In Anita Rocha da Silveira’s sophomore feature Medusa, a group of chaste young women split their time between church services and beating up shameful sinners in the name of the Lord. When watched through the lenses of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the film feels like a cautionary tale, consciously crafted to poke and prod at the country’s gaping wounds – left to bleed for far too long. It is also an accomplished piece of filmmaking that further solidifies Silveira, who had one of the most interesting directorial debuts of the last decade in Kill Me Please (2016), as one of the leading voices of this new generation of Brazilian filmmakers. 

JumpCut Online’s Rafaela Sales Ross sat down with the Brazilian director during the Toronto Film Festival to discuss contemporary churches, political turmoil and the importance of having women occupying more and more spaces in the film industry. 

You have previously mentioned that you wrote the script before Bolsonaro was elected in 2018. The story, however, greatly resonates with the distorted values of his presidency. Did you make any changes to the script after he got elected? 

We could feel conservatism advancing in Brazil since 2013, when we had the protests all across the country, which started with a certain intent and then shifted to a completely different one (widely known as the June Journeys, the protests began as the result of increases in public transport fares but ended up tackling major issues such as government corruption and police brutality) – I was definitely feeling something strange in the air. 

I started writing Medusa in 2015, at a time when I was hearing a lot about girls committing violent crimes against other girls – it was all over social media. It usually started because a girl was posting too many revealing pictures, or had too many likes, so the aim of the violent acts was to turn said girl ugly, that was the main point. I kept hearing similar cases, every month or so, where the assailants would cut the victim’s hair or slash their face. This made me think a lot about Medusa because she worked as a priestess at the Temple of Athena and was punished for being raped by Poseidon. I kept thinking about how this millennial myth still reverberates with this idea of women controlling other women, which is in itself due to structural machismo. There is a line of thought that goes a bit like, “if I am not allowed to do any of these things, why would she?”, so we, as women, have to control ourselves to such an extent that we end up trying to control those around us.

At that very same time, there were news about trendy new churches that still withheld very traditional values and then we had the impeachment (president Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil, was impeached in what many consider to be a coup d’etat in 2016), followed by a surge of YouTube videos by young evangelical girls that pleaded for the “end of feminism”. These videos had a fantastic quality and a very young aesthetic, all very cute, but they heavily echoed this idea that all women should be submissive. All of these patterns fuelled my research for the film. 

The subjects approached by the film are quite heavy, touching upon issues such as domestic abuse and violent crimes against women. How did you work with the cast to prepare them to bring these subjects to the screen?

I have a few friends who were raised in this highly religious environment and, even though this is not at all an attack on religion, I wanted to touch upon the fact that some churches appropriate religious scriptures to propagate racist, homophobic and sexist values. I discussed this notion in length with some of my friends but what helped a lot was that many of these churches film their services and make them available in their entirety online, so you can actually watch the whole thing.

As a director, I like to start preparing my cast very early on, not only because it is one of the less costly parts of making a film but also because actors usually love this period of preparation, it’s something very important to their craft, especially when you are working with a younger cast. We started working together around three months before we started shooting and we eased into it together. Initially, I worked with the girls only and then I split them into sections, taking the time to develop each character and to have all girls fully worked on before introducing the boys to the mix. This longer period also allowed the younger cast to conduct their own research, frequent religious services and further investigate this world. 

What also helped is that I worked with a longtime friend of mine, Clarisse Zargos, who comes from a theatre background and focuses on body work. She helped me choreograph the fight scenes and overall was a great addition to this preparation stage.

It is interesting to see how you fluctuate between two very different settings: the neon-kissed church quarters and the dimmer, sombre hospital corridors. How did you create this world, from location scouting to set design? 

When I first started writing the film, I envisioned the story taking place in a town that was neither too big nor too small, a location far from the metropolis that is Rio de Janeiro. Logistically, however, it made much more sense to shoot in Rio, so I found myself having to dig deeper to find locations that still somewhat resembled what I had in mind. 

Once we found a suitable location, the art department transformed the place, turning an old school into the church you see in the film. The idea behind the neon aesthetic was very inspired by these trendy new churches. It was very important to us to make the whole environment look appealing, to turn the church into a show, a place where people go to connect with one another. Interestingly, the hospital set was built in the exact same location, just a few yards away, which helped us a lot budget-wise as we could concentrate the majority of the shootings in one space. Even the forest scenes were shot there, as there were dense woods nearby and an old house on the grounds was turned into Mari’s quarters – it was, overall, a fantastic location. 

