Recent Documentary Filmmaking
in Brazil

Listening to the Serenade From the Streets

Anne-Marie Gill

Documentary images have played a considerable role in the struggle for political power in Brazil

Often the audiovisual information we receive about what is happening in Brazil today is presented as an authoritative summary of what is really a multi-layered, deeply conflicted situation, in which the perspective and voices of many important participants in the conflict are erased, not only from the media image, but very often from society itself through political repression and economic violence. We who partake of the global world information banquet have very little accurate sense of what the major concerns in life are for poor citizens of Brazil. While Brazil's highly advanced telecommunications industry produces images which represent Brazil around the world, these programs regularly falsify or omit the varied responses of working class Brazilians to the conditions portrayed.

My discussion of recent Brazilian documentary will bypass those films whose politics and aesthetics are identified with this "international quality" of television journalism in order to make room for a few of the visions and voices raised against the dominant media's distortions and for the concerns and struggles of migrant workers, incarcerated women, shanty town dwellers, and street children. I have chosen to write about the work of documentary filmmakers who put their creative energy toward the hope of the eventual transformation of Brazilian society by the working class. The work of these independent filmmakers represents a growing dialogue between members of grassroots social movements and intellectuals concerning how to democratize Brazilian society. This dialogue becomes creative collaboration in the case of the following documentaries, "interview" films whose form is unthinkable without the active participation of their subjects.

Changes in the cultural sector are part of an on-going political struggle to democratize Brazil. The redefinition of what "democracy" means is no longer solely the province of the ruling class nor of a military or neo-conservative government now that there are new actors on the political scene since the emergence in the 1980s of the new social movements. In the 1970s, industrial workers began to break with the corporatism which had regulated their activities since Get└lio Vargas' regime of the 1930s. The 1979 strike of the independently organized metal workers in São Paulo's industrial region was the first direct challenge by the working class to the military regime's tightly controlled "democratic opening" of the political process, the first sign that civil society had developed grassroots with which the Brazilian elites would have to contend. In 1980 the Workers Party, was formed by members of unions, neighborhood associations, Christian Base Communities, and others who were dissatisfied with the existing moderate opposition party.

The elites now must compete in the political arena with organizations representing those whom they would label marginais (as in, "marginal" to dominant society and to the political process, and also meaning "criminal elements"). Documentary images, especially in television, have played a considerable role in the struggle for political power in Brazil, and independent documentary filmmaking since the 1970s has been transformed by the process of the disenfranchised asserting themselves as political subjects. Documentary filmmakers have lent support to social movements by affirming that the emerging political subjects generate an alternative knowledge of the causes of social problems. They have used filmmaking as a means to counter the ideology parlayed by television's distorting images of the new social movements, of the urban poor, and of the causes of street crime and violence.

In Sandra Werneck's documentary short, Communion, ("Comunhão") we gain access to the world of the favela, or shanty town, of Morro de Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro when a masked favelado motions the filmmaker, her guide, and the cameraperson up the mountain. Here, residents are often caught in the cross fire between drug traffickers and the city police force, itself involved in the drug trade. Brandishing his automatic weapon, this young man gives an impassioned speech in response to a question from the filmmaker about the significance to himself and his community of the 1896-97 War of Canudos, in which the newly founded First Brazilian Republic destroyed a religious community founded by Antônio Conselheiro in the interior of Bahia State. The young man paces the alley where he stands guard, explaining that Conselheiro and the people of Canudos were defending themselves against the violence of the state against the poor. Holding the gun on high, he shouts, "Those rebels had the right idea!"

Werneck's Communion is one film in a German/Brazilian co-production, an omnibus of documentaries by seven filmmakers, who each contributed a perspective on the War of Canudos in light of what is happening socially and politically in Brazil today. The Seven Sacraments of Canudos ("Os sete sacramentos de Canudos"), produced by Peter Przygodda (editor of Wim Wenders' films), will be aired on German, French, and Brazilian television. Each film is a "sacrament" commemorating the Canudos of the 1890s and the backlands town of Canudos today. Werneck's documentary exemplifies another trend in independent documentary filmmaking, a movement toward a dialogue between filmmaker and documentary subject evident in the interplay between a TV journalism style of registering today's hard life in Morro de Santa Marta and a mode of storytelling originating with the shanty town dwellers themselves. Werneck's other credits include The War of the Children ("A guerra dos meninos"), based on a book by journalist Gilberto Dimenstein on organized violence against street children in Brazil. The making of Communion and The War of the Children differs from the documentary form used by traditional investigative journalists in the degree to which the subject's own articulation of a world view dominates choices in narrative structure.

