Following a newspaper ad, ordinary women tell part of their life stories to director Eduardo Coutinho, which are then re-enacted by actresses, blurring the barriers between truth, fiction and interpretation.
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For one week, Eduardo Coutinho and his team talked to 27 residents in an enormous building in Copacabana. Amongst these are a middle-aged couple who met through the classified ads in a newspaper, a call-girl who keeps her daughter and her sister, a retired actor, an ex-football player, and a janitor who suspects that his adopted father, whom he dreams about every night, is his real father. The subject of this documentary is private life in the big city, apartments as a last stronghold of individuality, in addition to emphasizing the fact that to live together in one and the same place does not ensure that a community will be formed. Written by
If finding the exceptional in the ordinary is the mark of a good documentary maker, Eduardo Coutinho is positively tattooed. Interviewing 37 residents of an apartment block hardly sounds thrilling. Be prepared for a surprise.
It helps, perhaps, that the apartment block is Copacobana one of the most over-the-top districts of Rio de Janeiro. Brasilians often tend to be colourful people anyway, wearing their souls flamboyantly on their sleeves and decorating ordinary speech with emotion worthy of a soap opera. In Copacobana, it is an art-form. "They are ordinary (yet unique) characters like you and I," says acclaimed director, Eduardo Coutinho. If that's so, I hope that if anyone ever condenses my life into five minutes, it will be Coutinho.
Three weeks of research, one week of filming, knocking on the doors of 276 studio apartments that house about 500 people on the twelve floors. More polyphonic that any synthetic attempt at reality TV, the tales they tell are entertaining, heart-stopping, inspiring, sincere and cover the spectrum of lifestyles from the building's lower middle-class.
Sergio, who runs Master, is also a master of one-liners. "Reality is the funeral of illusions. So when they flip out, I bring them back to reality." Over the years, he has transformed the apartment block from a seedy history of hookers and dealers to one of admired respectability. There is one prostitute living there, but she is a charming and agreeable escort. Not someone you would avoid in the lift. Alessandro started escorting at 18. She blames her sheltered upbringing for the fact that she got pregnant at 14 but harbours not a trace of bitterness. The wage-rise is rather helpful in bringing up her son and (she earns the same for one 'date' as she used to earn in a month). Now, a very pretty 20yr old, she finds no shame in talking about her job but says it is humiliating work when she wakes up next to a client who's quite nice - someone she might find rather attractive - and he pays her.
Esther, an elderly, refined lady, openly admits she has fallen in love with herself. She has become the icon, just like the area in which she lives: "We live in one of Rio's postcards: Copacobana." It is certainly not the safest of suburbs and Esther, whose portraits decorate her flat, recalls being robbed at gunpoint. A white, well-dressed man forces her back to her apartment to find her credit card, then accompanies her to the bank where she has to withdraw all her money (RS8000 about £2600 at today's rates, but much more in years gone by). She feels the branch manager was a likely accomplice, as the usual 24hr notice for large withdrawals was not required. Back at her apartment, the robber gives her a bag that seems to contain folded up cash saying, "Keep it! I don't need your money!" After getting her hopes up she finds it contains no money and plans her suicide at 4am. With a slightly theatrical flourish, she produces the bag for the cameras.
One thing that holds the stories together is the compelling sincerity of those interviewed. There is no commentary. No voice-over. Only their testimony. Oldsters living and loving as joyously as youngsters. Or young Renata, with a 42yr old rich American boyfriend. Then there's teacher Daniela, interviewed reluctantly after just waking up. Socially-phobic, she avoids looking at the camera while self-effacingly being moved to tears by her own poetry.
Jasson is a samba writer and bartender. We expect to find his song embarrassing but it is surprisingly well done. Unlike Henrique, who lives alone but once met Frank Sinatra. He offers an excruciating performance of My Way. One he also sings on a street corner on alternate Saturdays. Probably getting as 'emotionally affected' as he does in this film. And there's Fernando, at 73, who has been in 30 soaps and 62 movies. Or sultry young Cristina, whose wealthy father bought her an apartment as a getting-thrown-out present (after finding she was pregnant). And Luiz, the head doorman who addresses God as 'Boss' in his prayers "cos He hires and fires us as He pleases," and who also found a baby in the stair one night. Fabiana is a fashion student with her life and the world ahead of her. Whereas well-travelled Suze sings in Japanese.
The diversity is equalled only by the high density of people living so close to each other. "I know when the downstairs neighbours are cooking," says Cristina, noting a very common phenomena in Copa apartments joined by a deep kitchen ventilation shaft. You hear everything.
In many ways, the characters are reminiscent of Brazilian soap opera stars. Their real lives are all bigger than anybody's real life has any seeming right to be. Their stories are addictive. It makes me wonder why westerners are so hooked on not showing emotion. The emotional outbursts on telenovas seem to feed the inspiration of ordinary people, ever keen to dramatise their lives. The actions. The words. That the people in the film could have been coached seems improbable. That coaching oneself to tell a good story is a national pastime seems far more believable. And daily life here is full of good stories.
Edifício Master is an apartment block near the beach in the Siquera Campos area of Copacobana. The director himself once lived there many years ago. Now it hums to life in a way that makes you take its inhabitants to your heart.
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