The lookout for a black-market oil refinery keeps watch, unmoved by the distant skyline of Brasília’s urban center as it pops and crackles with celebratory fireworks. This is but one striking composition among many in Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta’s Dry Ground Burning, a perfect illustration of the still and deliberate form they adopt for their genre-tinged docufiction exploration of contemporary Brazil. The woman guarding the refinery is a member of an all-female gang of ex-cons run by Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and her half-sister Léa (Léa Alves Da Silva). They live in the sprawling Sol Nascente favela, located in Ceilândia, a satellite region of Brasília where Queirós was raised and whose marginalized inhabitants he has sought to give voice to throughout his career. Furtado and Da Silva play fictionalized versions of themselves, siphoning crude oil from an underground pipeline and selling the refined gasoline to a fleet of motorbiked distributors, the “Moto Boys.”
Both the premise and its execution are layered with suggestions of Westerns, gangster films, and even science fiction, all rooted in the real contemporary. The filmmakers’ previous collaboration, Once There Was Brasília (2017), was inspired by President Dilma Rousseff’s ousting in 2016, while Dry Ground Burning is defined by the 2018 election of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro. Outside their oil banditry, the gang is also behind a grassroots political party, the PPP (“Prison People’s Power”), which stands in direct contrast to Bolsonaro’s “law and order” facade. A four-and-a-half-minute pan around the raucous crowds at a Bolsonaro rally is one of the film’s most chilling moments, followed immediately by an image of mounted police patrolling city streets.
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An armored van, occupied by zealous cops, roves Sol Nascente throughout the film, a reminder of the characters’ precarity. Léa joined Chitara’s crew directly after being released from prison, and the story liberally shifts back and forth in time, reflecting the cyclical nature of the women’s lives and how incarceration temporally unmoors them. Duration also informs the film’s structure, with many protracted scenes of minimal action. What might feel like posturing allows significant space for the performances of the magnetic non-professional actors. It’s been a while since someone silently smoking a cigarette has looked this cool.
Sequences often take place at night, with Pimenta capturing faces in a soft chiaroscuro, warm yellow light bleeding out of the darkness. Harsher contrasts come from the bright lights of the police vehicle or the Bolsonaro rally, enhancing their foreboding. Development of the film began in 2015, and Queirós and Pimenta have spoken about how the meaning of their script changed after the election. The opportunistic nature of finding oil transformed into the necessity of stealing it. The mixture of fact and fiction brings home the peril of life on the overlooked fringe of Brazilian society.
Dry Ground Burning will be playing as part of the 2022 edition of the Frames of Representation film festival, happening May 5–12 at ICA London.