Executive Order, ‘Medida Provisória,’ the dynamic, often poetic dystopian thriller shot on location in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, draws one in with its immediacy. Though set in the distant future, its contemporary issues and alignment with the BLM movement, reparations for cultures formerly oppressed by slavery, and the authoritarian deportation of immigrants by the former Trump administration resonate with horrific, thematic fury.
Directed by Lázaro Ramos, written by Ramos and Lusa Silvestre with co-writers Aldri Anunciação and Elisio Lopes Jr., the writers based the film on the play “Namíbia, Não!” byAldri Anunciação (2009-2011). The narrative feature (in Portuguese, with English subtitles) won an award for best screenplay at Indie Memphis Film Festival. Judges at Moscow International Film Festival and Indie Memphis FF nominated Ramos, a renowned actor and first time filmmaker, for Best Narrative Feature.
The music, oftentimes poetic, unique script, cinematography and spot-on acting talents (Alfred Enoch, musician/actor Seu Jorge, Taís Araújo, Mariana Xavier) indicate why the film won awards. Most probably more awards will follow through this film festival season at 2021 SXSW and elsewhere.
From the outset the opening scenes alert us to trouble ahead. We discover that the high-melanins (the word black has been banned from the culture’s wordspeak) have been cheated out of reparations indemnifying a 500 year-old history of slavery. Mrs. Elenita, selected as the symbolic representative to receive reparations to indemnify the country’s history of slavery, never receives payment. The government locks her out of the bank and breaks the promises it made. Later, Antonio overhears an official claim that giving reparations would bankrupt and crash the economy. Indeed, the official identifies the problem. As the Western Hemisphere’s largest population of people with African ancestry, Brazil paying indemnities to approximately 75 million out of 211 million-plus inhabitants would rock the nation.
Attorney Antonio (Alfred Enoch) sues the government for reneging on its promises to high-melanins. He requests an alternate compensation program. This sets in motion an increasingly noxious series of events to thwart the just payment of indemnifications.
Initially, the writers include satire and comedy presenting the positions of the officials and city council versus the discussions of Antonio, his journalist/blogger friend and roommate Andre (Seu Jorge) Capitu, (Taís Araújo) Antonio’s pregnant wife, and Andre’s white girlfriend (Sarah Mariana Xavier). The humor and satire increases when the government offers a volunteer program to “go back from where they came from.” This would substitute for monetary reparations. This program instituted by the “Ministry of Return” sounds as sinister and wicked as all the deportation programs for immigrants throughout recent history.
Against this backdrop Antonio, Andre, Capitu and Sarah appear successful as middle class contributors of society. Surely, they’ve moved up the social and economic ladder to establish their right to remain in the country of their choosing. Their birthright stamped on their passports gives credence to this. However, as the net closes around them, circumstances change and worsen.
Initially, the classy volunteer program to entice high-melanins to leave includes a “one way ticket” to their dream spots in Africa. There, they may settle in a country of their choice. The scene where “volunteers” choose various countries (one selects Hawaii) becomes humorous, considering a number of them don’t even look “high-melanin.” And some even attempt to use the “return yourself” program to vacation in desirable luxurious areas.
Of course, the campaign to “return yourself,” remains a failure because of its inefficiency and inability to lure and successfully repatriate the thousands of “high-melanins” back to Africa. Brazilians refuse to go because of their positions of social comfort with their language, culture, family and friends. Africa remains a continent with countries as remote, unfamiliar and unappealing as Antarctica. The arguments to stay mirror the arguments Frederick Douglass used with U.S. President Lincoln who suggested to Douglass that the United States might send back freed African slaves to Africa. However, the slave catchers and the Southern planters and others did such a fine job of wiping out the former slaves’ culture, language and society that almost all of the slaves on U.S. shores after 100 years didn’t know their ancestry.
Not finding even Angola (formerly colonized by Portugal) comforting, the high-melanins go nowhere and the conditions of institutional racism persist and become terrifying. Indeed, the government employs authoritarianism and passes Executive Order 1888 to legally deport its high-melanin population using law enforcement and armed guards to round them up and send them away. (1888 is the year that Brazil abolished slavery)
We assume that the deportations succeed and the high-melanins arrive at their destinations. But we never see this and we don’t witness holding pens or detention centers. Filmmakers emphasize scenes of individuals, rounded up against their will, running from police, being beaten in the “catchings.” With regard to the removals, we note the chaos, confusion and heavy-armed tactics. Also, filmmakers reveal the wickedness of the government officials as cogs representing the banality of evil. Finally, the deportations occur swiftly so no outside countries intervene. Themes of genocide, the holocaust, the injustice of deportation, racism, discrimination rise to a haunting level.
However, the Ministry of Return loses control of its “smooth operation.” Problems occur with the “hold-outs” and a resistance movement strengthens as Antonio and Andre hide out in their apartment building. They attempt to remain strong despite the officials and European types attempting to starve and dehydrate them. Additionally, they turn off their power and block their cell communications. Filmmakers add a convenient loophole so that the police cannot storm buildings to pull out the resisters.
An additional problem occurs when Antonio’s wife Capitu, a doctor, goes into hiding in an Afro-Bunker as part of the resistance to avoid capture. Some of the most poetic and striking scenes occur in this place of refuge. The conflicts between Antonio and Andre heighten the dramatic tensions in their relationship. As they attempt to survive, they spur their own resistance movement that goes digital, gains global attention and inspires the nation.
Executive Order grapples with vital themes and contemporary topics making it acute, insightful and powerful. Strengthened by its superb performances, non-stop tension and excitement, filmmakers excel in their cinematic storytelling. Additionally, the high concept builds in the fear factor that this surreal story happens in parts of China, Russia and elsewhere on the planet currently. The film empowers toward human rights advocacy and social justice.
This must-see film can be found at 2021SXSW platforms. Look for it at its roll-out online.
LIVECHAT / EXECUTIVE ORDER @ SXSWLivechat with Director / Co-writer Lázaro Ramos Thursday, March 18 at 3:00pm PDT / 5:00pm CDT / 6:00pm EDT