Sur-realism: Rethinking Documentary From a Latin American Perspective
When we think about the traces we usually identify as “surrealist” in cinema, the main reference tends to be the work of French surrealist artists and thinkers from the 1920s. But what would happen if— in search of an alternative history, unexplored forms of thought, and a different way of understanding some artistic gestures—we redirect our gaze to Latin America? In this essay, I try to follow the footprints of an idea that keep appearing, although mostly in a marginal way, in the writings and films of several Latin American authors throughout the 20th century, in order to rethink some recent gestures in documentary. Sur-realism (and I will explain later why this hyphen between sur and realism is so important), as I propose, can be a hermeneutic key to approach the work of some of the most exciting artists working in documentary today.
In one of his manifestos, the main theorist of French surrealism, André Breton, defines the surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (Breton, 1969, p. 26). In an interview, he contextualizes the emergence of this artistic attitude: “In a violent reaction against the impoverishment and sterility of thought processes that resulted from centuries of rationalism, we turned toward the marvelous and advocated it unconditionally” (Breton, 1993, p. 63). In Europe, surrealism was a reaction against an excess of rationalization in modernity; a way of liberating thought from the constraints of a reason overload. But in Latin America, where modern, capitalist rationality never fully established itself—and where the traces of colonial history are still among us—we have to think differently about some of the artistic approaches we usually call “surrealistic,” as if they were derivative resonances of French surrealism.
We can start with some thoughts taken from the writings of Brazilian filmmaker and theorist Glauber Rocha, all of them about the possibility of a Latin American version of surrealism that is distinct from the one that emerged in France. One of the first appearances of that main idea is the script for América Nuestra, a project that was never filmed by Glauber and mostly became Entranced Earth (1967). At some point, the annotations for the script say, “Juan Morales, the poet. This represents the Latin intellectual duality between romanticism and rationalism; romantic retardation and rational impossibility lead him to a continuous change of pace, the result of which is a neo-surrealism” (quoted in Avellar, 1995, p. 14). Brazilian critic José Carlos Avellar builds on that idea: “Neo-surrealism: the word, especially if read in portuñol [a mix of Spanish and Portuguese], especially if seen as an image, represents with precision the cinema that Glauber dreamed of for Latin America: neo-surrealism, neo-sur-realismo [new-southern-realism], neo-surrealism of the south” (Avellar, 1994, p. 14).
Avellar’s reading of Glauber’s neologism points to an exciting coincidence: when transported to Spanish, the original French prefix sur, which means beyond, becomes a homonym to south. Especially when Avellar breaks the expression into three parts (neo-sur-realismo), we can easily appreciate the reference to the geographical region. The second hyphen allows both a provocative deconstruction of the original word and a connection between a specific land and an artistic attitude. If read aloud, the expression maintains its gesture of subverting realism, of surpassing conventional reality, but at the same time, the division provoked by the hyphen reminds us that, in Latin America, sur-realism is a form of realism, as we will see. I prefer, though, the removal of the prefix neo, because, as we will also see, there is some historical evidence that artistic gestures comparable to what we came to know as surrealism were present in Latin American poetry in the 1910s and early 1920s, at the same time when Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton were identifying those attitudes in France and coining the expression. Additionally, the roots of our sur-realism are much older, and have to do with Indigenous and Afrodiasporic cosmologies that are still present in this territory we now call Latin America. So it makes more sense to speak of sur-realism instead of neo-sur-realism.
Glauber Rocha addresses these ideas more precisely in a text called “Tropicalism, Anthropology, Myth, Ideography,” from 1969: “There is a French surrealism and another one which is not French. Between Breton and Salvador Dalí there is a great abyss. And surrealism is a Latin thing. Lautréamont was Uruguayan and the first surrealist was Cervantes. [Chilean poet Pablo] Neruda talks of concrete surrealism. It’s the discourse about the relationship between hunger and mysticism. Our surrealism is not the surrealism of dreams but that of reality. Buñuel is a surrealist and his Mexican films are the first films of Tropicalism and anthropophagy” (Rocha, 2019, pp. 103–104). First conclusion: our sur-realism would be one that is born not from a reaction to the excess of reason, but from the impossibility of rationalization in a land that was never fully modern, never fully “Western.” The specific colonial violence, daily chaos, and mixture of races and cosmologies turn this territory into a land that is propitious to a different kind of surreal art. Here, surreality is not an escape from an overrational reality, but a way of dealing with a material reality that is already surreal.
