The world of the animated film Tito and the Birds resembles ours in many ways. The city in the film, inspired by director Gustavo Steinberg’s hometown of Sao Paulo, is undergoing a pandemic of mass hysteria that’s leaving its inhabitants in a catatonic state. At the center of the chaos, there’s, of course, an obscenely wealthy corporation aided by news outlets and corrupt politicians hoping to establish a reign of never-ending fear. The only person willing to take a stand against this unlivable situation is 10-year-old Tito, who recruits his friends, and a band of pigeons, to save the day.
Even though this is Steinberg’s debut as an animated feature director (Gabriel Bitar and André Catoto are his co-directors), the work is filled with wondrous illustration, a tight plot, and stylistic flourishes that make you think he’s been creating this kind of film for years. I spoke to Steinberg about making an animated political film and the culture of fear — and also what Brazil’s very right-wing new President, Jair Bolsonaro, may mean for art-making in South America’s biggest country.
Jose Solís: You’ve spoken before about how, in the movie, you wanted to explore the nature of fear. Do you recall, as a child, when you learned what fear was?
Gustavo Steinberg: Sao Paulo is a big metropolis and it can be very scary. In Sao Paulo, you can feel fear in the air; it’s a city with a huge population and density. Looking back at my childhood, what shocked me the most was realizing that people tend to overreact to facts. There is violence in Sao Paulo, but the idea of fear is much more contagious, which is what we tried to show in the movie. Fear was present throughout my life. Sao Paulo is violent, true, but at the same time we live in bubbles — where I live is safe. It’s a contradiction in many ways.
JS: I grew up in Honduras — named the most dangerous country in the world in 2013 — so what strikes me about listening to you talk about fear is how you are also able to show beauty. Tito and the Birds tells a story about fear and violence through beautiful elements. As an artist, what’s that dynamic like?
GS: It’s a movie for children, so we need to be very careful in the amount of fear we bring to the screen. The background and music recall fear; the visuals are very expressionistic — colorful and beautiful. The idea was to treat this dense environment in a way that’s fun to watch. We wouldn’t be very effective if we just illustrated things; it’s important to feel things.
JS: You chose pigeons to represent what people fear. Pigeons are in every city in the world, and people won’t be surprised to realize they can be violent. When I was a kid, a pigeon laid two eggs outside my bedroom window. When they hatched, one baby pigeon ate the other one, which is something I’ll never forget. In your research of pigeons, what were you most surprised to discover?
GS: My take on pigeons is a little bit more symbolic. For as long as we have lived in cities, so have pigeons, so they’re reminders of being human. Pigeons have been watching us forever; they’re animals who happen to be very collective and social. What I wanted to say with the pigeons is that they’re symbols of collective memory and symbols of peace in Christianity. But also, if you see your kid trying to touch a pigeon, you yell at them not to because they’re dirty. When people say pigeons are dirty, I remind them that Walt Disney made a movie about rats.
JS: There’s huge socioeconomic disparity in Brazil. In the film you suggest that children become aware of poverty through the character of the pigeon lady, yet there’s also the fact that movies, for instance, are reserved only for those who can pay to watch them. What’s it like to put socially conscious art into the world, knowing it might not be accessible to everyone?
GS: We tried to make a film that’s as universal as possible in terms of fear in Sao Paulo being like fear all over the world. We made sure to have this social contradiction in the film — one of Tito’s friends is the son of his former nanny. In terms of access, you’re absolutely right: a lot of the support for the arts in Brazil comes from the government, so in many ways the movie belongs to the state. I’ve been trying very hard to work with public institutions so we can show the film in schools and public TV. The Brazilian state has the license to show the film after we release it and to try to recoup the money for investment purposes; what I’ll try to do is to show it to as many people as possible. Some people think it’s cool to be in the list for the Oscars, and if we get nominated, that would be great, because it would let more people know about the film. During the elections in Brazil we tried to teach children how to tell apart “fake news” from real news. It’s important to get the message out.
JS: President Bolsonaro in many ways represents everything your film is opposed to, winning the election through fear-mongering, racism and homophobia. As an artist creating in Brazil, how do you think your work will be affected by the new administration?
GS: For starters, we don’t know what will happen when we release the movie in Brazil in February. Bolsonaro begins his term in January. Even though I agree with you in that the film stands against everything he’s done, he should also be able to relate to the message in the movie. The film is on the humanist side of society, so, by default it goes against many of the policies Bolsonaro and Trump support. I hope people won’t turn against the film when it’s released, because it says things about both sides of the spectrum. If nothing else, you can say the film is very timely. We started working on the film eight years ago and decided that Trump would be a reference for the villain, even before he decided to run for office. But it wasn’t like I had a premonition or anything. Things just kept getting more radical in the years it took us to make the film. If the message was necessary before, now we need to watch the film with kids. If we normalize the culture of fear, things won’t get any better.
JS: What art would you show children as an antidote to this fear?
GS: Art is the only thing that will make us great. I’m not saying art alone, but we’re living in a world that’s pushes out this idea that you need to compete to get to the best possible place in society, and fuck the rest. People often say it’s only the uneducated who fall for that, but I have the impression that’s very wrong. In Brazil, it was the most educated people who voted for Bolsonaro, so it’s really about what kind of education we’re talking about. It’s unbelievable that in 2018 it seems we have to go back to the French Revolution and remind people that it’s about society, not about consumerism and competing. Art will help us reach that. Also, people need to read a couple of history books. It’s all there.
JS: I’m so glad you brought up history because one of the worst things around the time of the election in Brazil was the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Fascism thrives in ahistorical societies, and this was such a tragedy, really. You have this new president taking over in a country that just lost its history.
GS: That was so symbolic. It was such a terrible loss, but the symbolism behind it is the same thing we discuss in the film: it’s about the memory, about wanting to remember, about building things that will raise society as a whole; that’s what history should be for. We like all the new stuff and all the connectivity — in Sao Paulo, they destroy everything older than 40 years: when people support capitalism with no regulations, I tell them to come see what’s happening in my city. It’s all skyscrapers now. Sometimes I think we’re letting go of society to have the new iPhone. What are we going to talk about if we have no collective memory?
Tito and the Birds will open in NYC on Jan. 25, and released in LA and other major US cities starting Feb. 1.