Hector Babenco Biography

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Birth Name: Hector Babenco
Born: 02/07/1946
Birth Place: Buenos Aires, AR

Born to poor Russian and Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Babenco was 18 when he left Argentina on a "divine mission," inspired by Beat and existential writers, to "know the world." For seven years he traveled throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas, working at odd jobs. In Spain and Italy he pursued his interest in film, working as an extra in spaghetti westerns.

In 1971, Babenco emigrated to Brazil to make films. Having grown up watching Hollywood and European films with subtitles, he was impressed by the new, indigenous Brazilian cinema. The year he arrived, however, Brazil's rightist military regime instituted strict censorship, forcing most "cinema novo" directors into exile. Babenco, who had never formally studied cinema, spent the next four years filming documentaries, shorts and commercials while he worked on his first feature, "King of the Night" (1975).

His next film, "Lucio Flavio" (1978), made at the height of political repression in Brazil, depicted the life and death of a real-life thief/folk hero who had threatened to expose the police death squads. Although Babenco used dream sequences and attached a disclaimer to the film in order to appease the censors, he was the target of death threats and his house in Sao Paulo was machine-gunned. In addition, the prisoner who had killed the real Lucio Flavio for the police was himself murdered on the eve of the film's opening. Despite these intimidations, "Lucio Flavio" became Brazil's fourth-highest grossing feature, reviving the fortunes of the Brazilian film industry and picking up both the New York and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Film. Babenco became disillusioned, however, when he realized that the film had brought no concrete political changes.

Babenco's first international success was "Pixote" (1981), about the plight of Brazil's three million abandoned children. The director originally intended to film a documentary, and had completed 200 hours of interviews with children in reformatories. When he was refused further access, however, he turned to the streets and hired slum children to portray themselves. The result, although scripted, displays a documentary-like attention to detail and perspective. Rather than having the children read lines, Babenco built scenes around improvisation workshops that allowed them to contribute their own experiences to the picture.

Babenco's next two projects were English-language films. With "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985), he had difficulty finding American investors and was forced to defer salaries for himself and the lead actors. Its success (star William Hurt won an Oscar for his performance) ensured major Hollywood studio support for "Ironweed" (1987). Ironically, Babenco's experience in the USA convinced him that Brazilian political censorship offered greater artistic freedom than Hollywood's economic censorship and studio bureaucracy.