That is, our colonial history, an incomplete modernity, and continued traces of Indigenous and Afrodiasporic cosmologies in Latin American daily life are precisely the elements of sur-realism. As Glauber says in his famous manifesto “Aesthetics of Dream,” delivered for the first time at Columbia University in 1971, “The indigenous and black roots of Latin American people should be understood as the only developed force on this continent. Our middle classes and bourgeoisie are decadent caricatures of colonizing societies” (Rocha, 2019, p. 125). And later in the same speech: “The Afro-Indian gods will deny the colonizing mysticism of Catholicism, which is the witchcraft of repression and of the moral redemption of the rich” (Rocha, 2019, p. 125).
A similar idea appears in the work of Marta Rodríguez and Jorge Silva, the Colombian directors of the masterpiece Our Voice of Earth, Memory and Future (1982). In their film, the documentation of the political struggle of an Indigenous collective is constantly crossed by an allegorical mise-en-scène, full of mythical resonances, which builds upon ethnographic research made by Rodríguez among the Indigenous peoples of the Cauca region in Colombia. Since the Indigenous political imagination constantly mixes syncretic religious references with historical knowledge and current political analysis, the resulting film builds a masked allegorical figure that is, at the same time, the devil, the landlord, the politician, the businessman, and the Spanish colonizer. In a 1982 interview for the Colombian magazine Arcadia va al cine, Jorge Silva mentions Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, and his theory of “real maravilloso” (marvelous real) as one of the theoretical inspirations for the film.
|While surrealism seeks the wonderful and the unusual, [in] the suprareal, as a suprareality that leaves aside and rejects the surrounding reality, Carpentier discovers the “marvelous real” precisely in the surrounding reality of the American man. That is why Carpentier states: “The marvelous real that I defend is our marvelous real, what we find in a raw, latent, omnipresent state throughout Latin America. Because here, in Latin America, the unusual is an everyday thing.” (Silva, 1982, p. 8)|
Carpentier was reacting against a misinterpretation of what was called “magical realism” in Latin American literature, but it is important to make some distinctions here. Although there are a lot of connections between the marvelous real in general and the cinematic gesture I’m pursuing here by the name of sur-realism (both literature and cinema inhabit the same cosmological territory, after all), there is a fundamental difference when it comes to film. On the one hand, there was some important communication—and even collaboration—between key figures of Latin American literature and cinema: Rodríguez and Silva quoting Carpentier; Glauber Rocha quoting Jorge Luis Borges or Pablo Neruda; Rubén Gámez working alongside Juan Rulfo; Hugo Santiago filming a script by Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. But mostly, the references to sur-realism or its variations had an autonomous path within the theory and practice of major film authors like Buñuel, Rocha, Fernando Birri, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Fernando Solanas, without much reference to literature. Additionally, I would make that distinction from a theoretical standpoint. The cinematic apparatus is often considered a perfect machine to produce reality effects. And that is why it is so powerful to look at it with sur-realist lenses: in Latin American cinema, being brutally realistic can reach surreal states of art. Sur-realism is not a cinematic version of magical realism, because what it does is to assume the concreteness, the violence, and the brutality of our reality and turn it into surreal aesthetic experiences through the very materiality of film. In Latin American cinema, surreality begins with a radical immersion in the entrails of reality itself.
Speaking about Luis Buñuel’s The Young and the Damned (1950), in a text called “The Morality of a New Christ,” Glauber Rocha says, “the behaviour of a starving person is so absurd that capturing his real image creates neosurrealism; his morality, like that of the sub-proletariat, is more metaphysical than political” (Rocha, 2019, p. 177). Capturing the reality of hunger in a certain way (like Buñuel does) can create sur-realism. It is an artistic gesture that, instead of escaping reality, confronts it critically and builds on the very elements of the concrete reality of Latin America, which is already illogical and absurd. That is why it is so tempting to find connections between sur-realism and documentary. In fact, for those artists and thinkers, the best way to be true to the altered states of the Latin American reality is to create surreal art.
