Personal history | Brazil

A new world in every film

The Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz has always been drawn to distant horizons. From Brazil via New York, he found his way to Berlin
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The Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz


I was born in Fortaleza in Brazil, between the Amazon and the far-away cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. From early in my life, I had the sense that I was in an isolated part of the world and things were happening elsewhere. It gave me an early desire to go off and explore the world.

I was raised by my mother and grandmother, and my Algerian father wasn't around. On a personal level, being an only son in a house without a male figure influenced me. Our house had no hierarchy, which was exciting for me, a feeling that has echoes in my 2019 film The Invisible Life of Eurydice Gusmão.

I left home to go to university in the capital Brasília. There I discovered cinema: I went to a cine club which showed lots of retrospectives, especially art house European or African films. They had a huge impact on me, but it was not on my radar that I might make films someday - it struck me as too expensive.

In my second year of university, I moved to Paris. My dad and some of his family had migrated to France from Algeria.

“It was as if I’d got a new identity overnight”

Living there felt like I was finally out in the world - but it was also a strange time for me. Back then, a lot of second generation immigrant kids were becoming adults and tensions were running high. Moving around the city there would be checks, like when you went into the museum or public building, and when I gave my name, people assumed I was Arabic. I know I have a Muslim name but for me, someone who'd never been to Algeria, it was as if I’d got a new identity overnight.

I got money together to rent an apartment, but when I phoned around, people would say that Karim isn't a Brazilian name. They’d hang up on me as if I was lying. Yes, Paris was an incredible lively place, in some ways dream-like, but I was constantly being challenged in that dream.

Several people are standing together by a room door. A woman is richly decorated, apparently in a wedding dress, and smiles at the man next to her. This man looks back at her thoughtfully. He is wearing normal clothes

Karim Aïnouz during the filming of “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão” (2019)


Karim Aïnouz on a tricycle in Fortaleza in 1969


I stayed there for a year and a half, but when I returned to Brazil, I soon got an urge to leave again. I think being gay was part of it. At first glance, Brazil, the home of carnival, is liberal, inclusive and embracing. But there’s a dichotomy: it's also homophobic and there are rampant hate crimes against women. I lived in what was a very conservative part of the country.

I left Brazil straight after finishing university, without attending my graduation. When I got a scholarship to do a masters in architecture in New York, I  became part of the queer diaspora.

In the USA, I got really passionate about painting, but then had the difficult realisation that I lacked talent! I switched to photography and did a fine arts degree. For me, New York was really exciting. Nobody there could place where I came from; whether I was Arabic, or Turkish or from somewhere else. It was liberating not to be being pinned down to one nationality - completely unlike being in France with its long colonial history.

New York also had a unique queer scene and nightlife. It was the early 1990s, a time when many people were dying of Aids. There was intense anger and also solidarity in the gay community. I had a sense of belonging to something. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to. I took photos and started making experimental films. I made my first feature film, Madame Satã a portrait of a flamboyant, fiercely proud drag queen, in 2002.

“I was like a UFO when I landed in Berlin”

When I couldn't get financing for a new film project, I went on a residency in Paris, then got a DAAD grant to live in Berlin for six months. It was 2002 and the city really struck me: Those months were some of the happiest of my life.       

When I arrived in Berlin, I hadn't been taking photographs for around ten years, but the city somehow opened a lid on my imagination. Now, 20 years later, I’ve just had a show featuring some of my first Berlin pictures from back then at the DAAD gallery in Kreuzberg. 

When I was back in Brazil, I made a film and a TV series for HBO and saved up some money. I couldn’t get Berlin out of my head, and so my boyfriend and I soon booked flights to come back.

When I arrived for the second time, it was soon clear that the German capital was not on the film circuit like Paris, Madrid or London. In terms of movie production, it was still provincial. I was like a UFO when I landed here. There were few non-German directors around back then, and people looked at me like: who’s this guy from Brazil?

Two women are in wild motion, seemingly angry or discussing, while two men standing beside them are looking into several sheets of paper

Karim Aïnouz during the filming of “Suely in the Sky” (2006)


But looking back, the relative isolation was good for me. I had my own space. Berlin is a big city, but it's also quiet, a place to think.

It took me years to make Futuro Beach (2014) but since then I’ve had strong support for my work. For Futuro Beach, I shot some scenes on Tempelhoferfeld, the former airport near in central Berlin where I live. I never used the footage, but I continued to film there as I love the wide open space. That park is a civil achievement: a place which is ripe for real estate speculation but which has been kept for Berliners to use. 

Then, in 2015 my filming on Tempelhof took an unplanned direction. Refugees were arriving from war-torn Syria, and I was very angry with the way they were being represented. Seeing those young men, I was reminded how young Arabic men get demonised. It took me back to my own teenage experience in France. Making a film of their story, how they were housed in the former airport hanger, became an important project for me. I really wanted to humanise individuals, tell their stories. For me, making Central Airport THF (2018) made Berlin really feel like home.

Interview by Jess Smee, translated by Andreas Bredenfeld