Thursday 9 July 2020


By Dimitri Keramitas

On hearing that the documentary Babenco is about the late Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco, film buffs of a certain age will likely exclaim “Oh, that Babenco!”, because this subject is a true icon of cinema history.

Poster: Babenco - Tell Me When I Die
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Hector Babenco was a hard-to-miss presence, not just in Latin-American cinema but also in the US, unique (at that time) in his cross-over career.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, Pixote, Carandiru, Ironweed, At Play in the Fields of the Lord were all critical successes, and Spider Woman (based on a novel by Manuel Puig) a commercial success as well. Major Latin-American directors like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, who have achieved even greater mainstream renown, owe much to Babenco’s example.

In this new film - directed by Barbara Paz, Babenco's third wife, and shown recently at Switzerland’s 2020 Visions du Réel (online) festival - the acclaimed South American filmmaker states that a director must know how to tell a story.

When he made films of gritty documentary realism, there was always a narrative thrust. Later in his career he came to depend on literary source material: Puig, Peter Mathieson, William Kennedy. Oddly enough, in Babenco the subject seems to lose that interest in story, maybe because he was ill, or because he’d found that at a certain point story is no longer the most important aspect of filmmaking. At the end of his life, he sees the past as pieces in a jigsaw, though always with a constant underlying meaning.

It’s hard to say where Paz’s authorship begins and Babenco’s influence ends. He had strong predilections and ideas about filmmaking. These certainly impregnated the director’s approach, especially as the documentary is her first feature-length film. (There was another heavy-duty figure behind her; Willem Dafoe, with whom Ms. Paz co-starred in Babenco’s last film, was executive producer). The documentary exudes a feeling of collaboration, a warm melding of young and old, male and female.

One of Babenco's most famous films:
Kiss of the Spider Woman
In form, the film is a kind of mosaic. It contains haunting, but also obscure, scenes that represent Babenco’s musings and fantasies. We also get beautiful shots of Brazilian landscapes. Although Argentine in origin, Babenco was attracted to the wildness and beauty of Brazil and spent much of his life and career there, becoming a naturalised citizen.

We are treated to several extracts from his films, even a shot of him at the 1986 Academy Awards, where he lost out for Best Director to Sidney Pollack and Out of Africa (although William Hurt won for Best Actor, as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman).

Much more striking are interviews of Babenco at various phases of his life, especially his younger days. He seems physically very different from one phase to another. The dichotomy or multiplicity of Brazilian/Argentine, guerrilla filmmaker/Hollywood director, derives from his roots. Both his parents were Jewish transplants to South America. His mother emigrated from Poland, while his father was of Ukrainian descent. He continued the family tradition of immigration and outsiderhood, and always identified with marginal people, like the street kid Pixote, during his life of advocacy and idealism.

But Babenco is not just a documentary about a life, but also about a death. The subtitle is: Tell Me When I Die. Babenco contracted cancer in the 1990s, and his life turned into a continual struggle affecting his physical strength and also his memory. Once again, his features took on a marked change in appearance. Ms. Paz films the process of decline with clinical directness but also love for her husband. This was in line with his own sensibility, the determination to engage directly with life’s harshness. As we see him in a hospital bed or taking a test, he seems resigned, calm, curious about what’s happening to him. (When he died in 2016, at the age of 70, the cause was cardiac arrest.)

Babenco: a moving farewell.
Even as he’s being ravaged by his illness, Babenco is still concerned with filmmaking. He dispenses advice (or at least his opinions) to the much younger Ms. Paz, a neophyte filmmaker.

Lending a metafictional air to the film, we see a clip of Willem Dafoe playing a cancer-ridden character in a film Babenco directed (My Hindu Friend). We even observe them during the shoot, debating how an afflicted person would react in a particular situation. It’s amusing in a ghoulish sort of way, as the director isn’t simply making the film but is in the real position of the fictional character.

Babenco, which was awarded the “best documentary on cinema” prize at the Venice Film Festival, is fascinating as a portrait of an artist’s life. The black-and-white images are often engrossing, and the formal jumble reflects the multifaceted, ever-evolving subject. The focus on the director’s death gives the documentary a dramatic framework. We don’t get much about his life with Ms. Paz, his previous wives or his children. This is probably due to discretion on the part of both Babenco and Ms. Paz, which is understandable. However, it also results in a certain lack in the film, something missing, something thin. While not a perfect film, Babenco is nonetheless moving, and motivates the viewer to want to see some of Hector Babenco’s early work, and to await the next film by Barbara Paz.

Production: Gullane/HB Filmes. Distribution: Taskovski

Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.