Human Beings Can Be Transformed: Discussing Neon Bull with Gabriel Mascaro

By 27 June, 2018

I’ve seen few films that have left such an impression on me as Neon Bull (Original Portuguese Title: Boi Neon) by Gabriel Mascaro. It’s a film that looks to tell simple personal stories, yet does this through a Technicolor palette and with an approach that could be deemed hyper-sexual if the sensuality and desire weren’t so true to life.

Set amidst the world of the vaquejadas (a rodeo-esque sport in which two cowboys attempt to direct a bull towards a goal and knock it over) in north-east Brazil, the film shows the day-to-day existence of Iremar (a seasoned handler, but one who also shows tactility and artistic expression through his dreams of fashion design), Galega (an exotic dancer and driver of the truck that takes the vaquejada workers from town to town), Galega’s daugher Cacá, and Zé, another worker who completes this close-knit ‘family’ unit.

Director Mascaro manages to bring real emotion and pathos to all of these characters, allowing us to look past stereotypes – the fact that Iremar likes fashion and Galega is the driver is not accidental – and see real lives through the prism of the strange world of the vaquejadas, where sexuality and familial relations are all exaggerated through the peripatetic nature of their work and the close quarters in which they live (which is due to the lack of money in this business as much as anything else).

Neon Bull was awarded Best Latin American Film of the Year by Cinema Tropical in 2017, which is no mean feat. It was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Second Run and is available from Amazon.

I spoke with director Gabriel Mascaro about his motives behind the film and where his fascination with vaquejadas stemmed from.

What was it about the vaquejadas and the lives of the people who work at these events that attracted you?​​

The film takes place in a region where livestock and agricultural activities share space with a rapidly growing textile and clothing industry. During my research for the script I came into contact with the world of the vaqueiros (cowhands) that work backstage at the vaquejada and I met one particular cowhand who worked with livestock and textiles. I was fascinated by the way he ritualized the cleaning of the bull’s tails and then, a few hours later, would be sat at a sewing machine for his second shift. This was the starting point for creating a fictional character that accumulated roles that mix force and delicacy, bravura and sensitivity, violence and endearment.

What was it that initially got your started in researching the vaquejadas ​?

​When I was a child, I studied with a lot of kids from the reality of vaquejadas. My contact with that world was more indirect, I never realized that in the future I would make a film about this theme. I’ve experienced the vaquejada and really immersed myself during the research before the film happens.

For me, there was a gentleness throughout the film that was present in the characters and their actions, and this allowed us to relate to them despite what they were actually doing. Is this something that you were trying in particular to achieve? Do you see it as something other than gentleness? A voyeuristic distance perhaps?

I wanted to go beyond the psychology of the characters, rooting the film in the physical presence of the characters in their surroundings and the daily choreography that has the potential to be a catalysing, poetic experience. The film doesn’t necessarily follow one particular protagonist, rather it speculates on the impact of the performative experiences of each character within the group. It is about curious characters and intense experiences, and despite knowing little about who these people are, we find ourselves becoming deeply involved with their stories. Neon Bull focuses on the microscopic conflicts that make up the everyday.

With Iremar’s passion for fashion and the authoritative nature of Geise, it feels very much like there is an attempt to show people’s multi-faceted natures and also to revert stereotypes. Was this something that you felt that you needed to do with this story?

​We wanted to make a movie about a universe that has many preconceived ideas. When we think about cowboys, many things come to mind. We wanted to deconstruct this, and this deconstruction had to be very organic and honest and not purely rational. Iremar is a sensitive cowboy. That’s the superficial layer. But for this to be organic, we had to fully enter this duality in his body, which involved a lot of research to know how to use his body. He is also not a gay cowboy, which would be another stereotype. The movie goes beyond the idea of sexual identity or gender identity, but it was important for us to expand the possibilities of the body for experience. Bodies in the film are eroticized, but they don’t subscribe to a specific identity. These bodies are fluid. It was curious to read a review at the Hamburg Film Festival in which a critic described Neon Bull as a queer movie. There are no gay sex scenes, but there are sex scenes that are not heteronormative. It’s a movie about cowboys without heteronormalcy. We didn’t want to reproduce the idea that a sensitive cowboy is gay; that’s not the question. It’s possible to be a sensitive cowboy and be free to have different experiences. The sex scene with the pregnant woman is about this. It’s not a scene that’s proving anything. It’s not about proving his sexual orientation.​

I often feel as if ​​there are two strands to the nordeste identity, there is a nostalgic, imagined, mythical identity (as constructed by Freyre and Suassuna) and then there’s an identity firmly rooted in reality (as per Josué de Castro, the films of Mendonça Filho, some of the Cinema Novo films). Where do you see Boi Neon within this identity construct?

A lots of film based in north-east Brazil used to show people leaving and migrating. I tried to make a film where the people want to face the contemporary contradictions of this place now facing a very contradictory economic development.

Finally, how has the reception been for this film in Brazil? I am sure that there are a lot of stereotypes about people from the north-east or from the interior, and especially about this culture that goes hand-in-hand with the cattle farmers. Do you feel like the film has shown people another side of this culture?

​Since the vaquejada culture is very celebrated in the Brazilian north-east, the movie was screened in places that had never seen Brazilian art-house films. It was curious to see the reactions of people who had never seen this type of cinema. It was very interesting politically, even. They have a very different perception of cowboys and would say, “This movie is not realistic because a Brazilian cowboy would never dream to be a designer. It’s absurd. It’s not possible. No real cowboy would ever dream to work in fashion.” Of course, like I said, I actually met someone like that during my research. Brazil is changing very fast. I tried to capture this world in transformation. In a way the characters are suspended in this ambiguity. There is no big conflict in the movie. The conflict is between what our expectations of this world are and what the characters actually present. I also didn’t want to create a naïve atmosphere to celebrate the culture of the past. I never thought, “Oh, poor things, they are losing their culture.” No, I think of human beings as beings that can be transformed. Culture is in constant transformation. For me, cultural preservation doesn’t exist. You don’t preserve culture. Culture is something that’s alive. I wanted characters that are alive and can be transformed. That’s why they are in conflict with the contemporary world.​

Neon Bull was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Second Run and is available from Amazon.

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