After 20 years without working in Brazilian cinema, the actress returns to the poster with a sublime performance in "Aquarius", the second feature film by Kleber Mendonça Filho. From the “top of the mountain” of her victorious trajectory, Sonia says she clearly sees her own life and the expedients that led Brazil to what she considers an affront to democracy
Sonia Braga lives a happy moment. At 66, two decades after participating in the filming of Tieta do Agreste, by Cacá Diegues, the actress returned to work in the country in 2015. Aquarius, a new feature film by Kleber Mendonça Filho, which premiered in theaters across the country last Thursday (1), she says that, upon realizing the heroic and haughty dimension of the character Clara, she was enraptured by the original script by the director from Pernambuco. A widow, retired journalist and writer, Clara lives in the building that gives the film its name, a charming three-story building built in the 1940s on the edge of Boa Viagem beach, one of the most expensive square meters in Recife.
Cultured and serene, Clara lives alone in the apartment, where she enjoys her enormous passion for music. From your living room door out, however, the Aquarius Building is a battleground. Strong, she remains isolated in the building, after all the neighbors have sold their properties to the construction company Bonfim, which intends to build a skyscraper there and earn millions. The fight against real estate speculation is, for Clara, a struggle to preserve the physical space and her own affective memory.
From New York, in a long interview with CULTURE! Brazilians initiated by Skype and, later, by telephone, Sonia reveals that she recently faced a legal imbroglio, similar to Clara's, with Rede Globo. The process was motivated by the rerun of the feuilleton Dancing days. After a year fighting to be paid for the rights to the daily use of her image as Julia, the protagonist in the 1978 soap opera, the actress was defeated in court. Ironically, she chaired the commission of professionals in the medium that, in 1979, fought for a law to protect the rights of audiovisual artists to be passed.
Although happy, Sonia is also experiencing a moment of apprehension. Amplifying the protest made at the Cannes Film Festival with the Aquarius, she also shows indignation at the interim government of Michel Temer (made effective days later, with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff), for Sonia, “an administrative coup” that affronts the 1988 Constitution.
In the following conversation, a clipping of almost three hours of pleasant and humorous chat, the actress also talks about the reasons that, since the worldwide success of The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), by Hector Babenco, made her work less and less in Brazil. Sonia is also amused to discover two coincidences between her and two contributors to this newsroom. In 1983, when she was filming the Bruno Barreto film version for Gabriela clove and cinnamon, in Paraty (RJ, she was photographed, in several situations, by Hélio Campos Mello, editor-in-chief of Brazilian (“tell him that I want copies of these photos, otherwise I won’t authorize the publication of the interview”, he jokes). In 2011, this reporter was in Niterói and spent four days at the actress's house. The reason? On the following pages…
CULTURE!Brazilians –Why Aquarius convinced you to go back to filming in Brazil, 20 years after having made Tieta do Agreste?
Sonia Braga – When I read the script Aquarius, there was such strength in him that there were no questions left about the character and the film. Kleber's invitation was irrefutable. I had a reaction I've never had with any other script I've read. I understood Clara's words and the situations she faced, as if that woman were me.
What characteristics led to the realization that you and Clara are similar?
I had to create an image to be able to explain this similarity. First, because she and I had very different paths, but our age, emotionally and as citizens, has led us to the same place. It was then that I came to the following image: we are women who climbed two different points of the same mountain, but who reached the same conclusion. We are at the top of the mountain, we now have a broader view of our lives and we see much further. This image gives the dimension of Clara's meaning to me. I stopped making films in Brazil, even though I loved my country, because I wasn't happy with my professional life there. There is a very serious issue, and even distant I know it, which is the situation of our artists.
At this point, communication via Skype is untenable. After many failures in the video and audio transmissions, Sonia decides to call the newsroom of Brazilian.
Hello Sonia, can you hear me?
Now yes. Lucky for us we're not astronauts...
Yes. We would be orbiting dispersed from each other… Do you remember what we were talking about?
Of course I remember. The person who lies is the one who has trouble remembering what he says. Whoever speaks the truth never gets into trouble with memory.
You spoke of the reasons that justify the 20-year hiatus without working in cinema in the country…
The truth is that I never wanted to leave Brazil, but it's not easy to go through two generations of filmmakers who simply ignore who I am. Meanwhile, the invitations to work abroad only increased, at the same time that Brazilian television began to be an increasingly difficult medium for me, something ironic, because it was very important to my career.
Soap operas require months of recording. Did that influence your decision to stop making them here?
