Power games on the silver screen

Researcher identifies reflections of political and economic interests in newsreels from the developmentalist era

The feira do candango...

Imagem: ReproductionThe feira do candangoImagem: Reproduction

From the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s, every time a Brazilian went to see a feature-length foreign film they also had the opportunity to watch a compilation of current events known as the cinejornal or “newsreel.” According to researcher Rodrigo Archangelo of the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo, (repository of an immense collection of motion picture images), newsreels represent almost half of all that was filmed in Brazil until production was eventually ceased. They account for more than 13,000 of the 40, 000 titles listed at the Cinemateca, plus an estimated volume of additional collections not yet incorporated into its database.

“Newsreels are a very important historical source that has never received proper attention,” says Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, a professor in the History Department of the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and Archangelo’s advisor in his master’s and doctoral research efforts. In those studies, the researcher revealed the signs of power games involving top-level politicians, among them presidents Juscelino Kubitschek, Jânio Quadros, and João Goulart.

...Governor Cid Sampaio with Senator Ted Kennedy...

Imagem: Reproduction…Governor Cid Sampaio with Senator Ted Kennedy…Imagem: Reproduction

Newsreels were constantly produced because of laws that made it mandatory that “a national complement” be exhibited as part of every session at which the main attraction was a foreign film. The prescribed space was intended to be filled with short-subject films of any sort, but news quickly became the main course for various reasons—among them their relatively low cost and their usefulness as propaganda for political and economic interests. The demand for newsreels also arose at a time when production companies needed a way to exercise their craft and keep themselves in business. “They guaranteed a steady stream of revenue and gave technicians plenty of practice that would be useful in making fiction films, which was the key goal,” says Eduardo Morettin, a professor at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA).

Studies by Archangelo, who started as an intern at the Cinemateca and is now a researcher in its Documentation and Research Center, combine investigation of the newsreel content with verification of the condition of the material archived at the institution. The low number of historical studies conducted on the subject of newsreels in Brazil is due to the difficulties involved in accessing and preserving any kind of filmed material—plus the immediacy with which the producers themselves treated them. Deterioration of negatives and copies, difficulties in storing them, shortages of labor for cataloging and funds for restoring them, along with lengthy court disputes are some of the obstacles that have hindered access by researchers.

...President João Goulart with the military...

Imagem: Reproduction…President João Goulart with the military…Imagem: Reproduction

However, the Cinemateca does hold records covering at least half a century of Brazilian history, including the images of governing officials that the officials themselves wanted to transmit for posterity. The propaganda potential of newsreels was perceived early on by political leaders, well before the law that required their screening. In the early 1920s, São Paulo governor and future president of Brazil, Washington Luís, placed orders with pioneer film director Gilberto Rossi for production of motion picture news reports. Another paulista politician—mayor and governor Adhemar de Barros—and his image as promoted by the official newsreel Bandeirante da tela (Pioneer of the Screen) (1947-1956) were the subjects of Archangelo’s master’s thesis and are being published in a book by publisher Alameda under the title Um bandeirante nas telas: o discurso adhemarista em cinejornais (A pioneer on the screens: Adhemar’s use of newsreels). In that case, the collection was small, with many kinds of gaps, but it had been relatively well preserved, mainly because it arrived at the Cinemateca promptly (in the early 1970s), and the researcher was therefore able to accomplish his intention, which was to analyze the way that Adhemar de Barros was presented in his “ritual of power”—a phrase coined by critic and professor Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, founder of the Cinemateca Brasileira, to refer to the image of public figures as portrayed in the cavação (paid propaganda) films in the early days of cinema in Brazil.

In his doctoral dissertation, Archangelo did unprecedented research into the newsreels Notícias da semana (News of the Week) and Atualidades Atlântida (Atlântida Current Events). These have been stored at the Cinemateca since 2009 and were produced by the Severiano Ribeiro Group (GSR), which was very active in the distribution and exhibition of motion pictures. The researcher studied the period from 1956 to 1961. In addition to analyzing the ritualism that surrounded presidents Kubitschek, Quadros, and Goulart, the study addressed the way in which GSR worked the newsreel so as to give visibility to public figures and organizations that represented its interests as distributor and exhibitor. “Behind the scenes we see the producer’s choices of best political and economic opportunities at the height of the developmentalist-nationalist period as well as the exhaustion of these opportunities and how the decision-making forces were rearranged in 1961,” says Archangelo.

