Elegies and Excavations: Reassessing the Past at Brazil's It's All True Documentary Festival
In late March in
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
“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
In the past,
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