Now, Voyager
Genevieve Yue on Sandra Kogut’s Mutum

Though she made her feature filmmaking debut with Mutum (which closed Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight program in 2007 and toured as part of 2009’s Global Lens initiative), Sandra Kogut has been an active documentarian for the past two decades. With ambitious projects like Parabolic People (1991), a multipart series of restlessly scrolling, densely composed video windows onto Dakar, Paris, Tokyo, New York, and Rio de Janeiro, or the gleeful adventures in collective storytelling that take place in Adiu monde, or Pierre and Claire’s Story (1998), she’s been at the forefront of Brazil’s contemporary documentary scene, which, since the mid-nineties, has exploded domestically and on the international festival circuit. Yet Kogut’s work, both fiction and documentary, or more often hovering at the intersection of the two, stands apart from films like José Padilha’s Bus 174 or Eduardo Coutinho’s Edifício Master, gritty exposés of favela life that typify much of what regularly screens at Rio’s It’s All True documentary festival. Though their concerns are specific to Brazil, Kogut’s films expand beyond the borders of her birthplace, questioning the limits of national cinema in an international age.

In A Hungarian Passport (2001), for example, the filmmaker attempts to obtain the nationality of her grandparents. As she travels from Paris to Rio to Budapest, she navigates seemingly endless miles of red tape: “This is going to be very complicated,” sighs a French consular officer early in the film, and indeed it is. Tracing the journey her grandparents took from Hungary to Brazil in the early years of WWII, she uncovers a troubled history of forced emigration and anti-Semitism. Marriage certificates, passports, a question mark scribbled next to a name on a ship’s manifest: sometimes a slip of paper is all it takes to save a life or to condemn it. “The real tragedy,” her grandmother says, is “not to feel at home in one place or another,” and in this border-crossing space, each of Kogut’s films works to undo the assumptions that connect identity to nationality, or people to place.

The nomadic Kogut—Brazilian-born of Hungarian descent, with long residencies in Paris and currently New York—understands from her own experience that a place is not merely demarcated by cartographic lines, but always shaped by the people that inhabit it. A sense of place can be woven through familial ties as in A Hungarian Passport or pinpointed to a specific building, as with Passengers of Orsay (2003), which presents a lively array of visitors to the Musée d’Orsay. In this documentary commissioned by the iconic Parisian museum, Kogut asks several people if she can film them standing with their favorite work of art, and through the various floors of the museum she follows the crisscrossed itineraries of a Texan tourist, an eccentric regular who delights in observing people’s shoes, three hormonal teenage boys in search of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, and an elderly woman who mistily recalls her girlhood days spent dancing for soldiers temporarily living in the museum. More than just a repository for paintings and sculpture, the museum comes alive with the thoughts, desires, music, and memories of these visitors. Kogut’s most recent film, Diary of a Crisis (2010), similarly tracks the journeys of four New Yorkers laid off in last year’s recession, and through two people in particular—the Wall Street day trader who returns to his Bronx roots and the longtime Tiffany’s clerk who reimagines himself as a DJ—we discover in the midst of collapse the possibility of reinvention.

With Mutum, Kogut goes back to her homeland and delves into its symbolic and, for many, spiritual core, the arid sertão, a harsh and largely uninhabited region in the northeast. The film is based on the semiautobiographical novel Campo Geral by João Guimarães Rosa, one of Brazil’s literary luminaries, known for his playful inventiveness with language. Rosa often set his novels in the forbidding sertão, which for him represented the inner struggle all Brazilians faced. The sertão was also a favorite among the revolutionary auteurs of the Cinema Novo movement in the fifties and sixties. As the setting for Glauber Rocha’s “aesthetics of hunger” manifesto and the “barren lives” named in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Vidas Secas (1963), it was a land of hardship but also one of promise; far removed from the lush riches of the coastal cities, it was the place where a hardy, “authentic” Brazil might spring forth. Such weighty political connotations are unavoidable in Brazil, but for Kogut, the sertão offers more than legacy and political myth—it’s a real place where people live much in the same way as they did over half a century ago.

