Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022. High-definition video (color, sound). 25 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Ramiro Ortíz Mayorga through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund. © 2023 Jonathas de Andrade

Jonathas de Andrade’s Olho da Rua (Out Loud) screened here December 22, 2023–January 5, 2024. The video is no longer available for streaming. Read an interview with the artist below.

In works that span installation, photography, and video, the Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade often starts with a proposition. In the case of Olho da Rua (Out Loud), the proposition was to invite people experiencing homelessness in the city of Recife to participate in a series of exercises inspired by the Theater of the Oppressed. First elaborated in the 1970s by theorist and activist Augusto Boal, the Theater of the Oppressed focuses on the political potential of participants to reimagine and transform their lives through active observation, collective brainstorming, and unscripted expression. Unfolding across eight acts, Olho da Rua nods to this theatrical tradition but, as in Andrade’s other work, new dynamics are introduced by the participants' interpretation of the prompts. I sat down with the artist to discuss his artistic process and politics in Brazil.
—May Makki, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art

May Makki: How did you first become acquainted with the Theatre of the Oppressed and how did you become interested in using it as a framework or a tool?

Jonathas de Andrade: I like to think of a film as a starting point for a group of people to have experiences in front of the camera. From this filmic pretext, we can tell stories of how these people live, relate, and resist challenges, which can inspire us. These starting points may be real or fictional, but they are steeped in bodily truths, and in the terrain of representation, theater and fantasy, various documentary elements are imposed, and the camera becomes a rich and revealing stage of humanity. In my past projects, I’ve used various setups and points of departure.

For example, in 2012 I made a film called The Uprising with a group of carters in Recife. As farm animals are prohibited anywhere in Recife, anyone who gets around by horse is rendered invisible from the point of view of the law. The context of filmmaking (and obtaining a filming permit) allowed me to organize a cart race in the city center, to celebrate the existence of the carts and horsemen by having them take the city by storm. In 2016, I made a film O Peixe (The Fish) with a group of fishermen, proposing that they hug a fish in front of the camera. Although it was the first time they did so, the film resembles a documentary, which makes the gesture appear to be part of a ritual that touches on respect and the contradictions between man and nature.

After I worked on a film called Jogos Dirigidos (Directed Games) (2019) with a deaf community from Várzea Queimada, who invented their own language in the northeast of Brazil, audience members started contacting me to ask, “Are you thinking about the Theater of the Oppressed?” I hadn't made that connection before, but the idea that theater, acting, and art can be social articulators in the direction of generating autonomy and political awareness is very powerful. By playing a role that has to do with our own social place, we can rearticulate the way we understand our own history, see ourselves inside and see ourselves outside, and this is as powerful as it is inspiring.

When I started thinking about Olho da Rua, it was the middle of the pandemic and I was commissioned by the Fondazione Between Art Films to create a film with a sense of urgency. At the time, we were living under an outrageous government. Homelessness in the streets was increasing day by day, and the affected people had no access to masks, food, or vaccines while our own president was denying the efficacy of vaccines. It was the worst scenario I’ve seen in my lifetime. So I decided that the most urgent film I could make at that moment was to do a proposition with this group of people.

With assistance from social services and NGOs working to support people experiencing homelessness, I invited a group of one hundred people to perform together with me during a weekend in a public square in Recife, where I'm based. This was the film with the most delicate human condition that I had ever made, and already in the planning I felt ethically challenged to redouble the listening, the care with the acting, and even the idea of having a script, which would be more of a guide than something to be followed to the letter. The process itself had to involve redoing and readapting. The Theater of the Oppressed made me more aware that a proposition or a script had more power as a point of departure rather than something to be followed strictly. And that's how Olho da Rua started happening.

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Were you using exercises from the Theater of the Oppressed to revise your script?

I didn't follow any specific exercises from the Theater of the Oppressed, but rather its principles. When we perform stories that relate to the daily life of people, we have a chance to perform these stories stronger, or to dramatize them. Performing involves the chance to create a scenic catharsis, which inspires understanding for the group that sees itself represented from within or without. And also when the film goes to the museum for another audience, it's possible to see up close the people we see from afar on the street, when eye to eye embarrasses us with the embarrassment that we are privileged and that we can't articulate the social abyss to which we systematically contribute every day.

