Unless you’re well-traveled, you may not have heard of Guaxuma (pronounced Gua-shu-ma). And maybe for good reason: it’s a relatively small beach in Maceio, North-East Brazil. Yet director Nara Normande shows she has an affinity to idyllic place where she was born, choosing to both direct and narrate a feature about a chapter of her childhood. Known previously for her features Dia Estrelado (2011) and Sem Coração (2014), she has turned her hand to a poetic, semi-biographical short film, a deeply personal lament for lost childhood.
Director: Nara Normande
Release date: 12 June 2018 (Annecy International Animation Film Festival), July 23 2019 (LA Shorts International Film Festival)
Rating: Not yet rated
On the surface, Guaxuma is a short account of one young woman’s formative years, but it’s impressive to see how expansively this snapshot of a life unfolds in just fifteen minutes. By the end, it feels as though you’ve lived through a lifetime with the characters. The story centres on narrator and protagonist Normande and her childhood friend Tayra. The girls grew up together: they were best friends who “knew all of each other’s secrets.” Born 10 days apart, they had a special bond and became inseparable.
Demonstrating a unique creative flair, Normande tells her story using a multiplicity of animation styles. A delicate construction of stop-motion animation brings grains of sand to life, forming living people and moving with each chapter of the story. Reminiscent of a mosaic, the images are decorated with a frieze around the edges and granular detail in faces and objects. But there are marked differences in style throughout, apparent when real photographs appearing on a real beach, placed in the sand at jagged angles. There is a repeating motif of two small, cherubic girls walking along a beach. As in The Breadwinner last year, the shifting styles signal developments in the story and indicate the sporadic nature of memory.
At one point Normande described a memory, only to retrace her steps: “I don’t really remember this. Maybe it’s a memory that I’ve made up.” In the same way that Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir uses animation to reinvent the past, and to construct pieces of memory that have been forgotten, Normande uses animation to articulate her experience into a coherent narrative. The story is used to articulate, revisit and come to terms with childhood trauma: the animation makes it more palatable, distancing the viewer and narrator from actualities and leaving the details to the imagination.
When someone directs, narrates and becomes the subject of a film, it can be difficult to differentiate reality and fiction: to what extent are the events true and how much artistic license has been taken? In this case, it’s hard to tell because the narrative voice seems so authentic and the subject matter seems to steer well clear of artifice. There are real photographs signalling a real lifetime, photographs of pregnant mothers, first homes, a group of smiling friends. Yet it’s important not to tangle fiction and reality, so the viewer is left to use their better judgement and decide for themselves how to interpret the story.
Normande’s character shows evidence of a brooding disposition as a young child, and so the deeply reflective film is perhaps an extension of what she has already felt. Four minutes in, the voiceover tells us that she used to be “convinced I could see my soul through the mirror…And it made me scared.” Of course, mischievous Tayra is there to draw her out of the melancholy, frightening world of self-reflection. The two are opposites yet complement each other well, a spiritual, yin-and-yang dualism that explains their powerful bond.
In addition, there’s tangible subtext — does Normande mean a friendship between the girls, or is there something more? What does she mean when she says, as a child, “I was already into big breasts?” The girls go through puberty together, they learn to smoke. When Tayra gets a boyfriend, Normande’s character watches, despondent, fading into the background. There’s little else explicitly stated, so we’re left to decide the exact nature of their relationship.
While they have a free childhood, sheltered from the outside world and often running around without supervision (or clothes), growing pains and the realities of growing up soon overtake them. Normande’s parents separate and she’s forced to move far away into another city, yearning for the beach and her old life. This impermanence is reflected very well in the changing animations. There is only one building in Guaxuma, an abandoned hotel “that the Italians came to build but never finished” — perhaps the villagers have become used to a life of change. But even this image of decay, the children are able to make fun and games, cheerfully leaping between gaps in the rafters and encouraging each other to be brave.
The feature is sad, as almost all short films are — it’s in their nature. At the end we’re left with a haunting lullaby, a prayer, a confession — or something resembling all three of those. The words are half-sung, half-whispered over the final credits, as if from a person trying to sing themselves to sleep. It’s an enduring ending, a slow curtain that allows viewers to digest everything that’s happened, and it shows Normande’s ability to economise the space and time for maximum impact. I imagine that, even at a full screening, the film would have hushed the room into silence.
It’s not often that a short film can have such an effect, and while Guaxuma is commendable as a memoir its most striking feature is its fluency with visual media. The short is well deserving of the awards it garnered at SXSW, Palm Springs, Hamptons and Cinequest, and will be premiering at the LA Shorts International Film Festival next week. I hope that, in qualifying for the 2020 Academy Awards, it gets a wider distribution and recognition for its imaginative director and that it will lead to similar projects from Normande in the future.