The Zoológico de Brasília often cares for unwell animals discovered on the streets of the city it’s based in. This shapeshifting relationship between urban sprawl and the natural world takes center stage in Ana Vaz’s documentary É Noite Na América (It is Night in America). Her use of expired 16mm film stock accentuates the precarious state within which these animals live, and through its own form the film seeks to rebalance human/animal hierarchies.
Once expired, celluloid film tends to be unwanted, since it’s commercially nonviable. The grain becomes larger and softer, exposure flickers inconsistently, and colors shift in hue. It is not dissimilar to how a body copes with infection. It is as if the film is breathing laboriously in its attempt to retain each image. The animals Vaz observes occupy a similar grey area, forced to adapt to city life in a region that was once for them, often catching distemper in the process.
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Is it unusual that so many animals appear on the streets of Brasília, or is the urban sprawl overtaking that environment the real intrusion? Throughout the film, phone calls and audio testimonies detail the variety of ways that animals come into the zoo’s care, often conveyed with disbelief. These anecdotes make the situations seem sensational, but their frequency illustrates the scale of the issue. The rest of the film’s audio is filled with animal noises, as if they’re in conversation with the humans, or performing a call and response.
Vaz offers a variety of alternate ways of viewing. Through the haze of the expired film, late-night drives become blurred nebulas. In one sequence, a mammal is captured in slow-moving close-ups that trace the animal’s fur, eyes, and mouth, the blue-hued grain turning it into a visually tactile surface. These images feel familiar, but is this a human point of view, or that of an animal lost in Brasília?
Cinema has long imbued the night with a sense of mystique. In the time before color film, celluloid was tinted blue to signal night scenes. This extended into the color age for decades, with filters and chemicals used as part of the day-for-night process, a way of forging a perfectly controlled nighttime. It is Night in America points to this history in its opening sequence, a series of panning shots of Brasília’s skyline washed in a deep blue. As the shots build in speed alongside a soundscape that fuses the city noises and animal calls, the buildings blur, turning the city into a non-place. Here there is another alternate way of seeing, as the shots mimic disoriented bird flight.
It is Night in America gives liminal forms a limelight they are usually not afforded. The title embodies this. The word “America” is too often associated with just the United States, overlooking the broader western hemisphere. There are alternate perspectives that offer ways of looking deeper.
It Is Night in America is premiering at the Locarno International Film Festival (happening now through August 13 in Locarno), and will also be playing at the Open City Documentary Festival (happening September 7-13 in London).