Celluloid Dreams: Sao Paulo


The Rise of a Little Film School in Brazil

AT 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, students wait anxiously to be buzzed in through the heavy, wrought-iron gates at 142 Rua Dr. Gabriel dos Santos. Beyond lies a large, colonial house with a broad, wrap-around veranda. As students march upstairs to the old-fashioned classrooms, the wide-plank steps creak noisily underfoot. By 3p.m., schooled in the basics of documentary film making, they’re back on the street—shooting their first video on a digital video camera.

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While this scene might sound typical, these students are not from New York University’s illustrious film school, nor the well-funded School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They won’t be driving off to Sundance anytime soon. (If they go, they’ll be taking a 10-hour international flight.)

Rather, these students are enrolled at Academia Internacional de Cinema (AIC), a small, independent film school that’s located in the residential Higienópolis neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil.

Chasing a dream, AIC’s founders Steven Richter (an American), and Flavia Rocha (a Brazilian), co-founded the Academia in 2004 with their friend Ram Devineni (American). Richter, who had worked as the Production Director for Trafika Films in the U.S., briefly considered opening the school in Brooklyn. But when Rocha met some generous Brazilian bureaucrats at a Manhattan cocktail party, the couple decided to base the school in Brazil.

“Our goal was to launch an independent film school that developed independent filmmakers. It was to empower individuals to go out and have a vision and the know-how in all the areas in the art and craft of filmmaking,” says Richter, 36, who is AIC’s director and majority owner with Rocha, 34. (The couple are married.)

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Richter, who had taught film to underprivileged students in the Bronx and was also an educator and course developer for the Seattle Film Institute, designed AIC to meet the needs of students who wanted to learn all aspects of filmmaking by actually making films. In Brazil, where major film schools typically require years of coursework before filmmaking begins, the Academia’s hands-on approach was a welcome change. (It was the first and is still the only independent film school in Brazil to offer a full-time program.) As of 2007, the school—which increases its programming by 15-20% every year—had 80 full-time film students and 300 part-timers taking workshops and intensives.

“Most programs available in Brazil are geared towards people who can afford it,” says Devineni, 35, who handles international relations for the school, fostering important connections with industry insiders in the U.S. Devineni also recently established Bollywood Brazil, bringing Bollywood films and productions to Brazil and vice versa. “We wanted to make it more open and democratic—anyone can apply—and if they’re diligent they can do well.”

The Academia is not unlike other Brazilian film schools in that it’s mostly comprised of middle and upper-class students in their mid-twenties. But while most film schools accept only 10-12 people, AIC accepts anyone—even if they don’t have an extensive portfolio. The school also makes a concerted effort to be inclusive, offering bolsas (scholarships) to low-income students, some of whom come from favelas in São Paulo and Rio (known for their poverty and drug and gang activity).

The Academia originally opened in the southern city of Curitiba, where the city government found the school subsidized housing in a former industrial neighborhood. But soon discovering the limitations of this relationship, Richter and Rocha relocated the school to its current spot in São Paulo.

“The school is now 100% private money,” says Richter, “That gives us freedom but makes things difficult, too.” The school relies exclusively on student tuition and grants to help them bring in international faculty such as Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel (“The Holy Girl”), Polish cinematographer Grzegorz Kedzierski, American Allison Anders (“Gas, Food, Lodging” screenwriter), and Steven Hopkins (director, “Trembling before G-d”). Most of the Brazilian faculty continue to work in film.

Brazilian writer Marcelo Carneiro da Cunha, 50, whose 15th book will be published this May, teaches scriptwriting at AIC. He says the Academia is important in the landscape of Brazilian film, “because it has a very practical view of filmmaking. It is not academic, and this helps improve the quality of the students’ films enormously.”

Former student Érico Rassi, 35, adds that because students work all crew positions (lights, sound, directing, etc.) on one another’s films, they quickly become very skillful. They also make connections that last well beyond school. “It is a college of art so you get to know a lot of people who have the same lines of thought as you. You make connections—your friends become your colleagues.” Rassis’ 10-minute film, “Um Pra Um” (One to One, 2006) made during his one semester at the Academia, has been shown in festivals throughout Brazil and won first prize at Rio’s International Short Film Festival in 2007.