This happens in La fórmula secreta (1965), an extraordinary mix of documentary and allegorical fiction by Mexican director Rubén Gámez with a text by the famous writer Juan Rulfo. The film repeatedly morphs images of work into surreal metaphorical variations on imperialist capitalism. For instance, in one sequence when a worker is eating a hot dog, suddenly the film begins to exaggerate the size of the sausage, spreading it along the city, until it becomes a lasso to catch capitalist pigs in a river. In another sequence, we see a man doing his job at a slaughterhouse, filmed with ethnographic detail. Later on, he is carrying a dead cow through the streets, and an intellectual montage begins to replace the animal body with figures of the employer and his partner. The faces of quotidian Mexican workers, which we see in an observational way, are not only constantly haunted by elaborate, ironic allegories of capitalism, but also by their impossible dreams of resistance. Hunger is very close to delirium. Violence is on the edge of liberation.
Some contemporary artists are following that radical path. We could mention, for instance, the work of Brazilian filmmaker Rodrigo Ribeiro-Andrade, whose recent short Solmatalua (2022) was shown at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight. Speaking about his previous film, The White Death of the Black Wizard (2020), in an interview with programmer Cíntia Gil for the project Artistic Differences (hosted by Union Docs),1 Rodrigo says that when filming some urban spaces linked to the history of slavery in Brazil, what he wanted to do was to “shoot the ghosts.” With a special emphasis on sound, his film awakens the ghosts of a haunted past. Ribeiro-Andrade reveals the layers of a violent history, while building a haunting experience for the spectator. In Solmatalua (2022), he develops this approach further. Fugitive images of the Black diaspora are magnetized by sounds of nature, religious chants, poems, snippets of popular music, and the voices of Brazilian antiracist leaders. Ribeiro-Andrade does not revisit archives to tell a story, but drags buried futures out of each image and galvanizes them through sound. His work confronts the absurdity of everyday violence against Black people in Brazil with a dense spiral of errant movements and powerful evocations, composing a cinematic form of trance.
The second direction I would like to point at is the political substance of our sur-realism. Great artists produced sur-realist art in Latin America as a revolutionary gesture, a way toward liberation, therefore a highly engaged art. But not a didactical one. Not a political art of slogans, of explanations, of watchwords. In the previous text that I mentioned, “Tropicalism, Anthropology, Myth, Ideography,” Glauber Rocha writes, “The historical role of surrealism in the oppressed Hispano-American world was to be an instrument of thought in the path towards anarchic liberation, the only liberation possible. In the present time it’s used dialectically, in a profoundly political sense, in the path towards enlightenment and unrest” (Rocha, 2019, p. 104). Sur-realism is a way toward a different kind of enlightenment, far away from those formulated in “Western” societies. It is a path toward a profound liberation from not only unjust economic situations but also colonial forms of thought. Buñuel himself (as quoted by Glauber) says about The Young and the Damned:
|Because I think that I am simply honest with myself, I feel I have to make a film about society. […] But I don’t want to make thesis-films out of social circumstances. I see things which affect me and I want to translate them onto the screen but always with the kind of love which I feel for the instinctive and irrational which can appear in any situation. (Buñuel quoted by Rocha, 2019, p. 161)|
For Glauber, the Mexican period of Buñuel’s oeuvre is the source of sur-realism in Latin American cinema. About the master he says, “Yesterday’s surrealist has become today’s anarchist: he supports the revolution by attacking the foundations of capitalist institutions” (Rocha, 2019, p. 162). If a film alone cannot change the world, those films can definitely transform our perceptions of it, by hammering at the very foundations of colonial reason.
At first sight, there are at least three major filmmakers in Latin America that followed a path from realism to sur-realism, and in some cases, also from more classic socialist political ideas to anarchic liberation. Glauber himself, who departed from an “aesthetics of hunger” and reached an “aesthetics of dream”; Fernando Solanas, who made (with Octavio Getino) a directly political, militant essay film in The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) and then went on to ghostly sur-real fictions such as The Sons of Fierro (1972) and Sur (1983); and Fernando Birri, who started by making claims for a “national, realist and popular” cinema, but by the time he was making his experimental, irrationalist masterpiece Org (1979, was talking about a cinema that could be “cosmic, delirious and lumpen” (Birri, 2023). Tomás Gutiérrez Alea also begins (together with Julio García Espinosa) with the realist reenactment El mégano (1955), made with occasional actors to denounce an exploitative labor situation, and by the time he was making A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971), he was talking of cinema “as an act of personal liberation, of disalienation, a sort of spiritual fumigation” (quoted in García Borrero, 2009, p. 94).
