The Effects of Economic Diaspora and the Sense of Belonging in Foreign Land

By Alexandra Petros

The economic and political crises that occurred throughout Brazil’s history lead to an urgent moment in Brazilian society, where diaspora arose and many Brazilians immigrated to countries all over the world. It comes to no surprise when learning that many fled to Portugal, which is a reasonable decision since the language is a common ground for Brazilian emigrants. In the film Foreign Land, by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, the economic diaspora that struck in Brazilian society is exemplified between two protagonists and how their different reasons for leaving Brazil cause them to cross paths and continue on their journey together in Portugal and Spain. By exploring the themes and storyline of this film, one will perceive a clear grasp of the situation Brazilians lived through, and how the filmmakers brought reality into a fictional context for people all over the world to better empathize with Brazilian diaspora. This is an important topic for anyone in the world, as symptoms of homesickness and identity all tie in with emigration. Through literature and film, Brazilians are able to depict this situation, such that a reflection of what happened, in reality, is portrayed. In understanding the diversity of Brazilian culture and the mosaic of ethnicities from all over the world living in a single nation, one will realize how dramatic the diaspora was and how spread Brazilians became in the world. The film Foreign Land successfully portrays the themes of emigration, and identity, while incorporating features of a cliché storyline, such that the audience will remain engaged and have a learning experience at the same time.

Brazilian diaspora in the early 1990s leads to the development of a cinema that represents what occurred in the reality of many people who wanted to escape the political and economic crisis. In focusing on the themes of economic diaspora and a search for identity and sense-of-belonging, one will understand the situation that Brazilian society went through during the 1990s. The film Foreign Land, by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, clearly depicts the reality of what this nation was going through in terms of finding a sense-of-belonging and how the government pushed people to escape their homes. Along with the representation in cinema, many books have been published regarding Brazil’s history in the 20th century, where a film is a form of the visual aesthetic of what the published works discuss. The main question of what is “Brazilianess” is the key theme in most Brazilian films of the 20th century, where issues of diaspora and having Brazilians find their identity in different parts of the world is a reality. It is important to note that filmmakers in the 1990s were trying to regain the Brazilian audience, and a method to do so is in displaying films that represent their lives and heritage but also carry an interesting storyline, such that cinema can provide an escape from reality. Through analysis of Brazilian films, one may understand the reality of life in Brazil during the 20th century, where empathy plays a powerful tool in the themes of diaspora and identity; along with Brazilian filmmakers attempting to regain trust from Brazilian audience, while expressing a personal message to the world in their creativity in cinema.           

Before discussing the film Foreign Land (1996), it is important to understand the context of the film in terms of historical events and what was happening at the political and economic levels. In 1991 and 1992, two fiscal incentive laws were passed in Brazil, as a response to a crisis that enveloped Brazil’s culture industries when President Fernando Collor de Mello came into power and terminated a federal cultural policy that had been enveloping since the 1930s. The two laws, the Rouanet Law and the Audio-visual Law, caused the closing down of various public institutions such as the ministry of culture, which became a subdivision of the ministry of education, and Embrafilme (Brazilian Film Enterprise) (Heise, 2012:56). This was very unfortunate since this was the time when Brazilian cinema was becoming more of legitimate industry, and thus it experienced a historical caesura, as future events will unfold. During the time of 1990-1994 Brazilian film was essentially inexistent and thus much of the audience lost trust towards this time. (Heise, 2012:57) In addition to this, it is also important to note the decline that Brazilian cinema experienced in the 1970s and 1980s when films became too pornographic and low budget, thus one can only imagine the poor societal trust towards Brazilian film during the mid-1990s. This is a major factor when looking at films produced after 1995, such as Foreign Land, which was released in 1996 and essentially was a form of regaining Brazilian audience trust towards Brazilian cinema. It is because of the new policy laws and funding implemented in 1994, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso came into Presidency (Xavier, 2012), that Brazilian film industry experienced a resurgence period, known as retomada (Heise, 2012:56).

This retomada in Brazilian film displayed a re-visit to Cinema Novo themes, which is important to discuss before analyzing Foreign Land. Although the themes of films produced in the mid 1990s resemble those of Cinema Novo, they are not exactly the same as to mimic, but rather an homage to the earlier cinema of social consciousness (Mulvey, 2003:266), which involved displaying a taste of reality to the audience in an often depressing and harsh way. The retomada of Brazilian Cinema shows the reality of Brazilian Society but in a more entertaining and plotted way, and with an interesting storyline. This is key when analyzing Foreign Land because it has a romantic story to it, which will be discussed in this paper. As Ismail Xavier states, the ‘re-working of national allegory’ could be an attempt to represent harsh reality and acknowledge the historical caesura that Brazilian society experienced in culture and cinema, because of political and economic change. (Mulvey, 267) This re-working is represented differently in films made during the 1990s, compared to the way Cinema Novo would display hardships. While finding a balance between reality and entertainment, Brazilian film producers in the mid-1990s had challenges at hand, such as regaining audience trust and subjectively representing history in a way that would relate to audience members.           

