'Pixadores' ('Tuulensieppaajat'): Helsinki Review

Courtesy of Helsinki International Film Festival
A pretty but unenlightening graffiti doc

Four Sao Paolo taggers brush up against the global art world.

A stylish introduction to a quartet of Brazilian taggers on the cusp of graffiti-world fame, Amir Arsames Escandari's Pixadores teeters between big-picture discussion of graffiti's socioeconomic significance and a micro-focus on its four disenfranchised subjects. Tantalizing but ultimately less insightful than it promises to be, the doc isn't as strong an addition to the field as it would seem; it will round out festival programs but has limited prospects beyond that.

"A Pixacao wall is a sign of dissatisfaction," we're told at the start. While that in itself does not distinguish this form of illicit mark-making from any other kind of graffiti, what Escandari's camera finds is its own explanation. The work of the Sao Paulo youths we meet has a distinctive style even in a world that prides itself on one-of-a-kind letterforms: Their angular symbols are rune-like and cryptic, like the favela equivalent of crop circles, and they're deployed on the sides of high-rises with unusual daring. We watch painters scale the outsides of buildings like hoodlum Spidermen, and listen in as they plot carefully coordinated attacks that leave a whole building covered before anyone can get arrested.

The four un- or under-employed men here comprise one of many crews on the Sao Paulo pixacao scene; their personalities and backgrounds are varied, but one among them is self-educated enough to draw attention. This spokesperson, Djan, is sufficiently persuasive about the movement's political import to get the group invited to the Berlin Biennale — where academically trained art world denizens have no idea what they're in for.

The buildup to the Berlin trip allows the filmmakers to witness some of the rough details of the men's lives, and they do it in an aesthetically smart way. Seductive black-and-white lensing and a sometimes eerie electronic score paint the city as an oppressive place where nighttime guerrilla action is wholly justified.

The fish-out-of-water trip to Berlin offers much more drama than Escandari could have anticipated: He's there with his camera when the pixadores' "we paint where we want" ethos clashes outrageously with their hosts' expectations. This hand-grenade of an encounter is the kind of thing documentarians pray for, but the movie drops the ball: It fails both to show us the dramatic events that follow (we hear about them secondhand, well after the fact) and to explore the political/aesthetic implications of what we do see.

Instead, we get a long section back home in Brazil, where these unruly, inchoate personalities attempt to patch up broken relationships and decide just how much they're going to sell out. (Can you be a champion of the disenfranchised while starring in sneaker advertisements on TV?) As action footage of the guys illegally "surfing" atop commuter trains suggests, Djan's talk about giving voice to the oppressed may matter a lot less to them than taking a free adrenaline rush wherever they can find it.

Production company: Helsinki-filmi

Director-Screenwriter: Amir Arsames Escandari

Producer: Miia Haavistor

Director of photography: Peter Flinckenberg

Editor: Soren B. Ebbe

Music: Michel Wenzer

Sales: Yellow Affair

No rating, 89 minutes

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