Nelson Pereira dos Santos

Nelson Pereira dos Santos: An immortal filmmaker

Filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos, director of the masterpiece Barren Lives, talks about his career and life

LEO RAMOSAt the age of 77, filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos displays an agility, lucidity and will to carry on making films that impress those who come close to him for any reason. He gets involved fearlessly in long reflections about the field to which he has been fully dedicated for 50 years, in a serene, elegant tone, but at the same time forthright. Accordingly, for him, the cinema is essentially image and movement, a creation realized technologically and, for that very reason, the new digital technologies represent an enormous contribution to the so-called seventh art. “The problem is that Brazil is still a slaveholding country, which prevents these technologies from being applied. The businessmen who have a thousand movie theatres charge here the same amount as a ticket paid for by a spectator in the United States, which is an absurdity”, he says. And the consequence of this, he winds up, is that millions of Brazilians have never been to the cinema. The current policy is merely to preserve the historically created interests, and hence the problem of the Brazilian distribution of films is not solved, which, in actual fact, “is simple to solve, provided that there is a social commitment of those who are in power”.

Elected last month to the Brazilian Academy of Literature (ABL), which transformed him into the first man from the country’s cinema to enter the venerable House founded by Machado de Assis in 1897, Nelson Pereira is perhaps, so far, the Brazilian filmmaker that has most availed himself of literary works by Brazilian authors to make fine films, and at least one definitive masterpiece of the nation’s cinematography: Vidas secas [Barren Lives]. Graciliano Ramos, Guimarães Rosa, Nelson Rodrigues, Jorge Amado and Machado himself, the Sorcerer of Cosme Velho, submitted to a look marked in certain measure by the neorealist esthetics, have passed gallantly to the screens of the cinema.

Before putting on the uniform, next July, entering the fine mansion in the center of the city Rio de Janeiro, donated to the academy by the French government in 1923, and taking office in chair number 7, which belonged to the ambassador Sergio Corrêa da Costa, who died last year, Nelson Pereira will have on the billboards his most recent film: Brasilia 18%. It is, coincidentally, the 18th of a career that began right away with a radical transgression of the language then current in the Brazilian cinema, by fixing and transfiguring social reality in his first film ‘Rio 40 Graus‘ [Rio 40 Degrees], made almost 50 years ago. On the name of the new film, the filmmaker comments with good humor that, if Federico Fellini could baptize his genial work as Eight and a Half, he also felt himself free to make a reference to the unsupportable low relative humidity of the air in Brasilia.

Born in the city of São Paulo, a doctor honoris causa from the Université Paris X – Nanterre and professor emeritus of the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), Nelson Pereira takes his appointment to the ABL as the recognition that Brazilian cinema has been elevated to the place of “an art equivalent to the art of the most traditional, most ancient, solidified and successful literature”. The new immortal says that he is at ease with maturity and is an assiduous reader and admirer of the American literary critic Frederic Jameson, a Marxist in esthetics. See below some excerpts from the interview he granted Pesquisa Fapesp:

Your most recent film, Brasilia 18%, is also the tenth full-length film of your career. What is the screenplay of this work, and what difficulties did you encounter for filming inside the National Congress?
I arrived in Brasilia to film in August last year, and the humidity was 19% – absolutely unbearable. It is difficult to live with this climate. Children cannot even go to school. Just as Italy’s Federico Fellini (1920-1993) gave the name of Eight and a Half to a film that he made 40 years ago, I too gave myself the right to choosing 18%. Contrary to what many people imagine – of it being a plot about the corruption that was exposed to the light in the capital of the country since last year –, the screenplay of the work is based on the drama of a man desperately in love with a woman and the consequences of this romantic love in the masculine imagination, which are more painful. And there are also the political moves that involved the Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry (CPIs) and make living out the romance difficult. After all, making a film about Brasilia and not talking about a CPI is like filming Rio de Janeiro and not showing samba. Just like Machado de Assis, author of the phrase “polemic bores me”, I even get ill at ease with the hindrances I encountered in the federal capital to film inside the National Congress. The negotiations to obtain authorization lasted two long months. In spite of being a public place and of the credibility of the director, the arguments offered by those responsible were the most simple-minded possible. But, finally, the work is ready and I hope that people like it.

