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Dry Ground Burning review – visionary docufiction slashes through Brazilian politics

Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta's sisterly portrait makes for a surprisingly gentle but scorching look at the Sol Nascente favela

From the throbbing, aching heart of a dictatorial Brazil rises a blistering film – at and for the margins – produced under the banner of Terratreme Filmes in Portugal, who pride themselves in uncompromisingly political and hypnotic cinema. This time, directors Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta settle in the peripheral city of Ceilândia, a government creation dating from the 1970s to purposefully keep people from moving into Brasília. Dry Ground Burning lends a scorching look of the Sol Nascente favela through the compelling story of two sisters, oil, and a woman-led resistance.

Pimienta served as cinematographer on Queirós’s previous film, 2017's Once There Was Brasilia, and returns as one here – alongside her co-writer and co-director credits – exposing the richness of a seemingly barren land with stunning dynamism within the constraints of a long take. But the eponymous ground is not entirely arid: first, it is an extension of home for those living in the favela, and secondly, it is rich in oil, which, of course, belongs to the authoritarian government. Here is where our protagonists come in.

Fresh out of prison, Léa (Léa Alves da Silva) joins her half-sister Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) in an illegal gasoline trade: the latter is the head of an all-female gang that syphons and resells oil to bikers directly. The shoot itself was tuned to Léa’s release and was, in a way, dictated by the siblings’ reunion – as a result, the plot drive is loose but always an organic growth from one scene to the next. Dry Ground Burning starts off as a personal story but even with the first-person accounts it never succumbs to conventional documentary tropes. The camera is attentive, it listens and lingers, but also acts as a catalyst, sliding reality into its fictionalised version, to then slide out back to harsher realism.

Sol Nascente may be ruled by a repetitive cycle of anti-drug traffic operations, prison time, and short-lived freedom, but Léa and Chitara defy the militarised surveillance with a blazing audacity. All cast are non-professionals and they all play alternative versions of their real-life selves, toeing the line between representation and pure presence which is mirrored in the film’s mix-up of quotidian and electrifyingly staged shots. Amongst the stylised images that will make you gasp are a stunning long take of a bacchanalian dance inside a prison bus and a flaming paean to Chitara as a now-mythologised figure in the middle of the night. Overall, Dry Ground Burning is laden with political sentiment, but also caring of its subjects and their raw intimacy: a surprisingly gentle look, free of all aestheticization.

Dry Ground Burning is released in UK cinemas on 2 September.

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