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Elegies and Excavations: Reassessing the Past at Brazil's It's All True Documentary Festival

By Shari Kizirian

In late March in Brazil, a dengue epidemic swept through Rio de Janeiro, a city basting in a soup of late summer heat and heavy rains. It felt safer and much cooler in the darkened theaters that hosted the thirteenth annual It’s All True, Brazil’s documentary-only film festival, which is held simultaneously in São Paulo and toured throughout the month of April to four other Brazilian cities. While television news reports showed mothers, feverish children in their arms, confronting military guards at makeshift tent hospitals in western Rio, the festival showcased stories of Brazil’s equally thorny past in programs of competition docs, restorations and revivals of experimental works.

The experimental Brazilian documentary program screened 23 titles ranging in dates from 1929 to the present. Among the films shown were Rogério Sganzerla’s Tudo É Brazil (It’s All Brazil; 1997), which set the record straight about Orson Welles’ ill-fated Brazilian film project; an impressionistic homage to poet Ana Cristina César, Poetry Is One or Two Lines and Behind an Enormous Landscape (1990) by João Moreira Salles, director of last year’s superb Santiago; and two São Paulo symphony films—one by the silent era’s Adalberto Kemeny and Rodopho Rex Lustig, and a 1994 archival assemblage piece by Swiss-born Jean-Claude Bernardet. Two shorts by João Baptista de Andrade—1967’s Freedom of the Press and his 35mm portrait, Cândido Portinari: Um Pintor de Brodósqui (1968)—were shown in tribute to the director, whose 1985 Céu Aberto exalted the politician who brokered the amnesty deal that ended Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–85). A program of recently completed restorations presented two films censored by the government, although for different reasons. Mario Civelli’s O Gigante (1969) is a montage of rare images spanning decades of Brazil’s industrial development and the inevitable environmental and indigenous culture degradation. Linha de Montagem (1982), by Renato Tapajós, is direct cinema at its best, taking the viewer inside the worker strikes that transformed the unions into a burgeoning political party that today rules Brazil.

Wilson Simonal
Wilson Simonal, subject of Claudio Manoel, Micael Langer and Calvito Leal's Simonal: You Don’t Know How Tough It Was. When the filmmakers went to assemble footage for their documentary about Simonal, they found his first television shows were lost.

Tax incentives, combined with the deep pockets of the state-owned oil company Petrobras and its Cultural Program, have seeded a new generation of independent documentaries that are continuing to excavate Brazilian history. Silvio Da-Rin’s Hercules 56, which premiered at last year’s It’s All True, revisits the kidnappers of American ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick and the 15 prisoners who were exchanged for his life. Roberto Mader’s Condor, best documentary winner at the 2007 Festival do Rio, traces the collusion of South American governments in the ’60s and ’70s to hunt down left-wing opposition movements across the continent. Similar excavations were evident in this year’s It’s All True Brazilian documentary competition. Eduardo Escorel’s When and Where recounts the life and work of Genivaldo da Silva, an agrarian activist who disavowed the tactics of the MST, Brazil’s landless movement. André Iki Siqueira and Beto Macedo’s João profiles the controversial sports journalist and soccer coach who was active in the Communist Party during the dictatorship. Two other docs take on more recent histories: Cris Azzi’s Sumidouro, about residents of Jequitinhonha Valley who lost their homes because of the Irapé dam project; and Carla Gallo’s The Abortion of Others, about Brazil’s strict abortion laws and their effects on the lives of poor women.

Garnering an honorable mention for long-form documentary, Claudio Manoel, Micael Langer and Calvito Leal’s Simonal: You Don’t Know How Tough It Was profiles the immensely popular black singer Wilson Simonal, whose career ended when he was accused of naming names during the military dictatorship. Using archival television footage of his appearances, recordings of his songs, and psychedelic-style graphics evoking the era, the filmmakers trace the astonishing ascent and disgraceful fall of an underprivileged black man whose songs still dance across the lips of Brazilians—even if many of them don’t recall the man who made them hits. When news broke that Simonal, who died in 2000, had used his connections in the military police to kidnap and torture his accountant whom he suspected of stealing from him, journalists and DJs across Brazil tacitly united to cut him off from his public. Rumors that he was a government informant spread until they became undisputed fact.

Pan-Cinema Permanente
For Pan-Cinema Permanente, director Carlos Nader culled 400 hours of footage, mostly home movies, to create a portrait of the eccentric and brilliant poet Waly Salomão. It won the It's All True festival jury prize for best Brazilian long-form documentary.

According to one of the directors, Micael Langer, the documentary didn’t come together until they were able to track down Simonal’s accountant living in anonymity since the incident. “We hired a detective to find him; he’s not listed in the phone book,” Langer tells me over the phone. “Making the film, there was a tendency to think that Simonal was framed, that there was some sort of conspiracy. We wanted to know what happened. Something was missing without it.” When the reclusive Rafael Viviani was located, fellow filmmaker Calvito Leal camped out on his street in a van with covered windows and a hidden microphone, hoping to show that “at least we had found him.” Viviani eventually granted an interview, dropping a “bomb” of truth that threatened the whole project. “We brought Simonal up from the ashes,” says Langer, but after the accountant’s revelation, “we didn’t know until the end if we would get him back.”

