Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Remains of the Days

No, it's not a typo, if you've read the book or seen the film. This is about a different kind of butler, in every sense. Santiago (1912-1994), the real person in the documentary by João Moreira Salles, was an Argentinian of Italian descent who worked for his family at their modernist home in Rio. The film, which is also a reflection on documentary making, reveals as much about the relationship between the director and the former employee as it does about this highly cultivated, flamboyant character. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll stop here.

The elegant residence, which Salles filmed empty, now houses the photographical and musical archives of the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS), a cinema, several exhibition rooms, and a café. For obvious reasons (just look at these photos!), it has become one of my favorite spots in Rio. A self-confessed voyeuse, I walk down the hallways and look toward the pool and Burle Marx gardens and try to imagine what it must have been like to be wealthy in Rio in the Fifties! Those were the days, I'm sure.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Heaven and Hell Part 2

This is an update on documentaries and Brazilian passports. We must have our finger on the pulse, so to speak, because soon after we published the two posts below O Globo ran a couple of related stories. A new Immigration/Passport Office will open in October at Rio's International Airport and cariocas will be able to make appointments on their website. This should kill the lines, but not the red tape, unfortunately. People will still need to make the trip out there and bring along the interminable list of documents we mentioned. As far as documentaries are concerned, filmmakers were lamenting the fact that the number of people interested in going to the movies to see them is very limited. I hope they (and their distributors) will not be discouraged by this small detail! It doesn't look like it: this past Friday, four more opened at cinemas nearby; we rushed to see "Santiago" by João Moreira Salles (he is the brother of Walter Moreira Salles, director of "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries"). More on this later.

Monday, August 20, 2007

...And Bureaucracy Hell

That Brazil has one of the worst official bureaucracies in the world I already knew. But my friend's story about how she got her passport the other day I find really scary! We went for a walk around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and she was trying to comfort me about my trials with my Internet provider by telling me what she had to go through at the Polícia Federal downtown. The PF, as it's informally known, seems to be Brazil's version of Home Security: FBI, Border Patrol, Immigration and Passport Control, they are everywhere. In other words, a gigantic banding together of very efficient (crime investigation) and badly-managed (passport issuing) departments.

Not content with demanding that you bring along a list of documents longer than my wish list at, they only see a small number of people every day. This means that you have to get there at three a.m. and have a bit of luck, if you want to be among the chosen few. She didn't, of course (get there in the middle of the night), and wasted her trip. Well, not entirely. She asked a group of guys standing around what the story was about been admitted into the inner sanctum and one of them told her he would be happy to hold a place in line for her for 80 reais. She replied that he was insane to ask so much money and he came back with a final offer of 50 reais. At this point, she was really annoyed with the fellow, and finding him to be a bit creepy and untrustworthy to boot, she walked away. Further down the sidewalk, she met a nice young man who said he worked nearby anyway and would be happy to hold her place in line for 40 reais (getting there at, read this slowly, one a.m. to guarantee that she would be at the head of said line). So, next morning she arrived at about 8 a.m. to find him sitting on a small stool holding her spot: number eight in line. She got inside, was seen by a lovely young lady, and is waiting for her passport to be ready. When that happens, she has to go pick it up at Rio's International Airport. I suggested that she might want to take a packed suitcase and leave Brazil that same day to save herself some money and another trek out there.

What I find really maddening? The fact that officialdom's ineptitude generates corruption at all levels!

And if you find this unbelievable, O Globo, Rio's major newspaper, recently ran a similar story of passport woes.

The cutiepie above is NOT a Brazilian bureaucrat, but a urubu-de-cabeça amarela, photographed in Brazil's Pantanal by Felix Richter.

I Live in Documentary Heaven...

People in Brazil complain that it's very difficult to get their documentaries distributed. I'm amazed, because in the past three years of extended stays in Rio, I've seen more of them than in all my life in the U.S. I did some research and confirmed my suspicion: this country has become an important center for documentary movies. Every year since 1996, Brazil has also hosted It's All True, the international documentary film festival. I've decided to post a list of my "do-not-miss-this-one," in case some of them eventually find their way to a cinema or a DVD rental place near you. Besides the one mentioned in an earlier post, here they are (in no particular order, except that the first two are showing in Rio right now):