In the case of Communion, Werneck draws on the Samba School aesthetic, which is a traditional, Afro-Brazilian narrative/musical mode of interpreting contemporary events through an allegory using historical and mythical characters. Communion indicates the source of this way of producing knowledge by structuring the film around the storytelling of an elder shantytown dweller. He tells a group of favela children about the police invasion that destroyed last year's float and costumes for the Carnaval parade presentation planned by their Samba School, Unidos da Tijuca. The violation of Unidos da Tijuca's space and the destruction of the floats led the community to reinterpret the meaning of Canudos. The Samba School decided to go to the avenue wearing the charred costumes and pushing the burnt float which had been intended to represent the historical Canudos. The samba composer rewrote their samba to interpret the violence and exploitation they experience every day in the streets of Rio de Janeiro as an undeclared war by the Brazilian state on favelados different only in particulars from the genocide perpetrated by the First Republic against Canudos.

Werneck's treatment of the Samba School admits the media plays a major role in the production of Rio's Carnaval. A currently popular Globo telenovela actress is the godmother of Unidos da Tijuca; the glamourous TV star provides the filmmaker access to the favela, a space normally off limits to the middle class. The soap opera star's presence reminds us that Rio's Carnaval is a megamedia event, produced for national and international consumption by advertisers, television networks, drug traffickers, the government, the numbers racketeers, and tourist agencies, as well as by the labor and talents of the favela communities. Yet even in its mixed nature, Carnaval is a space for projecting Afro-Brazilian and class consciousness. This particular Samba School parade subverted the media event momentarily by intruding the kind of everyday, state violence which Carnaval is designed to make its participants and spectators forget. Werneck's documentary, as part of The Seven Sacraments of Canudos, will bring a favelado perspective on the causes of Rio's street violence into the international news media, where the state's role in violence is often soft-pedaled and the problem posed as one caused by "marginals."

International coproductions made for a transnational public television audience are one of the ways Brazilian documentarists are trying to circumvent the current deadening of filmmaking activity which has resulted from the devastating effects on the Brazilian economy of inflation and grand-scale governmental corruption, the latter of which has left the public coffers bare and taken away governmental support for workers as well as for intellectuals. A virtual stoppage of film production, which resulted from the elimination of state support for national film production and distribution, occurred in March 1990 when President Collor de Mello closed Embrafilme, the state agency for cinema. There is controversy among filmmakers as to whether in the long run the end of state support for Brazilian cinema will not perhaps lead to more viable forms of film production. Many concur that the closure of Embrafilme brought a failed venture to an end, since Embrafilme did not fulfill the purpose of establishing a film industry in Brazil.

In the nineties, therefore, filmmakers must look for funding in the private sector. Financial institutions, such as Ita└ Bank and Banco do Brazil fund the making of short documentaries by young filmmakers; while these tend to be technically beautiful films, they tend to present Brazilian social problems (if at all) in a highly fragmented manner. Some filmmakers committed to feature-length social documentary, such as Vladimir Carvalho, have continued working labor intensively on film projects started prior to Embrafilme's closure. Others, such as Eduardo Coutinho and Denoy de Oliveira, have opted to make videos in partnership with grassroots organizations and student unions. Video is the medium of choice for most documentarists today for both economic reasons and because video technology permits a higher degree of collaboration between documentarist and subject.

One of the first documentaries produced soon after the closure of Embrafilme and amid laments for the supposed death of Brazilian cinema was Denoy de Oliveira's What Film Are You Going to Make? ("Que filme tu vai fazer?"), which elicited the opinion of Brazilian filmmakers concerning the extinction of state funding for the cinema. The convictions of the filmmakers are summarized in this statement by Francisco Botelho: "I'm going to keep on making films, even if I have to use toilet paper!" According to What Film Are You Going to Make?, documentary films in production in 1990 included Zelito Viana's biographical musical about Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a project by Vladimir Carvalho about the current battle for land rights of an Afro-Brazilian community in the interior of Goiás state whose roots go back to eighteenth-century black resistance to slavery, and Geraldo Morães' historical documentary about the pioneers who settled the interior of São Paulo state.

Due to the slowdown in documentary film production, the two examples of recent left documentary film I feature here were both made prior to 1990: Prison Women ("Prisão Mulher"), filmed in the early 1980s, finished in 1985, and now being re-screened in response to public debate on the death penalty in Brazil, and Old War Buddies ("Coterrâneos velhos de guerra"), filmed and researched over a period of twenty odd years and released in 1990.

Prison Women, by Denoy de Oliveira, documents the theatrical work of women incarcerated at Carandiru State Prison in the city of São Paulo. The women explored the political function of the penal system in society in a theater workshop organized by Maria Rita Freire Costa, who pioneered the application of the Paulo Freire teaching method to drama workshops with prisoners. The film is divided into three segments: testimony by the women concerning their creative experiences in the workshop, sequences of the performance of the plays they have authored, and the return of the women to their cells, where they reflect on the analysis of the penal system represented by their collective drama work. Oliveira prioritized the rapid production of the film upon attending the theater event at the prison, finding in the writer/actresses' understanding of the causes and social significance of their situation behind bars a powerful alternative source of knowledge about the role of criminalization and incarceration in Brazilian society. Filming the women's representation of their perspective on the penal code permits us access to a sustained critique of the effects on human beings of poverty, racism, sexism, and the penal system by women whose opinions are not included in the usual roundtables of the experts on the death penalty. For these women, the death penalty debate as presented in the media evades the real issue of whether or not the current "death penalty" for the poor will remain in place, or whether society will succeed in changing the power structure which enforces it. Screenings and the discussions held by Oliveira and Freire Costa seek to awaken a more humanist discussion of the death penalty by bringing the work of the prison-bound theater collective to audiences throughout São Paulo through the medium of film.

