Cowboys Who Dream of Another Life – a conversation with director Gabriel Mascaro

Brazilian filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro (b. 1983) is visiting Oslo and participating in the Main Competition at the Films From the South festival this year with his second feature film, Neon Bull.

Av 6. okt 2016

We sat down with Mascaro to discuss his new film, and his transition from documentary films to features – a fascinating artistic journey, that will also be made visible through the Mascaro retrospective at the festival.

”Brazil is in rapid development,” Mascaro says about his homeland. A quick summation of the last few years of headlines, tells a grim and tabloid story: the collapse of the Brazilian national football team during the 2014 World Cup, the scandal surrounding the recently removed president Dilma Rousseff and a Summer Olympics  event welcoming brilliant athletes to Rio, but also mired by corruption allegations.

The characteristics of Brazilian cinema has for outsiders long been defined by the success of directors such as Walter Salles (Central Station), Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and José Padilha (Elite Squad), yet still the current national film identity of Brazil does not have the idiosyncracies of for example the Argentinian cinema of the 2000s. Salles, Meirelles and Padilha has even stayed focused on Hollywood and their international careers, leaving the cinematic portraits of contemporary Brazil to other less famous directors. This is where we can find Gabriel Mascaro, an artist who is considered to be one of the most promising filmmakers coming out of Brazil in this decade.

Mascaro is part of a wave of young South American directors who has been making their mark on the international film festival scene during the last few years. In 2015, another of these promising filmmakers – Colombian Ciro Guerra – visited Films From the South with Embrace of the Serpent, a Cannes darling that later also became an Oscar nominee. Mascaro has journeyed through documentary films, and festivals such as IDFA and Rotterdam, before making his feature debut at Locarno with August Winds in 2014. And with the success of Neon Bull at Venice in 2015, Mascaro got his well-deserved breakthrough.

His new film shows his willingsness to shape and explore an innovate visual approach, with his own touch – enough to signal that Brazilian cinema has a new generation, and that their national film identity might move away from Walter Salles’ sentimentality and the violent favela despair  of Merielles and Padilha’s films, towards a new style.

(Neon Bull, trailer)


”I’m from the city of Recife in Brazil’s north-east, and this region’s distinctive personality is the starting point of the ideas that Neon Bull is built on. In this film, I aim to show that the dream of another life is possible, but that you don’t necessarily have to leave this place to reinvent yourself.” Mascaro explains how the themes are tied to the place: ”In this part of Brazil, there’s many textile factories, and for the main character – who’s literally employed as a cow boy – the other opportunities in the vicinity becomes a catalyst for his dream of becoming a fashion designer.”

Through Neon Bull and its observant, patient cinematic language, the director show that he approaches filmmaking with a different school of thought than we’re used to in Europe, where a governing tradition of film schools has resulted in an often standardized aesthetic style, where shot/reverse shot and shooting ”coverage” of any scene, dictates the visual grammar. Mascaro has developed his language through experiences with documentary filmmaking and visual arts, and it shows in Neon Bull – a film with a completely different sensitivity and curiosity than many of his European peers. This also transfers to his themes.

”Brazil has changed a lot during the last decade, and in particular this is true for the region around Recife in the North East. In many Brazilian books and films this area is described as poor, but looking at the lives in this region from the inside, I wanted to give a different portrait. These people are faced with expectations regarding gender and identity, and I also wanted to challenge these perceptions with my film. To show the contradiction within these expectations, and how the characters can seek out their dreams.”

Mascaro made his film debut in 2008 as a co-director of KFZ-1348, a documentary film which through the tracking down of the previous owners of a Volkswagen Beetle, opened a window into Brazilian society. Through his films, Mascaro has painted a picture of his homeland and how a modern Brazil takes form. In 2012, he was invited to the Rotterdam Film Festival to screen Housemaids, a documentary film (also screening at Films From the South this year) based on home video recordings by teenagers from the middle class, filming their housemaids. This was thematic sequel to his previous film High-Rise (2009), which chronicled the lives of the inhabitants of luxurious high-rise buildings.


In both August Winds and Neon Bull, Mascaro succeeds in creating a fluid aesthetic shift to fiction from his inherent documentary style, and at the same time he grows as a director – with bold use of mise-en-scène, especially in Neon Bull, a film that is surprisingly ambitious and signals a true virtuoso director in the making. The story takes us deep into local rodeo culture, notably focusing on the vaquejada game, where raging bulls are brought by their horns to the ground by men on horses. Here we find Iremar, the cowboy who dreams of becoming a fashion designer.

