The documentary Ressaca produced by Babel Studio and France Télévisions, and distributed by Terranoa wins at the International Emmy Awards!

This French documentary was singled out in the Arts Programming category. We discuss this French success story with its producer Stéphanie Lebrun, Babel Studio, and its international distributor Isabelle Graziadey, Terranoa.

The Interview

TV France: Brazil, the Rio Opera, ballet, the choice to film in black and white… Tell us how Ressaca came about?

Stéphanie Lebrun: The production company Babel has several smart offices around the world (Paris, New Delhi, Miami and Rio); we made the choice to live where we produce our documentaries and to use bi-national teams. That allows us to undertake long film shoots, which can be very risky for production. Vincent Rimbaux is a French director but has lived in Brazil for 20 years. He arrived amidst the euphoria that surrounded President Lula da Silva, within a climate of hope and growth. He saw inequalities shrink , and then everything collapse in the space of a few years. There was the huge Lava Jato corruption scandal, which impacted every political party and large company, and then the crisis. In 2016, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared bankruptcy and stopped paying civil servant salaries.

Babel had already worked with Vincent as a cinematographer, and he had an exceptional visual talent. In 2017, after the Olympic Games, Brazil had a huge “hangover” – that’s what Ressaca means, it’s an expression used in Brazil for the morning after the night before. That’s how Brazilians felt at the time. Vincent wanted to make a film about that, and he was determined to shoot in black and white. It was both an aesthetic and a symbolic choice. Brazil, and in particular Rio de Janeiro, is often imprisoned in clichés: the colors, the carnival, the beach, samba dancing – or on the other hand, the violence of the favelas (Brazilian shanty towns). Vincent wanted to document the day-to-day violence of social inequalities and racism. I had been living in Brazil for three years, and I felt the same thing. So we were considering doing a film in black and white, and thinking about the story we could tell. When we discovered the situation of the Theatro Municipal (Municipal Theater), an institution in Rio and one of the last great ballet companies in Latin America with a philharmonic orchestra, where a total of 500 people were no longer being paid, we knew we had found the story we needed to tell. The danseurs étoiles who had sacrificed so much to get to that level were reduced to dancing for train tickets and meal packages. One was working as an Uber driver to make ends meet. What was interesting was that the members of the theater were putting up resistance. They were fighting to keep the theater open, and to keep the ballet alive. And the Rio Opera is a microcosm of society: every layer is there. Artists are considered part of the upper-middle classes – if they had been impacted by the crisis, then no one (apart from the very rich) was immune. And then there are the working classes, like Juan Batista, the old doorman who lives in a favela a two-hour bus ride from the theater. For him, not being paid meant he couldn’t feed his grandson, for whom he is wholly responsible. The Brazilian director Patrizia Landi joined the project; our ability to see the story through both French and Brazilian eyes was important. Vincent and Patrizia became accepted and started filming regularly, over several weeks, enough to write the first draft of the film and to make a trailer, which formed a convincing proposal. We believed in the potential of this film, which we wanted to handle like a work of fiction. But we wondered who on earth would want a black and white film about the Rio ballet company. At that time, France Télévisions had just created a slot for international independent documentaries. Catherine Alvaresse and Alexandre Marionnaud were in charge of it. They were very enthusiastic when they read the proposal and offered a pre-purchase. The budget was not huge, but it was enough to let us begin production. We were then also supported by the French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée – CNC), PROCIREP/ANGOA, the PACA region, the documentary platform Spicee, and la Chaîne Parlementaire. A Brazilian co-producer also got on board (Cafeina Produçoes), along with Ancine in Brazil, then Canal Brazil.

We filmed for a year and a half without knowing when or how the film would end. Even though Vincent Rimbaux and Patrizia Landi master the art of filming of a documentary, our work is a living thing, and often life offers us something even better than we had imagined. Editing began in Brazil and continued in France. There was a lot of work in post-production, audio mixing and color grading, done by Thibaud Caquot of HighFun.

TV France: The bet paid off, as we can see from your success at the International Emmy Awards. In your opinion, what made this film stand out from the others in competition?