But when we look closely at their work, we can notice that sur-realism was always present, even in their early documentary works. The final sequence in Birri’s Tire dié (1960), with the children running on a train track on top of a bridge, ready to fall at any moment, takes on the absurdity of the real situation, exaggerates it through a furious montage, and creates an unbearable experience for the spectator. In Glauber’s Maranhão 66 (1966), the actual speech of a recently sworn governor, provocatively juxtaposed with documentary footage of the miserable living conditions of the people in the state he is about to rule, builds a paradox between image and sound, critically subverting state-sanctioned logics. In the ending of the first part of The Hour of the Furnaces, tactile camerawork that pursues the faces of people attending a funeral for a victim of starvation creates a haunting form of documentary that intensifies the irrationality of death under neocolonialist capitalism. In El mégano, just as important as denouncing the unfair labor situation is the brutal portrayal (with an emphasis on a very strange sound) of the absurd task of the charcoal workers, who spend hours collecting wet wood from the bottom of a swamp, only to burn it.
The political aspect of sur-realism also appears in the work of writers like Peruvian mestizo poet César Vallejo, whose avant-garde book Trilce, written during the 1910s and published in 1922, is often considered a Latin American precursor of surrealism. In 1930, living in France, Vallejo would write a violent attack on the late French surrealists: “The surrealists, circumventing the law of the brutal becoming, academized themselves (…) in their famous moral and intellectual crisis and were powerless to exceed it and overcome it with truly revolutionary forms, that is, destructive-constructive” (Vallejo, 1996, p. 90). For him, the surrealists failed to create a truly revolutionary art because they avoided politics. In his own poetry, instead, Vallejo would reach that dialectic between surreality and engagement. Literary critic Jorge Eliécer Valbuena Montoya calls the surrealism of Vallejo “an engaged surrealism” (surrealismo comprometido):
|Vallejo arrived, after knowing many trends and aesthetic possibilities, to accept a surrealism different from that of Paris, which I define here as engaged surrealism […]. From his searches he finds a voice that does not stray from the social phenomenon, the cultural diversity and recognition of the Latin American subject. (Montoya, 2014, p. 35)|
That same sur-realist engagement is what Glauber sees in Buñuel, in his text “The Morality of a New Christ”:
|The surrealism of Luis Buñuel is the preconscious of Latin man; it’s revolutionary in the manner in which it sets free, by way of imagination, that which is prohibited by reason […]. Buñuel presents, within the absurd scenario which is the reality of the Third World, a possible consciousness: faced with oppression, the police, the obscuring of facts and institutionalized hypocrisy, Buñuel represents liberated morality, the opening of the path to the continuous process of enlightening rebellion. (…) The surrealism in his work is the language par excellence of the oppressed man. (Rocha, 2019, pp. 176–177)|
We could think of the recent work of the Mexican Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, recently shown at MoMA’s Modern Mondays, as a contemporary continuation of that path. In a film like Tierra en trance (2022), they put into practice their theory of shamanic materialism, which is “a cinematic and audiovisual process that leads to and entails a political film-trance of agitation in which the agitation would no longer emanate from a coming to awareness or call for mass mobilization, but would consist of placing contingencies and circumstances in a trance, including, in the first place, Reason itself” (Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, 2021). Through superimpositions of different spaces and temporalities, building inextricable layers of violence and liberation and making them explode through ritualistic forms of music, the work of Los Ingrávidos transforms historical materialism and builds an entranced experience, where formal experimentation and political engagement are inseparable. Following the path of Luis Buñuel, Glauber Rocha, and Fernando Birri, their work departs from documenting the absurd reality of violence and colonialism in Latin America and goes on to create a liberating, irrational, delirious, and cosmic experience.
Victor Guimarães is a film critic, programmer, and teacher based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He is currently a columnist at Con Los Ojos Abiertos (Argentina). His work has appeared in publications such as Cinética, Senses of Cinema, Kinoscope, Desistfilm, La Vida Útil, La Furia Umana, and Cahiers du Cinéma.
1. The research for this essay was fueled by the collaboration between Cíntia Gil and me on the program “Ghosts of a Damned Earth,” which was discussed in an online study group as part of the Artistic Differences Project and then had a screening and a discussion in Berlin, as part of Woche der Kritik (Berlin Critics’ Week) in February 2023. I would like to thank UnionDocs, especially Jenny Miller and Christopher Allen, Cíntia Gil, and all the participants of the online and offline discussions around the program. Our exchange of ideas prompted me to continue with this research and write this essay.
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