You don’t specify a particular time where Medusa takes place, which brings me back to a recent pattern of Brazilian cinema employing the dystopian and the futuristic to approach very current political issues, as in Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau (2020) and Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love (2019). How would you say Medusa fits into this pattern? 

The first draft of Medusa took place in the future, but I changed it in 2017, so the film takes place in the present but it is a parallel universe of sorts. You see, everything surrounding the church is inspired in real life, in things you hear during services happening right now, so this – to me – is all very realistic. I wouldn’t say the aesthetic is necessarily futuristic, but I certainly wanted to detach people from reality and place them into this parallel universe, which includes the neon colours and the bright lights. 

A part of me wanted the film to lean into the fantastic to make it a bit lighter, so you do have a little bit of a futuristic touch to it but my original idea was not to create something that takes place in the future, but something adjacent to our current reality. I do lean a bit more into the fantastic with the scenes that take place in the hospital, with the comatose patients, but overall the film was heavily influenced by reality, so this is why I wanted the aesthetic to be a bit heavier so people wouldn’t necessarily see the film as something real, allowing the audience to have an experience with the film that wasn’t so heavily charged. 

I believe this tendency of wanting to place a story like this in the future, as an audience member, comes from a defence mechanism: we don’t want this to be the reality…

I do feel like things are changing and that this will not be our future. We have to remain positive and believe that things will get better. 

You have very youthful renditions of gospel songs in the film, including a great gospel version of House of the Rising Sun. How was the process of creating these songs and working on the performances of the female choir?

The songs were in the script from day one. With House of the Rising Sun, we chose the song because it was in the public domain and I wanted to use a song that was easily recognisable. The audience might not know exactly what song it is, but there is this inherent familiarity that I was very interested in. I really wanted to communicate the alluring atmosphere of the church, it is an environment that draws you in and, before you know it, you’re dancing to the songs – it’s all very seductive, it makes you feel great. And, with the lyrics, I wanted to build upon the criticism that permeates the film. The version of House of the Rising Sun speaks to this idea of obedient housewives and religion intertwined with politics as it is the jingle for the minister’s political campaign.

One of the curators at Cannes actually called the film a musical, which I thought was very interesting. When I was working on the script, people kept asking me what was the genre of the film and it was a question I always tried to avoid as I found it very hard to place Medusa into a box. It is a horror but also a musical and also a comedy and a drama and a fantasy and so forth and so on. 

Anita Rocha da Silveira

You employ a very interesting allegory in Medusa with the comatose patients and thinking of people dormant to the reality that surrounds them. This is very connected to the concept of political alienation and, given the current political state of Brazil, it becomes even more interesting as a metaphor. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? 

I started thinking about this idea at a time in my life where I was seeing this new far-right grow bigger and bigger but felt very numb to it all, I just couldn’t process it. I remember telling my friends, around two months before the presidential elections, that there would be no way on Earth that Bolsonaro would be elected. To me, it was impossible. Then, once he started rising in the polls, I kept thinking that a parcel of society – myself included – was just too anesthetised to it all. We kept debating about what to do, or what we could do and ended up doing nothing. 

Over the past few years, Brazil has had to deal with this lingering feeling of “it can always get worse”. We were forever stuck in that 7×1 against Germany in the World Cup, that gut-wrenching feeling of loss, and yet, somehow, everything kept getting worse. So this idea of being in a coma came from this very same feeling, that it is much better to sleep through it all than to deal with the reality of it – we are all too tired to keep on fighting. 

This year, we had the Palme D’Or and the Golden Lion going to women (Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Audrey Diwan’s L’Événement, respectively). You have shown films at both festivals and is part of a new generation of female Brazilian directors that is changing the landscape of the country’s cinematic production. How does it feel to see other women directors become more and more recognised?

I think it’s great and I can definitely see a bigger interest from festivals in programming films directed by women. However, I think it’s crucial to reiterate the importance of having women in all areas of the industry, from filmmaking to criticism to programming. It is not enough to just have a few of us scattered in different areas, we need to see the number of women increasing throughout all sectors, this is the only way to achieve true change.