I never had a problem with that. I started having problems with Brazilian TV from the moment I realized that, although we, artists, have a law that, for better or worse, protects us, there is a great difficulty in the country for people to understand that being an actor is also a profession. A few days ago, I wrote on my personal Facebook page the absurdity of someone like Joana Fomm having to expose herself on the internet to vent that she is looking for a job. People should be embarrassed to know that an actress like her has to go through this – luckily, she's already received invitations. So, the idea of working in Brazil became very complicated, because I have always respected the profession of an actor, a profession that, like all others, has to be treated with dignity. But see, for example, what happened when Rede Globo decided to reprise Dancing days: even with audience peaks and advertising returns, no one came to discuss the right to use my image – and I was the protagonist of the soap opera! It was then that I decided to file a lawsuit against Globo and Canal Viva, and I went looking for a judge's word to find out if that's the case, if I haven't conquered rights. When I went to the Federal Supreme Court, what I heard was: “Sonia, your rights are valid. There is a law that guarantees them.” But when I went to the Ministry of Labor, I heard, amazed, something like: “Yes, the law exists, but unfortunately, it is not enforced”. This makes me very embarrassed. I started to think about my own life and, very shaken, I realized again that my problem with Brazil is professional and not personal. Only I know how much I love my country.
How long did this court case last?
Just over a year…
In other words, an exhausting struggle, similar to the battle faced by Clara in Aquarius...
Exactly. From there came my clarity about the dimension of the character and this image: she and I are on top of the mountain. I dedicated years and years of my life to Brazil. As an artist representing the country, I was welcomed into the White House. In 2011, when President Bill Clinton was about to go to Brazil, he made a point of talking to me. My role at that dinner was, as an actress, to represent Brazil. The fact that the country itself does not recognize me in this way is a very strange thing. Look what happened. Everything seemed exhausted, but the script for Aquarius fell into my hands and it was exciting to discover every scene of the movie and read every word of Clara. For me, Aquarius it's like a platform of resistance. So much so that, thanks to him, we did what we did on the steps of the Cannes Film Festival.
In fact, some of the press here said that you were co-opted to participate in the protest…
For those who know me, this argument makes no sense. In my life, I have always done and do only the things I want. From dating someone I know will ruin some of my days, to participating in political acts. Nobody ever convinced me to do anything. Anyone who knows me doesn't even try.
When the protest started, you were going up the stairs. And that image was used to claim that you were convinced to participate in the act…
It's good to talk about this, because I'm going to explain exactly what happened. While they were printing the posters in the office, I was putting on my makeup, getting ready for the ceremony. They came to ask if I would participate in the protest. I said yes, but that I didn't need a poster, because I would go without a bag and would have nowhere to take it. Just before we set foot on the stairs, I asked Kleber when everything was going to start. He said it was necessary to wait for the best moment. I didn't see when they opened the posters, because I was with my back, posing for the photographers, and that man, from the festival's organization, seeing that I was wearing high heels, decided to help me up the stairs. I realized that the protest had started and I asked him to immediately take me back.
And look at the narrative that was made of it…
An absurdity! You know what I think about people who believe in manipulations like this? Number one, they don't know me; number two, I pity them; number three, they have to understand that, not only in Brazil, but throughout the world, we are living in a dangerous historical moment. My position on what is happening is to say that, even though it is not a coup like the one in 1964, we are facing an administrative coup d'état. We cannot accept such a precedent. Who doesn't see that, let him try to see. From the top of my mountain, I can see very well.
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Did your experience in the country, in the 1970s and 80s, influence the way you interpret this situation?
I have no doubt. Everything we went through to get where we are makes me understand perfectly what happens now. I'm 66 years old, I'm not an activist, I'm not a militant, but I know the importance of my convictions and my actions. In Niterói, I went day after day to the Secretary of the Environment until I managed to remove a dump installed in the wrong place. I've never been in the spotlight of militancy, I'm not a militant, but a citizen. Nobody remembers that I chaired the commission that went to the Federal Supreme Court to fight for the law that defends the rights of actors and actresses. Recently, with a lot of effort, I managed, through the digital archive of an edition of the Veja, from 1979, to find a photo of my fight against Jece Valadão, who was opposed to the creation of the law, because he was a producer and, of course, defended his side. I regret not having found photos of the visit that I, Betty Faria, Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Reginaldo Farias made to President Figueiredo. We went to make it very clear to him the importance of that article being sanctioned. Things like that no one knows, you know? And I'm not here saying, "Oh, I did this, I did that."
Have you always acted like this?
Since always. I know my rights and I will always defend them. Something that scares me and that is part of the history of Brazil is that we don't have a judicial system that works. Without him, the country cannot move forward. Whoever coordinates and executes justice in Brazil does not assure citizens that the laws are complied with. This is a complicated picture to explain, but one that seems obvious to me: in any country that has a judiciary that does not guarantee the rights of its citizens, as in Brazil, it is predictable that everything will get out of control.
