"Behave": The Law of the Documentary, the Documentary of the Law By Gabriele Barrera

in 50th Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Gabriele Barrera

Law and order. Rigorous silence, black on the screen, an opening verdict. “Brazilian Law prohibits exposing the identity of underage offenders. In this film, these offenders were substituted by youngsters from three favelas in Rio de Janeiro, who live within the same circumstances of violence and social marginalization. All other characters and institutional facilities depicted in this film are real.”

This is the cinematographic law of Behave (Juízo), the latest work by Maria Augusta Ramos, an absolutely promising documentarian. Born in Brasilia in 1964, she graduated from the NFTA (Netherlands Film and Television Academy) in 1990. Since then, she’s established herself as director, writer and also editor of some astonishing documentaries, like the hyper-meticulous and hypersensitive Brasilia, A Day in February, honored at the 1995 Brasilia Documentary Festival. And more: Desi (2000), another award-winning chilling documentary of the Dutch adolescent’s tribulations, in competition in the Amsterdam Documentary Festival. Anything else? Yes: Justice, 2004, an impressive hybrid of feature-film and documentary with an intimate, non-judgmental look inside the Brazilian justice system (an injustice system or even better: a powerless justice system, as in a nightmare social-maze). Justice won the Grand Prix Visions du Réel, in Nyon.

The Behavior of “Behave”

Finally, it’s the time for her masterpiece: Behave, winner of the FIPRESCI Prize, at Leipzig this year. It’s a fresh, sharp commentary about the life trajectory of the Rio de Janeiro’s minors in front of the law – and in front of Ramos’ camera, in its turn totally rigid and entirely helpless before the inexorable violence of Brazilian society, from the favelas to the prison, from the prison to the favelas, ad libitum. The real responsibility for this violence it would seem is delegated to (and projected upon) a justice system obsessed, but despite appearances, totally artificial — useless, like a labyrinthine loop. Then, at the same time, Ramos underlines the power and the powerless of the documentary: The illusion of reality, perhaps the manipulation of reality. But at the same time, the helplessness before reality and fate. Is it a bright, Kubrickian paradox of the real law, of the documentary? Yes. Maybe.

“Is it true that on the 21st of January you and Alex ran up to the victim while she was biking, Alex saying: ‘Give us the bike’?” asks — with implacable and robotic speech — the (real) judge of Behave to the young boy on trial. (He’s not the real defendant, but a non-professional actor.) On the Behave poster, a young defendant is depicted with black plasters in the place of the eyes — the law, regarding the portrayal of minors. Conversely, for our whole journey through the maze of Behave, Ramos’ camera views the young defendants without plastering the eyes of her (fake) minors, revealing another amazing paradox of the documentary fiction. Oddly, all the actual subjects — judges, prosecutors, attorneys, agents from the State Socio-Educational Department (DEGASE), family members, agents of the prison for minors Padre Severino — and their attendant reality ring false, while the actors and all the fictional touches ring true. Strange. Or not?

“Behave”: b for be fake, b for be true

For example: The (fake) teenage boy found guilty of parricide? “A shocking piece of reality”, the spectator thinks. It’s wrong: the spectator is sentenced to review (to re-review) Behave. And the (real) judge? “An extraordinary actress, cruel and merciful at the same time,” the spectator says. It’s wrong: she’s an actual judge, but theatrical in her behavior, like the (actual) drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey of Full Metal Jacket — again a Kubrickian movie, again a paradoxical work. In a movie by Fernando Meirelles — like City of God (Cidade de Deus), set in the bairro labirintico of Rio — the social violence explodes stylistically. With Maria Ramos the violence implodes, its consequences worse and worse. The historical heritage of the Brazilian Chancada is totally finished, of course, but — surprisingly — the historical heritage of the Eztétyca da Fome (Aesthetics of Hunger) by Glauber Rocha (1965) is finished too. And so?

And so: “Is it true that…”. “Ramos is a master of the objective eye”, writes Jay Weissberg in “Variety”. True? Objective? Impossible to say. It’s the Leitmotiv of Behave: truth and fiction are in a visual maze. And so, goodbye to the André Bazin’ réalisme ontologique, goodbye to the montage interdit (see, evidently, Qu’est-ce que le cinéma. Ontologie et langage, 1958). Indeed, the cinematographic law of Ramos’ Behave is radically different. The shot is real, the reverse-shot is fake, all in the same fluent, undistinguishable docu-fiction-speech. Not only a paradox, but — that’s the point! — it’s a brilliant linguistic mirror of the Brazilian society: The fluent, indistinguishable shots and reverse-shots of innocence and guilt, of civil society and the violent “full-metal-racket” of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. To make judgments about the Brazilian judicial system — or, perhaps, all judicial systems — after what Behave shows us is very hard to do. But then, we don’t have to behave like judges. Luckily for us.