The new prominence of documentary films seems to be an almost universal phenomenon within world cinema. But in each country, the specificity of national-historical experience necessarily imprints its own character on the form. In Brazil, the contemporary documentary movement cannot be understood without reference to the highly political film-making of the early 1960s, a time when direct-sound techniques were becoming a central device in the cinéma vérité of Jean Rouch, or the ‘direct cinema’ of Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and the Maysles Brothers. For Brazilian documentary makers, the synchronized capture of sound and image permitted the presence of popular voices, mainly of peasants and migrant workers, in a cinema deeply concerned with power relations and people’s living conditions.footnote1 Already in the mid 50s, the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos had pointed the way towards following the example of Italian neo-realism and making movies in the streets.

The pioneering directors of 1960s Cinema Novo—Glauber Rocha, Paulo César Saraceni, Leon Hirszman, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Carlos Diegues—to whom Pereira dos Santos was a ‘cultural godfather’, spoke of incorporating the devices of documentary into fiction films—‘a camera and an idea’ were all that was needed, according to Rocha—as well as making documentaries themselves. The necessity of human and social transformation informed the aesthetic logic of their work: Linduarte Noronha’s documentary Aruanda (1959–60), on the outlook of slave descendants in Paraíba, for example, or Leon Hirszman’s Maioria absoluta (1964), on illiteracy among peasants and work exploitation in the Brazilian countryside. Young film-makers from the Centro Popular de Cultura, including Eduardo Coutinho, developed radical collaborative projects with workers and peasants.

The military dictatorship of 1964–84 did not put a complete halt to radical film-making in Brazil, but it constituted a significant rupture. The initial response of many Cinema Novo directors to the new conditions was a shift to fiction films as a locus for political debate, centring particularly on the position of intellectuals.footnote2 As the repression sharpened after 1968, some film-makers went into exile; others were engaged in making less controversial films in popular genres, not least for tv; political concerns tended to be expressed allegorically, through literary adaptations or historical fictions. Despite the regime pressure, however, documentaries recovered their political élan in the late 1970s: some powerful films were made about the labour movement in the industrialized suburbs of São Paulo, which became a central focus of resistance to the regime and would have a decisive long-term effect on Brazilian political life.footnote3 This new impulse strengthened in the early 1980s, just as the country itself was emerging from dictatorship. Film-makers from the long-suppressed left set out to portray what Brazil had become during the twenty years of military rule. Their contributions became part of the complex process of the country’s rediscovery and remaking of itself; a process in which the Workers’ Party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (pt), would play a crucial, evolving role. A vital concern for Brazilian documentary makers, then, has been to explore ways of listening, in a visual medium. The interview—of which Coutinho, undoubtedly the central figure of the new documentary movement, is a master—has been a major strategic resource.

Under Brazil’s so-called New Republic, inaugurated in 1985, the work of a younger generation, itself engaged in a productive dialogue with the 1960s, has interacted with that of film-makers like Coutinho.footnote4 New technologies—video and, more recently, digital cameras—have altered not only the economics of documentary-making but also the style of shooting, and the ways in which recorded images are juxtaposed in the editing process. But they have not eliminated decisive aesthetic features of the documentary: the film-maker’s shaping of the ‘scene’, for example, or the camera-effect, by which the presence of the lens itself alters the field in which it operates, lending a new dimension to events that take place before it—including during interviews, sometimes eliciting or provoking a theatrical response.

Though usually under-funded, the independent documentary must operate within a highly sophisticated visual field. In the 1980s, the new Brazilian documentary movement emerged within a society already saturated with tv: the military had showered resources on the television companies, which streamed highly coloured representations of a supposed ‘Great Brazil’ created by the ‘economic miracle’—the official term for intensified working-class exploitation under conservative modernization. As subjects, therefore, media-savvy Brazilians have always been ready to challenge the terms of the documentary—to question the film-makers’ intentions, or their access to national tv and Hollywood; and to reflect upon their own representations on screen. In what follows, I will look at six outstanding documentaries, from the thousand-plus produced in Brazil over the past few decades. I will conclude by contrasting the achievements of the new documentary movement, firstly with the Cinema Novo films of the 1960s and, secondly, with Brazil’s international blockbusters—movies such as Central Station, Elite Squad, Carandiru, City of God.

Two films from the early 1980s encapsulate the process by which, in Roberto Schwarz’s words, ‘committed cinema and the popular struggle come back into the open together’.footnote5 The first is Coutinho’s Cabra marcado para morrer of 1984.footnote6 The unforgettable opening sequence of this seminal work stages, literally and cinematographically, the ongoing re-emergence of the new Brazilian documentary from the darkness of the dictatorship years. A long-shot establishes, in silence, a twilit rural landscape; a small light flickers on, against the blackness of a hillside. Its source is a film-projector: Coutinho and his colleagues are setting up an outdoor screening for the villagers of the black-and-white rushes that they had filmed, with the local people as actors and participants, twenty years before. Back then, Coutinho had worked with the comrades and widow of João Pedro Teixeira, a northeastern peasant leader assassinated by local landowners. The film, provisionally entitled ‘A Man Marked Out to Die’, aimed to reconstruct Teixeira’s struggle as a means to continue the peasants’ fight. The shooting of the film was interrupted by the security forces at the time of the 1964 military coup. Peasant activists involved in the project were arrested and tortured, or fled into hiding. Some of the reels disappeared. Now, in 1983—with military rule starting to give way to limited representative government—Coutinho has come back to show the surviving footage to the villagers and find out what had become of them, and therefore of Brazil.

At the impromptu outdoor screening, Coutinho and his small team film—in colour—the villagers’ noisy and appreciative viewing of their 1964 performances. The images trigger the peasants’ memories: their words become voice-overs to the old footage, a present-day soundtrack reflecting on a collective past. The film-maker thus resumes his unfinished work, inscribing in the new documentary the rushes that the security forces had tried to destroy. With the military coup, Teixeira’s family had been split up. His widow Elizabeth—first seen, black-clad, with her six children in old newsreel footage of the huge demonstration at his funeral—had gone into hiding, working as a primary-school teacher in a distant village, under an assumed name. The children had been scattered across the country; the oldest girl had committed suicide after her father was killed. Twenty Years After takes on the structure of a documentary quest, as the film-makers seek out first the indomitable Elizabeth and then her surviving children, whose fates mirror that of the Brazilian working class. One daughter, now a Rio bar hostess, is in tears at the sight of the old photographs. A tight-lipped son, working as a security guard on a modern industrial estate, will say nothing to the camera. Another daughter, baby in arms, has married into the middle class and does not want to talk about her communist parents. The middle son, sent to Cuba by friends to train as a doctor, speaks with restrained dignity of his father’s role. Their reactions to Coutinho’s camera speak volumes about the changes the country has undergone.