Stéphanie Lebrun: I think that Ressaca had the smallest budget of all the films in this category of the competition! We were so lucky – we worked in total freedom. France Télévisions gave us carte blanche. We chose the French composer Malvina Meinier, and we invited the French artist Erwann Le Bourdonnec, who was living in Rio at the time, to create a work of art (the one that accompanies the opening credits). It is inspired by the film and mixes chaos and grace. And we had no constraints in terms of film length. Our discussions with France Télévisions before finishing the film were relevant and constructive. To put it simply, the directors were able to make the film the way they wanted, exactly as they had imagined it.

We were also lucky that the main characters in the film, Filipe, Juan Batista and his grandson Marcia Jaqueline, accepted such a long period of filming, opening up their doors and their hearts to us. We thank them for that. And, fortunately, everyone from the ballet company who saw the film loved it. That’s the greatest prize of all!

TV France: You also took a risk with the international distribution of the film… What were your first steps there?

Stéphanie Lebrun: Lydia Kali of @Edith Paris was the film’s first distributor. She really liked Ressaca and was able to distribute it in a 52-minute version. In France, la Chaîne parlementaire bought and broadcast the same version, and it was also sold in Poland. In Brazil, Canal Brazil bought the long version, and Globo offers it as video on demand.

But it is not easy to distribute this film, particularly the long version, as there are very few slots abroad for feature films. 

@Edith Paris’s catalog was bought, so now Terranoa is distributing the film.

TV France: With such a specific topic, what is your positioning on the international market?

Isabelle Graziadey: The film was re-edited to 52 minutes to fit standard TV slots, although certain channels did buy the 90-minute version. The shorter version was sold to TVP Pologne, RTP and Sky New Zeland.

Ressaca is essentially a cross between an artistic work and a film about our society, set against a context of crisis in Brazil, with a distinct cinematic aesthetic. But, with time, it has also become a kind of immersion, and a moving testimonial to the role of the performing arts in our society, their function as a social link and a gateway to culture in the broadest sense. In this lockdown year, during which we have all been deprived of the sense of community offered by the performing arts, these themes are even more pertinent, above and beyond the situation in Brazil. In this way, the film is timeless, and it takes on new meaning now, when we have no access to the shared experience of live theater and we all miss trips to the opera, concerts and the theater. Seeing these great dancers of the Rio Opera who sacrificed so much to achieve their level of excellence reduced to exile or dancing for food stamps to survive because of an economic crisis and political choices offers a real reflection of our own selves.  

Thanks to the attention we’ve attracted through the prestigious Emmy award, we are going to go back to platforms that do not have the same limitations in terms of film length and style, and which are looking for strong writing along universal themes.   

The example of the US screening of the film Josephine Baker, The Story of an Awakening, which we distributed in more than 20 countries, says a lot. The black and white archive-footage film had a hard time finding its place despite having at its center an inconic figure with transatlantic appeal. Its nomination at Banff for Best Art Film, a year and a half after it was finished, provided leverage for it finally to be bought and broadcast in the USA and Canada.

TV France: What difficulties did you encounter with this kind of documentary?  

Isabelle Graziadey: We targeted arts slots, which are very formatted on television. They are essentially dedicated to biopics or filmed versions of live shows. The choice to use black and white is a real problem for some buyers, but I am convinced that many broadcasters are curious to see this kind of a film win an Emmy and will therefore look at it a little differently. It now fits into the Best of Docs slot, reserved for award-winning documentary feature films. Ressaca is also a universal tale about shattered lives, the end of a myth, a national treasure overturned due to a city’s lack of space to celebrate beauty and transmit its repertoire.

TV France: This International Emmy Award recognizes the quality of this documentary. Will it shed new light on it?

Stéphanie Lebrun: Ressaca went down very well at the festivals. Christine Camdessus and Anne Georget chose it for the world premiere at FIPADOC 2019, and it garnered praise in the selection for best documentaries. Then it was selected for a variety of international festivals where it received special mentions. In late 2019, at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, Ressaca won two prizes: best documentary and best direction. That was just amazing.

The International Emmy Award is a huge surprise. We were thrilled to be nominated, but we really didn’t think we would win!

We are obviously deeply honored and proud, and this has encouraged us to continue making films that are demanding, ambitious and daring. Vincent and Patrizia have other film projects in progress, some of which they are working on with us. As for us, the producers and founders of Babel, we think that a small independent production company can do great things – and we’re not stopping any time soon!