SXSW INTERVIEW: ‘Executive Order’ Director Lázaro Ramos
Lázaro Ramos is a Brazilian actor, presenter, producer, director and author who, over the last 20 years, has received more than 70 awards, played almost one hundred characters in cinema, theatre and television, and has published five books. He has been a UNICEF ambassador since 2009 and is well known in Latin America for his commitment to humanitarian causes. In 2017, he was elected as one of the most influential Afro-descendants in the world under the age of 40 by MIPAD (Most Influential People of African Descent).
Ramos is the director of Executive Order, playing at this year’s SXSW Festival. The film takes place in a dystopian near-future in Brazil, where an authoritarian government orders all citizens of African descent to move to Africa – creating chaos, protests, and an underground resistance movement that inspires the nation.
You begin the film with “somewhere in the future”, which reminded me of Bacurau, which begins with “a few years from now.” This choice of having the film happen in an undetermined time makes the film feel timeless but it also dialogues with the present. How did you make this choice?
The card came from the play. This film was a very revealing process for me regarding the history we are currently witnessing. This was a play I directed in 2011, written by Aldri Anunciação, and as soon as the play premiered I felt like this would be a good film. I didn’t know exactly what to do because this was very much theatre of the absurd, so I thought “well, we can do a film of the absurd”, let’s make a film about things that we don’t want to happen and that take place somewhere in the future. So this card came from the original play and was a reflection on this whole thought process, really.
Unfortunately, several of the things that take place in the film and the play have somewhat happened or happened in a similar way, and then you go back to life imitates art or art imitates life. I believe art was anticipating the direction in which the world was moving towards. I want to believe that’s what happened. The original alert, first issued in 2011, is still valid today, but unfortunately, we have now experienced some of the things that take place in the film.
The film was written seven years ago. Did you ever change anything in the script as things were happening politically in Brazil?
No, I haven’t changed a thing… For example, one of the deaths in the film – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoiling it – is very similar to the one of George Floyd, but this came from the 2011 play. The moment when characters begin to wear masks on the streets has nothing to do with the pandemic, it was something that was written right from the beginning. It’s very funny to think about that because just the other day I was thinking about the fact that most of the plays and the films I’ve been a part of in 2018 and 2019 approached confinement in some way, and, in the film, the two cousins also experience confinement, they are living under lockdown. This was already in the play in 2011 and, to me, it is a clear alert that tells us to become more aware of some of the messages sent to us by art. That’s the bright side, being reminded of the power that art has to make us reflect.
I recently watched another Brazilian film, Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud, that was created before the pandemic and yet it heavily echoes what we are currently going through. How do you think Brazil’s current situation has influenced such a quality crop of dystopic cinema?
This is a little bit hard to answer because, unfortunately, the artistic creations of 2020 and 2021 are currently frozen, upheld by the shock of everything we are going through. Our work, our craft, is very heavily dependent on agglomeration, on having a crowd, on the ability to have people on a film set – all of this is crucial for us to be able to tell our stories. I believe that, before the pandemic, many films were already alerting us to this situation, a lot of artistic projects were touching on the subject of coexistence, were talking about the inability of dialoguing, about regurgitating anger that had been internalised for a very long time… The pre-pandemic art was talking about all that was boiling inside us. I don’t know how art produced in 2022 will look like as the product of everything we are going through right now. At the moment, I can see people trying their best to hold onto something. I see theatre plays online trying to do whatever is possible within the limits that exist between the camera and the artist, I see writers using their anguish to write about this moment, but I believe there hasn’t been enough reflection in order to be able to turn all of this into a narrative that isn’t solely barfing all of our anguish.
On the other hand, we know that after periods of crisis, art generally presents things that will be immortalised in history. Today, I don’t know what art will look like, but – maybe by the end of 2022 – we’ll have something to celebrate.
One of the greatest things about the film is the way you place all these meaningful hidden messages throughout, like having the law be named 1888, the year slavery was abolished in Brazil. How was the process of embedding history in fiction and are you afraid some of it will be lost when the film reaches international audiences?
I’ve been learning a lot by presenting the film to international audiences. It’s very curious because we already had a few reviews and some critics prefer the beginning of the film because of the comedy and some like the end best because they’re bigger fans of the drama and its emotional impact. I think the international reception is beyond my control, but to the Brazilian audience I know there is a lot to be absorbed, from the names of the characters such as André and Antônio being a homage to the Rebouças Brothers (the first Black men in Brazil to go to University, the country’s first Black engineers and pillars of the abolitionist movement) to the way we composed each frame and our use of what you may call easter eggs. In the AfroBunker, everything has meaning. Something very special to us is the fact everyone in the bunker is an actor, a lot of them very well-known, so I think that, to the Brazilian audience, from the moment they first lay eyes on the film there’s an impact. However, I believe that in a way – and this is not necessarily a good thing – the story that we are telling touches the heart of every nation, every person. All these conflicts regarding immigration, the reflection surrounding slavery, the fight for the strengthening of identity… Certain things that we may laugh about at first but suddenly evolves into a tragedy are all too familiar to what we are living at the moment and I believe this is a huge source of identification.
Now, on a bit of a personal note, I loved the fact that your two big villains happen to be Renata Sorrah and Adriana Esteves, huge names of Brazilian television and two of the most iconic telenovela villains in history. I bet you’ll have the whole country screaming in joy at the sight of the two together as I was! Was this a deliberate choice?