Returning to the Cannes Film Festival protest, how was the reaction of people to your participation?
Horrible! I came back from Cannes and spent five consecutive days sitting in front of the computer for ten, 11 hours, until I managed to clean up all the attacks I received on my Facebook page. Of course, it took me so long because I insisted on going, from page to page, to find out who these people were.
And who were they, Sonia?
Unhappy people, who make me realize how much the country is experiencing a horrible setback. I don't remember now who said that, but this week, I followed almost every speech at the Democratic Party conventions, and I remember that, when saying that this setback is a worldwide phenomenon, someone asked: “How long do they want to go? Even overthrow civil rights? Even before women can vote?” The same goes for Brazil. How far will we go back? Until the return of slavery?! Are we really going to consider a coup that offends and hurts the Brazilian Constitution normal?
Living abroad for more than 20 years, was the evolution of this process noticeable to you?
I have always tried to find out about what is happening in Brazil. I want to make it clear that Rede Globo is not the only one responsible for everything that is happening, but, in a country with more than 200 million inhabitants, the fact that a TV station has more than 70% of audience is very dangerous. This should never happen in a nation where working conditions are so unfair that they do not even allow people to create a dialogue with their colleagues so that they can defend their interests.
What do you think of the new management of the Ministry of Culture?
Simply that she has no credibility. By the way, did you see what I said to the interim minister? Days after he took over the MinC – with the portfolio resurrected, thanks to pressure from the artists –, the press asked what he thought about the protest we made. He was foolish enough to call the act “childhood”. See the level of debate. I knew that when I was on the street. I immediately returned to my house and wrote an open text on my Facebook that began: “Minister Marcelo, you are 33 years old. Just as a profession and contribution to the culture of the country, I am over 50 years old. Sorry to say this, but I just don't think you know who I am." If he was truly prepared to be a Minister of Culture, he would have defended and not attacked all of us so cynically.
Would you say the same to those who called for a boycott of the film?
What I said to the minister applies to them in the same way. I can't understand where people so misinformed and angry come from. I don't understand where so much hate comes from. How can someone who acts like that say he's Brazilian? The Brazilian flag has become a symbol for these people, but I don't understand how they can say they love our country while asking for the boycott of a film that represented Brazil, with great success, at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the most respected of the world. What schizophrenic attitude is this?!
Kleber told that Aquarius has been sold to over 60 countries. Do you think that, in Brazil, there is an environment of alienation that transforms the boycott request to a film of such worldwide interest into something coherent?
I think so. These people have no idea how many amazing reviews have been published about the film around the world. This is Brazil being seen out here with grandeur. This is the world discovering that Brazil also makes beautiful cinema, that our films move the world. This is knowing that Brazil has such a talented director that, about him, the world press says: “We look forward to Aquarius, the new film by Kleber Mendonça Filho”. A person like him not being recognized in his own country, due to people's total ignorance, is absurd. When Kleber and the team returned from the Cannes Film Festival – especially after he had also had a brilliant career with The sound around –, they had to be received by the local press, upon arrival at the airport, as if they were a football team that is welcomed with a party. I defend Kleber unconditionally. I love what he does, just as I love my country.
With the international success of Aquarius, don't you think it's a waste that you stopped making movies around here? Didn't Brazilian cinema lose with this?
I agree, and I hope this changes, because I am a woman of cinema, an actress who belongs to the audiovisual, my essence is this. When I was doing soap operas, I liked to think that TV was the best way to bring my work to people who couldn't afford to go to the movies. I was very happy to know that millions of families were gathered watching Gabriela ou Dancing days. And it was that awareness that gave me the joy of being who I am. I don't know if you know, but I left school when I was 14 years old. I have no academic training, not even in acting, in the same way that I have never participated in politically organized groups. That's why I insist: the ideas I have are true, they come from me. In 1988, I made a film with Robert Redford (Rebellion in Milagro, directed by the actor) and we came from Hollywood to launch the feature in Brazil. Journalists would call my sister's house and ask: “Maria, where can we find Sonia? What parties are she and Robert going to?!” Maria said: “Guys, Sonia is at my house. Now she herself is sleeping in my daughter Daniela's room”. The journalists replied: “Oh, Maria, stop joking and tell the truth right away…”. She said, "Believe it or not, this is the truth."
