It’s been well over a year since Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz’s fifth feature, Futuro Beach, launched in competition at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. Finally, his enigmatic and beautifully shot story of a lifeguard who escapes from Brazil to Berlin with his German lover has arrived in the UK. Travelling from Berlin to discuss the film, Karim spoke about his own motivations, those of the main character Donato, and the process of promoting a film a full year after its first release.
Culturefly: Let’s start with the basics. Where did the idea come from and why did you want to tell this story?
Karim Aïnouz: I really wanted to tell a story in which the characters took risks, a story of adventure. This is the tone of where it started, not the story itself. I always had this character in mind who was a lifeguard but a lifeguard who’s spent most of his time looking at the horizon and wondering what’s on the other side. I think it came from that image and that desire to flee and reinvent himself. So that pretty much got me going on the film.
It was clear it was a story of travel. This guy would cross the horizon line which he’s been looking at for so long. Lifeguards spend 99% of their time just looking at the ocean because nothing much happens thank God.
So that is how I started the story and it had to take place somewhere I had affection for, which was this beach. I kind of grew up there and always wanted to immortalise it through cinema. That was the aim of the film, the triggering of the story, and then the travel to somewhere very far. I thought it would be interesting to do it in Berlin. There’s something about Berlin which has always been striking to me and it’s this idea of the possibility of the future as a way to heal the past.
We [Karim and co-writer Felipe Bragança] were also reading a lot of adventure novels at the time. Moby Dick was a big inspiration. This idea of crossing and remerging somewhere else in a place that was kind of the opposite of where he came from excited us, as did the possibility that through travel and crossing a certain boundary he would become someone else. So this was what I wanted to work with. A certain tone that had to do with masculinity, whatever that means, clichés of masculinity and non-clichés of masculinity. It’s funny, the film did have female characters in the script but they actually started to fall out in the editing.
CF: Did you film scenes with female characters then?
KA: Yes, I did film things. Scenes with Donato’s mother. Konrad also had a wife that he had broken up with before. There were all these secondary female roles but I came to understand I didn’t need them in the process. I don’t really work from a fixed script so there are things that present themselves very clearly as the film goes along, which take shape and have a body of their own. It became clear to me that it was a film about masculinity, vulnerability and fear. Fear and being a coward yet with a hero’s courage. I also wanted to explore the possibility that one could do a movie where it’s not anchored on dialogue but it’s anchored on action or non-action, these were the things which were discovered.
It’s not like we started from a clear story. We started with the aim of speaking about certain things or going certain places, exploring certain questions and images which were very strong. Every movie for me when I actually start making – not making in the sense of shooting but in the act of making the film – there’s always this one image that kind of haunts me. I remember my second film was very much like that. I needed to make a film about a woman with a suitcase going somewhere so I don’t really start from a narrative point of view. I really start from a tone, from something I want to talk about.
CF: So that’s always been the case for your fiction features?
KA: Yes, the story kind of comes together from that manoeuvre but it’s always different. We wanted to structure this one like a novel. The films I’ve done before have very compact dramatic time. I wanted to try something else. When I talked about Moby Dick I’m talking about the epic literary scope that would be interesting to experiment with in film. We started writing this movie with four chapters and then it came down to three chapters. It’s not like we shot with an improvised script, that was all there, but I knew there were more scenes on the script then would make it to the end film. So there’s a lot of rewriting during the shooting and editing.
CF: You were trying something different on this film. Is it an experiment you’d want to repeat?
KA: I think it needs to always be an experiment for me, otherwise it becomes the executing of an idea and filmmaking for me is not about executing but about experimenting and exploring certain ideas. I have a very conflicted relationship with narrative. I think narrative is something which I find very interesting but very restraining. It’s a friction and a tension that I’ve never resolved and I don’t think I’ll ever resolve it. I went to study film precisely to try and decipher that. I did a film studies programme and I did it almost as a need to decipher that conflict but I don’t think it will ever be resolved. It will always be under work.
On this project I was very interested in exploring what is it to tell a story in film today. How much can one rely on realism, on poetics, on genre? These were things that were very much on my mind when I started thinking about the story. I really thought the process of making the film should somehow mirror the process the character went through in taking risks. The film has been out a year so looking back on it there’s a sense that when you take risks there are things that work and things that don’t. I’m actually quite happy with the experience, more than with the film itself. There’s something about the experience of making the film. For example there was a lot of debate when we were writing and editing the film as to how much one tells and suggests and what the consequences are in terms of story structure and storytelling. I know this might sound a bit theoretical but these are things which were thought through as we gave shape to the story and the script.
CF: You enjoyed the experience but were you not happy with the final outcome?
KA: It’s not that I’m unhappy but there are questions. There were things that we tried that really worked. For example when the two main characters first have sex it wasn’t there in the script but I thought God this is so important that it’s here as it doesn’t set up a relationship that’s based on affection, it sets up one based on a physical encounter. Things like that I’m very happy with. They weren’t on the map of the project at the start. And there are things I don’t know. Is it important to say why the character left or not because on one hand I’m happy with the idea that the viewer can fill in gaps but I’m very aware that can be a source of frustration for the viewer? These are questions that I keep and are brewing for the next film.
CF: Talking about the sex scenes, they’re very fast and physical. Was it always in your mind to film them like that?
KA: Yes, these are the layers of masculinity I wanted in the film. I believe in affection but I don’t think it comes out of an abstract enchantment. By affection I mean romantic affection. It comes out of a physical encounter which can develop into something else. I was thinking of sexual encounters as action, not as something romantic. There’s an interesting moment in the film for me when they’re having sex and it’s violent but it’s really fun. It’s always fun. There’s a sense of hedonism in the way they have sex. And I think it’s important that they have sex and then they’re having this breakfast together and they don’t need to talk. There was so much constructed through physical intimacy on a daily basis that their gestures and actions are all about complicity. It was very deliberate to do it in a way that was violent yet vital. Vitality was the most important compass for me.
