In our regular ‘Spotlight on Brazil’ section, we talk to cinematographer Pablo Baião about shooting the incredible O Homem Cordial (The Friendly Man) for acclaimed director Iberê Carvalho – by James Cunningham
In Iberê Carvalho’s latest film O Homem Cordial, rockstar Aurélio (Paulo Miklos) finds himself targeted by the government and social media when he is indirectly involved in the murder of a police officer. Nobody knows what actually happened, but the star is now the target of online radical groups. We follow Aurélio throughout a single, frenetic night in São Paulo as he is chased by a wave of hatred and the spread of uncontrollable proportions through social networks.
Cinematographer Pablo Baião’s filming on the streets of São Paulo matches masterfully the rhythm of the film. O Homem Cordial makes liberal use of the single-take as the film unravels in real-time and the film’s slick cinematography, and editing by Nina Galanternick, delivers lashings of tension and anxiety. This really is a film that has to be seen to be experienced, reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009, cinematography by Benoît Debie SBC) and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015, cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen DFF).
Baião received an invitation from director Iberê Carvalho to shoot the film after seeing some of the cinematographer’s prior work, including To My Beloved (2015) which earned Baião the ‘Best Cinematography’ award at the Brasilia Film Festival. Carvalho was on the Jury.
“When I read the script I like it, a lot, and felt that I was receiving a gift,” explains Baião. “It felt very contemporary and became even more relevant after the Brazilian elections of 2018. The political situation in Brazil has became radicalised. Hatred on the internet and on social media was a big part of it. At some point, the battlefield left the internet and arrived on the streets.”
O Homem Cordial was planned extensively during pre-production. The relationship between the camera and the main character was the filmmakers’ first focus, and the decision was made that Aurélio’s character should always be in frame. “It was very difficult to find this relationship, but I think we got it” says Baião. São Paulo, the largest city in South America, was itself a protagonist too.
László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015, cinematography by Mátyás Erdély HSC) was a reference for O Homem Cordial, as was the Donald Glover television series Atlanta (2016-2018, cinematography by Christian Sprenger). The award-winning single-take Victoria became an important reference for the filmmakers, and the decision to shoot O Homem Cordial in long, continuous takes was an inspired artistic choice because “you feel yourself in the skin of Aurélio,” says Baião.
Walter Lima Junior’s A Lira do Delirio (1978, cinematography by Dib Lutfi) is a film that Baião loves; with its heavy use of night shots and improvisation it became an important reference for the Brazilian cinematographer. The films of Sydney Lumet certainly were there too, along with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017, cinematography by Matthew Libatique ASC) for the proximity of the camera to the lead character and the dichotomy between framing. “We watched a lot of viral internet videos, too,” says Baião. “One in particular that saw a young black kid beaten by a crowd of older, middle-class white people that emerged from the impeachment protests in Brazil. We studied that video a lot.”
From the beginning of the process hand-held came naturally to the film. “It was an aesthetic decision,” says Baião. ”We wanted to follow organically Aurélio during his one night hell.” The camera was an ARRI Alexa XT. The camera was primarily chosen because of the camera’s low-light abilities. Baião needed to shoot on the streets of São Paulo, at night, using mostly the lights provided to him by the film’s locations. “We used Zeiss High Speed Lenses, the old ones, to give us a more organic look.
“Our focus puller Wanessa Malta worked a lot,” the cinematographer explains. “I had about eight reflectors in the truck, no dolly, and a lot of practical lights that we bought just for the film. We wanted the sensation you have when walking the streets at night, but with a heightened reality. Here in Brazil, since the 1960s, we’ve have a significant tradition of films shot on hand-held camera. Dib Lutfi, was THE hand-held master. I was his camera assistant in the 1990s. I learned a lot from him.”
The camera department consisted of four on camera, three electrics and three grips. The only thing the cinematographer says he wanted was a taller ladder to reach the street lights. The crew was small but united. Proof of this exists in the crew’s WhatsApp group which is still very active today.
“The mononymous Cidão was my gaffer,” says Baião. “He was a warrior. Sometimes it is more difficult to work with practical lights than reflectors. He made it look so easy. Dico Vilhena was our grip, a good friend of Carvalho and I like him a lot. He was of huge, intuitive assistance guiding me with the hand-held camera walking backwards on the streets. Everything was harmonious. I have in my memory that this film was one of most enjoyable I have ever done.”
O Homem Cordial was shot in five weeks, with only two days off, a rarity in Brazil. Rehearsals were made on locations, and since the scenes were shot in sequential order, it offered Baião the possibility that he spend some time on each shot. “We never missed the schedule,” he says. Lighting was done almost entirely with practical lights; we wanted a feeling that we had no cinema lighting. We wanted Paulistas [residents of São Paulo state] to see the film and feel that they know this place. We wanted to stay as close as possible to everyday life.”
Their truck was small and the crew shared electric, grip and production duties. Lights used were a 350w, 600w, 1K and 2K, all tungsten, only one of each, a 1k and 2k balloon and two small HMIs. All the rest were small, practical lights that could stay on screen and give the accidental spill that normal lights do with very little cutting.
One sequence in the film stands out as Baião’s favourite. It’s filmed as a single take. Aurélio meets the mother of a missing boy. “It was all so intense,” he explains. “It breaks the language film. The camera takes its direction from Aurélio. Roberta Estrela D’alva, the actress, is incredible. We finished shooting the scene and I felt that we didn’t quite reach the peak of emotion. I discussed with Carvalho about doing one more take, freestyle and completely improvised. It was magic.”
“How many mothers are in in this situation in Brazil,” the cinematographer explains. “How many families are destroyed by police brutality. Missing is worse that death. I felt like I was witnessing a real scene.” D’alva, the actress who played the mother in that scene, recently saw the cinematographer and gave him a big hug in recognition specifically for his contribution to her performance.
“A film is a consequence of many hard days work; you have to open all your sensibility to make a scene,” says Baião. “You are always pushing your limits. Especially hand-held; it’s a kind of dance. It never goes the way you predict, you have to be prepared for what happens.”
Post-production was completed at O2 Filmes with Fabio Souza, an old friend of the cinematographer. “He is a very talented and creative individual,” says Baião “He’s known me since I was a second camera assistant. We have collaborated together on many films, even in analog colour treatment.”
“We are in a very delicate moment for Brazilian cinema,” says Baião “We are being treated like enemies by a right-wing government, censorship is back, persecution, internet hate and so many friends without work. We are witnessing the dismantling of the whole system that brought Brazilian cinema to the place we are now.” When Baião filmed O Home Cordial, even in his worst dreams, he couldn’t imagine what is actually happening.
Fortunately, the cinematographer finds himself working on a television project about a true story that takes place during World War II. “It’s like a Brazilian Schindler’s List,” he says. “A very brave women saved hundreds of jews by falsifying Brazilian Visas inside the Brazilian Embassy in Hamburg. This one is a lot of work. So, we will resist and many good films are going to be made during this sad time in Brazil. I hope.”
For Baião, cinema is one of the arts that gives you more empathy for another human being. “You put yourself under the skin of another person,” he concludes by saying. “This is one of the things we lack in Brazil right now, empathy. We needed to feel the fear, the contradiction, the mental confusion of Aurélio that we’re all experiencing in everyday life. I think we achieved that.”
Pablo Baião is an award-winning Brazilian cinematographer.
‘Spotlight on Brazil’ is a collaboration between Australian Cinematographer Magazine and the Associação Brasileira de Cinematografia (ABC).
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.