Brazilian documentary on Covid-19 wins international festival edition

Publicação: 10 de May de 2022

“When the breath is short” addresses the pandemic with a focus on care, revealing the human face of the collective fight against Covid-19 showing the reality of doctors, nurses, community agents and ordinary people

The feature film reveals its importance when talking about people invisible in the midst of a crisis that hit them hard and, without resources, they had to deal with the cards they had.

The documentary “When the breath is short” (Quando Falta o Ar, in Portuguese) won the Brazilian competition for feature and medium films in this year’s edition of “It’s All True”, the main international festival dedicated to documentary production in Latin America. Directed by Helena Petta and Ana Petta, the film followed the work of professionals from the Unified Health System (SUS) in the Northeast, North and Southeast, highlighting the work of confronting doctors, nurses, health agents when leaving Brazil at the height of the pandemic, before the arrival of vaccines against covid-19. The feature film reveals its importance when talking about people invisible in the midst of a crisis that hit them hard and, without resources, they had to deal with the cards they had. It is the face portrait of the collective struggle.

The jury was composed of historian Eloá Chouzal, cinematographer Carlos Ebert and filmmaker Renato Terra. “The Brazilian feature is a precious record of a still recent collective memory and an invaluable record of the importance of the SUS,” said one of the jurors, while another stated that the documentary is more than a forceful and courageous radiography of the pandemic in Brazil. Also according to the jury, the directors were able to broaden the understanding of the humanitarian tragedy in several perspectives: from community agents who work in prevention to the Intensive Care Units (ICU) of hospitals, through the bodies bagged and buried in frightening quantities. All done with an extremely careful look of those who know how to build and capture scenes that value the human feelings of the individuals portrayed. “In addition to its impeccable cinematic quality, the film captures the temperature of events, the heroism and exhaustion of health professionals at the head of the pandemic, the fight for the lives of patients, the intense relief of those who were not contaminated, the fear in the air, the sadness of those who lost loved ones,” the jury added.

“Out of Breath” is expected to premiere in theaters later this year. The festival exhibited, from March 31 to April 10 a total of 78 feature and short films in competition and hors-concours, free of charge, on streaming platforms available throughout the Brazilian territory. In addition, this year the festival resumed its face-to-face sessions, which took place in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The 28th edition of the festival will take place between 13 and 23 April 2023. To learn more about the subject, the Communication Advisory of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) interviewed Dr. Helena Petta, who, in addition to being a doctor, has a master’s degree in Public Health and a PhD in Preventive Medicine, has experience in the area of communication and health, being the creator of the television medical series Basic Unit (Unidade Básica, in Portuguese), broadcast by the Universal Channel channel.

Check the interview in full:

SBMT: How did it feel to learn that the documentary directed by you and your sister, Ana Petta, “Out of Breath” won the Brazilian competition for feature films and medium films in the edition of “It’s All True”?

Dr. Helena Petta: It was a great emotion to receive this news, especially at one of the most important documentary festivals in Latin America, such as “It’s All True”. This is the first documentary film that me and my sister, Ana Petta, directed and we were competing with six other very interesting films, of important documentary filmmakers, which we follow their career and are fans. So, for us, it was an honor, a great surprise, and we were very happy, mainly because of the appreciation that the topic of the pandemic and SUS workers had. This award reflects how people need to tell this story, to say what happened during the pandemic in Brazil. It is a very recent topic, because the pandemic is not over, but I believe that as a society we need to reflect and understand what happened so that things do not happen again.

SBMT: The film reveals the human side of the collective fight against Covid-19, showing people invisible in the midst of a crisis that hit them hard and, without resources, had work with whatever was available to them. In your opinion, why were these people male invisible and how did they get to this level of abstraction of the person, the being, the others?

Dr. Helena Petta: During the pandemic we were under a denialist Federal Government, which did not believe in the recommendations of science and the World Health Organization (WHO) and this made SUS professionals do their work, each one, in their territories, in their health services, in an invisible way, so that they were fighting a daily and constant struggle trying to defend life amidst a time when there was no support at the Federal level. In this sense, what our documentary tried to do was to give visibility to these SUS professionals and also to patients, who, because we live in such an unequal country, are often not seen either, are not well supported, but fortunately, even with all the problems of precariousness, we have a public health system that is able to give access to people who often do not even have access to health care. What we sought was to give visibility both to these professionals who were working day after day in health services, in the Brazilian public health system, and to patients who sought some kind of help in the midst of the pandemic and in the midst of a rampant country.

SBMT: Why wasn’t this portrayed in the documentary?

Dr. Helena Petta: I understand that in the tradition of documentaries, this is a constant, to show just what people usually do not see. Historically, many documentarians already gave voice to marginalized groups, to minorities, in short, to people who are discriminated against for various reasons and who only through art are able to become visible. We also tried to place the SUS health professionals as the major protagonist, because they are also made invisible, and so we wanted, in some way, to show their importance through the documentary.

SBMT: The documentary addresses political aspects, pointing to the omission, as well as the economic system. What was it like to work from that perspective?

Dr. Helena Petta: Our documentary is not about interviews but about images of health workers taking care of people and, at the same time, we show how much the issue of structural racism and social inequality in the country has strongly impacted those who were affected by Covid-19, which several studies and research already show. Therefore, our idea was to reinforce and disclose this issue also through images.

SBMT: Do you believe that the documentary was able to give the viewer a critical sense, awakening a more critical look so that watching it comes out with social background?

Dr. Helena Petta: I believe so, because the documentary is a means that we have to shed light on certain issues, to show things that society often does not see or that journalism itself does not realize – much has been said about Covid-19 in the newspapers, on television, but often at a very fast pace, with images and fast information –, so what we sought in the film was to make longer plans, we bring different times and dimensions of care, which is, for example, by observing a nurse bathing a patient in an ICU; by following those teams that go to a place far away from Brazil, through the rivers of the Amazon region, to give assistance to a woman who needs care; through the care of a doctor with the inmates inside a prison and she turns on some music so that the external sounds are not present in the consultation. That is, there are several moments that we seek to portray the strength that this health care system is and what it represents, that is, it is not just a quick action as we often see in regular journalism. The documentary and art have this ability to bring reality and also to transfigure, show another side that was not seen, with a poetry that people are not used to looking at. I hope so, that more and more people will watch and that they will touch on the themes that we are working on.