The First Fallen (Os primeiros soldados, Rodrigo de Oliveira, 2021)
My grandmother was one of the founders of the Espírito Santo State blood bank in the 1980s, just at the beginning of the AIDS outbreak. At the time no one used gloves or masks in the laboratories, impossible to imagine today. Thus, when she was appointed director, she could finally put into practice everything she had learned at Fiocruz in Rio de Janeiro. She especially liked to remember her great joy at filling out a form in careful student handwriting, the luxurious request for “10 thousand rubber gloves and an unknown quantity of masks”.
I only learned of this, or only began to be interested in hearing about my grandmother’s professional life, at the time that The First Fallen was being produced.
Vitoria is not like other cities. A literal island, its geography seems to reinforce the capital’s feeling of isolation from what goes on in the rest of the country, especially with regard to the attractions of its popular neighbouring states. Here urbanites bring their country baggage, and thus the city’s private life is almost always criss-crossed by the connections of the hinterland: when all roads lead to the sea is also, that is also, inevitably, where everyone meets. But this apparent escape route is the soil that nourishes a strong sense of community.
The Lurex of the 80s in contrast to a closed and withdrawn city. LGBTQIA+ identities encountered subterfuges and heteronormality, like the New York balls, at the parties at Querelle (later Eros) nightclub, or at the fictitious Genet. Under cover of darkness, these personalities established a system of complicity in which the performance’s affirmative shriek is clothed in secrecy. As in maroon and quilombo culture, flights, alliances and pacts of secrecy are tactics for survival and resistance in a minor key (Dénètem Touam Bona) that function like real war strategies.
“I knew that you too were the only one…you know…from over in Itarana”. Itarana, the birthplace of my other grandmother, is the tiny town where Humberto (Vitor Camillo) learned to demonstrate “manliness” and say “boy” in the face of the conservatives. We both share an origin from the same hot, orange-coloured earth with its little white church and coffee plantations.
Os Primeiros Soldados is a drama, which manages to measure out affirmation and refuge, keeping a distance from barefaced political allegories to aim incisive rather than frontal attacks. In the same vein, avoiding the obvious, Rose (Renata Carvalho) sings Gonzaguinha, rather than Madonna.
“A Man Cries Too (Guerreiro Menino)” is a song about the cracks in masculinity, sung by a trans person. When the song feels heavy, Rose knows how to circumvent the audience with an improvisation transforming “you can’t” to “you can”: a sneaky protest of the affirmative turn of life at the turn of the year.
A few months later, Rose, together with Suzano (Johnny Massaro) and Humberto, try to transform their shelter at the ranch into a refuge to avoid death.
AIDS combines the expanded time of discovery with the consciousness of life’s end. Faced with the great unknown, illness and film share the rhythm of the first sarcomas and unreliable information, a “pact of ignorance”, in Rodrigo’s own words, which is also shared with the spectator.
How can you flee from your own body? For those who are there, the interaction between the absurd fear of dying, antibiotics, antivirals, and all the other smuggled “fuck-it” mark redemption, revolt and celebration.
In a poem with the curious title “Passagem do Ano”/Turn of the Year, Carlos Drummond de Andrade writes:
A vida é gorda, oleosa, mortal, sub-reptícia.
Life is fat, greasy, mortal, and sneaky.