Last night at the Heyman Center, Columbia Global Centers hosted Writing the Brazilian Telenovela: A Discussion and Q&A with João Emanuel Carneiro. Bwogger and Elementary Portuguese I student Angelica Lagasca covers the lecture: one filled with gray areas, dying German soldiers, broken toys, and some uncomfortable moments.
On Monday night at the Heyman Center, a group of around thirty people gathered to hear João Emanuel Carneiro speak on his work and his experience in the Brazilian entertainment industry, particularly in the context of issues such as race and class. Carneiro has won both national and international attention for his screenplays, from films like Central Station (1998) to telenovelas like Da Cor do Pecado (2004), A Favorita (2008), and Avenida Brasil (2012). With Carneiro were Professor Richard Peña, Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts, and Professor Ana Paulina Lee, Professor of Luso-Brazilian Studies. While the lecture began with the professors prompting Carneiro with questions, the floor later opened up to questions from the audience.
The audience was largely comprised of older people—among the mix was an anthropologist, a handful of Brazilians, a director, and my Portuguese professor, who engaged in small talk with me in Portuguese (and subsequently made me nervous because I’m only in Elementary Portuguese I). Some were longtime fans of Carneiro’s telenovelas and of Brazilian telenovelas in general. Others were more concerned with the writing process. Some wrote on notebooks; others were more interested in the (very gourmet) offerings. All were attentive.
Much of the discussion centered on Carneiro’s approach to writing. His characters live in a “gray zone.” They’re loved, they’re hated—they cannot be judged easily. Caminha of Avenida Brasil is a liar and a cruel person, yet the audience can still love her. In A Favorita, Flora and Donatela seem to represent opposites; Flora has a privileged life, while Donatela does not. Both lie and deceive, and the audience must wonder who to root for. In the end of A Favorita, Donatela is revealed to be the true murderer, a rupturing of the stereotype that the less privileged are always good. This type of story, one that breaks conventions, attracts Carneiro: he views stories as “toys to break.” “Brazilian telenovelas are different from Mexican telenovelas,” Carneiro said. “They don’t follow conventions.”
Carneiro gains many of his ideas on breaking conventions from movies. When watching Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color, Carneiro wanted to change the scene where a dying German soldier asks his murderer to tell his wife that he loves her. Carneiro believes that instead of asking the murderer to deliver the message, the German soldier should have asked the man to kill his wife.
Watching movies also helps Carneiro decompress during his long and drawn-out writing process. Telenovela series often take the form of 200 one-hour “chapters,” or episodes, and Carneiro tries to write least 100 of those as soon as possible. The process becomes so consuming, Carneiro said, that eventually the work becomes organic. The script naturally gains its pace and its characters, which Carneiro keeps to a minimum in order to maintain their vitality and their relatability. Such a heart-and-soul endeavor makes it hard for Carneiro to split his work with other writers; he joked that such a work would look like Frankenstein.
Occasionally, a professor or an audience member would try to ask about Carneiro’s thoughts on the international success and impact of his telenovelas. In his short responses, Carneiro appeared to view his treatment of social issues as not deliberate but as a result of his organic approach to writing. When asked by Professor Lee about his inclusion of a black woman as a protagonist in Da Cor do Pecado, Carneiro responded that he only saw the inclusion as a consequence of the plotline. The rise of a lower class soccer player in Avenida Brasil and the portrayal of corrupt politicians in A Regra do Jogo were just Carneiro’s ways of accurately portraying the world.
When asked whether he tries to deliver a political message in his telenovelas, Carneiro replied that if he did, his shows would be “boring.” Carneiro also avoids radical stances in his telenovelas, claiming he must be considerate of the fourteen million people who view his shows. He cites the telenovela, Babilônia, as an example to avoid: because of one scene where two women kiss, the show gained public rejection and lost a large amount of viewers. In one fraught moment, Professor Lee asked Carneiro about the inclusion of yellow face in telenovela Sol Nascente—he responded that the use of yellow face was only practical, given that there are very few Portuguese-speaking Asian actors or actresses in Brazil. This problematic response is at odds with sentiment in socially progressive circles, at the very least, but is indicative of the difference between the media landscape that Carneiro navigates and our own.
The end of the lecture came very abruptly, and the audience soon broke off into groups to probably chat about gray areas and organic tales (while my Portuguese professor showed me how to watch Avenida Brasil from an iPad).
Photo courtesy of Latina Magazine online