‘Dry Ground Burning’: A Dystopian Reflection of Brazil’s Contemporary Society

By Fernanda Franco 17 August, 2022

A quenchless fire and the distant barking of dogs blend with the dark night in the Sol Nascente favela. We are in Ceilândia, the most populated satellite city of Brazil’s Federal District. To keep people from moving into the country’s capital Brasília, Ceilândia was created by the government in the 1970s. The opening scene in Adirley Queirós’ Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas, 2022) states the intensity and radicality of the heat presented in the subject of his latest genre mash-up. “In a favela on the edge of Brasília, a group of women hijack a pipeline to sell oil to their community. A mixture of observational documentary, gangster film and science fiction, in which amateur actors play fictionalised versions of themselves.” Is the description from the film’s director, who has himself lived in Ceilândia for over 40 years. His connection to the place is strongly mirrored in his filmography and he is a genuine advocate for social justice, especially to those stranded and marginalized communities that struggle to survive in the periphery. Shot entirely in the Sol Nascente favela, the film is a dystopian reflection of our present society, represented by the contemporary political turmoil in Brazil under President Bolsonaro. The problematisation of social issues echoes the voice and form of Glauber Rocha’s Cinema Novo. The type of narrative and camera-work prove that this is a futuristic dystopian sci-fi. It is a feral and aggressive plot that criticises the oil policy and the promises made by Brazil’s former president Dilma Rouseff about the use of pre-salt royalties towards health and education.

Behind the walls of Colmeia, the women’s prison of Brasília, Léa tells the story of the Gasolineiras de Kebradas. Led by her half-sister Chitara, the female gang run a business of stealing oil from underground pipes from a lot in Sol Nascente. The oil is pumped by a makeshift system and a distribution deal is made with the local ‘motoboys’. The horde of male bikers also act as guardians of the favela, protecting the community from the patrolling authoritarian armoured police. Half-way through the film, to get their community back from tyrannical patriarchy and globalisation, the Gasolineiras group create a political party and run a political campaign in protest of Bolsonaro.

This mixture of fiction and documentary is already a methodology established in Queirós’ works. He proposes an innovative perspective on the production model, inspired by the works of Jean Rouch. His approach is to propose the making of a fictionalised project and film it as a documentary. Real stories are incorporated into a script that is never closed, a blend between facts and fabricated storytelling, what Adirley calls ethnography of fiction.

Co-directed by Portuguese filmmaker Joana Pimenta, who had previously collaborated with Adirley’s Once There Was Brasilia, the film focuses on the overlooked female universe of ex-convicts from the Colmeia prison. Real stories are fictionalised in the film. In Dry Ground Burning, women are self-sufficient, independent, and far from co-dependency with men. It is an arena where males are servants and follow orders from a group of strong women. These legendary female figures fight for their survival and the resistance of their community.

The film had its world premiere at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. Winner of the International Competition Grand Prize at the Film Festival du Réel in France 2022, the film has also won both the Grand Prize City of Lisbon and Best Portuguese Feature Film at the IndieLisboa International Independent Film Festival 2022.

Dry Ground Burning opened the seventh Frames of Representation Festival at the ICA in May this year and will be released in UK cinemas on 2nd September 2022.

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