I like to be ambiguous as an artist, says Brazilian filmmaker Gustavo Milan

In an exclusive interview, the lawyer-turned-filmmaker talks about his award-winning short film Seiva Bruta.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Brazilian filmmaker Gustavo Milan’s latest short film Seiva Bruta (Under the Heavens) won the award for Best Latino Short Film from the Directors Guild of America and was screened at the recently concluded Palm Springs International ShortFest. The hard-hitting film tells the story of a Venezuelan woman, Marta, who is immigrating to Brazil to find work to support her family. Leaving her baby behind, she sets out to eke out a living for herself. On the way, she meets a struggling young couple with their baby and they form an unusual but powerful bond.

In an exclusive interview, the lawyer-turned-filmmaker spoke about the inspiration for the story and its genesis, which lies in a personal experience. “The story of this movie is a blend of two different stories. The first story is, of course, about what’s going on in Venezuela now and actually has been going on since 2014, I would say, with the horrible socio-political crisis that has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee the country in search of a better life. So this is one part of the story. The second is something much more personal and happened in my family even before I was born. My mother nursed my cousin because my aunt did not have milk, so my mother became almost a second mother to him. They have a very beautiful and strong connection…when I understood what happened, that had such an impact on me. It had a magical effect that for me, somehow, blurred the boundaries of motherhood…but I never knew how to talk about this, much less in a movie. One day, in Sao Paolo, I opened the newspaper and saw a picture of a Venezuelan woman, walking along the shoulder that connects Brazil to Venezuela and she had a baby in her arms. For some reason, I doubted that the baby was her son...maybe because I had the story of my family in my head already. It was through that image that I connected these two different worlds and wrote the first draft of the movie.”

The short film examines the desperate condition of migrants and their vulnerability, where they are exploited by various people along the way. It speaks to the hardships faced by migrants across the world and their anguish. “I think my greatest hope with this movie was to somehow bring awareness about what’s going on in Venezuela and in Brazil and to initiate some kind of conversation about immigration, about the human condition through the point of view of an immigrant and I feel like I’m getting there with the film. When people watch the movie, they leave the theatre with so many questions in their head that I think that the movie is doing its job — making people think about the story, its conditions, what people go through. I’m glad that the movie is bringing awareness to that situation,” Milan explained.

“What I learnt while doing this movie is that it is about the pain of feeling abandoned. I realized that I am very scared of being abandoned. I think when you are migrating, I think this is one of your biggest concerns because you are leaving everything behind. You are alone in your journey…It’s a story that connects humankind as a whole.” 

The pain of abandonment, the fate of people affected by political crises in their countries and their impact on families and motherhood are themes that come together in a film that presents strong performances that highlight the predicaments of the characters. While watching another film by Venezuelan actress Samantha Castillo, Milan instinctively knew that he had found his protagonist. Once she agreed, the other actors also readily agreed to be a part of the film. Castillo insisted on doing all the scenes herself and did not use a double but it was the personal experiences of the cast members that lent an air of authenticity to their performances. 

Describing the experience, Milan said, “As a director, I did not have to do much to direct them [the actors] because to some extent, they were facing similar circumstances in Venezuela. They saw their friends leave the country. Samantha herself was leaving the country and moving to Mexico, so when they came to the set, they pretty much embodied the characters; they were going through the same things that the characters were going through.”

Milan also chose to shoot with 16mm film to enhance the nostalgic look of the film and bring out the emotional state of the characters. However, the film had an arduous journey while being made and fell prey to the shifts in political regimes in Brazil. “It’s always hard to make films and it’s even harder to make short films because we never have the budget that we wish for and it’s hard to find financing for shorts because it’s difficult to get your money back…but in Brazil, especially now with [Jair] Bolsonaro, things became much much worse. One thing that happened with me doing Seiva Bruta was a great lesson for me as a filmmaker in Brazil. I got money from the Brazilian government before Bolsonaro took over and I was given the go-ahead to start production.”

“The film went on the floors in December and Bolsonaro took over in January 2019 and the first thing he did was freeze all the government money that was going to cinema. So we never got the money that was promised to us but we had the whole production going and were on location. It was very complicated. We had to convince everybody that we would pay them but it would be longer than expected and everybody understood. So it’s very difficult to make movies in Brazil.”

Seiva Bruta has seen a great response and won the Grand Chameleon Award for Best Narrative Short at the Brooklyn Film Festival, the Best International Short at the ShortShorts Asia festival, amongst others.

Sharing his thoughts on the subjects that excite him as a filmmaker, he said, “My career is very recent. I started making films in 2014 so I’m still trying to understand who am I as a filmmaker and as an artist, and I feel like doing short films is a great way to explore my voice, to do different things. I just shot another short film in Brazil which has a completely different tone and a completely different story. I like to explore and I think I want to be like this forever. I like to be ambiguous as an artist but I like characters who are conflicted. In the case of Marta, her body wants something, it’s longing for her baby, who she left behind but her mind has a very rational goal. I like that conflict where her mind wants something and her body wants something else. I am interested in characters who have a very deep internal conflict.”

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Palm Springs Short Festival