Brazilian Documentary Films: A Modern Picture of the Country


Sérvulo Siqueira


The following presentation will cover Brazilian documentary films during the last 20 years, with an analysis of their importance within the cultural panorama of that country. The study will take as the initial reference the rise of the Cinema Novo and the proposal of a new language, which found in the documentary form its most fruitful and creative vanguard. Using light and flexible cameras linked with live direct recording, the filmmakers of that school developed a modern audiovisual delivery and photographed our experience of reality from completely new angles, participating politically and culturally in the modernization process of the Nation.

This study will attempt to show how the emergence of this new posture released one of the most fertile and creative cycles of our contemporary culture with the documentary form surveying almost all of significant movements within the physical space of the country. Following this trajectory, punctuated by heated discussions at film festivals, at quiet exhibitions in Cinema Clubs, with small battles won and lost, some fronts were opened and consolidated in international exhibitions and wider spaces were gained by the strongest elements within the documentary filmmakers. We will seek to show the effort of the autonomy of the documentary form in the last 20 years, touching on the most important moments; the pioneering initiatives at the beginning of this New Cinema movement; the sponsorship of government organs; the Certification of the Special Classification; the poetic alternative form provided by the 16 mm and the Super-8 films, and the struggle – still unfinished and very unequal and unbalanced – against the most primitive interests of Brazilian cinema, as a free and independent language is pursued.

Fighting for the right to its own identity, documentary films have discarded the false and glamourized aura which has been forced upon it, as it found its real vocation in the exercise of a continual X-Ray process of our physical, economical, social, anthropological and cultural spaces, bringing with it a creative script for the investigators of a kind of reality which does not always find a place to be seen in the newspapers, journals, books and TV channels.


The Plan


Throughout its history, Brazilian documentary has known many moments of glory, included the several international prizes and some first class anthological works, produced in many situations of little recognition and with great financial difficulty. These efforts were shown eventually in Cinema Clubs or in sporadic showings and film festivals. In these moments the Brazilian documentary ranges between the highest of standards, both in quality as in quantity, making it of the most expressive in the world, to falling levels in which production was reduced to some rare and almost heroic examples of independent origin, or which received government sponsorship.

It was then that, the 16 mm and Super-8 alternatives were liberated from the straight jacket of the need for recovery of capital investment. Thus the Brazilian reality was able to be overflow without the limits imposed by the 35 mm format.

In order to consider the most creative products of that time, I want to methodologically delineate 3 basic areas as our objectives of study: films of independent production without a specific commercial aim (those whose destination were the private showings and festivals for 16 mm and Super-8 mm); the documentary films financed by government institutions (the National Institute of History and Art, the Department of Educational Films, the Dept. of Cultural Films, the Dept. of Cultural Matters of the Cultural Action Plan and the Secretary of Culture of São Paulo, among others); and finally, the documentary films which arrived to be seen on the commercial circuits, with the advent of the Certification of the Special Classification and to the recent Law of Compulsory Exhibition of short films, as a complement to all foreign films shown. Beginning with an analysis of the most important of these different areas, we can indicate some paths which can salvage the documentary from the blocked state in which it finds itself, with a look toward recovering the direction of experimentation and continuing creativity which was mantained during many years.

II- The basis hypothesis of analysis is that the documentary is composed of an efficient, powerful, and almost total X Ray of the country (a kind of instant little picture) a true frame of something. As a small picture from a Polaroid camera, the short film, in its form of documentary and of fiction, frequently doesn't give us the richness of detail or the depth of a more elaborate treatment. It is satisfied, usually, in registering the existence of an important matter, in identifying or answering phenomena, and tracing out its basic lines. Its limited time of no more than 30 minutes, according to the law which determined the terms of its exhibition, demands and impedes a greater dramatic development which the feature film proposes. But this time limit does permit the choice of an enormous variety of subjects. In a process of identification of a plurality of themes, capturing historic events, relations of productions, cultural manifestations, social e economical distortions, the short films point out these themes, both for the subjects as well as for those who are the object of the exposition. Thus unconscious segments of our memory are recovered in the reconstitution of situations from our daily lives.

Forming a panel of dreams and nightmares of a tropical country, the documentary projects on a short time, in the obvious poverty of its resources, in the seemingly unstructured style of its presentation, the terrible difficulties which frequently affect its development and which at the same time are a living reflection of the ever continuing efforts of a whole people. Subject and object are interchangeable, as the adversities which are hidden behind the camera are equal to those experienced by the object. In this sense, the recomposition of a contemporary segment of the history of the documentary film will be the vehicle by which we come to perceive the profile of Brazil's social, political e cultural history through these last 20 years. A glance over the production of short films in this period shows us how they have been a precision barometer of our hopes and delusions, not only in the almost international format of the 35 mm, but especially in the inventive varieties of the 16 mm and of the Super-8. The rediscovery of creativity and the proliferation of its production during the process of the recovery of our memory through the discussions of the themes and proposals of a new language, would not be done without a tactical return to the archives of the National Institute of Educational Films, which was created in the time of Estado Novo by Getúlio Vargas. At that time, the audacity and poetic work of the pioneer Humberto Mauro, with his documentaries about rural epidemics, houses in the country side, folkloric historic events, music and poems, exhibited simbolically that which was Brazilian. His work is an example for posterity, of how great creativity and social contributions can appear together in cinematographic productions that are of low cost.

III - As a detailed look at the objectives previously indicated, we will, as much as possible, complete a revision of Brazilian film production since the 1960's and an analysis of the most representative examples of the various movements, of the events and themes treated in the films, the styles of language, the award-winning showings and festival which were seen by the public. To do this, two basic variables will be utilized: the level of efficiency of the film in relation to the proposed theme, with a maximum of information to be provided, to create the necessary climate, with its truest components, including those emotions which are fundamental to cinema; secondly, the external efficiency of the works; the establishment of a real dimension of social interests of its theme and if the subject chosen as object of the exhibition justifies socially and culturally the choice of the filmmaker. We will adopt criteria which recognizes as much the expressive elements as those inventive resources of language, situated as fundamental references to, the economy, history, customs, the physical environment, the forms of production, anthropology, the culture and the arts, without forgetting, on other hand, that films need also to communicate with the repertory of its language, so that, in exhibiting the chosen themes, the most inventive and creative elements of sound and image may be extracted.

From another perspective, the documentary form frequently is interlaced with the filmmaker's own biography, as it becomes possible to show through the vision of the creator of the film, the reasons which contributed to the creation of the work. The modern history of documentary films in Brazil registers various examples, of near heroism, of whose fame is the case of Aruanda, directed by Linduarte Noronha, and photographed by Rucker Vieira, also most recently, the prohibition of the documentary of Glauber Rocha about Di Cavalcanti. In these, and many other cases, the language of the film is profoundly impregnated by the specific conditions of its production. Then, by the testimonies of those who participated in the process, this will help us to create a type of brief record of Brazilian documentary such as the reconstitution of its trajectory not only like a finished product but also as a process in the making, of a project and its development, of its theory and its practice, of dreams and reality.


Lecture presented at the Northridge University, Los Angeles, April of 1982