The film begins with a proposition that involves a mirror. After we filmed, a researcher on Augusto Boal told me mirrors were very important to the Theatre of the Oppressed. The mirror allowed the participants in this film to become more aware of their own image and the persona they were taking on during the filming. It was also important to invite a costume designer to create clothing options that people could wear and keep for themselves after. It was particularly important to build an image that could be dignifying instead of exploiting the idea of poverty.

We are going through a very critical moment where the voices of Black people, Indigenous people, and political minorities are finally having the opportunity to write their own narratives. Today, these kinds of collaborations must be careful not to depict people as socially fragile or exoticize them. I believe that art is a catalyst for empathy, and that films can be made from the articulation of unlikely encounters, and that this can be done in an ethically responsible way, even if it is a great challenge. So there were a lot of discussions with many collaborators about how to create an environment in which we could build this dignifying experience.

It had to be emotional but dignifying at the same time. This is why each act of the film is an exercise exploring gaze. Exploring how the participants look at themselves, how we look at them, and how they look at us. When this look is encountered in everyday life off camera. When it's a welcoming gaze, or a gaze we avoid, and why we avoid it. We need to remember these moments and experience the embarrassment in order to humanize this everyday gaze, in the direction of really caring about the lives that live differently from ours. How they face the camera, how they perform their life, how they perform the struggle.

These exercises were a way of performing democracy at a moment when democracy in Brazil was very fragile in those particularly outrageous and challenging Bolsonaro years. That political moment showed us that institutions are fragile and we have to fight for them. We can't get distracted.

What’s the significance of the public square?

I like to think that public space is a place of great power and energy. People look at each other. They check each other out in the street, which is a place for encounters, parties, protests, intimate conversations. So the street is alive and it's also a refuge for people experiencing homelessness. So, the film departs from the idea that the public square could represent spaces of a home.

We created a kitchen, a living room, and a garden where people could hang out. Those spaces were the initial setting for the action. But as I continued to follow the initial guide, several participants interrupted me with questions, “When can I speak to the camera?” I hadn't imagined any moments in which people spoke to the camera, but the requests continued. So I decided that everyone would gather in the middle of a circle, look into the camera, and say their message. And it was so powerful. It taught me that working with the desires of the participants being filmed is the best way to guide an experience of a film whose script is alive and reinvented at every moment, collectively. Taking into consideration the motivations of those who are participating changes the direction of the piece in a very vivid way. I heard feedback from people who saw the film who said, are these really homeless people? This feedback confirmed to me that when the camera gets close and has a close, attentive look, it is possible to create an image that reaches out to the individual and collective power of each person, that is not fetishizing or exploitative of a condition.

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Jonathas de Andrade. Olho da Rua (Out Loud). 2022

Can you talk about the boundary between modes of fiction and documentary? While watching, the music in particular lends a staged quality.

I like how the film exists between these two modes. In some acts you can see my presence as someone directing, and in others the participants are taking the scene very freely, with an awareness that they're performing. I love how the film changes perspective and how this oscillation between the real and the fictional turns what we see into a large, living stage as non-actors play with their own story and their own body of experience.

For me, music becomes a kind of character with the ability to make everything vibrate in a state of urgency and engagement. This is the third film I’ve collaborated on with the percussionist Homero Basílio, a talented musician from Recife. The music creates a tone, emphasizes intimacy, and sometimes makes things spectacular. We've even shown this film as a concert; the live music brings a dimension of urgency that I haven't experienced before. You can really feel acoustically the presence of the music in the participants’ bodies, and I believe that the audience itself receives this message that the same moment in the film is an instant from real life, urgent before our eyes.

Media and Performance at MoMA is made possible by Hyundai Card.

Major support is provided by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Director’s Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art.

Generous funding is provided by the Lonti Ebers Endowment for Performance and the Sarah Arison Endowment Fund for Performance.