When Gabriel Martins first conceived his solo feature directing debut Mars One in 2014, he could never imagine the film’s increased relevance nearly 10 years later. Centering a Black Brazilian family struggling to chart their future amid a tense political environment, this social drama’s release during an election year gave the film an unexpected gravitas. During its latest stop on the festival circuit at NewFest 2022, Awards Radar chatted with Martins to discuss the inspiration behind the film’s themes and its history-making selection as Brazil’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature Film. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Shane Slater: This film speaks to a specific moment in time in Brazil, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro. What was the inspiration and timeline of this story in relation to that election?
Gabriel Martins: I began writing the script in 2014, when Brazil lost in the World Cup. It was by a huge difference in goals, seven to one to Germany. And that was a very traumatic process in Brazil. And at the same time, we were having this huge soccer event in Brazil and there was a lot of attention in Brazil. There was a lot of talking about corruption, kind of an identity crisis. I think just like in the US, people were starting to claim their identity more, I think. More social movements were starting to express themselves, the LGBT movement, the Black movement. And I think on the opposite side, a lot of conservative people were kind of resisting.
So I felt that Brazil was going through a very huge identity crisis, like maybe never before in history. And I kind of wanted to do a film that was a little bit about that. But having soccer as a starting point with the character of Deivinho, while also talking about dreams. Because while we were going through this huge turmoil, regarding the way we were dealing with each other, I was always thinking about this kid. This image of this kid that appears to be maybe in a dream. A Black kid that was brought up in the outskirts of the big city in a poor environment, and then looking at the stars, looking beyond to the future.
So this was very overwhelming to me to be thinking about that in a time of crisis. And I decided to write a film about that, that will be driven by a family of four that will have these multiple ways for getting out. This was like, 2014-2015. But we shot the film in 2018, right after Bolsonaro’s election. But I think the Bolsonaro thing only came with a context for the story, because the essence of what Mars One is talking about was already there before. So of course, it has to do with what became this very huge disappointment of the Bolsonaro government’s very conservative, right-wing extremists. I think the story is the opposite of that, the characters are representing the opposite of that. I think the film kind of fits with their story. But everything was written before that.
SS: Could you speak some more on the title ‘Mars One’? It makes you think of sci-fi or something futuristic, but the film is very grounded in realism.
GM: Yeah, this was always the idea for the title. It never had another title. I came across the actual Mars One mission, that I believe was canceled this year. But when I was writing, it was actually a mission to colonize Mars, as we say in the film. I was very intrigued by that. Because thinking about Earth as a place that has so many problems, and we are already projecting to go to another place. That was kind of mind-boggling to me. But at the same time, thinking how this idea of Mars One could represent something of a utopia for Deivinho, or maybe as a more broad symbolism for the film as something that you want to reach. It’s not important if you do or not reach that goal, but what do you do to get there?
So it becomes more of a film about motivation and dreams. We stop the film before Deivinho actually achieves that goal, because that is not the main thing about his family. So I think to have this as the main title of the film is because the film is thinking about this possible idea of utopia. A possible idea of something that makes us wake up every day. I think the film is a little bit about the things that bring us motivation to deal with life everyday.
SS: Another interesting character is the mother Tércia, who experiences an explosion that makes her feel cursed. What was the meaning behind this character’s journey and the casting of Rejane Faria?
GM: Rejane Faria is an actress that I’ve been working with before for short films. But actually, this was the first film for her as the main protagonist, She is an actress that started a little bit late in the game, so she hadn’t had many opportunities. Now she’s doing a lot of stuff. But at the time, when we shot the film, this was like the first big break for her. And she embraced that with a lot of generosity, love and in a very smart way. I think it’s a very smart performance, the way she can do a lot with some very difficult choices that I made.
And I was thinking about honoring this character. This kind of character that I think, is usually perceived in many films – especially Brazilian films for the last 10 to 15 years – as a character that was usually used for bringing social discussion in the film rather than the filmmakers being interested in actually thinking about the subjectivity of this character and what does she feel. And showing her as a human being.
So when I put her to have this kind of existential crisis, that can be many things. I never wanted to point it out that this is just one thing. This is something psychological, this is something spiritual, something existential. This is something mysterious, that is not something normal. But that mystery for me is a way to say that this character can be many things, and that she has a profound thing going on in her life. And it became my favorite character when I was writing, because I think that her story was taking me to a lot of places that I didn’t know before. And that made me feel good to write about something that I could explore and kind of expand my mind about its possibilities.
