Maya Da-Rin’s debut film is a dreamy, hazy arthouse wonder about a mysterious fever, exploring alienation, displacement, and identity with the Desana people of Brazil
The body is empty. No organs, just skin, and a heart still beating. This is how Justino (Regis Myrupu), a 45-year-old security guard in Manaus, describes the animal that’s haunting him in his dreams. The mythical monster, Justino suspects, is stalking him in reality, too; when he treads through moonlit streets and shadowy vegetation at night, the organ-less predator could be lurking anywhere in the frame, just naked to the human eye. At the same time, Justino, an indigenous member of the Desana people, has his own personal problems – all of which are manifesting in a malaise and possible hallucinations. Even if the supernatural creature is invisible, the root cause is clear to see.
Dizzying in its dreaminess and passionate in its politics, The Fever is the debut fictional feature from Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin. A documentarian and visual artist, Da-Rin, 42, was inspired to make The Fever after shooting two non-fiction features, Margin and Lands, in the Amazonian region. Six years of research followed – and it evidently paid off. At Locarno Film Festival in 2019, The Fever won three awards, including Best Actor and the FIPRESCI prize for Best Film; now out in the UK, it’s ready to seep into your imagination and burrow it ways into your subconscious.
“Justino knows something’s happening,” Da-Rin explains to me over Zoom, from her home in Rio De Janeiro, in early August. “It’s not a ‘white people’ illness, as they call it. Because Desana people have ‘white people’ illnesses, and then there are Desana illnesses that can’t be healed with white man’s medicine.” In fact, a local doctor is flummoxed when inspecting Justino; to recuperate, Justino suspects that he’ll need to visit the shaman at his home village, far away from Manaus. In that sense, the creature’s invisibility is essential. “I couldn’t reveal to the public more than what the character knew himself, or what he was able to see,” Da-Rin says. “The story’s about not being able to understand completely what’s happening with him, because, actually, some of the indigenous illnesses have a physical symptom but there’s not necessarily a physical cause. It’s related with the equilibrium.”
For example, Desana people believe in maintaining the equilibrium between humans, plants, and animals – it’s why, when hunting, killing more creatures than necessary can backfire. “When you come to live in the city, you’re far from all that. You’re in a place that’s causing a disturbance in this environment. You’re part of something affecting this equilibrium, and then you can be affected with that, also.”
Two decades ago, Justino, like many indigenous people, left his home in the Amazonian rainforest to seek employment in Manaus. Our introduction to him is as a silent, stoic watchman in a cargo port where, in his eyes, an existential crisis is unfurling. The whirring cranes subtly mimic the towering trees of a jungle, yet, on closer inspection, the machines closer resemble the baddies from a Transformers movie. In the locker room, a co-worker is frequently racist about Justino’s heritage; when Justino struggles to stay awake, the HR manager threatens him with the sack, maliciously warning, “You’d get no redundancy pay… You only started contributing when you came to work at the port. It’s only what’s on the books that counts.”
“Manaus has always intrigued me, because it’s a city where different projects of society are present,” Da-Rin notes. “There’s the occidental, colonial, and capitalist project, the one implemented in that region during dictatorship in Brazil, with the creation of the industrial zone in the Amazon, and the duty-free zone in Manaus. Then there’s all the different projects from Amerindian societies that came to live there, with their own societies and relationships.” In 60 years, Manaus’ population has risen from 200,000 to more than two million. When the city expanded, it grew into the Amazon surrounding it. “The region where people used to live – they had less animals around to chase, less fish in the river to fish. Life got more difficult. They came to the city to learn Portuguese so that their children could have an education, so they could speak and fight for themselves.”
She adds, “There was a vision that these places weren’t populated, as if nobody was living there, as if there was only forest – because indigenous people weren’t really considered people. To be populated, it was ‘important’ to have white people living there… Now Manaus is a concrete city, with shopping malls and all that, built with its back towards the forest. You need a car to get around. In the outskirts, you have indigenous communities living a lot more integrated with nature.”
Justino and his family is one of those households on the outskirts. Although he’s surrounded by the hum of cicadas and can cheerfully joke around with relatives, Justino is grieving from the recent death of his wife. Adding to the loneliness, his daughter, Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), has been accepted for medical school in Brasilia. Justino already felt alienated in Manaus; without his wife or daughter, why remain in the city for a job he despises? Given that Justino falls ill upon receiving Vanessa’s news, the fever is evidently a more literal form of homesickness.
At his home away from home, Justino converses in Tukano, a language that Da-Rin doesn’t speak and thus trusted her cast to translate from Portuguese. (Fun fact: there is no word in Tukano for “nature”, due to the belief that mankind and the environment require no separation.) To find Myrupu and Peixoto, both first-time actors, the director auditioned more than 500 indigenous people. “I was very attentive to the limits I was facing as a non-indigenous person writing and directing a story with indigenous characters,” Da-Rin says. “What really moved me to write this story was the fact that there were many things I couldn’t understand. There were different things I could learn, and that changed my way of looking at things. But there was always something I couldn’t understand completely. I felt there was always something more – something deeper. And I didn’t have the tools to completely understand it. It’s a different kind of perception – maybe you need to be living in it, and dealing with it, to be able to pursue it.”
