João Carlos Castanha is a spirited 52-year-old actor and transvestite who lives with his mother in the southern Brazilian port city of Porto Alegre. He feels his best years are behind him. He's lost both of his lovers and is himself ill. But his barriers do not stop him from living the way he always has. At night he performs in small theaters and gay bars. His stage persona is a window into his grand desires to be an actor and the profound melancholy that encircles him. His mother, meanwhile, is besieged by worry for her son and other young relatives who come in and out of her sphere.

Filmmaker Davi Pretto met Castanha almost by chance on a previous project. After growing more fascinated by his character and meeting his mother, he set out to make a film bearing his subject's name. Pretto tackled the project both with a script and an openness to allow circumstances to guide the unfolding plot. At times, he told FilmLinc ahead of the film's bow at the Art of the Real series at the Film Society, he wasn't quite sure which was which himself. Castanha is at once a celebration of life, even as some of its darker realities percolate to the surface. While Castanha confronts the ghosts of his past and impending death, he continues to indulge in life. After dismissing Heaven as a bore, he says: “I think I might go to hell. Hell is a rave. An eternal rave.”

FilmLinc spoke with director Davi Pretto about his debut feature-length film. He talks about blending “real” and unreal” elements, telling a story about an extraordinarily intriguing personality. In fact, there were times he wasn't quite sure what was real.

[Castanha has its North American premiere Saturday April 19 at Film Society. It screens again April 23 as part of Art of the Real.]

FilmLinc: The film's opening scene made me think for a moment it was going to be a horror/thriller doc. Was that intentional?

Davi Pretto: I'm not sure exactly. But that scene came out from maybe four months of conversation that I had with João [Carlos Castanha] while writing the script. One night I had this weird dream, or a vision, of what became that scene. For me, that opening scene is a summary of the film. I think that scene speaks about the process of making that film. It's about being naked or being raw of everything. It's also about the relationship between myself and the documentary as well as Castanha giving himself over to me.

It's also talking about the feelings that are around him, like the fear of death, fear of losing his mother, the fear of AIDS, and the fear of being alone. I like this idea of life being just a dream or a nightmare sometimes. The film changes a lot along the way, of course, but for me the dream speaks to all these ideas that are present in the film. My references in the things I was thinking as I took this on was related to documentaries, but also John Carpenter and horror films or John Cassavetes…

FL: You did a short film with João, correct? How did you meet and what made you decide to go back and make the short into a feature?

DP: Yes, but [the short wasn't] about him. It's how we met, but he was one of the actors in the film. It's my graduate film actually. I was impressed by his acting and just his presence. It was interesting watching the way he stood there waiting. He's well-known, but he doesn't work a lot. I thought it would be interesting to research more about his life and then I realized he was working a lot in the gay nightclubs and had this whole other life apart from his regular actor life.

The relationship with his mother was actually the most amazing part for me. They only have each other—she's also quite alone. The idea that João is waiting for the moment she will die and become totally alone left an impression on me.

FL: And she was into the idea of doing this film? She seemed so despondent at times.

DP: Yeah, actually it was difficult to decide if we should have her be in the film. She had never acted or even seen a film production, but then I went to their home with a camera to test it out, and she was totally okay with it. Actually, surprisingly, she was even incredible, so I realized she could probably handle the shoot. She totally gave herself to it.

FL: You break from conventional documentary storytelling by using fictional elements intermittently throughout the film. Why did you decide to go that route? Was there a process that lead you to take that turn?

DP: It was a weird process. When I started writing the script a few years ago, I was just thinking about making a film [in the conventional way]. Then I realized that there is this odd situation where Castanha is in the theater a lot and it's his life. I realized also that I'm also acting all the time and life is like a film. Life can seem like a fiction, so I thought about mixing a script and real life. The script I wrote had 18 pages and we ended up shooting all of them. We ended up with 20 to 30 hours and it was a mix of real and non-real scenes. For me, that's normal because I like the [“vibrations”] that come with the mixture of real and non-real. I like how weird it can come off. I used the same kind of camera that was used for [Leos Carax's] Holy Motors. It's not a lens that one would normally use for a documentary, but we did. I just liked its [unusual feel].

Still, there are many [nonfiction] moments that take place throughout the film. I have moments between João and [his mother] Celina when I ask them if they should talk about a particular subject. It may have been a [planned set-up] but as the conversation evolved between them, it would become very real. At that moment, it was a documentary film. Reality would naturally join the “scripted” scenes. I can't understand exactly when reality begins or ends or [vice versa]. There is a lot of this throughout. Actually even the crew would sometimes ask me, “Wait, is this a scripted scene or is this a [nonfiction] scene?” I would respond, “I don't know” [laughs].

FL: I've been to a fair share of drag shows here in New York. Obviously the performers use drag names, but they typically blend in elements of reality, sometimes even openly acknowledging that they're playing a character, while still channeling a personality that is separate from their non-drag persona. Did you think about that at all? João's drag character does routinely mix reality into her stage performance.

DP: I think the film is a reflection of his lifestyle. The way that João sees reality is a reflection of his lifestyle. Everything is overly dramatized. He just took that and went with it and sometimes his reactions are out of proportion. But I supposed that is why I was attracted to him as a subject. I didn't know all the details. Sometimes he's very opposite on stage of how he is normally. At times when he's on stage, he'll even make jokes that are racist or homophobic, for example. I like the idea that on the stage he'll change between the bad João or the good João. It changes all the time.

FL: Were there any nonfiction moments when Celina or João didn't feel comfortable with you and your camera being there? There are some dark moments…

DP: No. There's this honest process that made the film very natural. I went to their house probably a thousand times during production so it felt like we were all family there. To create this, you have to function as a family in a way. There is a scene where the nephew is breaking things in the apartment. That scene was real. There was a moment when I thought it might not be right to show this [outburst], but when you're a “family,” I don't know, you create the ability to shoot something like that and it doesn't seem exploitive.

When I'd visit them at their apartment, I'd speak with Celina about her grandson for instance, and since we had these long talks and I was [brought into the fold], I felt I could shoot certain things because we had [bonded] over them.

FL: Do you want to continue to explore mixed-genre filmmaking?

DP: Yeah. My next film, which I'm trying to finance in Brazil, is actually more strange and difficult. It's about a guy who lives in the countryside in the deep south of Brazil. It's very far from everything. There are a lot of farms where there are caretakers who mostly live there, and this is a story about a young guy who's a son of a caretaker. He goes to a road and shoots at passing cars—just to “kill” the cars, not the people. I'm trying to find some real families that will lead the story. It could be fun…