Sarnelle Intimately Explores the Life of Vargas
Coming down a set of stairs, through vintage clothes hung from the rafters and into a dark, cold basement room on West College, one did not know what to expect from senior Nina Sarnelle’s film, I, Getulio Vargas. In the claustrophobic basement, the installation was set up in a room with a single exposed light bulb, a boarded-up window, various junk, a screen on one stone wall and a single chair to sit in, not even three feet away from the screen. As the 11-minute film starts, the silhouette of the viewer’s body in his chair, created by the projector behind him, also takes up part of the screen-space, occasionally obstructing the subtitles translating the Portuguese voice-over.
The basic premise of Sarnelle’s film is to imagine and visually create the life of Getulio Vargas, President of Brazil, who held office several times between 1930 and 1954. He later committed suicide when confronted about his corrupt and Fascist practices in the government.
When asked about the historical nature of her film, Sarnelle said, “I have…no researched understanding of [Vargas.] In truth…I am not qualified to make a film about [him.] This project was a way for me to work through questions of authenticity in my own storytelling, and project them onto a larger and even more problematic model: history-telling.”
However, this is not the only thing going on in Sarnelle’s film — far from it. The film is less about Vargas himself than about imagining and becoming Vargas. Even though I had already seen the film in West Lecture Hall, there was no way I could have been prepared for the heightened intensity of her installation.
Sarnelle’s talent is obvious. All the elements of her film deliberately and meticulously fit into the aesthetic she tries to create, resulting in a strongly cohesive whole. Based on a poem by Sarnelle and transformed into her senior cinema studies tutorial, I, Getulio Vargas is far from being only a 16mm film, and it is far from simply being an artistic installation piece.
Instead, I would categorize Sarnelle’s project as a three-dimensional experience that draws power from its ability to viscerally affect the person watching it, regardless of whether he or she understands what is going on. Constantly referential to the basement space and the viewer’s body, the film transplants the viewer into its world and its characters’ dark emotions.
Sitting so close to the screen, the life-size point of view of the camera becomes the point of view of the person sitting in the chair in the basement. The sound synchs the viewer’s heartbeat to the one heard from the film. This work triumphantly and upsettingly achieves its goal: the audience member and Vargas become one.
“I won’t be surprised if she gets some festivals with this one,” said Professor of New Media Rian Brown-Orso, after experiencing the installation for herself.
Sarnelle has already been submitting her film as-is (without installation or changes) to various film festivals, and has been considering submitting the project to film festivals in Brazil, where the Portuguese and Vargas references would hit closer to home.