In the film Foreign Land, by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, the political and economic diaspora that struck in Brazilian society during the early 1990s is exemplified between two protagonists and how their different reasons for leaving Brazil cause them to cross paths and continue on their journey together in Portugal. Both Paco and Alex are in Portugal trying to find a sense-of-belonging and freedom from their past lives filled with death and pain. These are constant themes throughout the film, where the reality of what Brazilian people went through is depicted in a plot storyline; this is where ties to Cinema Novo’s realistic themes are evident. The prejudice that both Paco and Alex experienced in the film makes the audience realize that although they are in Portugal and do not have much of a language barrier, there is still an existing struggle because of their Brazilian accent, and the lack of confidence experienced because of this. In addition, many Portuguese characters throughout the film say things like ‘Brazilians are always causing problems in Portugal’, or ‘Nothing less to expect from Brazilians’, which are hurtful statements towards anyone who enters a country as an immigrant. This makes the viewer empathize with the self-esteem and integrity issues that immigrants go through, especially when they are forced to leave their country because of government corruption and diaspora. It also makes a viewer consider the more intense severity of such prejudice for the Brazilians who had to go to countries that did not speak Portuguese, such as commonwealth English speaking countries.

The theme of cultural tension is also central in this film because it not only relates to what happened in the early 1990s, but to South American colonialism as well. Since Brazil is a mosaic of different ethnicities and cultures, it carries cultural tension in its history, where putting people of different races in a single nation influences racism and disputes, but also a pleasant co-existence if all parties are willing. The idea of having these two young Brazilians experience social exclusion to a country they are probably decent from proves how intense it can be to live as an immigrant, regardless of what country it may be. The film also does not fail to entail the original inaugural Portuguese adventure across the ocean, where Alex alludes to Brazil as a peripheral country that went wrong. (Xavier, 2003:50) In having the discussion of colonization straightforwardly discussed, it becomes clear that Salles and Thomas want the audience to consider the irony in having Brazilians go back to Portugal, and how the future can be so interestingly different from the past. This also brings on the theme of how awful the diaspora is in forcing people to leave their homes for places across the world.

This film truly brought the 1990s into the screen, in regards to the severity of what the government was doing to people. In showing the real television news clips from the 1990s, which include the announcements of Collor de Mello stating the new fiscal incentive laws to be implied, and a representative from the Central Bank of Brazil, stating that peoples bank accounts are going to be frozen, makes the audience feel the horrifying shock that Brazilians felt when they were sitting at home and seeing this on the news. This ties into Paco’s experience, where his mother was shocked and died most likely because of the stress anxiety; showing the toll that government corruption can make on the citizens.

In further analyzing the film, it becomes clear that the central plot is two protagonists striving to find their sense of home and comfort, such that they do not have to fight to live anymore. The focus of how Paco sacrificed his life and safety to travel across the world and reach San Sebastian, Spain, represents the ‘need for finding home’ that he experiences following his mothers death, because this is her legacy that he is trying to live out in honor for her; since it was her dream to go back and visit San Sebastian. The need and search for comfort and identity are what motivates Paco to go through the journey he does, which truly sends the message of how desperate a person can become when they experience personal hardships and disenchantment from their home country. Looking at Alex’s situation, she was struggling to work as a waitress, waiting to make the next move into Europe with her boyfriend Miguel, who ended up getting killed. Alex’s struggle in overcoming Miguel’s death and restarting her initial journey with Paco shows that the determination she has to find a home and sense-of-belonging still lives through. This is symbolic because it shows that with anyone who goes through hardships, they become stronger people. The ties between Paco and Alex’s purposes in their journey reflect the reality of exile and diaspora that many Brazilians faced in the 20th century.

