Brazilian cinema has never shied away from addressing its country’s social ills head-on, and Dry Ground Burning (Mato Seco en Chamas) adds to the archives. The film is a fascinating exercise in combining documentary and fiction. Not knowing what’s real and what’s reenacted or scripted can feel disorienting for a viewer, and the narrative also jumps around in time to a potentially confusing degree. That discomfort is surely intentional on the part of co-directors Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós.
At 153 minutes, the exercise asks a lot of its audience, and some may find the first stretch the hardest to get through, dropping you into story and characters without much context. If you stay with it, though, you’ll find this evocative portrait of a very dark time and place to be a haunting and worthwhile experience.
The story turns loosely on a pair of half-sisters – Léa (Léa Alves Silva), who has just returned home to the favela after eight years in prison, and Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who has come by land in a zone that passes over oil pipelines to steal, refine and resell the oil. She negotiates a profit-sharing deal with a band of local motorcyclists to distribute and sell the oil locally. She has an all-female gang working for her and taking turns standing armed on a makeshift lookout.
Their stick-it-to-the-man attitude doesn’t come from nowhere. All around them, Chitara and Léa see, breath and live injustice. Life has been a struggle from the start for these daughters of a disappeared former gang leader and, apparently, everyone else in the Sol Nascente favela of Brasilia. Chitara, who says her mother raised her to be a “warrior” (which is why she’s named Joana Darc, after Joan d’Arc), is known far and wide for her clandestine business. There’s even a song played locally and dedicated to “The Legend of Chitara.”
She and Léa both were teen mothers themselves, though it appears other people raise their children. One of the female collaborators in the makeshift oil rig is running for office on a “Prison People’s Party” platform promising to bring sewage to the favelas as well as overall better treatment for locals, rights for ex-prisoners and a lifting of a police curfew. The chaos and violence of the streets is contrasted with an armored vehicle of military men sent into the favelas with drones and machine guns. The men chant patriotic salutes about country and God. They’re entering a war zone. In the film, their car is overrun, dismantled and burned.
What happens to the men isn’t shown on camera, one of many scenes that provide a meta moment for the viewer of questioning what’s real and what’s invented, and also how Pimenta and Queirós got access and pieced together this docufiction while also staying above the fray. Another scene captures a rally for the far-right former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a menacing specter throughout this tale.
The film uses ambient light and sound, diffusing night scenes with streetlamp yellow spotlights. The shadows seem to symbolize the darkness of the context, the feeling that there’s no light at the end of any tunnel. Music played in the background often intones lyrics recounting lifelong hardship, being born into inescapable poverty.
In a climactic shootout scene, Léa and Chitara reflect on how a life of crime “absorbs you,” even if you don’t mean for it to. Léa says she wants to open a ‘whorehouse’ when she saves up enough money, but she winds up in jail again instead. “One day all this venom will end,” she tells Charita. Her half-sister agrees, resigned: “It’s life. That’s how it goes.”