[He laughs] No, of course not! Luckily I am a big friend of both, we have frequented each other’s houses for many years. When I was making the film I thought “Oh my, I can’t believe I have these two wonderful friends that have such a huge meaning to the Brazilian audiences!” and I invited them both to be a part of the project. Just the other day we posted a picture of the two on social media and people went crazy! They were commenting “I can’t believe these two are together!”
It’s very interesting the way you employ the music of Elza Soares in two very different moments of the film, the first one a scene filled with warmth and joy and the second a harrowing scene that beautifully embodies the film’s message against racism. Can you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Elza Soares and the choice of having her as such a pivotal part of the film?
We conceived the music in the film as a way of providing a transition between narrative styles, dividing comedy and drama. Our music department had Rincon Sapiência and Plínio Profeta, the first a prominent rapper and musician and the second an incredibly well-accomplished music producer, and it was a great match. Elza was purposefully chosen for these two moments. We had a conversation – before we even started shooting – about how we wanted to portray Black culture in the film, what we wanted to show. One of the first things I mentioned, something I was very adamant about, was that I didn’t want to talk only about pain, I also wanted to talk about potency. This is something we tried to convey within the film through every single choice we made, from the costume department to the cinematography, and it was the same feeling we had when choosing the music.
In a symbolic way, I believe Elza Soares is the Brazilian artist that best embodies this sentiment. She has a history of suffering but she transformed it in potency, and her voice touches the heart of every person of every country, independent of language. So we had two very intense moments, this moment of extreme joy before tragedy, where you have Capitu and Antônio together celebrating their love in the happiest of days, an explosion of joy; and then you have a moment towards the end, which is an explosion of strength but, at the same time, of faith in the collectivity and to use Elza’s voice was an obvious choice.
You inundate the streets with a feeling of liberation, showing people drenched in this shared feeling of community. At some point, you also employ archival images of the racial movement in Brazil not only in the past but also in the present, including images of the new generation of Black politicians that are fighting for equality from the inside out, including names such as Talíria Petrone. How was the research process and how did you choose the final images used?
Wow, it was just so hard. I think it might have been the hardest part. It was a lengthy research process where I was being sent images throughout a whole month and we managed to obtain quite a lot of material. I was always very jealous of American films on Black history because of the sheer quantity of archival material they have in hand. You watch a documentary about Nina Simone and there she is, at age 9, playing the piano, for us, finding images of even the most iconic of names is much harder. So when I was granted access to the material I was completely out of my mind with excitement, because we needed to trim the images and I decided to go for a more inspirational approach instead of trying to address every single thing.
Our story has been so rarely told I had this urge of grabbing onto everything and I simply couldn’t, firstly because it was very expensive [he laughs] and secondly because when you’re directing your first film, it’s very easy to make the mistake of wanting to tell too much, to address every single thing. Since I was very aware I couldn’t address everything, we opted for a more inspirational ending.
Do you think, then, that the next logical step is to work on a documentary?
I have directed a documentary and produced two. I directed a documentary about my theatre group and it ended up as a historical dive into Black theatre of the last 25 years, and I produced A Luta do Século, about two legendary boxers and Aos Seus Olhos, which centres around the process of growing old.
To be fair, after doing Executive Order, I want to do more fiction. Because this first film, with all its accomplishments and errors – and I identify many – was an attempt to research a new language, a new form, something I had already applied to my books and the plays I directed. This language begins to approach a subject in a soft, light, welcoming way, and then it begins to hook the audience in so it can become denser. This is a process not yet concluded, and I would love to employ fiction as a way to further develop it. All of my cinema-related projects have a way of approaching it, and it’s something I want to learn more about, something I want to be better at, because I believe this is a translation of how I communicate with the world and I would love to be able to transform this into a cinematic language.
Would you like to do this through an original story or do you have plans to continue working with adaptations?
You see, I didn’t even want to direct this film [laughs]. I directed the play and then started offering the story to my filmmaker friends and all of them had their projects as a priority, so they weren’t interested in directing. Then I began to have talks and I realised I was directing shortly before I had to go behind the cameras. My directorial debut was forced [laughs].
I am so happy being an actor, I love being an actor, but, after directing this film I was bitten by the bug and now there’s no way back…
Going back to the script, I don’t know exactly how much was lifted from the page, but a lot of the dialogue is shockingly uncensored, so very heavy. It pains me to think that it sadly reflects much of what we see in Brazil today, with a lot of what was left in the dirtiest of gutters being brought to light by a political climate that favours the bigots. How was the process of opening such deep wounds when writing the script?
The play was just the cousins in the apartment, the AfroBunker and everything that happens on the street was created by us. Some of the lines we wrote came from an exercise that went like “let’s say the most absurd thing that comes to mind, let’s take cinema to a level of total and complete absurdity” and, unfortunately, we hear these things nowadays. What can I tell you? [he sighs deeply]. It would be beautiful if it didn’t happen but, since it does, we need to have the maturity and the courage to face it head-on, because these wounds are ingrained within society and currently being expanded, so if we don’t have the courage to look at it and try to understand what we can possibly do to solve it, we will remain stuck. I so wish I could turn a blind eye, I wish I could make films about other subjects, I wanted so badly that this subject didn’t bother me so deeply. You know how much I love comedy and how it is the part it plays in my life, but unfortunately, it is necessary and I truly believe that art is a fantastic gateway to move people.
One thing I really want is for people to leave this film feeling stronger and stimulated. I know the film touches on very painful subjects, but my choice to end it the way I did was a way of motivating people because I don’t want people to leave the film defeated. This is supposed to offer strength to people so they can find their own way of contributing to the cause. It is an incentive to courage.
Full Review of Executive Order – Click Here