In Brazilian history, the years between 1956 and 1964 stand out as a period of intensification and acceleration: quick industrialisation and exodus to urban areas, a boom in the internal consumer market, the modernisation of life and customs, inventiveness and daring in music (bossa nova) architecture (Niemeyer’s Brasilia being the most famous example), poetry (concretism), visual arts (neoconcretism, conceptualism). These transformations translated into rising tensions that would reach boiling point in a rising tide of mobilisation in demand of an ambitious programme of large-scale economic and political re-structuring of the country, contained by force with the 1964 military coup, which resulted in a twenty-year dictatorship.
Throughout this period, the question of the relations between politics, poetics and popular education, the role of the cultural producer, the vanguard-popular-mass culture nexus, were absolutely central to the cultural and political debate, animating a rich culture that generated solutions as varied as Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, Liberation Theology, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, tropicalismo, Helio Oiticica’s, Lygia Clark’s and Lygia Pape’s researches, cinema novo, and many others.
‘Stronger are the powers of the people’, a programme of films and debates curated and presented by Brazilian philosopher and artist Rodrigo Nunes, seeks to clarify the common background to all of these. It does so by using Brazilian films from 1962 to 1979 as ‘monuments’ whose animating forces can be put again into play to understand how the problems posed by the period are expressed in the aesthetic and political choices of filmmakers. In particular, it chooses one of the most neglected experiences of that time – the Popular Culture Centres (CPCs) – as a central node of the practical and theoretical articulation of these debates. With this, the programme addresses them not only in their historical situatedness, but above all in relation to those problems that animate artistic and political practice in the present, when so much is made of the intersections between politics, art, and pedagogy, and there is a growing interest in recovering past experiences of this convergence – above all, from the 1960s, and increasingly, from peripheral countries such as Brazil. What can the problems of those years teach us regarding what we are or would like to be doing today?
This project is supported by the Brazilian embassy in London. Rodrigo Nunes is a Brazilian philosopher, artist and political activist, with a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the University of East London. Texts by him, on philosophy, politics and art, have appeared in periodicals such as Ephemera (www.ephemeraweb.org), Transform (www.eipcp.net), Mute (www.metamute.org); he co-edited a special issue of Ephemera on immaterial and affective labour, and is currently collaborating with Kodwo Eshun and Ros Gray on a forthcoming special issue of Third Text, for which he has written an essay on Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha and translated three of the latter’s texts. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of Turbulence – Ideas for movement (www.turbulence.org.uk).
Friday, December 4th
6.30pm – Opening talk: ‘Stronger are the powers of the people’ (45 minutes)
7.15pm - Screening of Cinco vezes favela (Five times favela), various, 1962, 92 min
8.45-9.45pm - Facilitated Discussion
Saturday, December 5th
2pm - Introductory talk
2.15pm - Screening of Os Fuzis (The guns), Ruy Guerra, 1964, 80min
3.45pm - Facilitated discussion
5pm - Break
5.30pm – Introductory talk
5.45pm - Screening of Terra em transe (Land in anguish), Glauber Rocha, 1967, 106
7.25pm - Facilitated discussion
9pm – End of day
Sunday, December 6th
2pm – Introductory talk
2.15pm – Screening of O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (Antônio das Mortes), Glauber Rocha, 1969, 110 min
4pm – Facilitated discussion
5pm – Break
5.30pm – Introductory talk
5.45pm - Screening of A Queda (The Fall), Ruy Guerra, 1976, 120 min
7.45 – Facilitated discussion
8.30 – Screening of ABC da greve (The ABC of the strike), Leon Hirszman, 1979-90, 85 min
10pm – End of day
Cinco vezes favela (Five times favela), various authors, 1962
The only film the Popular Culture Centre (CPC) brought to completion, it comprises five episodes directed by Miguel Borges, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Caca Diegues, Marcos Farias and Leon Hirszman, and was responsible for a split between the CPC and the cinema novo group. Some of the key figures in the CPC reportedly considered the film both a commercial and a political flop, and filmmakers such as Diegues and Arnaldo Jabor (though not Hirszman) left after decrying a narrow, instrumental conception of the relation between aesthetics and politics. With a cast including many of Augusto Boal’s colleagues from Teatro de Arena (and, most notably, CPC founder Oduvaldo Viana Filho), it captures a group of young filmmakers grappling with the same problems – how to create a form adequate to the specificity of Brazilian content? How to do so in a way that reaches beyond a middle-class audience, and plays a role in the transformation of Brazilian society from below? What is popular culture, and how must the artist deal with it? – while working through a host of influences, from Russian revolutionary cinema to neo-realism. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Couro de gato (Cat skin was included in a list of the 100 best shorts of all times selected by the Clermont-Ferrand Festival.