”With Neon Bull it was necessary for me to create truthful depiction of this environment, so my experience with documentaries became very useful. The long takes preserves the actors within the frame, and their interactions with each other and the animals, but I also wanted to combine these visuals with other more surrealist images and a separate, heightened reality – expanding the film’s aesthetic realm beyond what can be called ’documentary’.”

Despite his young age, Mascaro expresses a wise and meditative approach to filmmaking, and takes his time explaining the different elements he plays around with in Neon Bull – both in terms of narrative and the visual choices. Mascaro’s juxtaposition of the bulls, the sand, the dirt, with a more luminous beauty, the scents and costumes – all of his cowboy’s flamboyant dreams – creates a fascinating mood. How did Mascaro develop this collision of worlds, to express his main character’s identity? ”I was interested in looking at how violence and pleasure can be part of the same body, how courage and sensitivity can be part of the same body. All of what is normally not combined, I wanted to bring together in one body, one experience. One image.”

”This film is present with the people it is about,” says Mascaro. ”It tries to understand their internal codes and dreams. I did not want to judge them, but share their experience of life, and try to portay this in the film.”

(August Winds, trailer)


We ask him why he chose this title, Neon Bull? Mascaro provides a fast and enthusiastic reply. ”Well, this title is like an allegory of a place that changed fast, that dreams of something different. But that also dreams carries a contradiction. That the film about the cowboy who dreams of becoming a fashion designer also is a story of transformation in a larger perspective. But I will be honest: finding these two words, neon and bull, and to decide about the title, was harder than actually making the movie!”

”All this time it took to select this title, also illustrates my whole artistic process. I wanted to discover the film while making it, and I’ve tried to avoid making manipulations in my film language. The long takes are not interrupted by editing, so the changes in mood or movements are happening through the staging within a frame, instead of through cuts or montage. And maybe in this way, the tension and internal conflicts of the images become unpredictable,” Mascaro suggests. ”I hope the film is subtle in that way, and at the same time generous with how this world of bulls, horses, men and women is represented. So I wanted all this, all these contradictions, in the title of the film. And that is how we arrived at Neon Bull.”

With the use of long takes, Mascaro also invites the spectators to experience time in the same way as his characters; the time it takes to live these lives, so to speak. This effect is particularly moving and apparent in the two remarkable sex scenes in the film. (The short but entertaining heist scene, where Iremar and his friend ”steal” semen from a prize winning horse, is unforgettable for many reasons, and has to be seen rather than described.) So how did Mascaro go about making sure these sequences did not break with his aesthetic guidelines?

”Well, it is all about time, of course – that time becomes political when you let the camera record uninterrupted shots; a break with expectation. It gives me room to weave other layers into the image, beneath the superficial first impression. The sex scene with the horse, for example, could’ve been like a typical visual joke, if we used editing to accentuate easy points. But because we are letting it all play out in one long take, including the two minutes of stimulation needed for the horse before stealing the semen, and as important: the time after, we are beginning to read the scene differently. When a cinematic experience can create interaction for the viewer with a scene or a theme you normally could not see, that is what makes filmmaking cinematic to me.”

On Neon Bull, Mascaro collaborated with cinematographer Diego García, who recently also worked with acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and there’s overlapping qualitites between these films. «Thanks, and yes – it was an interesting process,» Mascaro replies with a smile. ”Interesting because we were not going to shoot with the idea of coverage, and different angles, perspectives, but try to find a way to solve each scene with one long take. So we had to work together to find the distance between the camera and the actors and their bodies. What we realized was that when we moved the camera closer, our feelings for the characters was reduced and the image emtied of meaning. But by moving the camera away, we felt the opposite – that the characters was stronger and could breathe more easily, and that our intimacy with them was increased.”

Gabriel Mascaro’s films can be identified by their warm sensuality and the careful way his camera observes the characters, and his stories are about how we relate to and are shaped by our surroundings. In the spaces created by Mascaro, we can step into the porous reality and dreams of vulnerable people and destinies, and his films show us a contemporary Brazil from the inside; far away from the tourist brochures and the copacabana.

Montages-logo This interview is presented in collaboration with the film website


Gabriel Mascaro is a main guest at the Films From the South festival i 2016, and three of his films will be screened – Neon Bull (in main competition), his feature debut August Winds and his documentary film Housemaids.


Film: Neon Bull

Time: 11 October at 8:00 PM

Place: Filmens hus - Tancred

Before the screening of Neon Bull on Tuesday October 11th, a conversation with the director will be taking place, moderated by editor-in-cheif of Montages Magazine, Karsten Meinich.

 Buy tickets HERE