CF: You mention the importance of taking risks. With Donato, do you think he was always destined to leave or did it require an event like the tragedy at the start to make him take the risk?
KA: I think he wouldn’t have left. The start of the film when he loses that man, I think the death triggered a need for life. When I say I took a lot out of the script, there was a moment when he actually says that but I didn’t want it. I thought it was more interesting to have it unspoken. Looking back a bit, there’s so much investment in life and vitality and physical life in my films. In this one I wanted to start a film with a lot of action. For me it’s a melodrama. If I could put a genre on it it would be a queer melodrama. I wanted a tragedy that would transform itself into something vital. Losing that character at the start is what made him take the leap and go his own way. Death is something we all think about and I wanted to do a film which had that in. It’s a tragedy but something that transforms his life. The reason he deserves to be a film protagonist is precisely because he leaves. If he would have stayed there I don’t think I’d have made a film about him.
CF: How in control of his own decisions is Donato? It feels like he’s settled back into another passive pattern in Berlin when the film jumps forward in time.
KA: I was interested in making a film about a character that’s very hard to do in film. He’s not an outward character who expresses himself through his actions. He’s a very shy, quiet, inwards character. How does one make a film of that? I was interested in having a character who’s super brave and courageous, who risks his life for other people but who’s also a coward. I see it so rarely in films. Ultimately someone is really good or courageous. With Donato the fact that he disappears and keeps disappearing from his family is an act of cowardice. These were the things I wanted to capture.
It’s not that he fell into certain patterns, he did change his life. He’s this dreamer who lives on another planet or another element. He constantly has to exit his habitat. That’s maybe the pattern. He can’t say what he’s feeling but when he is in another element he’s somehow quite free. When his brother comes there’s a confrontation but also a reaffirmation that he’s still free. It’s about a lack of ability to express himself through language, to be able to be frank. I don’t know that he changed that much though. Perhaps the repetition of pattern is not being able to fully express what he’s going through.
CF: Do you think he doesn’t know what he wants or it’s just that he cannot communicate it?
KA: I think it’s both things. He has an intuition I think. When you’re writing a story it’s not just what the character wants but what he needs. It’s interesting for me to have him know that he wants to leave but not why. That urge is buried there but why is for a bunch of different reasons. He wants to leave and travel and disappear. We wrote in the script that Donato explains that he left because he wasn’t happy but we removed it because I don’t think that really answers it. He’s not transparent, it’s like he’s out of focus.
CF: Why did he not contact his family after he left?
KA: We shot a couple of scenes where he called his family but didn’t use them. I think it’s so hard to disappear these days, it’s practically impossible. I wanted a story taking place now where you can disappear, can go completely under the radar. I don’t think he actually disappeared as a deliberate decision either. If you go somewhere you call every week, then you start calling once a month and you write less and kind of drift away. It wasn’t a deliberate decision. He drifted away and when you drift so much it’s hard to make that call because it’s going to be an apology.
CF: You live in Berlin yourself now. How much of that experience is drawn from your own life?
KA: There’s some personal stuff in the film. I moved out of where I was born when I was 16. I come from a part of Brazil that’s like the last stop of civilisation. It’s a very isolated place. There are two ways of escaping. One is going north and crossing the ocean and the other is south for work in the big cities. The ghost of leaving is in the way I grew up. It’s in the culture of that place. It’s a dry place and nothing is relevant economically so everyone leaves. If you come from Northern Scotland or something like that, it’s the same. Leaving and starting something else is intrinsically in the culture I come from, the definition of it.
Berlin is just my last destination. I first left to go to the centre of the country to study. My father was Algerian and I was basically raised by my mother. I lived in France and in New York for most of my life and then back to Brazil. I found an old book from when I was 7 recently and it was full of pictures of places I wanted to go so I think it’s in my DNA physically speaking and culturally.
CF: Were you already living in Berlin when you decided to make the film there?
KA: I was. I had a residency in 2004 and stayed for a year and fell in love with the city. I took a lot of pictures capturing the city. I went back to Brazil in 2005 and did two films there and had this memory of Berlin. I really wanted to go back and write a song for it. This film was the way to do that. I had a big desire to shoot a film in Berlin and make it immortal for me but it wasn’t going to be part of this project. Then when we started to write this film and think of travel and for where Donato would go we tried Berlin. It didn’t really make sense to make the film there as there’s no connection between the countries but it started to feel right.
CF: I’m interested in your thoughts on the life of a film. Futuro Beach has been out for a year after premiering in Berlin in 2014. Are you ever finished with films and how do you find the process?
KA: I’ve done festivals on my first film and it was about celebrating it. On the second film I didn’t really do the releases and it’s a question of money as you’re not paid to do it. I remember on my last film I put it in my contract to get paid for the releases. For this one I’m doing it for the love of the film and because it’s a personal story but mainly because I need to understand the life of a film today.
At the obvious end of the scale, if I wasn’t here we wouldn’t be talking and you wouldn’t be writing about the film, or if you did it would be in a different way. But for me there’s something I need to understand, and it’s why I’ve done five countries for this film, I need to understand how my film is being sold in different places. Do people like it, how do they consume it? There are so many platforms like VOD and DVD and I need to understand how a film plays in the cinema. Like food you do a recipe and sell the food and I really want to know how it’s served. The film was a huge success in Brazil and I know why. In Germany it was the opposite, there was huge resistance. So I like to understand how the film is being read. It’s not only about promoting, it’s about understanding what it is.
Culturefly would like to thank Karim for taking the time to speak to us. Our review of Futuro Beach can be found here.