Do you feel like the Brazilian René Clair?
I prefer to think like Leandro Konder [philosopher, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, PUC-RJ], who says that we’d better be vain but forewarned, not taking ourselves very seriously.

You became a friend of maestro Antonio Carlos Brasileiro Jobim through the singer Miúcha, with whom you maintain a long relationship of affection. Your next production is two full-length films about Tom Jobim. How will these two films be divided?
I have the team ready to begin shooting before the end of the year the first full-length film about Tom Jobim, based on the book written by the composer’s sister, Helena Jobim – ‘Antonio Carlos Jobim, An Enlightened Man‘. The screenplay begins in his childhood, passes though his youth, with testimony from his sister and Brazilian and American friends of the maestro, and from various children and grandchildren. The starting point of the narrative is in his youth, with the participation of his first wife, Tereza Jobim, and this first film ends with the presence of his second wife, photographer Ana Lontra Jobim. The second full-length film will be a musical divided into three of the musician’s passions: Rio de Janeiro, women and nature, with recordings from all over the world, and it will be a work of montage. I don’t know how I will do this, but you’ll see it shortly on the screen. It’s a pity that the whole collection of the Manchete Television Network, where I worked during the 1980’s, has vanished. Anthological programs have been lost, like ‘Music according to Tom Jobim, which I directed and which was exhibited in four episodes. Unfortunately, I only have a homemade VHS tape. It’s a pity.

You were one of the founders of the first undergraduate course in cinema in the country, at the University of Brasilia (UnB), in 1965, invited by professors Pompeu de Souza and Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes to set up the Arts and Social Communication Institute. With the new project, you left Niterói and started to live in Brasilia. What was this academic experience in your life like?
The idea was to save the University of Brasilia, founded by the anthropologist and presidential chief of staff of the João Goulart government, Darcy Ribeiro, who was exiled, together with several other professors, by the military coup in 1964. After all, UnB was the most innovative experience in Brazilian university teaching, which until the first five years of the 1960’s was very conservative. I had never thought about being a professor, but I liked the experience and I did a film with the pupils – Fala, Brasilia [Speak, Brasilia]. But the times were difficult, the repression of the military terrible, cruel. With the change of UnB’s rector, the successor dismissed Pompeu de Souza, and 200 professors, in solidarity, left the institution. Of course, I took part in the list. It was a frustrating experience, since we were doing so well with our production. I went back to Niterói, and in those days there was already the Fluminense Federal University. Then we began to negotiate with the rector, physician Manoel Barreto Neto, a courageous, revolutionary man, as I like to be regarded. Together with the intellectuals Zuenir Ventura, Luiz Alberto Sanz and Agar Hespanha, amongst others, we presented the project to the rector, who took it to the congregation, and we were permanently meeting to discuss the implantation of the IACS. Finally, in 1968, the Arts and Social Communication Institute started to be part of UFF. For some time now, the institute’s cinema course has been one of the most respected in the country, just as those in librarianship, archival science, journalism, advertising and cultural production. Today, the main filmmakers and other professionals from Brazil, Europe and the United States are educated by cinema schools and other courses, and that is important. Talent has to be orientated towards a given focus, and the university must do this with the youngsters. I believe in this stuff. I’m retired, but whenever I can, I go to the IACS and do something there. It’s really a passion.

In spite of your liking and believing in university education, the academic life at UFF gave you a headache and you suffered reprisals. You were nearly exonerated from the position of professor. It was the then minister Ney Braga, of Education and Culture, in the government of General Emilio Garrastazu Médici, who, despite the political and ideological divergences, intervened in the situation. What really happened?
It was a completely absurd and authoritarian situation with my peers. I am a doctor and professor of renowned learning, a full professor, admitted by entrance examination, and, as everyone knows, I founded the IACS. In a given period, I spent a month without lessons, because I was recording the film Tenda dos Milagres[Tent of Miracles], an adaptation of a work by Jorge Amado, in 1975, and I had absent myself to do cinema – which I also did with the pupils, and I advised the directors. In those days, the professors would sign the timesheet, and I went 30 days without signing. So a Commission of Inquiry was installed at UFF, and three professors from the law course decided that I ought to be exonerated. A friend of mine and a professor at Fluminense Federal University knew of the case when she was in the office of the Minister of Education and told him about the episode. In a firm and democratic attitude, Ney Braga told me that in no circumstances would I leave UFF. Even so, I was punished and I remained three years without being able to lecture and without receiving my salary. It looks like fiction, but it isn’t.

