"The largest popular arts show on the planet is a competition held every year on the Sunday and Monday of Carnaval." So begins Schultz's documentary, Imperatriz do Carnaval.
For many westerners, 'Carnival' stirs up images of a street party, costumes, and maybe even hedonistic Bacchanals. But in Rio de Janeiro, it is this and much more. In a place called the Sambodrome, twelve top samba schools (fourteen at the time the film was made), each with an average of 3,500 performers, perform to nearly one hundred thousand spectators and a live TV audience of twenty million. Four judges in each of ten categories. Elaborate costumes and extravagant floats must be beautiful and relevant to the chosen theme being depicted through the parade. The song must communicate the theme, and dancing and drumming are judged for their skill and execution, the synchronisation and the overall harmony. Top stars of screen and stage perform and are judged for the beauty of their dancing. Each school must cross the 800 metres of the Sambodrome in 85 minutes, cohesively and without rushing.
Yet above all, Carnaval is an experience. One that is very hard to convey on film. An elation, a joy, a celebration, sustained without break for over an hour. Today, the Brazilian media give continuous coverage as well as annual DVD summaries. But how to get a flavour of the unique spirit? The chaos. The remarkable division of labour. The tears and passions. The hopes of whole communities. For that, one has to dig deeper. Which is where an award-winning filmmaker comes in, one familiar with both Brazilian culture and the western understanding so far removed. Enter Luiz Fernando Schultz.
Instead of merely recording the end result, Schultz spends nine months getting to know one school Imperatriz. He places the preparations and the event squarely in the context of Brasil and its problems of poverty and class divisions. But he also shows the unquenchable spirit of the Brazilian people.
Following Imperatriz to their home in a poor district of Rio, the story begins with the announcement of the theme for the coming contest: the Portuguese discovery of Brasil. Composers will have 60 days to write songs and compete for the honour of representing the school. The winning song will not only be sung by participants for the whole of that school's performance. It will enter the annals of popular songs sung at fiestas every year. It will carry the audience away. It will make them dance and sing.
The biggest shortcoming of this exceptional film is perhaps the lack of any clearly defined audience. Brasilians are familiar with the subject matter. For them, much of it might play too close to a lecture for young children - unless you are a fan of that particular school (Imperatriz) and want to spot various personalities. Brazilian television includes material of this kind particularly at Carnaval time but it is presented in a punchy style assuming prior knowledge. For viewers outside of Brasil, it goes into a depth that might not hold the attention of non-aficionados. But let's face it, for an event the scale and emotions of which rival the World Cup and Oscars rolled into one, it is hardly mentioned outside its home nation. The music 'all sounds the same', the dancing is 'foreign' to what we call dancing, and it is hard to relate to the excitement experienced so intensely by so many.
This is a shame. As there is much in Carnaval that is worthy of serious study. It doesn't just form a unifying culture across class and communities (attended by both the President of Brasil and slum-dwellers). The samba schools themselves provide necessary social projects in deprived areas. Crèches, welfare for old people, job-starts. It bridges all ages, and generates a dedication among ordinary people who will put in time, tears, and much effort. All for no payment.
Carnaval is a national institution. Every Brazilian has a favourite Samba school, like supporting a football or baseball team in the West. But the enthusiasm generates active physical involvement (dancing), and no drinking, drugs or negative rivalry. It is an aspect of Brazilian life we could do well to learn from.
Schultz doesn't whitewash. He explains how the lack of money, especially in the early days, produced a culture that was subsidized by illegal gambling operations. But such scandals are not the meat of his work. It is a testament to the positives.
It is half past midnight when I arrive at a section of closed-off freeway. The parades are assembling. Thousands of performers in the most extravagant costumes I could imagine. Or covered in little more than gold paint. Enormous floats that have taken months to construct. Fireworks announcing the entrance of each school. One lead float is 51 metres long. A gigantic sculpture of Cleopatra with people dancing in inbuilt fountains. It's the school I have joined for Carnaval. I get my costume on. Now I don't dare drink much, even in 30 degree heat. There is no way I could pee while wearing it. My mind and body is fused towards other concerns. Rehearsal parties in preceding weeks, learning the samba song in Portuguese, friends I have made. Expectations, exuberance, inspirations.
Suddenly thousands of ecstatic faces. Everything coalesces into eighty minutes of sustained elation. An almost mystical experience. Remote-controlled TV cameras skate along specially-constructed tracks. I look up at faces in the audience as I dance and sing. People who imagine they are part of an anonymous multitude. I want to tell them, "You are not invisible! I appreciated every gesture! Every smile of encouragement! Every indication that you are sharing this amazing experience!" It is an emotional high unlike anything I have ever known.
If you want to know Carnaval, go to Brasil and experience it. Even better, register with a school and take part. And, if you can't do that, watch this film.
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