Tekst (smal)

Clermont-Ferrand 2024: Daniel Frota de Abreu

Interview by Nick Cunningham

The Brazilian director discusses his documentary that examines Dutch colonial history via the study of plants and birds sourced in 17th Century Brazil.

Still: As Far As the World Reaches - Daniel Frota de Abreu

When Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen set sail for Brazil in 1637 to become Governor General of the state of Pernambuco (also known as Dutch Brazil) he brought with him a retinue of scientists and artists to forensically research and record details of the local flora and birdlife. 
Despite having a reputation as a humanist, Johan Maurits was also a slave owner and owner of sugar plantations in Brazil.
Daniel Frota de Abreu’s documentary As Far As The World Reaches, which world-premieres in Clermont Ferrand International Film Festival Lab Competition, examines the evidence gained from that expedition, much of which is housed in The Netherlands. The film also offers a surreal parallel commentary on the era, as told by the pet parrot that Maurits owned while in Brazil.
What inspired the director to approach the subject of colonialism from such a particular angle? “I've always been fascinated by how history and science are constructs of modern thinking and rationalism and are the basis for Western perspectives, especially towards nature,” de Abreu responds. In his film he therefore asks how the Western gaze towards nature manifested itself back then.
“This attempt at colonization in the northeast of Brazil, which was a very brief period of 30 years, still had a huge impact,” he adds.

“Basically I started looking into this expedition of painters and scientists trying to depict nature and Brazilian territory as precisely and as faithfully as they could, and to consider 17th century art history in terms of its hyper-realistic paintings.”

Some of these works are, indeed, amazingly detailed in their depiction of birds and flora, but the parrot narrator reminds us of their frequent inaccuracy, such as the still-life paintings that combine flowers that actually bloom in different seasons of the year. For de Abreu this lack of “faithfulness” derives from sheer lack of understanding of the culture being studied. It also serves as a challenge/warning to the documentary practices at large to observe and maintain editorial integrity. The 17th century artists and scientists were, after all, the documentarians of their day, the film further reminds us.
A shameful consequence of the trade in Brazilwood, only found in the region and whose bark provided the magnificent red pigment which enriched these works (and those of the Dutch masters), is that it exudes highly poisonous oils which killed many of the underage workers in Dutch prisons who had to render it into sawdust, ready for mixing with oils.
The Dutch prided themselves on their advanced ability to trade and reckoned that their approach to the business of slave ownership was altogether more ethical, especially when compared to the Portuguese. 
In the film, we see a work painted by the young Dutch artist Frans Post that depicts a happy community of enslaved people, gathering and dancing in a field beneath a summer sky. “There is a clear attempt in the image to create a reputation of a paradise,” says de Abreu.
That picture resides in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, formerly the residence of Maurits himself. A wry observation by the parrot narrator imagines that, in another painting, the former Governor is diabetic, a result of the excess levels of sugar that he consumed and exported into The Netherlands from Brazil.
De Abreu further explains the significance of the film’s title. ‘As Far As The World Reaches’ translates from the Latin ‘Qua Patet Orbis,’ which was both the motto on the Johan Maurits family crest and is the current motto of the Royal Dutch Marines.
“At that time it expressed this idea of expansion of imperialism and colonialism, of expanding the limits of the world. My attempt is to reinterpret that same motto [in terms of] ecological exhaustion in relation to the aftermath of colonialism,” de Abreu ends. 

As Far As The World Reaches was mainly produced as part of an artistic residency at Jan van Eyck Academie (Maastricht) and research fellowship at Het Nieuwe Instituut (Rotterdam).

Find the Dutch line-up at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival here. Or discover the festival on https://clermont-filmfest.org/en/global/home/