You were educated as a lawyer by the traditional and well-regarded Law School  of the University of São Paulo (USP), the traditional college in the São Francisco square in the  city of São Paulo . You did not exercise the profession, you starred in the cinema as assistant to the director, also from the city of São Paulo, Rodolfo Nanni, with the film O Saci, was a militant of the Brazilian Communist Party, and afterwards came to Rio de Janeiro, was this route complicated?
Of course, but I didn’t throw the towel in. I have good humor. I did law for family questions in those days, but I didn’t have the slightest talent for the profession. I was a militant in the Brazilian Communist Party until the end of the 1950’s, when the revolution in Hungary happened. The decision to leave the Party was taken, since I considered that there wasn’t a fair and democratic relationship amongst the associates. There was always an authoritarian Stalinist to give orders and who didn’t know how to listen. I can’t stand that. From then onwards, I started to live without the ideological restraints, and I regard myself as a revolutionary who sees all the social blemishes of the country and of the world. I had tried to show this uneasiness and inconformity at least half a century ago, when I think I transgressed the grammar of the classical Brazilian cinema, tying up the act of filming with social engagement, with the film ‘Rio 40 Graus‘, held to be the starting point for the New Cinema. They say that I started to be considered as a more ‘carioca’ filmmaker for having discovered and shown a profile of the city that had not hitherto appeared in the cinema: I had a lot of influence from Italian neorealism, a cinematographic movement that had the proposal of showing reality with simple equipment, and the filmmakers from Italy did this because the country suffered a moral and material destruction with the Second World War. A long time afterwards, to explain Rio 40 Degreesto the Italians, I said: Brazil lives a constant post-war, because of our historical society, and poverty increases more and more.

LEO RAMOSYou landed in Rio de Janeiro, then the country’s capital, at the beginning of the 1950. What were the first impacts of the city on the young lad from the city of São Paulo?
I arrived in Rio de Janeiro 24 years old, in 1952, and I came right up against the vertical shantytowns on account of the geography of the city – in São Paulo, the shantytowns are horizontal and distant from the middle class, usually you can’t see them. Then I looked and thought: there’s my neorealist text, and I invented the story and did the film that was already pointing to the aspect of urban violence – which is getting worse and worse in the country, and the situation is only going to improve when we carry out the agrarian and urban reforms. Otherwise, it only tends to worsen. After all, Brazil is an increasingly slaveholding country, where the few that live well don’t have the least social and humanist commitment: they want and always fight for situations of economic privilege and power. But I immediately adored the city, joyous, pretty, with extremely beautiful girls, it was truly a court.