...and Carlos Lacerda at a reception: conservative agendas

Imagem: Reproduction…and Carlos Lacerda at a reception: conservative agendasImagem: Reproduction

The GSR newsreels exhibit similarities with the Cine Jornal Brasileiro (Brazilian Newsreel) produced by the Press and Propaganda Department (DIP) under the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship—now one of the best-known collections among those archived at the Cinemateca because they were also the best preserved. “The presence of Juscelino Kubitschek in the newsreels reminds us of the Estado Novo (term used to refer to the Getúlio Vargas regime 1937-1945)—the image of a country and a national hero marching toward modernity and economic emancipation,” Carneiro observes. “Although produced by private enterprise, the GSR newsreels deal with the ritualism of the presidential agenda in a manner similar to that of the newsreels of the Getúlio years,” Archangelo adds. The presentation gained credibility from the presence of Herón Domingues as announcer. His famous voice commanded the radio program Esso Reporter and he would be called upon to narrate the inauguration of the new capital city of Brasília as leader of a pool of radio broadcasters, radio being the media that best covered Brazil at the time.

The United States and its culture were prominently featured in the newsreels produced by GSR. As distributor and exhibitor, the group needed to maintain good relations with Hollywood, which at the time maintained an “ambassador” (what we would now call a “lobbyist”) in Brazil, Harry Stone—representative of the Motion Picture Association of America. “In the context of an ambition to achieve modernity, GSR covered the openings of new factories and emphasized the presence of international guests as well as its own president, Luiz Severiano Ribeiro Jr., at the official festivities associated with the inauguration of the new capital,” Archangelo says. The activities of the Commercial Association of Rio de Janeiro, whose directors were referred to as “producer classes” were regularly covered by film journalists. And Carlos Lacerda, governor of the state of Guanabara (later incorporated into Rio de Janeiro State) from 1961 to 1965, one of the leading opponents of João Goulart, began to appear more and more frequently at the end of the period studied. “GSR arranged for cameramen to accompany Lacerda on a trip to Miami, where he spoke with Cuban families who had fled communism,” the researcher recalls.

Copies and negatives of films marked by time

Imagem: Eduardo CESARCopies and negatives of films marked by timeImagem: Eduardo CESAR

The populist element, in contrast, was seldom documented. “Coverage of the inauguration of the Volkswagen factory never showed the workers, and at the inauguration of Brasília a parade of candangos (Brasília construction workers) was mentioned, but no pictures were shown,” Archangelo says. A report about the feira do candango in which it was said that residents of Brasília’s satellite cities suffered from a lack of transportation to do grocery shopping in the new capital depicts the event as mere folklore. According to the researcher, the expropriation of the Galileia sugar mill in Pernambuco was portrayed as a concession by conservative governor Cid Sampaio without mentioning that the action followed an intense mobilization of farmers affiliated with the Peasant Leagues.

To research the content of the two series of GSR newsreels, Archangelo used as guide the written documentation that accompanies the filmed material in the Cinemateca archives. Those papers include scripts and weekly layouts of topics to be covered. The unpleasant surprises came when these were compared with the content of the film cans. A lot of the material requested by documentarians—during the years before they came to be stored at the Cinemateca—had simply been cut out and removed from the rolls of negatives. “I had a puzzle to put together,” says Archangelo.

Research in the field of cinema requires that kind of immersion. “Every historian needs to see the original material in order to verify its authenticity and figure out whether images may have been grafted on, for example,” says José Inacio Melo Souza, one of the pioneers in newsreel research. Archangelo’s work got down to the basic elements (photograms of the films and snapshots of the small amount of material that had already been digitized). “I worked from frame to frame, captured the images and saved them in electronic file folders,” he says. The work resulted in approximately 15,000 captured images and about 60 pages of discards, a procedure required by law for destruction of material that is no longer useable.

Images of the nation: Politics and prosperity in the newsreels News of the Week and Atlântida Current Events (1956-1961): Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Regular – Doctoral; Principal Investigator Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro (FFLCH-USP); Grant Recipient Rodrigo Archangelo (FFLCH-USP); Investment R$147,778.30.