1. "Fabricando Tom Zé" Intimate interviews with the "mad genius" of Brazilian music, interspersed with scenes filmed during his 2005 European tour.
2. "Três Irmãos de Sangue" The lives and times of three extraordinary Brazilians who fought against the military dictatorship and for the country's redemocratization: hemophiliac brothers Betinho (a sociologist), Henfil (perhaps Brazil's greatest cartoonist), and musician Chico Mário, all of whom ended up infected with HIV during blood transfusions and ultimately died of Aids.
3. "Ônibus 174" A former street kid hijacks a bus in an expensive neighborhood of Rio and it all ends in tragedy.
4. "A Pessoa É Para o Que Nasce" The story of three blinds sisters who are coco singers in northeastern Brazil.
5. "Morro da Conceição" Interviews with the inhabitants of the oldest neighborhood in Rio.
6. "O Rio de Jano" Follows French cartoonist and artist Jano as he immerses himself in Rio's lifestyle and draws its inhabitants and scenery.
7. "O Fim e o Princípio" Famed director Eduardo Coutinho and his crew went to the interior of Paraíba (a state in northeastern Brazil) looking for a story to tell. In meeting the aging inhabitants of a remote rural area, they got much more than they bargained for.
8. "Vinícius" The biography of the great poet and bossa nova lyricist Vinícius de Moraes told through interviews, archival material, and musical numbers (I found the latter a bit disconcerting).
9. "Sou Feia Mas Tô na Moda" Focuses on Brazilian funk's major female stars from Rio's favelas. This is a love it or hate it kind of film, be forewarned.
10. "Carnaval, Bexiga, Funk e Sombrinha" A loving tribute to the traditional carnaval groups from suburban Rio called clóvis.

There are also some wonderful ones that I missed and hope to find on DVD around here, such as "Edifício Master," where Eduardo Coutinho documents the daily lives of people in a huge building in Copacabana, and "Paulinho da Viola: Meu Tempo é Hoje," about the samba songwriter and singer.

Last, but not least, two DVDs about Brazilian music: "Nasci no Brasil" and "Brasileirinho," already available in the U.S.

The photograph is a scene from "Brasileirinho," the documentary about Rio's musical genre, choros. It's all there: the magic, spontaneity, and sophistication of the music; the open air classes and performances; the intergenerational musical brotherhood of choro musicians and their bond with the audiences.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Where Do Dust Bunnies Come From?

Did you ever wonder where dust bunnies come from? I found myself thinking about it last time I looked under my bed while cleaning the apartment. Housecleaning chores the Brazilian way involve (in my case) using a broom and an implement called rodo, which looks like a giant squeegie. To these I add a super absorbent flour sack I bought for one real and a pail of water. I use the broom first and as I vigorously sweep the beautiful dark wood floors, the dust bunnies take flight and swirl in the air and gently land somewhere else. Meanwhile I try to anticipate where they're going to end up and position the broom to start again. A losing battle, hence the need for the wet rag wrapped around the rodo afterwards.

Here I must take a break and tell you about a dialog with a couple of friends yesterday morning. Every Saturday I eagerly partake of a Rio ritual, breakfast out. Sometimes it's at a dingy coffee bar at the market - which I actually prefer because I find it very democratic - other times at the fancy coffeehouse where I meet these oldtime buddies of mine. Anyway, they asked me what I missed most about the U.S. Funny they should ask, I said, because I had been thinking about this very subject and names like Dyson and Swiffer WetJet had sprung to mind. And now we can get back to dust bunnies. Once a month I take a break and surrender the task of getting rid of them to my cleaning lady who, if she ever saw what those American appliances can do (the asthma-friendly, never loses suction vacuum and the all-in-one mopping system), would doubt my sanity ever after.

This adorable fuzzy thing here is my friend Ellen's REAL bunny, Nibbles.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Going the Way of the Dodo

I've been thinking a lot about the dodo and other extinct creatures lately. First, there was this hilarious quote from a makeup artist in Revista O Globo this past Sunday. According to him, thin eyebrows are "going extinct" in Europe. That made me laugh really hard because so are mine (thin and vanishing rapidly).

Second, there is a documentary playing at a movie theater near me called O Fim do Sem Fim (something like The End of the Endless). It is about occupations or professions that are disappearing in Brazil. The directors (there are three of them) spent months traveling through several states to interview and film, among others, a lighthouse keeper, a movie theather usher, a diamond prospector, a former railroad employee, a cordel writer, an elevator operator, a church bell ringer, and my three favorites: a prophet, a rooster maestro, and a or, shall I say, THE, master of masters. The prophet, well, you know what they do. The rooster maestro teaches roosters to crow and the master of masters knows everything there is in the Universe and was writing a book about it when the documentary makers appeared at his doorstep. In case you're wondering, the usher was discovered at a porn cinema downtown Rio that happens to be one of the loveliest old buildings in town (I've only seen the lobby, I promise). The film is at times a bit confusing, the camera work often irritating, but the subjects are eminently likeable. I found myself rooting for the prospector and his wife to find the biggest rock on the planet. And for all the others to be able to keep doing whatever it is that they still do until we all reach the end of the endless.