Despite its emphasis on the practical side of filmmaking, the Academia sees itself as an art school that teaches filmmaking rather than a technical school that teaches craft. Students have created over 1,000 short films to date, with full-time students directing 14 films in both film and video, and acting as crew on at least 15 others in their graduating year alone. The majority of students are just beginning to enter festivals, win prizes, and get distribution for their projects.

Aside from Rassi, who continues to work full-time in advertising (as many Brazilian filmmakers must to support themselves), graduate Cristiano Burlan’s work is getting recognition: his first feature film, “Corações Desertos” (Deserted Hearts, 2006) was selected for the New Directors competition in the 30th International Film Festival of São Paulo, South America’s biggest film festival. His documentary “Construção” (Construction, 2006) was accepted to Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) an important documentary festival held (simultaneously) in São Paulo and Rio, as well as other festivals in Brazil and Cuba. He now teaches at AIC.

To help bring in new students and diversify their offerings, the Academia added a one-year creative writing program in February 2007. The program, Criação Literária, has a broader curriculum than the ones available at other schools in São Paulo, the seat of some of Brazil’s most powerful literary publishers. Already it has 30 full-time students.

“There are only small workshops in São Paulo,” says Rocha, who directs the writing program and has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. Her bilingual book of poems “The Blue House Around Noon/A Casa Azul ao Meio-Dia,” from Travessa dos Editores, was published in 2005. “This is a different kind of commitment, much more extensive.”Rocha, also a working journalist and the former director of communications and publicity at the school, invites writers she admires to run the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction workshops. “There are some talented students in the course and we hope that it will have an effect on the São Paulo writing community.”

The film students have all the necessary equipment and facilities at their disposal, including two sound studios and a screening room, ten Macintosh computers with Final Cut Pro 6, and about ten cameras in various formats, including 16mm. Lighting and sound gear, plus post-sound mixing and editing equipment are also available, as is a library with more than 500 films on DVD. Quality used equipment can be very hard to find in Brazil’s relatively small film industry, and extremely expensive to purchase outright.

Additionally, Brazil’s major arts funding is closely tied to heavily bureaucratic government programs at the federal, state, and city levels that allow corporations to sponsor artists instead of paying taxes. This can lead to problems—lack of sponsorship because of a film’s subject matter and implicit favoritism when corporations want to continue funding an experienced artist instead of supporting new artists. When funding is granted but slow to get past administrative hurdles, it can delay the completion of a project—even for established filmmakers. It took Phillipe Barcinski, the award-winning film and TV director, five years to make his latest film, “Não Por Acaso” (Not by Chance, 2007).

With the exception of big-name filmmakers such as Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener,” “City of God”) and Walter Salles (“Motorcycle Diaries,” “Central Station”), Brazil produces few films that make it beyond the country’s own borders—or that even gain a respectable audience within them. “National production was seen as seen as third class. What everyone was watching and reading was American—better quality,” says Juliana Faria, Senior Analyst for research and acquisition at GloboSat, a pay-TV section of Globo Network.

However, citing the freedoms that digital technology affords, AIC co-founder Devineni says that he, Rocha, and Richter took inspiration from the ethos of 70’s filmmaking in the U.S., “Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese figured out how to raise money and get their films made; they worked on every aspect of them, that’s how it was.” They hope that AIC graduates will not only approach filmmaking—and secure funding—in the same DIY spirit but also gain wide audiences both in Brazil and abroad.

Acclaimed documentarian João Moreira Salles, winner of the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize for his 2003 film “Nelson Freire” (and brother of Walter Salles), says he feels optimistic not only about the new crop of film technicians graduating from Brazilian film institutes, but also about the type of artistic films new graduates might make. Especially, it seems, those who have graduated from independent-minded schools like the Academia. “I am very hopeful that something really good will come from it. Something formally different that says something new.”