The Vidas Secas film was one of your most prize-winning works, but few people know that the natives participated a lot in the cast, and some critics say that there was a dispute at the end of the recordings for Baleia the dog, between you and the producer Luiz Carlos Barreto. Years afterwards, what analysis do you make of those days?
– Many interesting things happened in these recordings. The actor Jofre Soares, for example, was discovered for the cinema in this period, when I adapted the work by Graciliano Ramos, published in 1938. As you yourself said, the film was hallowed internationally by the public, by the critics and by the academic world. In 1962, the small team went to Palmeira dos Índios, in the state of Alagoas, to record the film, and found a retired Navy officer who was presenting on his own the spectacle The Hands of Eurydice, by the playwright Pedro Bloch. It was the great and marvelous Jofre Soares. Incidentally, the major part of the film’s cast is made up of local actors, with the help of the also producer Jofre. He also found Baleia the dog, one of the main characters of the film, and who had a ticket paid for by the French to go to the Cannes Festival. I adopted the conditioning method of the Russian physician Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936): for months, the dog could not eat anything before the filming, to perform the role – but Baleia would leave where she was tied up, turn the corner, and go into the shade to sleep. It was when I put my hand on her belly, and it was full. Then I discovered that it was Jofre who was giving food to the dog. In Cannes alone, Vidas Secas received three prizes: Prix des Cinémas d’Art et d’Essai, Prix du Meilleur Film Pour la Jeunesse and Prix 1’Office Catholique du Cinema, plus 11 awards in festivals in Spain, Berlin and New York, amongst others. The success of Black God, White Devil, by the Bahian filmmaker Glauber Rocha, at the Cannes Festival in 1964, happened precisely months after the military dictatorship began here in Brazil, and it was the start of the international recognition of the Brazilian New Cinema. With regard to the dog, I couldn’t keep her for two reasons: in my house in Niterói there was no room, and my wife, those days, Laurita, who died in 1999, hated dogs. So Baleia stayed in Barreto’s house.

You went without filming in the period from 1987 to 1992, that is to say, over almost seven years, when Embrafilme was practically liquidated in the government of the then president Fernando Collor de Mello, and when you resumed, it was with the production of a harshly criticized work. What was that experience like?
In 1987, I already had a project signed with the French, Spanish and with Embrafilme for the full-length film The Third Bank of the River. But then the president whose name I prefer not to recall destroyed the cinema, and it was only possible to resume the negotiations in 1992 with the French television, and the film was ready one year afterwards. Here in Brazil, its exhibition happened for only one week, and the critics simply destroyed it, razed it, said it was terrible. In spite of this episode now being 14 years old, I don’t think about this: I haven’t done psychoanalysis, but I prefer to remember only good things, it’s self-defense, it does you good to celebrate life. And in spite of the Brazilian critics having turned their noses up at the film, it won awards and was applauded at film festivals like Cannes, Los Angeles, Austria, China, Switzerland, and received the respected Silver Daisy award of the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil (CNBB).

One of the masterpieces of Brazilian literature you adapted to the cinema: Memórias do Cárcere [Memoirs of Prison], published in two volumes, after the death of the writer Graciliano Ramos. The plot addresses political issues like the handing over of the Jewish communist Olga Benário, married to Luis Carlos Prestes, to the Gestapo, the German secret police. It is known that the production of this film was by no means simple. What reflection do you make on this work?
The project for Memórias do Cárcere began in my head when the posthumous books came out in 1953. After that, several other situations happened, I did Vidas Secas, and I thought once again about filming Graciliano’s work, but I did not have the necessary maturity to take care of a cast with so many actors, nor money, equipment, and we were in the middle of dictatorship. Luiz Carlos Barreto told me that Carlos Lacerda wanted to speak with me because he had liked Vidas Secas very much and intended to help me to make Memórias do Cárcere. But there wasn’t the slightest climate. Then we were in 1968, when the military regime hardened, and I really had to stop with the project. When I was glimpsing the redemocratization of the country, I resumed the work and did the final screenplay. But then came the film by Roberto Faria, Prá frente Brasil [Forward, Brazil], 1979, which portrayed the torture practiced by the military regime. The hard line sectors of the Armed Forces thought that the work was an affront, and Celso Amorim, today the Minister of Foreign Relations, resigned under pressure for having funded the film, which was censored and ended up being released. Then, of course, it all stopped again with regard to Memórias do Cárcere. It’s impressive how the cinema stirs up life in the country. Some time afterwards, Roberto Parreira took up Embrafilme and the negotiations recommenced: he said that it was possible to make the film, with Luiz Carlos Barreto presenting project. At last, Memórias do Cárcere was ready in 1984, the year of Direct Elections Now, with the political opening up, was awarded a prize at Cannes from the international critics, was launched here and had 1.5 million spectators, without a doubt a great success, in spite of the having a duration of three hours and with a harsh, dense and political theme. Carlos Vereza interpreted Graciliano, and Glória Pires, his wife, who visited him several times in jail. It was a great pleasure to make this film.

