin to possession that happens: they can really become inhabited by a character. And when that happens, it’s magic!
I love the whole playground of filmmaking. It’s like an incredible sandbox to play in. So it’s true that I’m not a photographer per se. I love the layering and the details, especially if it’s not kidnapped by narrative. What I learned from Mariner was that I can strategically use narrative, not be held hostage to it.
Lebow: Hypothetically, if you were set for life, had all the money you needed, didn’t have to make another cent, but could just raise money for any kind of film, would you let go of commercial filmmaking completely and just make whatever the hell you felt like making?
Aïnouz: That’s such a great question, because I wake up every day worrying about money. I guess I’m pulled in a few directions. Part of me thinks I would just be taking photographs and using that camera over there [pointing to his Super 8 camera]. But seeing Invisible Life go all around the world and show not only in cinemas but also streaming, I realized that it’s also good to have an audience, to have your work widely seen. That’s something that I don’t think I would want to give up. So, I think I would maybe be doing more of my experimental work and my photography, but I would continue doing commercial films.
Lebow: Some of your feature films are your own projects and others are offered to you as commissions. How do you make the commissioned work your own? What makes a film a Karim Aïnouz film?
Aïnouz: I think a film becomes mine when I own the characters. Do the tropes of this character interest me? Does what they’re going through interest me? It’s not so much about the story, but about the way the characters inhabit that story. And that has to do with their trajectory and it has to do with the actor. There is only one commission I have failed to make my own; all of the others I feel I succeeded to fully embrace.
Let’s talk about Invisible Life. It’s a great book, but its time span was seventy years long, so it was really difficult to adapt. I only began to own that movie when I brought the soul of two characters to inhabit the characters that were there: the souls of my mother and my aunt. Then it became mine. When it becomes a story about people I love, then I know it’s a project that I can live with for the two or three years it takes to make it. You really have to do a million pirouettes, though, narrative-wise, for it to become yours.
Lebow: Meanwhile, what do you say to being called a women’s film director? It’s such a classic “coded gay” attribution. It’s like being back in the 1940s with Irving Rapper and George Cukor, making “weepies.”
Aïnouz: I know, right? Well, in some ways I understand it: I was raised by women who were wronged by men. My father left my mother, having promised to marry her and having made her pregnant. My grandfather literally left to buy a pack of cigarettes and never came back, leaving my grandmother to raise my mother and other daughters by herself. They never complained about it. Never! But it’s something I could smell, I could sense. You knew there was a lot of pain there. And I just wanted to get back at those men. For me these films are a kind of revenge. Not revenge, exactly, but a settling of accounts.
My second feature, Suely in the Sky, is basically saying: What would it look like if the woman is the one who leaves? But after I made Suely, I made the HBO series, Alice, which had another female protagonist, and then I was offered Silver Cliff. And then I said, that’s enough. I don’t want to be a “woman’s film” director—you know, a man who understands women so well, blah blah blah. I didn’t want to get stuck in that role.
That’s why I made Viajo, which is about a straight, white, middle-class man. Get me out of here, don’t place me in that box! And I made Praia du Futuro, and after that, the documentary, Tempelhof. None of these are women’s films.
But then it became so difficult to get another fiction feature off the ground that when I was offered Invisible Life, obviously another “women’s film,” I jumped at the chance. And the film I’m working on now is another women’s picture, though this one’s a thriller.
Lebow: So have you finally accepted your fate?
Aïnouz: No, not exactly. Put this in the context of Brazilian and Latin American cinema. When I made Madame Satã, there were no gay films being made in Latin America. When I made Suely, my second feature, there were very few women who had access to the director’s chair in Latin America. I wanted to give the stage to a female protagonist. I’m glad Invisible Life went well, and I’m excited for this next film.
But now is a different time, and I really can stand aside and let women talk about women and represent women in their films. For instance, I was recently offered a film by two female producers about a female protagonist, and I just said, “You guys need to be calling a woman, find a female director.” They don’t need me. It’s time for men to step aside when they’re offered those projects. I just sent them a few names.
Lebow: We started this interview with the idea that you have no terroir, but now it seems that maybe everywhere is your terroir.
Aïnouz: I think maybe I’m finally finding my terroir, my element, and I think it is Berlin. I want to make a movie about Hermannplatz, the square near where I live, which has been completely transformed since I’ve been living there. But at the same time, there’s always the itch— to make a few films in France about the postcolonial experience, or a fiction film in Algeria.
