Documenta Brazil 2008: Rhythms of Brasilidade


A still from “Jogo de Cena” (Playing) 2007 by Eduardo Coutinho. Coutinho ‘interviews’ actress Fernanda Torres in a fake ‘audition.’

A still from “Jogo de Cena” (Playing) 2007 by Eduardo Coutinho. Coutinho ‘interviews’ actress Fernanda Torres in a fake ‘audition.’

What does it say when one of the filmmakers featured at a documentary film festival is 40 minutes late for his scheduled round-table event? True, it’s Friday night in New York, and it’s storming out. True, Brazilians have a more elastic sense of time, and the filmmaker had just arrived from Brazil. Maybe he had gone to some other event that had run late?

“I’d like to say I went to see a wonderful film from Estonia or Mongolia,” said a sheepish João Moreira Salles when at last he took his seat in the already-started panel. “But I did not. I went to see James Bond.”

So went the second day of Documenta Brazil, a documentary film festival hosted at the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University that featured 23 well-chosen films from 21 contemporary Brazilian filmmakers. Humor and a little bit of the absurd permeated the serious event–—which included several catered receptions, live music, and a keynote address by a prominent Brazilian critic and intellectual, José Miguel Wisnik (also an accomplished composer, pianist, and singer).

The crowd was a refreshing blend of students, academics, neighborhood residents, Brazilophiles, Brazilians and friends of the festival. Though people dressed in jeans, sweaters, and parkas, the vibe was elegantly engaged; this audience had a good appreciation of film and culture. For film buffs it was a thrill to mingle with admired filmmakers—João Moreira Salles and Sandra Kogut—who had accompanied their films to the six-day festival.

Having already seen Salles’ latest documentary Santiago in Boston last winter, and Carlos Diegues and Rafael Draguad’s AfroReggae: No Motive Explains War (AfroReggae: Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra) at MoMA’s Brazilian film festival in 2007, I was curious to see a broader range of Brazilian documentaries, and what—if anything—filmmakers were addressing outside of the well-documented, almost cliché subjects of Brazilian cinema—life in the slums, police corruption, and hard times in the rural northeast.

Friday’s discussion included Salles, Kogut, Lincoln Center Film Festival director Richard Peña, and two academics—Luz Horne from Princeton, and the moderator Edgardo Diekele.

Kogut emphasized, “Brazilian filmmakers know what’s expected from Brazil is violence and misery—they know people want to see the big issues, but this is changing.”

Salles added that the best Brazilian documentary filmmaking is increasingly not just about its subject, but also about the “grammar” of film, or what the film also says about filmmaking. Diekele held up three examples: Salles’ Santiago (2006), an elusive portrait of his family’s butler; Eduardo Coutinho’s Playing (Jogo de Cena), in which actresses and ordinary women separately recount the women’s tragic stories (2007); and Sandra Kogut’s 2002 documentary The Hungarian Passport (Um Passaporte Húngaro).

Kogut called all three films more subtle stories for Brazil—dot-dot-dots rather than exclamation points. Kogut’s film charts her own quest to receive her Hungarian passport despite overwhelming bureaucratic and cultural obstacles. A Brazilian Jew of Hungarian origins, Kogut is also charting Jewish immigration and Brazil’s early anti-Semitism.

Festival co-director Micaela Kramer, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at NYU, says she got the idea for the festival after being impressed by the work of three prominent filmmakers, João Moreira Salles, Eduardo Coutinho, and Paulo Sacramento. But it took her a year and a half to secure funding, and find a location and a co-director, fellow student Fernando Pérez (“the most Brazilian Chilean I know!” says Kramer).

The project gained momentum after the pair received their first grant, and after the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center showed an interest in hosting the festival.

While most of Documenta Brazil’s films were made before 2000, the oldest—Eduardo Coutinho’s Santa Marta: Two Weeks on the Hill (Santa Marta: Duas Semanas No Morro) from 1987—gave a nod to Coutinho as the father of Brazilian documentary filmmaking. It also contextualized other works in the festival, having been one of the first to document “the open secret” of impoverished life and police harassment in Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Marta slum.

The festival directors thoughtfully paired Coutinho’s film with News from a Personal War (Noticias de Uma Guerra Particular) (1999) by Salles and co-director Katia Lund. This film returns to the same favela 12 years later by which time the drug war, violence, and police brutality had escalated to an absurd point. The Rio chief of police is on film saying the “war” is no longer about the good guys winning—there are no good guys anymore, and no one is going to win.

In spite of this continued emphasis on the horrors of the drug trade, police corruption, and favela life, I was happy that the festival also included documentaries on other subjects such as immigration (to, from, and within Brazil), romance (as older women looked back on their lives in a macho society), teenage pregnancy, folk artists, and Orson Welles’s visit to Rio in 1942. Brazilian music and musicians were well represented with no fewer than five documentaries.

In fact, Documenta Brazil seemed designed to elevate the form of documentary filmmaking from the status of supporting actor in the Brazilian film world to leading man.

“Documentary filmmakers are often asked when they will make their first feature film,” said João Moreira Salles (whose brother, Walter Salles, is a successful feature film maker) with a chuckle. “But no one would ever approach a director such as Ingmar Bergman and say, ‘Okay with the fiction, but when are you going to make your first documentary?’”

“A festival like Documenta Brazil aims at destabilizing such a hierarchy,” agrees co-director Micaela Kramer. “We are showing that documentary films are as interesting as fiction films.”

Richard Peña, Lincoln Center Film Festival director, adds, “This is a new generation of filmmakers. They don’t claim to speak for a nation, but to speak for themselves.”