Sonia, you mentioned Maria, and I must say that, in 2011, I did, to Brazilian, a report with Jards Macalé, which lasted five days, because I followed the footage that would be shown in a show of his at Teatro Oficina, in São Paulo. As Maria is a producer at Jards, I met her on this occasion. At her invitation, I stayed four days at her house in Niterói…
But what a beautiful coincidence! Didn't I tell you that those who lie cannot remember as those who speak the truth? For this is me, this is my family. Maria and Carlos (Sonia's brother-in-law) are people like me. As you can see, my house is right next to theirs. I love going to Niterói (the actress was born in Maringá, Paraná). When I'm there, there are days when I wake up, grab a cup of coffee, go out on the street, meet people and chat: “Hi, Fátima, how are you?! How is your mother?". Fátima is a manicurist, our neighbor. I like people like that.
Meanwhile, was the press after you and Robert Redford at Copacabana Palace?
Exactly. At the Copa and at the door of other hotels. Look what happened: Carlinhos is a landscaper. He took me to see a palm tree that only blooms every 60 years. Afterwards, we went to a beautiful park, in front of Santos Dumont airport, created by Burle Marx. The place was a horrible thing, falling apart…
And you decided to take care of the park?
I always say that my department is the sanitary (laughs). And seeing the deplorable state of the park, I asked: “Carlinhos, do you know if the act of sweeping a street or a square can cause someone to be arrested?”. He replied, “I don't think so. That doesn't make any sense, Sonia.” So I proposed: “Let's clean this park?!”. He agreed on time, we scheduled everything for the next day. We went out to buy brooms, gloves, called friends to help and invited a group of musicians to play chorinho while we worked. I also had the idea of saying: “Maria, doesn't the press want to know where I am? Let them know we'll be there tomorrow, sweeping the park.” She thought it was a good idea, called some newsrooms, but people dropped the call, they didn't believe the story.
Nobody had the ability to check if it was really a prank?
Nobody gave her the slightest bit. I had to call them and say something like: “Hello, this is Sonia Braga. Please believe and don't hang up the phone. Tomorrow, Sunday, my friends and I will be in the park in front of Santos Dumont sweeping the place”. They finally believed and that's when the Loucos Varridos movement was born. An idea so well accepted that the mayor put up posters in the city to encourage people to do the same.
Who was the mayor of Rio at that time?
It was Cesar Maia. Days later, he came looking for me. “Sonia, what is this story about you and the people sweeping the streets?!” I teased: “Mayor, sorry, but if the streets are dirty, we'll clean it up”. A friend, a publicist, created incredible posters with the following sentence: “Rio de Janeiro is by far the most beautiful city in the world. From far, far away…” When the mayor came to me, a little embarrassed, he said: “Sonia, is there anything I can do for you?”. I replied, “Of course it is! How many billboards does the city have in the city?!” I don't remember how many there were, but we made him put the movement's slogan on one by one and also on watches. We got a lot of volunteers, but after a while the movement was empty.
Speaking of social articulations, some political scientists argue that, in recent years, the Brazilian right has united in a more objective way than the left. Do you agree?
I fully agree. And I think people need to realize that the future of Brazil is not a question of the right or the left, but of thinking that, as citizens, we have to defend the Constitution of our country. And doing that doesn't make anyone a communist. Anyone who believes in this and is proud to say that they are on the right will soon have to explain what they want from the country after all. I'm not right or left, but I know what I want. I want order, democracy and the Constitution to be respected. I want Temer to leave immediately, for Dilma to go back to the place where the people put her and for a year and a half from now, everyone will decide, at the polls, what they want for the country. If this right wing wants to put an end to everything we've conquered, it must recognize that they are the agitators determined to take Brazil down the drain. This right is made up of those who don't want everyone's happiness, who don't want the joy of an entire country. A ridiculous, selfish minority.
Next Sunday there will be demonstrations in defense of Michel Temer's permanence or departure from power. If he were here, would he go to the streets too?
Probably yes, but as a public figure I think this works differently. I know very well that something similar to what they did to Chico could happen to me.
Are you referring to the episode in which Chico Buarque was harassed by a group of young people in Leblon?
Yes, and I ask: does it make any sense for a person with Chico's history to be treated that way?! I don't know the guys who did that, but I know Chico very well. If a person says they love Brazil and treats someone like Chico with such hostility, in the middle of the street, that person is delirious. Chico is one of the artists who most defended and promoted Brazil. Like me, he's worried about the bricklayer, the baker, the carpenter, the people in the neighborhood, the most unprotected.
Returning to the movie, since I saw it Aquarius, I often remember a scene, especially because of the strength of his performance. In countries where the film has already been shown, has this reaction of empathy with Clara been common?
Yes, and I hope the same happens in Brazil. And what you said is wonderful, because I'm always remembering the movie too. In fact, this has happened to me since Aquarius existed only on paper. Everything we are going through now should serve as a lesson for the need for meetings like the one Kleber and I had. Together, we will be stronger.
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