Lebow: Your latest production, Firebrand, will be your first English-language film and, of all things, it’s set in sixteenth-century England!
Aïnouz: [Laughs] I know, it’s crazy. But it’s great to have the chance to make a film in English. English is also my language, and let’s face it, any English-language film is going to have a much bigger international audience. Because most of my films have been made in Portuguese, my audience has generally been limited to the Portuguese-speaking world, mainly in Brazil. But if you want your film to be seen outside of your country, I think you have to make it in English. That’s the sad truth.
Lebow: But why sixteenth-century England?
Aïnouz: This project came to me based on the success of Invisible Life. But it didn’t take long for me to understand how I could make it my own. The film is about Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. She was a fascinating woman, but not a lot is known about her. She’s the one who outlives the monster. It’s going to be a period film, but I think it makes more sense to call it a thriller—one that takes place five hundred years ago.
Lebow: Okay, a thriller, but what is your interest in creating this period world?
Aïnouz: One of the most fascinating things to me about making Firebrand is that England is really obsessed with heritage: they have extensive records, their wealth is enormous, and they can afford to preserve aspects of their past. But this film is set in a time before they become an empire.
I’m excited to tell that story, to show this culture of thugs, while the Moors, the French, and the Ottomans are at the height of their civilizations. I think it’s very interesting for me to be able to ask what this place was before it became a colonial power. I’m also fascinated by what it smelled like at that time, what people were doing, what was their relationship to nature, how did they eat, what did they make their clothes with, the kind of fabric. I’m really being super rigorous about making a chronicle of that time as almost a documentary of the time. All of this is the given, but how I look at it is what makes it contemporary. And part of that is what it was it like to be a woman in 1547, or to have a miscarriage in 1547. Women in England at that time were Untermenschen, they were not even considered human. They had no rights; their subjectivity was completely stripped. So I think it’s also interesting to be specific.
Of course, I ask myself in what way this film is relevant for today. I think more and more that film is a way of writing history with a capital H, an interpretation of history. I’m doing things with this movie that I don’t think any historian can do. I can take liberties, I can invent scenarios. And why shouldn’t I—coming from Brazil, with Algerian roots—reimagine this history? It’s an incredible opportunity to see things differently.
Lebow: It’s inevitable that this film is going to be compared with Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite . You are another outsider interpreting English history for the world.
Aïnouz: It’s not only Lanthimos. There was also Cary Fukunaga who did Jane Eyre . I think there’s a tradition in this country of importing foreign labor, foreign talent, who are invited to reread their classics.
Lebow: Yes, it’s as if the English realized they were endlessly making films about their heritage, and are now inviting others to do so—a little like that old joke about the narcissist: “Well, enough about me. What do you think of me?”
Aïnouz: Yeah, you see Roman Polanski doing Tess, Shekhar Kapur doing Elizabeth. They invited Lanthimos, they invited Fukunaga, who is based in the US. They haven’t invited any non-British women yet; so far it’s just men, by the way. But there’s also that classic that Alfonso Cuarón did before he made Y tu mamá también: his British film, Great Expectations . I’m very fortunate that one of the most recent ones is Lanthimos’s because I think he did a great job with The Favourite. I love the irony. But it’s good to talk about genre. We both chose to look at history through the prism of genre: his was satire and mine is a thriller. It’s a very different way of looking at the past. And it’s also a very different moment in history. But yes, we’re both looking at the monarchy in England. I think this is also why I’m here. If Yorgos had not made The Favourite, I don’t think I would even be making this movie. It’s a legacy that has been reactivated through The Favourite.
Lebow: You know, having lived in this country for nearly twenty years, it’s clear to me that heritage is one of the most closely held values in England. There’s a whole controversy now around toppling statues of slave holders, and there are loads of people in this country willing to hold fast even to that legacy, to take pride in it, even. So messing with it is a seriously sensitive matter—and you are about to step right into it.
Aïnouz: Meanwhile, the Americans and the English have made everybody [from the past] speak English in their films: Cleopatra, Ben-Hur, Spartacus. They’re all white and they all speak English! Ridley Scott is making Napoleon right now with Joaquin Phoenix. Napoleon speaking English! So allow me, a foreigner from the Global South, to make this movie about these English people. They’ve exploded all their credit by now; it’s our turn to tell these stories. Why can’t I? Why can’t I talk about the history of a colonial power that’s been framing and telling every fucking narrative that we know in the world? It’s high time.
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