Os Fuzis (The guns), Ruy Guerra, 1964
One of the greatest achievements of the first crop of cinema novo – alongside Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Vidas secas (Barren lives) and Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God White Devil) (1964) –, it showcases many of the period’s defining traits: the rural Northeastern setting, the use of location, natural light and non-professional actors. At the same time, in its plot about the existential and moral crises undergone by a group of soldiers sent to a small town to stop the starving victims of the draught from attacking a food warehouse, it provides in arguably the clearest way the keys to reading some of the political limitations of cinema novo at this stage. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival.
Terra em transe (Land in anguish), Glauber Rocha, 1967
Part roman à clef about the Joao Goulart government and the 1964 military coup, part schematic description of the dynamics of the post-colonial world, part baroque allegory about the destiny of Latin America, part gauntlet thrown at the right and left of post- coup Brazil: one of Rocha’s most celebrated films, it finds the effects of his ‘epic-didactic’ cinema all the more effective because its target is much clearer. A whole generation at a crossroads appears in the vacillations of the main character, his multiple allegiances to social transformation and to his own class, to aesthetics and to politics, to utopia, the heat of the struggle, and his professional situation as a hired pen; the choice for armed struggle, which the film suggests in ambiguous fashion, was already brewing as it was produced. Nominated to the Palme d’Or at Cannes, best film at the Havana Film Festival.
O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (Antônio das Mortes), Glauber Rocha, 1969
Rocha’s first international co-production, first film in colour, and first using direct sound. He would often refer to it as ‘my western’, but, despite some nods at John Ford and Howard Hawks, it is clear that the oeuvre in question here is above all his own. Like a revision of his two earlier films that relaunches its questions, but also seems to run out of answers, it already points towards some of the procedures (such as the long, semi-improvised takes) that would characterise his work in the exile that immediately follows it. The plot finds Antônio das Mortes, the gunman hired by landowners to kill cangaceiros (highwaymen), brought out of retirement for one last job which, once executed, causes him to question the side on which he has fought over the years. Won best director and a nomination to the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
A Queda (The Fall), Ruy Guerra, 1976
An accident at a construction site, resulting in one death, sets one worker off on a struggle for justice that exposes the mechanisms of exploitation and the class relations of a country that had undergone one decade of fast-paced ‘conservative modernisation’ at the hands of the military. As a sort of sequel to the classic The Guns (1964), following the fate of those characters as they move from enforcers of exploitation to exploited, it offers more than a snapshot of the period: the correspondent time lapses in fiction and reality capture the passage of a chunk of Brazilian history between the two films, and, therefore, also the transformations in cinematographic approaches to the social and political between the two moments. Equally daring in content and form, and in the originality of the
adequacy of one to the other, it won the Silver Bear at Berlin.
ABC da greve (ABC of the strike), Leon Hirszman, 1979-91
While preparing the cinema version of groundbreaking 1957 Teatro de Arena play Eles não usam black tie on location in the ABC (the auto industry belt around São Paulo), Hirszman has the opportunity to document the most powerful strikes in over a decade of Brazilian history. The latter would become a catalyst and a convergence point for the opposition to the military regime, intellectuals, artists, returning exiles, eventually leading to the creation of the Worker’s Party – whose biggest leader, Lula, was the president of the metalworkers union who led the strikes. Running into problems with the regime’s censorship because of the material, Hirszman dies in 1987 leaving the film unfinished until 1991, when his two daughters and son eventually release a final cut. The narration and text are provided by Ferreira Gullar, poet, who was president of the CPC at the time of the military coup.
Context (Study Notes)
In Brazilian history, the years between 1956 and 1964 stand out as a period of intensification and acceleration. Quick industrialisation and exodus to urban areas, a boom in the internal consumer market, the modernisation of life and customs – that decade seemed to live up to the slogan of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency (1956-1961): ‘fifty years in five’. Years of optimism and trust in Brazil’s destiny as ‘the country of the future’ (o país do futuro) – which also correspond to Brazil’s first two world victories in football, as well as basketball and tennis... –, they would of course also find new expressions in the field of art.
The combination of a samba beat, jazz harmonies and unemotional singing and lyrics of bossa nova marked a break between a university-educated, internationally-minded young generation, with the overtly dramatic and conservative musical styles favoured by an earlier generation. The development
of graphic design and advertising found echoes in the formal researches of the concrete poetry of the Campos brothers and others. Concretism and neoconcretism, in poetry and visual arts, were not only arguably the first case of an international avant-garde originated in the world’s periphery, but also the starting point for later much celebrated artists such as Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape. What seemed to be the combination of a unique ‘Brazilian character’ and intensive modernisation finds a perfect epitome in the new capital Brasília, inaugurated by Kubitschek in 1960, where former Le Corbusier acolyte Oscar Niemeyer brings new suppleness and malleability to the modernist vernacular.
