CPH:DOX 2024 review: Balomania (Sissel Morell Dargis)

“By necessity, most of the film looks rushed and conventional, but stay with it and you’ll find moments of extraordinary beauty, and a few ideas of borderline genius.”

We all know the expression: ‘Living for the weekend.’ Toiling five days a week, for a few days of bliss and partying. The Brazilian ‘baloeiros’ in  Sissel Morell Dargis’ debut Balomania take that approach much further. They can work for years and years on creating a single balloon, in order to spend an hour at most sending it into the air before they have to flee from the Brazilian police. At its best, Dargis’ film works the same way. By necessity, most of the film looks rushed and conventional, but stay with it and you’ll find moments of extraordinary beauty, and a few ideas of borderline genius.

Sissel Morell Dargis was just 19 years old when she began to be interested in the ‘baloeiros’ culture. At that point she’d moved to Brazil on her own, doing graffiti under the name ‘Simba.’ The baloeiros culture is illegal, and participating in making and releasing a balloon can result in years in prison, so it took a while for them to not think the foreign woman with the camera was a police spy. But with a bit of help, Sissel was allowed to follow many of them around to the secret locations where the balloons are patiently assembled out of small pieces of silk, in fields as the balloons are released, at a clandestine award show rewarding the best balloons of the year, and in much more intimate settings, as the men discuss their lives at the bottom of Brazilian society. It feels like an honest attempt at giving a thorough description of a closed and secret parallel society.

The roots of the baloeiros community go back hundreds of years, beginning with a celebration of John the Baptist involving the release of balloons into the air. In the sixties a balloon subculture began in the favelas, growing larger and larger until the many balloons were seen as a danger to airplanes. This resulted in a clampdown in 1999, after which sending up unauthorized balloons could be punished with three years in prison. The culture went underground, though; it’s a many-faceted culture with different roles for crews and workers. Some are spending night after night making the biggest balloon possible, like Jaba, who keeps promising Sissel his crew is working on the biggest balloon ever seen in Brazil. Some crews instead try and capture the balloons as they descend back to earth, leading to wild rides trying to reach the balloons before authorities can get there. Others work on documenting the ascents or drawing the designs. Money comes from mysterious sponsors, and the film does imply at least some of that money might come from connections with the gangs in the area. The police think the whole thing is gang culture, and a sense of paranoia hangs in the air, as a new law means informants and snitches would be handsomely rewarded by the state.

Due to this paranoia and the clandestine nature of the culture, it is no surprise that the majority of Balomania is shot on handheld, just Dargis as the single camerawoman amongst the crews. Everyone has to move quickly, everyone talks directly to the camera, and it seems like there was never much time to consider camera angles, movement, aesthetics in general. Wang Bing or Pedro Costa this is not. Some of the drone shots of flying balloons look amazing, as does some of the nighttime footage of small candles flying into the air; most of the time though, the visuals look functional.

There are, however, a few moments which I will characterize as nothing less than genius. First and foremost, there’s a moment where the camera zooms into a tattoo showing the view of a favela, after which the image morphs into a drone shot of the same favela from the same angle. It’s an astounding, how-did-they-do-that moment that comes out of nowhere. Another time, somebody tells a balloon story, and the television in the back is made to seem like it shows footage of the same event. This sort of artistry is all the more surprising because the rest of the film looks so ordinary.

There is of course nothing ordinary about Dargis’ achievement as a feat of sociology. It has taken years of careful work to achieve this level of access to a closed-off community, and it is clear that those years haven’t been spent on working with the camera. Those few genius moments add another layer to the film, as they show the men and the cityscape around them sort of melting together. That is the thesis of the film: how these young men at the bottom of society want to reclaim not the streets but the skies, and not with protests but with banners and fireworks. They put their mark on Brazil, just as Brazil with all its problems puts marks on them.