After his mother’s sudden death, Socrates, a 15-year-old living on the margins of São Paulo’s coast, must survive on his own while coming to terms with his grief.
Socrates was produced by a crew of 16-20-year-olds from the Querô Institute, a UNICEF-supported project that provides social inclusion through filmmaking to underrepresented youths in the Baixada Santista region of São Paulo, Brazil. Produced by Ramin Bahrani (99 HOMES) and filmed with a micro budget of under twenty thousand dollars, Socrates is the debut feature film from 29-year-old Brazilian-American director Alex Moratto.
Bijan Tehrani: Could we call Socrates a social justice film?
Alex Moratto: I would prefer not to call “Socrates” a social justice film, in the sense that most social justice films are tied to political agendas. “Socrates” has no agenda. In many ways, his story represents a lot of young Brazilians whose lives have been altered by the country’s current political and economic turmoil, but we ultimately just wanted to make a compelling and honest film about a boy looking for his place in the world.
BT: How did you come up with idea of Socrates and what motivated to make it?
AM: I was a volunteer at the Instituto Querô in Brazil, a Unicef-supported project that works with young people from the local low income communities. I really identified with these young people and their struggles, and then after my Mom passed away, I had to start my life all over again. This experience, along with my contact with the people from Querô, inspired me to write “Socrates”.
BT: Socrates has a very sophisticated character how did you develop this character?
AM: In many ways, he reflects what I was going through at the time. When I wrote the script, my Mom had just died, so everything I was feeling was channeled into his character. My team and cast also helped me flesh him out, especially Thayná Mantesso, one of the teenagers from the project who co-wrote the script with me. She’s was born and raised in the city where we filmed, so she had a lot to contribute as a local voice. We’re also both openly gay, so we had a lot of personal experiences to incorporate into the script. Tammy Weiss and Ramin Bahrani, my producers, also had tremendously helpful creative input.
BT: What has been the audience reactions to the topics of the film?
AM: People thank me for making this film. It’s a very layered and universal story, so some people identify with Socrates’s sexual awakening and coming-of-age, others identify with his grief, and others with his social status. It speaks to a lot of different people from different walks of life.
BT: How did you go about casting of Socrates?
AM: We went to dozens of high schools and theater groups and also held open casting calls. All the actors are local, as it was very important to us that the film represent the communities where we filmed. The first round of auditions were filmed interviews, to see if the contestants were interesting to watch or if they fit the character profile. From there, we narrowed it down to test acting ability. Once we had a list of finalists, we did numerous call-backs to see who could take direction well. Once we chose Christian Malheiros to play Socrates, we cast everyone else around him, and he would be at all the auditions to work with the final contestants. It was less about what people physically looked like and more about how they worked with Christian and if they had chemistry, but of course I’m very interested in faces, and people with unique and expressive faces are much more interesting to watch.
BT: Socrates has a unique visual style, please tell us about it.
AM: We wanted Socrates to be an anchor for the camera — it’s almost as if he’s pulling it along with him. My DP, João Gabriel de Queiroz, has an incredibly sensitive and empathetic eye. He’s also a dancer, and so when he’s working, it looks like interpretive dance with a camera. It’s as if he’s trying to feel the scene, and to express it with movement. He’s very focused and just loses himself in the flow. We shot on a 5D Canon, not just for budgetary reasons but also because it’s a light camera that he could easily hold. We built a special rig for him, so he could just move as he wished, and the result is very expressive and helps differentiate the film from docu realism. I like to call it “subjective realism” even though that technically means something else, but I just can’t think of a better way to describe it visually and tonally.