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Brazil a Global Force in Documentary? It's All True

By Betsy McLane

From Marilia Rocha's 'Aboio' winner of the Brazilian Feature competition at the It's All True International Documentary Film Festival in Brazil. Courtesy of It's All True International Documentary Film Festival

In North America, conversations about Brazil might center, depending upon one's particular bent, on the beauty of the beaches and the jungles of the Amazon; the merits of the national cocktail, the Caipirinha, and the bacchanal of Carnival; or the poverty in the big city favelas and the environmental destruction caused by gold mining and logging. These images are all true of Brazil, but there is more. This is a very large nation that encompasses a teeming diversity, much of which is unknown outside its borders.

Included among the treasures of Brazil is one of the liveliest contemporary documentary scenes in the Western Hemisphere. There is also a long, if not always consistent, tradition of documentary production in Brazil that deserves further exploration.

For now, and for non-Brazilians, much of the credit for introducing the world to his country's current documentary vigor goes to Amir Labakicritic, government advisor, founder and director of É Tudo Verdade, the It's All True International Documentary Film Festival ( There have been recent individual international Brazilian triumphs, like Bus 174 by Jose Padilha and Marcos Prado. The works of Eduardo Coutinho (Edificio Master) and Walter Carvalho (Janela Da Alma) have also been seen widely in Europe if not North America, but It's All True, which celebrated its tenth year last April, offers a broad panoply of the Brazilian documentary scene.

With numerous venues, the festival is as sprawling as its home city, São Paulo. It also travels to Rio di Janeiro and to the capital Brasilia, but its heart is found amid the muggy, traffic-clogged streets and high-rises of this, the world's third largest city. This is a competitive festival with two juriesone international, the other for Brazilian productions. This year, 15 films competed for the international award; of them only one, Bush's Brain by Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob, was from the US (Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, also a US/EU co-production, was the opening night film), and only one, Aboio (Cattle Callers) by Marllia Rocha, the winner of the Brazilian Feature competition, was indigenous. The Jury Prize went to the Swedish film Rehearsals (Repetitoner) by Michal Leszczylowski, in which playwright Lars NorEn writes and directs a play for and with prison inmates. The jury also awarded a special commendation prize to Sean MacAllister's The Liberace of Baghdad.

Of the 130 films shown, 72 were Brazilian. Audiences in São Paulo turned out for the international competition and other showcases, but their real enthusiasm was for the Brazilian work. One problem for non-Portuguese speakers was the lack of English subtitles on many of the films, but the most engrossing documentaries succeeded despite this. Typical of such success was Trojan Horse Operation (Operacao Cavalo De Troia), a short by Laura Faerman, Axel Weisz and Thiago Boas about two suburban boys trying to crash a rave party. Even a local political feature, Lust of Power (Vocacao Do Poder), made its points, sometimes complex and parochial, without translation. In a modified vérité style, the film follows six first-time candidates, including a female evangelical and a black rapper, running for city council in Rio.

As befits a ten-year anniversary, there was a retrospective of past festival winners, offering a chance to see highlights of recent Brazilian production. One of these was the short In The Doghouse (Casa De Cachorro) by Thiago Villas Boas. This charming film reveals much about the soul of São Paulo simply by showing life. Of the tens of thousands of homeless in the city, a few have turned to the manufacture of cheap lumber doghouses, which they nail together and sell in the underpass of a superhighway. Customers stop to dicker over the purchase price, and the people making them take great pride in their self-taught craft. An edict from City Hall dictates the demolition of the squatter's industry, and the filmmakers capture their frustration and despair.

Another section of It's All True was devoted to the work of DOCTV, a national initiative to put documentaries on television. DOCTV is a co-project of the Ministry of Culture, TV Cultura, the Brazilian Association of Public, Educational and Cultural Broadcasting Companies, and is supported by the Brazilian Documentary Filmmakers Association. DOCTV has aired three series of films in 27 of Brazil 's states. There also has been a modest television documentary pitching market held in Rio called "Brasil Documenta," which is not connected to the festival. Documentaries in Brazil, as in most of the world, find their largest audiences on television.

The theatrical release of Brazilian films is not large, with the small number of cinemas being concentrated in only the major cities. However, the work of Adhemer Oliveira in creating an art-house chain of theaters, which can project digital work, has been important to recent growth. According to Labaki, prior to 1993 about 25 to 30 Brazilian documentaries were produced each year. By 2002, that number increased to nearly 400. Many of these do find their way into the few art theaters, where audiences and critics treat them as cinema on the same level as fiction films.

Still, the best showcase for documentaries, old and new, Brazilian and foreign, is It's All True. It is named, of course, for Orson Welles' ill-fated Brazilian film so poignantly documented in Myron Meisel's 1993 film of the same name. For the past five years, a serious academic conference on documentary has paralleled the festival. Organized by Professor Maria Dora G. Mourao of the Department of Cinema, Radio and Television of the University of São Paulo, the conference has been attended by documentary academicians such as Michael Renov and Henry Breitrose as well as the top Brazilian film teachers. This year's theme was "Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité: Trends and Devices of the Documentary in the Digital Age." There are several university-level film programs in Brazil, and the student turnout for the conference and the festival was enthusiastic.

This year festival-goers were also treated to special screenings of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's The Staircase; the Spanish compilation Madrid 11th March, We Were All on That Train; Marina Goldovskaya's The Prince Is Back; an homage to Fernando Birri, the founder of the International Film and TV School in Cuba; and the first Latin American retrospective of the work of cinéma vérité legend Robert Drew. Playfully titled "It's All Drew," the program pulled together the classics Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, along with rarely seen work such as Yanqui No! and StormSignal. None of the films had ever screened in Brazil, and the presence of Drew resulted in packed theaters and provoked lively discussion. The retrospective also included his latest film, made with wife Anne Drew, the autobiographical Two Men and a War.

Brazil is a force to be reckoned with. It is a Western Hemisphere nation that never experienced a revolutionary war and is now run by the Progressive forces of the "Lula" government. It is a state built on Catholic Church doctrine by African slaves and Japanese, Italian and German immigrants, and it is a land of vast and threatened natural resources. It may even hold the key to the world's survival in its fight to preserve the rainforest with high-tech military satellite surveillance.

Brazilian documentarians are also a force. They are being trained and inspired in increasing numbers to deal with their country's contradictions, and there is no better way to experience their dynamism than to partake of It's All True.


Betsy A. McLane served as IDA's executive director from 1991 to 2000.