Whether or not you condemn him for his terrible deed, Simonal’s charisma and talent is undeniable. One segment of him charming a live audience into a sing-along is intercut with an interview of a journalist recalling how Simonal would go off stage to drink at a bar, while the audience kept on singing. Sadly, footage of Simonal’s own television shows are mostly lost. “He had two shows on TV Record, one of the smaller stations, where he got his start,” says Langer. “Because of fires and floods, nothing was left. We could only get some audio.”

O Gigante
Mario Civelli’s newly restored O Gigante (1969) was banned by the military dictatorship in Brazil because of an innocuous pun about “General Electric” and for a section of silent film footage transferred at the wrong speed, which the censor felt represented Brazilian culture in a bad light.

Luckily, filmmaker Domingo de Oliveira had made É Simonal (This Is Simonal) in 1970. The fiction piece stars Simonal as himself and preserved some of what the documentary makers most coveted: images of Simonal in the army, and concert footage from his 1969 show at Maracanãzinho (Little Maracanã), which he gave at the height of his fame. As happy as the filmmakers were to find these elements, the pièce de la résistance was still missing—footage from TV Tupi, a broadcaster that no longer existed. It featured Simonal singing “The Shadow of Your Smile” with the American jazz great Sarah Vaughn, who recorded in the ’70s with the likes of Milton Nascimento and Sergio Mendes. The filmmakers located the footage through Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo but had to go to another broadcaster, TV Cultura, to obtain the actual tape. “It was complicated,” says Langer. “It’s not like in the US.” Their persistence paid off in the end. “It was the only footage we never thought about touching,” he says. “We left the whole thing in.”

Simonal did not speak English but memorized the English-language lyrics phonetically to accompany Vaughn in the duet. The footage confirms not only his star power but also his musical chops. “He recorded some really shitty songs,” says Langer. “But he was a great singer. He was an artist.” The final segment in the film is faded black-and-white television footage of Simonal performing the infectious hit “Sá Marina,” the audio track for which specialists were contracted to restore. The festival audience, which overflowed onto the theater stairs, couldn’t help but join in. Later, on the sidewalks outside the cinema, discussions about Simonal’s crime and punishment continued. “My parents still argue about it,” says Langer.

Cândido Portinari: Um Pintor do Brodósqui
The It's All True festival tribute to João Baptista de Andrade included his 1968 short documentary Cândido Portinari: Um Pintor do Brodósqui, the neo-realist painter born in Brodósqui, São Paulo. The painting pictured is O Lavrador do Café (1934), recently stolen (then recovered) from the MASP, São Paulo’s Museum of Art.

When filmmaker Carlos Nader went to gather footage for his documentary about his friend and fellow artist Waly Salomão, he was fortunate to have much of it at home. “It was mostly fine, to my surprise,” says Nader, over the phone from São Paulo. “It would be different if I lived in Rio. It’s so wet there.” Amassing Hi-8, DV and Betacam for Pan-Cinema Permanente, the jury winner in the long-form competition, Nader excavated the personal history of his 15-year friendship to create a loving portrait of the poet who penned lyrics for tropicália singers like Caetano Veloso and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) musicians like Lulu Santos. The home-movie style quality of the images belies the performative tendencies of Salomão, who was just as exuberant in public as he was in private. To round out the portrait, Nader still needed archival interviews and public appearances from broadcasters.

“I would ask for footage that the files claimed were there,” recalls Nader. “But the tapes couldn’t be found.” He says that the networks in Brazil lost footage not only to fires and floods but also because they often reused tapes. “When Waly died I asked TVE [Brazilian public television] to save the tape of his funeral, not just the edited part but the outtakes.” says Nader. “Three years later when I started this documentary, it was already gone.” Another broadcaster, SBT, the former home of talk-show host Jô Soares, held footage of Salomão being interviewed on the popular late-night program. “I got a form letter saying that it was company policy not to sell or give any archival footage,” Nader recalls. “I was making a film about an important cultural figure. I thought it was really strange.”

In the past, Brazil’s biggest network, Rede Globo, had an Orwellian approach to denying access to its archives. For his 1992 documentary O Beijoqueiro: Portrait of a Serial Kisser, about a man who became famous kissing the famous, Nader sought images of The Kisser planting one on both the Pope and Frank Sinatra. Globo agreed to license the footage but requested copies of signed releases from Sinatra, John Paul II and The Kisser himself. “It was a way not to sell it to me,” believes Nader. Since then, Globo’s archives have become more accessible, even generous, handing over footage to Nader for Pan-Cinema Permanente without asking for releases, fees or even a credit on the film. “I don’t know,” he jokes. “Maybe it was a mistake.” The generosity goes both ways. Working on a project for the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo, Nader found footage he had shot being claimed as part of Globo cable channel’s archives. “I’m not saying they stole it. They are so vast, they just didn’t know.” Nader is sanguine about the mistake, saying his images are still projected in the museum’s gallery. “They weren’t selling it or anything.”

Despite serious setbacks and limited resources, impressive strides have been made among Brazilian archives to collect, preserve, restore and make accessible its cinematic heritage. One group of archivists recently met to work on a database project that would catalog all the archives’ holdings in the country—a daunting but admirable goal. The news footage of the desperate woman pushing through the army guard to get her sick child some medical care comes to mind, and I wonder if it has already been taped over.

Cultural journalist Shari Kizirian lives in Rio de Janeiro.