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Festival Focus: Festival do Rio

By Shari Kizirian

Brazilian musician Tom Zé, subject of Décio Matos Júnior's Fabricando Tom Zé. Courtesy of Festival do Rio

Brazilians are accustomed to reading rather than watching cinema, something any Brazilian planning a night at the movies would acknowledge. In 2004, foreign releases in Brazil represented 88 percent of the domestic film market, which is divvied up among companies with familiar yet foreign names like Sony, Warner and Fox. Over the past two years, nine of the ten highest grossing films in Brazil were produced and distributed by Hollywood. Despite the popular and critical success of local productions such as City of God, by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and the documentary Bus 174, by José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, films made outside the country continue to prevail at the multiplex, art house and corner video store. Thirteen years after the reinstatement of domestic production incentive programs, Brazilian narratives are only beginning to compete, while documentaries barely make a mark.

Still, Brazilian documentaries, while doing modest box office compared to fiction features, have managed to hold their own against nonfiction imports. Vinícius (Miguel Faria Júnior), about Vinícius de Moraes, the poet and bon vivant responsible for penning "The Girl from Ipanema"; Pelé Eterno (Anibal Massaini Neto), about the soccer legend; Eduardo Coutinho's widely praised Edificio Master; and João Moreira Salles' Nelson Freire, about the virtuoso pianist, crowd the top ten documentaries released since 1993. According to the list compiled by Filme B, an online database tracking cinema in Brazil, only three non-Brazilian documentary features make an appearance in this top ten: Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, and Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club.

Against this statistical backdrop, Festival do Rio--held last September and October in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil--screened 15 Brazilian feature documentaries out of the more than 300 films on its slate. Billed as the largest Latin American film festival, it is primarily a showcase of current world cinema and a venue that launches Latin and foreign features onto the South American market. Competitive categories highlight the latest Brazilian offerings and include jury and audience prizes for documentary features and shorts. Homegrown docs also screen out of competition in the programs Hors Concours and Retratos.

Brazilian documentaries across categories covered topics expected from doc-makers looking to reach the widest audience possible. Portraits of famous countrymen, including Fabiano Maciel's Oscar Neimeyer, A vida é um sopro (Oscar Neimeyer, Life Is a Breath of Air), about the architect of the city of the future (Brasilia) still working at age 99, and Pixote in Memoriam (Felipe Briso and Gilberto Topczewski), about the star of Hector Babenco's Pixote: The Law of the Weakest whose over-publicized life mirrored that of the ill-fated young boy in the 1981 film, screened alongside documentaries about musicians, such as Lírio Ferreira and Hilton Lacerda's Cartola, about the revered sambista, and Diário de Naná (Paschoal Samora), about percussionist Naná Vasconcelos.

Not surprisingly, a documentary about a musician garnered Festival do Rio's audience award. Décio Matos Júnior's Fabricando Tom Zé profiles the exuberant musician from his roots in Bahia to the 1960s tropicália movement through his fading popularity in the '70s and finally his rediscovery by David Byrne's Luaka Bop label in the '90s. One segment follows Zé and his band, who are as comfortable playing hard hats and vacuum cleaners as they are drums and guitars, at the Montreux Jazz Festival. During a disastrous sound check the day of their performance, the festival's sound engineer accuses Zé of not knowing what he is doing. The insult provokes an outburst of expletives from Zé, who has dealt with racism throughout his life. Later to the camera, he speaks for an entire nation frustrated by its third-world status despite its immense contributions to world culture: "They have good looks, blonde hair, clear skin...but they don't have the music to put here. Brazil, a poor country...has the music."

This thread that runs through Fabricando Tom Zé is considered by the producers to be a selling point for the film. "The topics of prejudice and social inequality are of major interest--both for Brazilians and foreigners," says producer Eliane Ferreira. The makers initially sought international co-production for their documentary, but were turned away as the project was their first. Domestic theatrical release, planned for March, is being handled by Grupo Estação, which runs a circuit of art-house theaters that hosts Festival do Rio each year. Now that the film is done and is winning awards, Ferreira hopes it can also secure international distribution. "[Zé] has a vast audience in North America and Europe," she writes in an e-mail. "We are seeking partners abroad that would seize this opportunity with us."

Hors Concours participant Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra (Reason Against War), cinema veteran Carlos Diégues's first documentary (made with Rafael Dragaud), examines tough social and economic issues through the story of AfroReggae, a band and cultural group born in the favelas that has inspired no less than four film projects, including the award-winning US documentary Favela Rising. Many of the other documentaries screening at the Festival do Rio presented heavy subject matter but without musical reprieves. Expedito, Em busca de outros nortes (Expedito: Field and Poetry), Aída Marques and Beto Novaes' carefully crafted portrait of Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, the agrarian activist and poet assassinated in 1991, screened as part of Retratos. João Jardim's Pro Dia Nascer Feliz (At School), about the roots of the 41 percent dropout rate in Brazil's schools, and Atos dos Homens (Acts of Men), by Kiko Goifman, an exposé of a death squad mobilized against the queer population in Rio's Baixada Fluminese district, both competed in the Brazilian documentary category.

The jury prize winner for documentary, Á Margem do Concreto (On the Fringes of São Paulo: Squatting) by Evaldo Mocarzel, is the second film in a planned trilogy that tackles the issue of the urban homeless in Latin America's largest city. It follows a group of activists who take advantage of a liberal squatting law that limits the ability to evict people who manage to take charge of vacant buildings. Getting control of the buildings is, of course, the hard part and creates the drama in the film.

Featuring compelling night-vision footage shot by Jorge Bodansky, Squatting does not flinch from the squalor the poor face in their daily lives, showing the filthy, pipe-lined corner of a building that a family of four called their home prior to claiming space in an abandoned high-rise. Neither does the director sugarcoat the radical politics most of his subjects adopt as a result of their living conditions and subsequent involvement with the homeless movement. One activist, Gegê, calls for the middle class to choose sides as it is impeding the working class struggle.

Á Margem is being released domestically by Mais Filmes, an arm of art-house pioneer Adhemar de Oliveira's Unibanco Arteplex theater chain. In addition, a deal is in the works with the Brazil-based Rain Digital Network to bring the film to the US, and according to Squatting producer Zita Carvalhosa, its recent success at festivals across Brazil is increasing its potential for television and DVD distribution. Carvalhosa, however, doesn't hold out much hope for the "economic equation," as "financial remuneration and success" remain mutually exclusive for documentaries.

This important distinction is recognized by the many filmmakers like Carvalhosa toiling beyond the reach of box office and other rankings. In another of the festival's competition docs, Atos dos Homens, director Goifman pays homage to Maioria Absoluta (Absolute Majority), Leon Hirszman's short documentary, made just before the 1964 military coup, about the right of illiterate citizens to vote. Both films close with a similar exhortation to its viewers: "The movie ends here. Outside, your and these men's lives go on."


Shari Kizirian, the former editor of Release Print magazine, currently lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.