I think this is pretty much what was driving me to think about the archetype of this character as it was portrayed before, and thinking about new ways to put her in crisis, and then kind of put the pieces back together. Because this is a character that kind of represents Black mothers and Black women that have been struggling for a long time in Brazil, that kind of hold this country together and hold their families together, and are not usually treated with kindness or generosity. So this is a film also about that.
SS: You touched on the ideas of representation of Black people in Brazil and the son’s dreams and taking a different path. What was your own experience in choosing to pursue film? Did you have any role models?
GM: It’s interesting, because I wanted to make films since I was a child, but I had no idea how to do that. I was raised in the outskirts, just like the characters. Actually, in the same neighborhood that we shot the film. And this was the place of most of my childhood. The street of my house didn’t even have pavement. It was more like a rural place, even though it was in an urban environment. I didn’t even have a theater near my house. So it was not very easy to have this kind of dream. Just like Deivinho, I was kind of dreaming something that was maybe impossible for me, or at least improbable.
But I think I was very stubborn and I had very supportive parents. And I was trying to understand how cinema could be part of my life. But at that time, I thought I was going to have to travel first to Hollywood to make films, then maybe to Sao Paulo or Rio, where it’s the market for cinema. But the thing that I think was the most important thing that ever happened to me was realizing when I was going to college, that I could make films in my own city. And more than that, I could film my own neighborhood. So this is something that was very important to me, to know that my street could be something interesting on film and could make a lot of films and could have characters that could be universal in so in many ways.
One film that a little bit later on, was very important to me, was Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett. I think I was very influenced by the way he shot Watts and the way he brought up this relationship. That film kind of made me solidify this idea of putting my neighborhood on the screen. And it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. This is the first film I directed alone. But I’ve done other feature films that were also in the neighborhood that I co-directed.
So I think this was the path that was very specific and brought me here, to kind of have a bet on these kind of stories that are very personal to me, more than trying to fit in a pattern that would mean having to go outside or having to please producers and everything. I just found my own company with friends and people that I like. And we’re starting to kind of make history by ourselves.
SS: This film has been on its own journey from premiering at Sundance, to becoming the Brazilian Oscar submission, to being seen by people during another Brazilian election. Tell me about that journey and how this new context has shaped how you and others are seeing and receiving the film.
GM: Yeah, I think the timing is very wild for this film to be here. It made me realize that we have to be patient as a filmmaker, because you never know what could happen. And I think Mars One took a long time to be ready since we shot the film like four years ago to be released for the audience. And I was very anxious by that during the pandemic, because I want people to see the film right away. After we premiered in Sundance at the beginning of this year, we premiered in Brazil in August. And it was a perfect timing for me, because I think the film had a kind of a relief and a very high energy to deal with this very intense time that we are dealing with right now. As I said, Bolsonaro’s government represents everything that this film does not.
Our film is a film about love, about affection. And Bolsonaro’s government is about hate, it’s about lies. So to have this kind of film as a counterpoint to this conservative wave and rights being retrieved from poor communities, I think the film kind of became a very big symbol of hope. It has been two months that we have been playing in theaters, which is huge for a film this size from an independent production company.
The elections came and I was worried that the film might get thrown away because of the elections and the theme. But no, we’ve been getting a lot of very positive messages. Messages from people who are glad they saw the film and the film gave them more energy to go through these times. And I would never have pictured that months ago or years ago. That this would be the moment that the film would have.
Not even the Oscar thing was something that I had in mind. A very short time ago. I was not thinking about that at all. So I’m definitely overwhelmed by everything that is happening, I’m trying to deal with something that is very new for my production company and myself. But I’m definitely feeling that all of these repercussions are coming with a lot of love. So it’s a very nice place to be, in that sense. When you produce something that has this whole energy of positivity.
Even with this Oscar campaign, everyone’s so united for one film. Usually there’s some competition and people feel a little bit alone in the campaign. Now I feel that everyone is giving their hands to help in any way possible. And this is an awesome thing to feel, especially with this film that is a very important representation, a film by a Black director. It’s the first time a Brazilian film that was chosen to represent us in the Oscar is directed by a Black filmmaker. So there’s a lot of historical things going on and matched with this kind of positivity, I just feel blessed in many ways.