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Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Maria Carolina Telles – “You Are Not a Soldier”


Maria Carolina Telles is a showrunner, director, screenwriter, and journalist. Telles is known for creating and directing the docu reality series “Reto Imposible” for Natgeo Latin America, the docuseries “Brasil de Imigrantes” for History Channel, and TV documentary “The Truth Beneath the Lie” for ELO Company. She has supervised over 40 productions for Discovery Networks and directed and formatted programs for Disney, FOX, Turner, Rede Globo, Rede Record, Bandeirantes TV, and SBT such as “Big Brother Brasil,” “Rio Ink,” and “Restricted Area.”

“You Are Not a Soldier” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MCT: It is my own female gaze at the cyclical life experience of André Liohn as a man, an independent war photographer, a father, and a son.

For me, it brought reflections on this meeting place of the feminine and the masculine under the complex exercise of paternity. I don’t know if a man would do that same search.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MCT: This is the era of a massive misinformation, a phenomenon that is a symptom of the systematic suppression of information. At a time of profound political and social crisis in my country Brazil, I believe it is extremely important to also invest in productions and make a responsible exhibition of what is behind the scenes of information production. That is investing in transparency.

Information and protection of journalism is an important contemporary “weapon” in the battle that will protect democracy. Everything starts with the information we have available. The greater the suppression of the production of committed and professional content, the greater the space for the circulation of propaganda and misinformation. And this is where the central artery of our film lies.

It’s a film about the isolated experience and life of an independent Brazilian war photojournalist as a means to expose the open veins of journalism as a tool for freedom, democracy, and peace.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

MCT: Above all, this is an anti-war film. Instead of trying to see the war through an heroic point of view, with winners and losers, or through the soldiers eyes, I have tried to convey anti-war messages through a character-driven experience of an information collector, a photojournalist, and a non combatant, showing that war is hell.

I believe that a strong anti-war film can make us pause and reflect more deeply on war’s horrific nature, and the senselessness of it all. It is my humble reverence to life, love, family, and peace. I would say a survival cautionary tale.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MCT: In the beginning of this production, I was struggling to be strong at my father’s side in his terminal moments. He was lucid. Embracing the end of his life in a very elegant way. He gave me strength to keep on doing what I had to do and asked me to see some of Liohn’s footage. I was confused, and didn’t want to show him all this sadness in that very moment. But I decided to show him some specific action sequences. It provoked a return to his memories on the second World War, so he and I had the time to revisit his young years together, and that was the most important experience that I faced by his side in his last days.

He told me again, as he did it many times during my life, how he use to hide his expeditionary uniform from my grandmother, convincing her that he were not about to join the allies in Italy and how he got frustrated as the war ended before he got to the frontlines. He really wanted to go and told me that was his only frustration in life as he was a complete and happy man having a beautiful life experience surrounded by all this love and wonderful and strong women like me, my daughter, my sister from his first marriage, and my mom. I was surprised and deeply touched to hear it at that moment.

It was a very intense and challenging period of my life, deeply painful. Aleksei Abib, the scriptwriter, felt that it would be wonderful to express it in our film because it had a genuine connection to what were doing and our approach. We were provoking each other along several meetings. I finally agree with him and felt like telling the story to my father. In the end, I believe that was also an opportunity to show him somehow how fortunate he was as he never seen the blood, the hate, and the smell of death in the warzones, and how fortunate he was to live almost to his 100 years.

In the end it is also my message to him on how worth it it is to be a father. I never had his answer on the result, but I imagine I could have his gratitude and blessing if he were alive today.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MCT: There is a sequence of facts that brought me here. I grew up and weaved all my life experience inspired by movies, science, music, literature, nature, and larger-than-life characters. I believe this visceral need to get to places and to access different universes through an embedded and visceral approach took me to journalism, and then to nonfiction and documentary.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MCT: Best advice: Do not have a dogmatic approach to aesthetics and storytelling.

The worst? Don’t play in boys land. Never paid attention to that one.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

MCT: Recognize and navigate bias.

I believe that we have to challenge ourselves to move around and to provoke ourselves to leave the borders that divide genders. I believe that we have to embrace this deep dive. Take your credit. Take credit for your work. Don’t accept any limit. Stand for what you believe proudly and loud. Be fearless. Negotiate. Advocate for you and for other women.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MCT: Wow, that’s very hard to choose. Some of the most outstanding and beautiful films of all-time are directed by women! During my years in London, I was deeply connected with the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese filmmaker. More recently, Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” Marguerite Duras’ ” India Song,” Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” Petra Costa’s “Elena,” Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!,” Kira Muratova’s “The Asthenic Syndrome,” and Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and “An Angel At My Table.”

Today I would go for” American Psycho” by Mary Harron. Harron has always been this director with an interesting form of expressing her feminism. She refuses to fit into any ideological framework, and explores stories about psychopaths and outcasts without trying to explain, justify, or condemn their behavior.

I think “American Psycho” was ahead of its time, and all of these themes have become so important in the years since, especially given the interest in male anti-heroes and toxic masculinity.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

MCT: I would say that I am keeping the sentinel rather than a creative process, as my country has become a global epicenter of the outbreak. Brazil is in a period of chaos by design. It is necessary to be aware facing up to Bolsonaro’s policy of death. We are being subjected to a horrific result of a structural denialism and far right extremist Propaganda.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

MCT: It is time to allow storytellers to share stories from the perspective of a lived experience rather than a studio fabrication. I would say that there must be a turning point to the never-ending white male lens to a sort of “multifaceted lens”: multi race, multi language, and multi genre experiences colliding to each other make interesting films.

We must not continue creating diversity clones of what is already there. We have to listen. To learn. To take the next step. We have all to stand up by creating a culture where bias, stereotypes, and racism are unacceptable, where everyone feel safe working and represented.

Media historically depicts stereotypical representations for people of color and women, whether through Hollywood or on the news. The same bias go for Muslims, Asians, Latinos, and LGBTQ populations. There is no more place for that.

Humanity is this beautiful myriad and seeing oneself on screen is crucial as society is not monolithic.

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