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FOCUS ON FILMMAKERS: CAO HAMBURGER

(BY ALI NADERZAD) Cao Hamburger has written and shot a series for HBO called Sons of Carnaval and one childrens’ feature film called Castle Ra-Tim-Bum (1999). His film The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, about what happens when a young boy is left to his own device in a strange neighborhood of Sao Paulo by his political activist parents, has been making a lot of noise on the festival circuit. A cinematography which plunges one in 1970 totalitarian Brazil, unlikely friendships which develop among unlikely friends and memorable characters, all which make The Year My Parents Went on Vacation a touching (without the gooey center) and highly watchable film. SCREENCOMMENT.COM recently caught up with the director at his hotel in New York to ask him a few questions.

I heard the casting process for The Year My Parents Went On Vacation was very difficult. Is this true? Casting was difficult, yes. Patricia (Faria; casting director) and her team of four people as well as myself went to various schools to audition kids. We auditioned more than one thousand boys. Mauro’s character (played by Michel Joelsas) was initially written very differently. He wasn’t supposed to be handsome, but he was frail and small, instead. And Hannah was written as older, bigger, and more developed than the boy. When we found them, however, I changed my mind. Both of them and other children were located in the Jewish community. Patricia Farias had said that if the children had Jewish background, they would feel more comfortable, and she was right. So I saw every single child personally. We had a short-list of fifty boys and I worked with each one over two or three days and then we shortened it by ten people, and so on and so forth. The school the boy came from was also considered important. Casting was a huge responsibility so we took our time. When I first saw Michel (Joelsas) in the selection, he was the one who stood out the most.

Michel Joelsas, who plays young Mauro, was wonderful. I heard he’d never acted before, is this true? Yes, he had never acted in a film before and we could see that he had two traits which went so well: intelligence and a sense of observation. And he had strong charisma. He’s also got a certain shiness and an inner strength.

What made you decide to use the Jewish community as subject? There are two reasons why the Jewish community fits so well. First, because of my personal roots. I wanted to rediscover my roots. Because even though we could do the same story with a Japanese community, the Jewish community fits so well in this story because Jewish history has to do with what the boy was going through: exile, persecution, alienation, etc. I wanted to talk about bar mitzvahs, an important transition into adulthood. It’s very strong and very important part of Jewish life, maybe the most important one. I had been thinking of making a film about it for a while. I was living in London at the time, and I felt like an alien, living in a different country, and I got to thinking about the differences between British culture and mine, my childhood, and my roots. This film was a personal way of revisiting all this. This is how everything starts. And from looking at the audience’s response, I felt that we had achieved this, making a film about the human side of this period. I felt that people could identify with it, even the non-Jews.

Do you have a good knowledge of the Jewish community in Brazil? Yes, but I had to do a lot of research for the film. There are interesting stories in that neighborhood. For example, did you know that the first Jews who arrived in New York came from Brazil? My grandfather is the same as many of the characters. He’s from a German-Jewish family and my mother is Catholic. Both my parents are Scientists, actually. We used a lot of personal accounts and photos and film footage from the families who used to live in the Bom Retiro district of Sao Paulo. Most of the extras are from there. The guy who plays the rabbi as well as his small congregation who meet to decide the fate of the boy are all from that neighborhood as well.

Is your family very religious? We have a strong sense of Jewish and Catholic culture, ethics and history. But we’re not really very religious. My grandparents I have never met, unfortunately, though they were very important in the Jewish community. My grandfather was one of the founders of a huge congregation and my grandmother was one of the founders of a very important of a childcare clinic there. They were very influential in that community.

How do religion and soccer compete with one another? For one thing, I don’t agree with Marx when he said that religion is the opium of the people. They used to say at the time that, soccer is the opium of the people. And I don’t agree with that either! Football is a kind of religion in Brazil. Lots of people say that during that time, the dictatorship used soccer to hide what was really happening. It’s possible but I don’t think that you can hide a dictatorship behind one World Cup. And I only have good memories about the Brazilian football team. These two themes could be considered metaphors for our lives.

Why did you choose to be a filmmaker? I had no choice. I tried to be a musician but I wasn’t any good.

What did you play? The guitar. I had a band, we played MPB (Brazilian popular music), rock and reggae. But I found that cinema is a great way to touch people.

Since City of God became such a huge hit, is it easier for filmmakers from Brazil? I think so. Everytime we had a film released outside Brazil which becomes sucessful, our industry improves. Since Central Station and City of God, things are getting a lot better. I am open to making films on an international scale. I am working on a film with Fernando Mereilles. He invited me to direct a film for his company, which he will produce. I am working on another film with Daniela Peipszyk (Hannah). And I am writing the second season of the HBO series, called Sons of Carnaval, and will be shooting it shortly.

What music do you like? I like different styles of music and film as well. I have a very open mind. I like Brazilian music, like Luis Melodia (Perfil), Tom Jobim’s our God, so I like him very much.

Who are your influences? Since I was a big film fan I went to see whatever was screening. From Bergman to Czech films and Steven Spielberg.

Did you go to film school? No, I did not. I learned on the job.

You played soccer, I assume? Yes (smiling) I was a very good goalie.

What’s the most important thing your parents taught you? From early on, I was taught to respect differences. Not just to respect them but in fact to value them, something I have practiced until now. I think this is the most important thing for me in my movies.

The Year My Parents Went On Vacation was nominated for a Golden Bear in Berlin this past year. It’s also won numerous accolades and trophies as well as recognition on the international festival circuit. It is also Brazil‘s Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the 80th Annual Academy Awards (2008).