The film Como era gostoso o meu francês [How tasty was my little Frenchman], of 1970, has an anthropological approach to the Tupinambás Indians and had serious problems with the censorship. What was it like to work incorporating research into fictional cinema?
In the first place, I had to read a lot by anthropologist and sociologist Florestan Fernandes, a professor at USP, to understand what the function of war was amongst the Tupinambás, and I met several times with filmmaker Humberto Mauro, who knew the Tupinambá language, since he participated in the group of intellectuals connected with Roquete Pinto – after all, he was working with researchers of importance. With regard to the censorship, I had serious problems with one case barred, a lot of money lost, and an immense frustration. The main actor was Arduíno Colassanti, and what the censors picked on was precisely the scenes relating to his personage. An absolutely moralist vision. I lost a lot of money in these and other situations in the cinema, and for this reason I was left several times completely without a cent, and I suffered various threats of eviction and other very humiliating situations, characteristic of a country that treats its artists and intellectuals very badly. To get around those difficult moments, I worked for several years as a journalist and so guaranteed the survival of my family. I was an editor of the Diário Carioca [Rio de Janeiro Daily] and of the Jornal do Brasil [Journal of Brazil] from 1956 to 1968. Fortunately, I found humane editors like Carlos Lemos, Araújo Neto and Alberto Dines, amongst others, who tolerated my conflict between journalism and the cinema and also gave me a lot of strength when I needed to go out and make my films. They had sensitiveness to understand my passion for the cinema. Good people, just like businessman Nascimento Brito, who was the owner of the Jornal do Brasil  and never created any difficulty. These people we never forget. I am not poor, but I did not get rich with the cinema. My guarantee really is the small but secure pensions from being a chair professor at UFF and a journalist.

The Minister of Planning, Reis Velloso, of the government of President Médici, began to admire the Brazilian cinema when he was studying at Harvard University. At the end of his administration, he called several filmmakers, like you and Cacá Diegues, amongst so many others, for a conversation about the changes that could happen in the policy for the cinema with the taking of office of General Geisel, known as the dictator of the opening. What were these meetings  like?
Reis Velloso is a man who is concerned with the Brazilian cinema from the economic point of view to this date, and whenever he can gives his intellectual contribution and as one who has been in power. In those days, when he was a minister, he called us several times, and we had profitable and cordial meetings. Velloso asked us to do a reformulation of the National Cinema and Education Institute and in Embrafilme. It was during the Geisel government that I created the National Cinema Council. I have with Reis Velloso a relationship of admiration, affection and respect. We have known each other for a long time, and that continues.

Brazilian cinema today is living at a moment of permanent production, of quality, internationally respected, but there are criticisms. The filmmaker from the city of São Paulo, Carlos Reichenbach, for example, criticized with all the details the film Cidade de Deus [City of God], by the director Fernando Meirelles, which addresses the question of violence in a Rio de Janeiro shantytown. Carlos  said that it is very cruel to put a weapon in the hand of a child and not offer any solution. What reflection do you make on this polemic?
Whenever I can, I go to the cinema to see films by Brazilian directors. Brazilian cinema today is pluralist, it has much vitality, and all the tendencies are in it. Finally, there is an overcoming of ideological or esthetic obligatoriness. What is fine in Brazilian cinema is that, including having a place for me, almost 80 years old, to make my films with a concern with the social side, with the proposal of the change of what now exists. I watch all the films with a view that each one is outlining his path and the debate is open. Some years ago, if they called me to watch a film, I would ask whether there was the famous class struggle. Fortunately, I have changed. I think that esthetic Marxism is important, and for me the most contemporaneous thinker is the American Frederic Jameson.

You were always considered by women as one of the directors of the Brazilian cinema with much charm, elegant, seductive, erudite, good-humored and handsome. How do you deal with maturity, to arrive at the age of 77 working and doing cinema, your great passion?
Look, I’m not going to deny it: I have a great envy of youth, I would love to be, today, 50 years old. But I am happy: I do cinema, I have friends, I am well married, I haven’t become bitter or resentful with the adversities of life. There I am. It’s a privilege to be alive. I celebrate life every day.