There's Much More to Brazilian Fashion
Than Gisele Bündchen
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
Brazil's population is 53% Black, yet its export of fashion and style is represented by the whiteness and blondness of people like Gisele Bündchen. WNW Member Geoffrey Levy teamed up with global creative collective Papel&Caneta and modeling agency/production company Jacaré Moda to make a film that highlights the underrepresented fashion world of one of Rio de Janeiro's biggest favelas. We talk to Geoff about what went into making Resistance: Rio's Different Face of Fashion, the challenges of making sure that the final piece truly reflected the community, and what he's gained from the impactful experience of sharing this story.
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Geoff Levy & how did he get here?
I’m sort of a stubborn person who grew up knowing I didn’t want to do anything else besides making things. I shot and edited skate videos since middle school and when it came time to go to college, I decided that I wanted to continue along that track. I went to film school then moved to New York. After graduating, I took a bit of a hiatus to work as an Art Director at Ogilvy & Mather, which grew my ability to develop concepts, sell creative, and establish a workflow for robust creative projects. After directing a handful of in-house things there, I decided to go freelance last year as a full-time director and photographer, and haven’t looked back since.
How did Papel&Caneta help facilitate your latest project, a film that confronts misleading stereotypes engrained in Brazilian fashion?
I was invited to Rio by Papel&Caneta’s André Chaves. P&C is a global creative collective started by André Chaves. They do creative workshops for different issues around the world, always paired with extraordinary activists on the ground, close to the issues. Together, the collective and the activists work together to change the status quo, whether it be bringing light to the subject matter, whether it be by making a film, composing an orchestral benefit, creating online platforms…anything is possible. It’s a really lovely initiative.
André found Jacaré Moda on Instagram and felt very connected to their message – to challenge standards of beauty in a country whose beauty standards often reference models like Gisele Bündchen. Since the country is 53% black, it felt like a project should be made to confront fashion stereotypes and show an accurate representation of a big part of Rio.
We did a three-day workshop leading to four days of shooting the film. It was a hot house of creative, passionate personalities, mostly Brazilian besides the DP, Nathan Podshadley, and myself. We worked closely with the crew at Jacaré Moda, who facilitated our ability to shoot in Jacarezinho.
What lead you to say yes to this project? Was fashion something that interested you in the past or was this an entirely new world you were curious to explore?
Since moving to New York, I’ve found myself shooting and being involved in fashion, just by merely being around a rich fashion culture. This project has definitely grown that fashion interest, though the message of Jacaré Moda is what really engaged me. They are a collective with a message, elevating the underdogs and giving a true representation to what life is like in the favelas of Rio. The project seemed genuine from the get-go, and I’d always wanted to go to Brazil. When André asked me to get involved, it was a no-brainer.
Can you share with our readers a bit about Jacaré Moda?
Jacaré Moda is a modeling agency and production company that's transforming the fashion industry by bringing young people on the periphery into the center of the conversation. They train young people in the favelas to be proud of who they are, own their own sense of identity, and present that to the world. They were founded by Julio Cesar Lima, who is seen singing at the end of the film. We worked closely with the current people who run Jacaré Moda during this film: Clariza Roza, Lucas Rodriguez, and Helena Gusmão.
Why was it important for you to approach this film with a more personal tone rather than a journalistic one?
Since a big thing Jacaré Moda preaches is owning your individuality, it felt important to own a point-of-view. We wanted an original style and unique aesthetic. We didn’t want to report on their story, we wanted to tell it from their eyes. We worked closely together to make sure the film represented their self-image and personal outlooks – they are just as much the authors of the film as any of the filmmakers.
Was it a tough balance to tell intimate stories while also capturing the larger idea that our understanding of Brazilian fashion and beauty is heavily redacted?
The structure of the film took a bit to work out, since we knew we wanted to not make it too long, focus on fashion aesthetics, and also tell a story. Since we knew the visuals would be so strong, we used the voiceover to highlight the bigger themes of identity and cultural representation. We balance fashion imagery with moments that paint a portrait of Jacarezinho, and hear the models tell stories that speak to those visuals. Stripped back, it’s a fairly simple structure, but it took time to figure out the correct balance of everything.
There’s a mention of “gambiarra” in your film, which means “making it work with what you’ve got.” Can you share some of the creative challenges and breakthroughs that came with filming in one of the biggest favelas in Rio de Janeiro, where resourcefulness was required?
When we sat with the models and learned about the concept of gambiarra, we realized it wasn't just a technical construct, but also a mantra for the people. Given a set of unfavorable circumstances, they are are able to make all situations work and oftentimes favorably. Caio may have to hop a train sometimes to make a casting, but his self-ripped jeans and DIY take on fashion is influential.
Also, our production was constantly referred to as a gambiarra. Hardly any budget, on-the-go preparation, working in small or unsecured spaces, and everyone wearing a lot of hats. The communal spirit of the concept really reinforced how we all worked together. We had to get donated equipment, reliable transportation, all natural light, and home cooked meals. There was lots of fashioning a little into making a lot. The biggest constraint was shooting so much in some typically unsafe areas, in so little time. We had to be flexible and go with the flow, while at the same time making whatever we were able to capture work.
How did the range of creatives involved in this project, both from Brazil and all over, help inform and support its aesthetic and message?
A lot of people touched this film, and I hope everyone feels like their voice is represented. The P&C creative workshop in Rio helped form the structure and voice. Nate Podshadley's gritty cinematography brought an amazing intimacy. Mah Ferraz, a native Carioca, helped maintain a Brazilian authenticity while also making sure all sequences felt unique. Xander Rodzinski’s score elevated our Brazilian references into a cinematic composition. Everything was a conversation, and we were all on the same page. I felt very lucky that everyone who contributed was both great at what they do and flexible to the collective message.
What are some of filmmaking tools and skills you picked up from this endeavor?
Oof, definitely gained a lot of tricks in my bag on this. Making in-depth paper edits that have a narrative arc. Directing a lot of abstract action for camera; having gestures translate to cinematic beats. Editing visual sequences so that each cut feels like it adds something. Directing an eclectic score that is informed by many sounds and types of music, while still being cohesive. Facilitating a lot of creative voices across different coasts. Oh, and directing a film in a different language – specifically how one needs native speakers to 1) translate and 2) help correct course to maintain authentic perspective.
What advice can you offer to fellow filmmakers looking to tell meaningful stories?
I’d say to keep your ears open. There’s a lot to be engaged with in the world (especially these days.) Don’t be afraid to investigate something, even if you’re unsure of your fully-formed perspective on it yet. Your curiosity and discovery of perspective will show in the making of the film, as long as you put one foot in front of the other and make the thing.
Also, link up with people who want to tell a story you’re interested in. Having another passionate person involved doesn’t just add value, it grows it exponentially.
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire and why?
I admire my friends Henry Busby and Daniel Soares, guys I relate to and can grab a beer with that are also meaningful in their filmmaking. Mah Ferraz, who edited this piece, is a wonderful craftsperson. Zipeng Zhu, a close friend of mine and a wonderful designer. Elena Parasco makes some super interesting work and I’m excited to see what she does next. Elliott Lavi is a dope architectural and spatial designer. Lots of inspiring folks on WNW.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I just wrapped up a couple of projects for adidas, including shooting Kendall Jenner and grammy-nom Mura Masa. Personal work-wise, I’m writing a short that I’m aiming to produce by mid-2018. Aside from those projects, I’m growing my production co., Round&Round, with Blake Rutledge and building out our studio in Bushwick. I’m very excited about this next year.