Thirdly, and a propos of this documentary, Brazilian railroads: this enormous country has, unfortunately, let them die in favor of, you guessed, roads and automobiles. One of the saddest scenes in the film has the former railway man walking amidst rusting and rotting locomotives and boxcars in an overgrown train yard, talking about the good old days.

As for the dodo...I think he was the cutest thing and he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But then, think of the Chinese river dolphin. Have we learned anything since then?

Image © Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Killing Me Softly

No, it's not Roberta Flack who makes me want to curl up on the couch and cry. It's NET, my Brazilian Internet provider. I'll explain. It's been a comedy of errors from day one; we set up an appointment for the afternoon. The next day someone calls to confirm "between 8 a.m. and noon." The same woman tells me I'll need a Xerox copy of my ID and CPF (Brazil's Tax ID Card). It's Saturday afternoon, they're coming tomorrow morning, how come no one told me this before, and where do I get copies made in my neighborhood? My landlady's scanner, of course. Sunday morning: two technicians show up, hook me up, and there's no mention of documents. Phew...I don't really feel comfortable with the idea of handing out copies of my papers to anyone!

Chapter two: I signed up for a 4 MB connection; NET guarantees download at 400 KB/sec, upload at 600 KB/sec., they proudly assured me. A week later or so, I start to notice that the speed slows down to a crawl in the evening. I call technical support and we try the usual tests. No dice. A technician comes. Then another. This one stays for almost two hours. Then more phone calls (an average of one hour and a half on the phone every time). Finally, I despair and do what I should have done in the first place: I start asking around my friends and neighbors about their experience with NET. And guess what: it's the same thing. One tells me: "Oh, they're selling above their capacity, so at peak times (meaning, when everyone around here gets home around 6 p.m.), it doesn't make any difference what kind of connection you have." The other one says that it's useless to call them: "You're only wasting your time on the phone. Just wait until it gets better." So, I've been trying to beat the crowds and work at odd hours. The bills, of course, appear on time at my doorstep. I hurry to make my payment at the bank. God forbid that I should be late. Consumer rights is a concept that looks good on paper in Brazil. In practice, there's very little you can do, apparently.

And where does the softly come into this story? Everyone you deal with over there is so VERY nice, of course!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Three Old Ladies at the Movies

In Brazil, it seems, rules are meant to be either bent or broken. Case in point: the other day I went to the movies at the gorgeous Casa de Cultura Laura Alvim (a combination of cinemas, cafe, and exhibition space in what seems to be the last mansion standing on Ipanema Beach). At the box office I found out that the seats were numbered. I didn't like the idea very much, this was just a film after all, but since I was already there and I was able to find a decent seat at the back, I went in. In the row in front of me there were three old ladies who had moved from their assigned seats much closer to the screen. In a few minutes, three more people arrived and sat down in that row, one of them also taking a seat that was NOT her own. Then, a young man came in and claimed that particular seat. They begged him to take another seat just behind (my row), because they were friends and wanted to sit together, and he finally agreed to do that. Of course, a little later a couple arrived who had the seat he had just sat in. They got upset and called the manager, who became a bit angry with the young man who, for some reason, wasn't saying much in his own defense. At this point, the woman next to me and I decided to get involved and started to yell: "It's not really his fault, someone in front took his seat and asked him to move."

To make a long story a little shorter: The three friends got separated and the fellow went quietly back to his own seat. But wait, there's more: When the movie was about to begin, another couple came in and obviously they had purchased two of the seats that the three old ladies had appropriated. So, two of them had to go back to the front of the theater, leaving the third one, looking (and sounding) very smug and proud of herself, in the seat in front of me. Every woman for herself and loyalty be damned!

I ask you: Why number the seats after all? Beats me!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Meet the Author

The arara (macaw) got its name from the Tupi language of Brazil. The word a'rara mimics the sounds these large, colorful birds make. We have chosen the arara as the Brazilian correspondent for because to us the bird is symbolic of the country. And then, of course, she turned out to be a real prima donna...Arara has now decided that she needs her own blog and will be pecking at her laptop keyboard from the general vicinity of Corcovado Mountain in Rio. We must confess, though, that in view of the complete chaos reigning in Brazilian skies these days, we consider ourselves especially lucky for having someone able to fly under her own power.

Last, but not least: The bird is entirely responsible for her blog's content. No use complaining to us.