Prison Women is reminiscent in some respects of the principles of the Popular Centers for Culture of the National Student Union of the early l960s, where young, middle-class dramatists, filmmakers, musicians, and artists dedicated to the modernization of the country sought to educate and mobilize the lumpenproletariat, the favelados, and Northeastern rural workers. Members of Rio's favela communities, like the samba composer Zé Keti, participated in the theater productions of Rio's Grupo Opinião, or Opinion Theater Collective, along with students such as Denoy de Oliveira, who was one of the collective's founding participants. But this cross-class collaboration was limited to the participation of artists like Keti and not one in which favelados or Northeastern rural people were really subjects expressing their own goals. Grupo Opinião appropriated popular musical and theatrical forms from the working class sub└rbios and favelas of Rio and from the Northeastern backlands for its inspiration in producing theater to mobilize the lower class to the political agenda of middle-class, radical youth. Prison Women demonstrates a shift in Oliveira's philosophical orientation to the poor working class since his Opinião days; a move from talking to to talking with those affected adversely by state policies also occurred in the work of a number of other left filmmakers who reevaluated vanguardist politics following the repression of the left by the middle class-backed military regime in 1968. In Prison Women, it is the prisoner who raises the consciousness of the radical filmmaker, with her critical humanism born of an intimate knowledge of the purpose of the penal system within a class society.

Like Canudos in Werneck's Communion, the city of Brasília is a metaphor for the conflict between state and workers in contemporary Brazil in Vladimir Carvalho's three-hour documentary on the paradoxes involved in the building of Brasília, Old War Buddies. The central sequence of the film is testimony by witnesses to a massacre carried out by Brasília's police force in 1959 against Northeastern migrant workers who protested work conditions. This event, covered up by President Juscelino Kubitschek's "spokesmen" at the time, is still vehemently denied by Brasília's planners (in the film, Oscar Niemeyer demands that Carvalho turn off the recorder when pressed about whether he knew the massacre occurred) and by historians devoted to revering Kubitscheck as founder of Brasília and modernizer of Brazil. Structuring the film around the violent repression of a nascent workers' organization belies Niemeyer's interpretation of Brasília as a utopia gone awry. The bulldozing of workers' homes in the Ceilândia favela over the protests of a workers' association aptly named "The Untiring" is but a repeat of the exclusion of workers' political rights incorporated into the design and construction of the nation's modernist capital city, just as it is systematic throughout the nation. Through interviews conducted with displaced shanty town dwellers, witnesses of the massacre, and with a folklorist and a politician from Bras╠lia's Northeastern population, Carvalho juxtaposes the perspectives of workers who live in the favelas of Brasília, whose voices are not heard on national television, with the views of the politicians, state bureaucrats, and professionals privileged to live in the planned city's core, isolated from the shanty town dwellers.

Old War Buddies ends with footage of an uprising which took place in late 1986 in Brasília in response to the Sarney administration's monetary stabilization plan which froze salaries while inflation continued to soar. The images, which are not identified historically, of people overturning and burning city buses function metaphorically as the finale of an epic opera (in the Brechtian sense) of the history of the struggle of oppressed versus oppressor, the film being organized as a series of arias on various forms of massacre perpetrated against the working class in Bras╠lia (starvation and lack of basic medical care, leisure, and housing).

The final sequence of Old War Buddies, like the image of the favelado with gun raised in salute to the people of Canudos in their fight against the state, reframes the simplistic media portrayal of crime, linking it with a self-conscious, principled resistance on the part of the disenfranchised to the institutions of class society.

Communion, Prison Women, and Old War Buddies each provide a global perspective on Brazilian society in which we can make political sense of the intensifying everyday violence in Brazil, usually portrayed by the news media as merely random and senseless. The work of Sandra Werneck, Denoy de Oliveira, and Vladimir Carvalho is a reminder that while the current trend may be to shy away from a totalizing vision of society, there are still filmmakers who continue to cultivate the documentary's potential for an analysis of the structural causes of social problems and to deploy that potential in allegiance with the fight of people who may be the filmmaker's class, gender, and ethnic Other to transform the terms of their representation in society.


Anne-Marie Gill

Raised on the East coast of the U.S. and studied American and Latin American Literature as an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Pursued the same interests in the Masters Program in Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University, becoming fascinated by Brazilian culture during the annual Brazilian Film Festivals. Studied cinema and literature as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of São Paolo, Brazil. Returned to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, continuing her studies in film theory, cultural studies, and revolutionary politics. Returned to Brazil last year to interview novelists and filmmakers for her dissertation, "The Politics of Empathy: Brazilian Intellectuals and the New Social Movements," which she is currently writing.