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Cinema’s scattered fragments

Carlos Adriano delves into archives of Brazilian images to find raw material for his experimental films

Santos Dumont in motion, as seen through a mutoscope found at the Paulista Museum

Reproduction imagesSantos Dumont in motion, as seen through a mutoscope found at the Paulista MuseumReproduction images

“I don’t seek, I find,” says São Paulo filmmaker Carlos Adriano whenever someone asks him about the historical importance of his experimental works. Adriano quotes Pablo Picasso to explain his “all but accidental” finds—rare, forgotten or unknown—that constitute the raw material for his films. For more than 20 years, as filmmaker and PhD graduate in communications science from the University of São Paulo School of Communication and Arts (ECA-USP), he has delved deep into the archival record, in search of long-lost cinematic treasures.

Adriano has turned up material that reveals, for instance, Brazilian aviator inventor Alberto Santos Dumont’s interest and involvement in the origins of art form, in 1895; film fragments suggesting that José Roberto Cunha Salles, a physician, might have been Brazil’s first filmmaker; and clues about the unfinished cinematic experiments of Décio Pignatari, a poet and teacher who set out to make dramatic films (only to abandon his projects—unknown until, years later, they were finally unearthed by Adriano).

The work of Carlos Adriano Jerônimo de Rosa is, at its essence, experimental, and removed from the commercial circuit of productions so often seen at international festivals and admired in academic circles. Today we find him in the in the midst of his second post-doctoral   residency at ECA-USP with his project, Found footage: reapropriação de arquivo como método para os estudos de cinema” (Methodology of archives collection for the study of cinema). “Found footage” is a method for which Adriano is today Brazil’s chief exponent. In his view, the main features of the genre are apparent in “films that renew, reedit, and give new meaning to alien images.” Adriano continues his Found footage project as a visiting professor of graduate film studies at ECA-USP, where he oversees graduate-level film workshops.  He also plans to make three films.

It was with his third short—Remanescências (Reminiscences)—of 1997 that Adriano made his mark in the genre. The film is presented through 11 of Cunha Salles’ photogramic images from 1897, now thought to be the first film ever made in Brazil. “Although I hadn’t intended it to be a personal manifesto,” Adriano says, “Remanescências presents itself in a substantially radical and allegorical format; but, 19 years on, and despite all of the film’s radicalism, I would surely do it differently: I would make it even more radical.”

Scene from Das ruínas à rexistência, recovering the unfinished films of poet Décio Pignatari

Reproduction imagesScene from Das ruínas à rexistência, recovering the unfinished films of poet Décio PignatariReproduction images

In Adriano’s 1997 Das ruínas à rexistência (From the ruins to rebirth), as in his other films, one witnesses the various phases of research and production coinciding with the images that have been found and incorporated. Here one sees remnants of Pignatari’s productions, from 1961 e 1962. The filmmaker superimposes scenes from Ruínas para o futuro (Ruins of the future) on those of the 1910 São Paulo  strike of the glassmakers from Osasco, and Ponto de encontro  (The meeting point), a love story that takes place on the rail lines between  Osasco and São Paulo. “Probably, nobody has ever seen this material,” says Adriano, who directed the work chosen that year for the Locarno Film Festival.

One also notices a sense of historical justice underlying Adriano’s films. “I was not happy to see the way historians devalued the name of Cunha Salles and the role he played as the founder of Brazilian cinema,” says the filmmaker. “Because he was a doctor who also  performed legerdemain and ran a numbers racket, nobody could recognize or accept that the film fragments that Salles left in the National Archives could have been his work.”

Adriano returned to the subject of the Salles legacy in his 2008 doctoral thesis, which had FAPESP support. In one passage, he explains, “…should the film’s authorship be in doubt, it follows that Cunha Salles appropriated the photograms.” According to this logic, were Salles not the first in the history of Brazilian cinema to capture images, he would—like Adriano himself—be reworking images created by others. “The so-called birth of Brazilian cinema, then, would have happened with ‘found footage’,” continues Adriano.

Santos Dumont: Pré-cineasta? (Santos Dumont: pre-cinema?), a film—Adriano’s first feature-length and a product of his doctoral thesis—examined Dumont the inventor’s pre-cinematographic device, or mutoscope. The machine, which Adriano had found at the USP Paulista Museum, works along the lines of the world’s first moving-picture devices:  composed of cards, with frames arranged in a reel around a circular core. By turning the handle attached to the reel, one could project moving images onto a screen.

According to his research advisor at ECA-USP, Professor Ismail Xavier, Adriano “reintroduces processes and the radical independence of 1970s American cinema—what we call ‘structural’ but which is very little understood around here.” Film director Cacá Diegues, after attending the 2011 premier of Santos Dumont: Pré-cineasta? at the Tiradentes Festival in the state of Minas Gerais, wrote in an article for O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper of his “uncomfortable sensation witnessing another cinematic invention—a cinema that had been lost and then recovered through the magical hands of its director.”