“What really moved me to write this story was the fact that there were many things I couldn’t understand. There were different things I could learn, and that changed my way of looking at things” – Maya Da-Rin
She continues, “I spent long periods in Manaus, one or two months each time. Me and one of my co-writers, Miguel Seabra Lopes, we went to different indigenous villages. We stayed for weeks in a port, following the day-to-day routine of the workers. We stayed for weeks in a health centre where some indigenous people were working. It was about understanding the rhythm, the way things would happen.”
The dreamy, hypnagogic pacing of The Fever – certainly one to watch in a darkened room, if not in a cinema, then at least as late as possible at home – relies more on the sensual pleasures of its insect-heavy soundscape and shadowy, poetic cinematography than any traditional storytelling beats. One comparison I mention is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker whose somnolent fables allow the living and the dead to co-exist in naturalistic habitats.
“I remember the first time I saw Tropical Malady. It was in a small cinema in Brazil, on 35mm, and I liked it very much. I had the feeling of being there with the character somehow. It’s something I admire in Apichatpong’s cinema, the way characters interact between themselves and with the places around them. It made me think directly about the Amerindian people in Brazil, and the proximities with different Asian cultures.
“But on the other hand – well, people make the comparison, and I feel honoured. Maybe with the scenes in the forest, Tropical Malady was a reference. For the rest, I had different references – indigenous filmmakers in Brazil, or Ozu, for example.” Maybe it’s a lazy comparison, then? People like me see something slow and subtitled, and are quick with the namedrop? “I think so! Apichatpong has such strong work, and his films have travelled a lot – it’s great, because he’s working outside conventional narrative cinema. But when people see characters from a different culture that’s not a western culture, in a tropical forest, with some elements that are magical or supernatural, people connect it directly with Apichatpong.” (I promise that if I ever meet Weerasethakul, I will ask if he was influenced by Da-Rin to even things out.)
In Brazil, cinema is, in Da-Rin’s words, “a very elitist art and expensive”, so extra effort was made to ensure indigenous people could watch The Fever. “Some people from the Upper Rio Negro region wrote to me, saying they were touched to have seen, for the first time, a film in their mother language, or a depiction of Desana characters or an indigenous protagonist in that way. It gave me a sense of why I made the film.” It also made its way around the world via the festival circuit. “I exhibited the film in Pingyao, in China, and many people said they could relate to what happens with the minority ethnicities that are there in China, and the relationships they have with the cities and the capital.”
“What brought Bolsonaro to government has been happening to Brazil since the colonisation, since the invasion of America. It’s a consequence of the country’s history“ – Maya Da-Rin
Da-Rin was supposed to contribute a short to a compendium feature organised by Jia Zhangke, but production was put on hold at two weeks’ notice due to the pandemic. However, she has another feature in mind that she hopes to shoot whenever possible in the south of Brazil. “It’s very difficult with everything that’s happening in Brazil,” she says. “It’s difficult to raise funds. Hopefully, in the next election, we’re going to have a change, and I’ll be able to carry on shooting. I live here, and want to carry on working here.”
Since his election, Jair Bolsonaro has continually slashed funding for Brazilian cinema, despite – or because of – the international success of directors like Da-Rin and Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius, Bacurau). On his first day in office, Bolsonaro dissolved the Ministry of Culture; a few months later, he suspended financing for LGBTQ+ projects. A week before my conversation with Da-Rin, the Brazilian Cinematheque burned down in Sao Paolo. Mendonça Filho tweeted, “four tons of materials, 2K prints lost. After the fire at the National Museum and multiple calls 4help from the film community (20 days ago I called it out in Cannes), nothing done. It doesn’t even feel like an accident.”
“When I wrote the film, we had a left-wing government in Brazil,” Da-Rin says. “We shot the film in May 2018, before Bolsonaro was elected at the end of the year. So the development was in a different moment in Brazil. For example, Vanessa goes to medical school due to a quota programme that had been implemented by the left-wing government in Brazil, and that enabled many indigenous people to come to university and graduate for different jobs – medicine, law, administration.
“But with the rise of the right-wing – Bolsonaro is really clear with his racism, and how against indigenous people he is. The demarcation of land has been stopped. Deforestation has almost been allowed in Brazil. We have all the fires. Illegal miners are coming into indigenous reservations, and extracting minerals without authorisation, and bringing different kinds of illnesses to people. And now with COVID, everything gets even worse. We have a very sad scene in Brazil nowadays with Bolsonaro.”
Still, like Bacurau, which was also shot before Bolsonaro’s election win, The Fever has been repeatedly referred to as an anti-Bolsonaro film. “Yes, Bolsonaro wasn’t in government when the film was written and shot, but it happens with cinema, with writing, with music, with art in general,” Da-Rin says. “There’s something there, and we’re all affected by it. We didn’t know – but somehow, it was affecting all of us. What brought Bolsonaro to government has been happening to Brazil since the colonisation, since the invasion of America. It’s a consequence of the country’s history. We had this huge genocide with the amount of indigenous people that have been killed by colonisation in Brazil. And then we have a country that’s been built over this huge cemetery.”
Da-Rin cites a Brazilian writer, Ailton Krenak, who refers to Brazil as a postapocalyptic country. “The world for indigenous people ended more than 500 years ago. When you’ve lost your world, your culture and your people, when everything you knew was completely killed and devastated, you’re living in a postapocalyptic country. What we’re living in nowadays in Brazil is a mirror of that history – all the prejudice, all the persecution to indigenous people, to Black people, to LGBTQ+ people. The history of Brazil is already postapocalyptic.”