Such an unleashing of productive forces would not leave the political field untouched: the transformations taking place translated not only in the growing economic and political weight of the urban proletariat, an increase in peasant organisation in the countryside, and a rising tide of mobilisation that also involved lower middle-class and intellectual strata in demand of ‘groundwork reforms’ (reformas de base) – an ambitious programme that would amount to a largescale economic and political re-structuring of the country in order to respond both to the furious pace of modernisation and the rising pressure from below.
These tensions would reach boiling point during the presidency (1961-1964), and would be contained by force with the 1964 military coup. The period being examined here corresponds roughly to the three moments of ascension, interruption, and recuperation of this transformative drive, by looking at the ways in which Brazilian cinema between 1962 and 1985 tells a (both direct and indirect) history of these times, and articulates a language and poetics around their different problems, demands, and political conjunctures. In particular, the aim is to uncover a little-known history of aesthetico-political debates on art at the crossroads of poverty, reform, revolution, participation, market and imperialism; the construction of a ‘national-popular’ imaginary; and the adequation between content, form and the mechanisms of production and distribution of art when its political role is at stake.
The first period covers 1957-1962. Theatre was the first art to directly respond both to the call for political intervention and to the need to address Brazilian reality in its specificity, and it was São Paulo’s Teatro de Arena (the Arena Theatre, where a young Augusto Boal started his directorial career) that spearheaded a turn towards the valorisation of contemporary Brazilian playwrights and themes, a refusal of the Europeanised, bourgeois mise en scène of classical theatre, and a search for a popular public. The company’s greatest hit was 1957’s Eles não usam black tie (They don’t wear black tie), about the new industrial proletariat. The eventual incapacity to develop a language and a way of going beyond the physical space of the theatre and towards the people, however, led some key members of Teatro de Arena to leave and start the Centro Popular de Cultura in 1961.
The first CPC, based in Rio de Janeiro in partnership with the National Students’ Union, quickly diversifies into several fields – street theatre, poetry, music, publications (with its own national network of distribution) – and becomes replicated all over the country; something that is enhanced from 1962 on, as the CPC and the National Students’ Union start doing nationwide caravans. Apart from any concrete final products of this rich experience, it is important to recover its very concrete debates on aesthetics, politics and the mechanisms of production and distribution, as well as the effective practices that it managed to put into place. The only film the CPC managed to bring to completion was the collective Cinco vezes favela (Five times favela). Some of its solutions to the questions of how to bring together politics and aesthetics are shared with Glauber Rocha’s first feature, Barravento, shot around the same time, and with Ruy Guerra’s early classic, Os Fuzis (The guns), from 1964. A second CPC film, Eduardo Coutinho’s Cabra marcado para morrer (Man set to die), the story of an assassinated peasant leader featuring an all-peasant cast, has its shooting interrupted by the military coup.
The second period runs between the instauration of the dictatorship in 1964 and the Institutional Act Five, which, in 1968, eliminates basic legal guarantees and ushers in the darkest years of repression. In this period, Glauber Rocha had already established himself as one of the most perceptive commentators on the aesthetic impasses set to Brazilian and world cinema, and the political impasse of his generation. Terra em transe (Land in anguish) is an allegorical recasting of the previous years of Brazilian history set in an imaginary Latin American country, whose main character – a poet – unambiguously embodies the problematic relation between art and politics in that conjuncture. O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (Antônio das Mortes), while returning to the rural setting and to one of the main characters of 1963’s Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (God and the Devil in the land of the sun; also known as Black God, white Devil), forms a thematic diptych with Terra em transe, and marks the passage in his theoretical elaboration from an ‘aesthetics of hunger’ to ‘a dream aesthetics’, as well as his response to Tropicalismo. It is his last film to be produced in Brazil until 1980’s A idade da terra (The age of the earth), released less than a year before his premature death.
The third period goes from when the thaw of the military regime has already begun, in 1976, to the first year of the first (indirectly elected) civilian government that followed it. Ruy Guerra’s A Queda (The Fall) radicalises the formal experimentation of early cinema novo while trying to capture the transformations of the period of economic expansion presided over by the military (the ‘Brazilian miracle’ of the early 1970s) by following the characters of Os Fuzis into impoverished urban lives as construction workers. Leon Hirszman, who had been responsible for the cinema sector of the Rio de Janeiro CPC, goes to the auto industry belt in the metropolitan region of São Paulo in order to shoot an updated version of Eles não usam black tie among the metalworkers who, at this point, have organised an independent trade union – and ends up documenting their epoch-making strike, led by a charismatic leader named Lula, who would become president in 2002. In 1984, Eduardo Coutinho decides to recover the project of Cabra marcado para morrer, and tracks down the peasants who had worked on the film to discover what had become of their lives in those two decades that separated them from the palpable promise of a new country that had been denied to them. In the meantime, the original project of cinema novo has become institutionalised with the creation of Embrafilme, a state-owned cinema production company, and developed a national market.