The most significant part of Foreign Land is the ending, where it’s as if all the themes of the film tie in together with this romantic cliché type ending, but with a Brazilian twist. The first element to recognize is the diegetic music while Paco and Alex drive away to Spain, which is the song “Vapor Barato”- by Gal Costa. The lyrics of this song generally say (rough translation) “I’m tired, I don’t need a lot of money, I’m not leaving forever, maybe I will come back one day, I just need to forget it for now” with the chorus “honey, honey, baby”, this song is very fitting for the scene because Alex is desperately driving to Spain in panic while Paco is almost dying on her lap, from injury. The lyrics to the song represent how she feels leaving Portugal and the desperation she felt while doing so. The next element is what she is saying to Paco in the midst of all of this, which is “don’t worry Paco, I’m taking you home, we’re going home now, we’re going to be safe”, the fact that she says to him that they are going home truly ends off the movie with the empathy towards these two people going on a journey to find home, whatever the definition may be towards each of them individually. It also makes the audience consider how difficult it is to find a sense-of-belonging and identity once one leaves their country, and how passionate people become in striving to achieve this, which is a reality that Brazilians faced in the 1990s. This film ends off in a cliché style, where two lovers drive off into the sunset in search of a utopic life they have in mind, with the mystery of whether Paco survives his injury or not. The plot carries much parallel to cliché storylines in cinema from all over the world, where the theme of a villain and a ‘good/innocent’ character who manages to escape a bad situation is portrayed. This is where it is important to remember how Brazilian cinema was trying to regain trust from the Brazilian audience; so incorporating a recognizable and cliché storyline would attract them back. This film carries a balance of well-known, cliché themes and a taste of Cinema Novo themes; such that it has unique Brazilian character but also a feature that people are familiar with. The desperate need of finding a sense-of-belonging and comfort is exemplified by both characters through the sacrifices and decisions they go through in order to reach the utopic dream they both have in mind.           

It is clear that the film Foreign Land is a reflection of how Salles and Thomas perceive the economic diaspora that Brazil went through in the early 1990s, where the case of subjectivity is evident. In any film that is based on real events, the way the film is portrayed is based on the subjective view of the film producers, and in this case the abandonment that film producers experienced in the 1990s because of the freezing of film funding and of Embrafilme, is a major factor to the subjectivity of Salles and Thomas. This is seen through having the two protagonists go through life-changing disenchantments, wherein Paco’s situation, the financial trauma that many Brazilians went through is directly portrayed. The way that Brazil is represented as a less desirable place to live when being compared to the idealistic way that Portugal and Europe is portrayed is also an indication of the need to escape Brazil, because of the harsh political and economic conditions. This brings up the discussion of aesthetic in the film, where it was made in black and white; with the purpose of having the audience focus on the essentials of the movie. This is how film producers chose what they want the audience to focus on, rather than being distracted by colors. Furthermore, the subjectivity in Foreign Land roots to the personal experiences that Salles and Thomas went through when much Brazilian art and cinema had to reapproach the colonial center, Portugal, during this time in Brazilian history. (Nagib, 2013:162) Thus, the search for a home that many Brazilians strived to achieve during their diaspora into Europe is felt in the film Foreign Land and parallels with what Salles and Thomas personally witnessed.           

In conclusion, Brazilian cinema in the 20th century revolved around the idea of trying to represent what “Brazilian” means and how “Brazilianess” can be achieved in film. Through the political and economic crisis that Brazilian society and cinema faced, filmmakers still managed to execute their artistic creativity. In carrying the mosaic of ethnicities that it does, Brazil’s society is able to find roots all over the world, especially in Portugal, but it is important to consider that regardless of this, any human would feel symptoms of an identity crisis as any emigrant would; especially if they come from a diaspora. Salles and Thomas were able to create a beautiful film, Foreign Land, that represented this need to find a sense-of-belonging while going through disenchantment with one’s own country, where their personal experiences are reflected in the aesthetics and central themes to the film. Regardless of political or economic stance, Brazilian filmmakers have always known the effect of film and its influence on society. Through the ups and downs of Brazilian cinema in the 20th century, it is definite that Brazil takes its film very seriously, where the history and development of Brazilian cinema have helped shape not only modern-day Brazilian culture and society but also the rest of South America and Portugal. With strong passion and feelings, because of what Brazilians went through in regards to political and economic crises, Brazil’s film production comes with a strong message and empathetic effect that any audience member can feel when watching a film.

Foreign Land. Directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. 1996. Portugal: VideoFilmes. DVD.

Heise, Tatiana Signorelli. 2012. Remaking Brazil: contested national identities in contemporary Brazilian cinema. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Mulvey, Laura. “Then and now: cinema as history in the light of new media and new technologies” in The New Brazilian Cinema, edited by Lúcia Nagib, 266-67. London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003.

Nagib, Lúcia. “Back to the Margins in Search of the Core: Foreign land’s Geography of Exclusion” in The Brazilian Road Movie, edited by Sara Brandellero, 162. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013.

Xavier, Ismail. “Brazilian Cinema in the 1990s: The Unexpected encounter and the Resentful Character” in The New Brazilian Cinema, edited by Lúcia Nagib, 50. London: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003.

Xavier, Ismail. “Ways of Listening in a Visual Medium” in New Left Review 73 (London: New Left Review, 2012).