Unlike the nervy young men and freighted fathers at the center of Cinema Novo, Mutum focuses on a child: ten-year-old Thiago (Thiago Da Silva Mariz), a sensitive boy who with his elder brother, Felipe, explore the world around them in all its wondrous detail and adult complication. When his parents fight from behind a closed door, for example, Thiago runs in, only to bear the brunt of his father’s displaced temper. Afterwards he sits outside, his eyes mournful and his thumbs fidgeting. Though he doesn’t quite understand what has happened, he’s nevertheless caught up in the turbulence of his family’s strife. Later in the film Thiago discovers that he is near-sighted, and his limited vision can be understood metaphorically as the downy-edged myopia of childhood. We see as he sees, the camera hovering close, eye-level and near to the ground. It soaks in the soft afternoon light as Thiago embraces his mother and recoils from the wind-lashed sheets on the clothesline as a storm approaches. All of Mutum rests on Thiago’s slim but sturdy shoulders, and he carries the film ably. Few directors are as gifted as Kogut in working with children, and like Majid Majidi with his sensitive portrait of a blind boy in The Color of Paradise or So Yong Kim with her abandoned sisters in Treeless Mountain, she is able to convey Thiago’s vulnerability and wisdom without rendering them precious. From his upward view of the treetops in the deep woods that surround his home to a delicate close-up of his rough forefinger stroking the back of an ant, his large green eyes take everything in, even before he knows what he’s seeing.

Though Mutum was based on Rosa’s novel, few working on the production were aware of the source material. Kogut, with cowriter Anna Luiza Martins Costa, wrote the script from memory, and she revised it each day on set, allowing the improvisations of her mostly nonprofessional cast to guide the story. As actual inhabitants of the sertão, the actors infused the film with their own lives and experiences, and without knowing—none of them actually read the script—they sometimes came up with lines that were also used in Rosa’s book, or in other works by him. For Kogut, this expressed “a different kind of faithfulness, maybe only possible in a film adaptation.” Though Mutum follows the architecture of Rosa’s novel, its fidelity comes from a deeper place, the soil of the sertão, Thiago’s story planted and cultivated like a crop on his father’s farm.

Like other filmmakers who move between documentary and fiction, notably Sergei Dvortsevoy and Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kogut is unusually attuned to the rhythms of ordinary life. She doesn’t rush the plot forward but allows the story to develop according to Thiago’s sensibilities and lyrical drift. In this way, documentary merges with fiction, and the past described in Rosa’s book comes alive in the present. In preparation for shooting, Kogut spent a year in the sertão, visiting schools and working with children. When she finally selected her cast, she arranged for them to live together on the farm so that their familial bond would not be simply acted but actually felt. As a result, there is an immediacy and openness to such small gestures as when Thiago giggles with his siblings over a talking parrot, or when his mother (Izadora Cristiani Fernandes Silveira) lightly kisses the head of her ailing child. Though the film has its share of drama, it’s quiet, ordinary moments like these that feel nothing short of miraculous.

Mutum has the quality of something remembered, incidental scenes looming as large as important ones, and all of it bound hazily together. In Rosa’s novel, Miguilim, the boy at the center of the story, tells one account of his life while an adult version of him recounts another. Mutum focuses on the child’s immediate experience, but it also leans towards his coming of age, which begins when Thiago puts on a pair of glasses, seeing clearly for the first time in the same moment that he leaves his home. Looking around at his grandmother and sisters leaning against the fence, his mother’s sad smile, the house and the fields beyond it, it’s easy to imagine what the lanky, bespectacled Thiago will look like, and who he will be, when he’s fully grown. Earlier, during a lunch break with a group of cattle ranchers, Thiago is asked to tell a story, but shakes his head in refusal, a moment that plays on Mutum’s second meaning as the word for “mute.” The ranchers chide him gently. “He knows many stories,” says an old vaqueiro, “but doesn’t realize it yet.” Though Thiago may not yet understand the world around him, he will soon, and his memories will be aided by the richness of the sensory environment that envelops him now, the sounds of insects and birds and the roughness of dried wood, the place where he learned love and loss. The proponents of Cinema Novo imagined a different future for their country, and a cinema unlike any other, capable of spurring people to action. And in its own introspective way, Mutum picks up the pieces of this project by returning to its symbolic source, the inner landscapes of the sertão. There Kogut grows a different kind of story, a place filled with life and texture, a slower and more contemplative present, and a future yet unwritten.