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I saw one Brazil on TV

Work assesses documentaries about nature following Amaral Netto, the program Globo Ecology

If you are not at least 40, you are not old enough to remember (do not be sorry about it): to the sound of Aquarela do Brasil, in the hideous arrangement by Ray Conniff, a helicopter flies over the phenomenon of the tidal bore (pororoca) , in the Amazon, described by the enthusiastic narrator as “the thousand-faced monster”. It was the “show of nature of Great Brazil”, a recurrent theme of the (in)famous Amaral Netto, the Reporter, a program born in 1969, in Globo TV, which was for many years the source of knowledge about the country for generations of Brazilians. Many things have changed, but, oddly enough, nature on TV continues to be treated like a “show of life”, a mixture of fiction and reality, with a right to special effects, video clips, and a flavor of adventure.

“Beautiful images count for more than the facts, a good ranking in the star system, bring about more legitimacy than the participation of the community and closeness to society. The relationship with the environmental problem is mediated by aspects that are closer to the field of fiction, and increasingly less by collective ideals”, warns Thales de Andrade, the author of Ecológicas manhãs de sábado: o espetáculo da natureza na televisão brasileira (Ecological Saturday mornings: the spectacle of nature on Brazilian television) , launched by Annablume/FAPESP, a study about how the small screen has dealt with the environment, using two cases that are dissimilar in appearance, but analogous in their mistake: Amaral Netto and Globo Ecology.

The documentaries about nature are one of the main veins of televisions all over the planet. Discovery Channel alone, which displays 24 hour programming of this genre, is present in over 145 countries, a level surpassed only by MTV and CNN. With a lineage that can be traced back to the first explorers, who made the reading public tremble with fear in the light of the drawings, not always realistic, of the exotic world to which the majority did not have any access, the documentaries gained new technologies, but they still keep the same essence. Photojournalism has helped to consolidate the need for converting what the natural into the spectacular, for greater popular assimilation, and science has not managed to free itself from the temptation of commercial success. Later, there came Robert Flaherty and, of course, the submarine world of Jacques Cousteau, in the 1950s and 1960s. If you have seen one documentary, have you seen them all?

Story to be told
The basic principles, whether in the computerized reconstruction of life on Earth in the times of the dinosaurs, or in the valiant crocodile hunter, or, again, in the endless films on sharks, remain unaltered: made for a middle class public, a family audience, they exploit the anthropomorphic narrative, that is, the imputing of human qualities to animals. Accordingly, the persecution of a whale and its calf by sharks is converted into a fight by “mother” whale to free her “son” from the grips of the terrible and cruel predators. There is always the need for a little story to be told, with personages and even a moral in the end, which provides the overall climate of romantic environmentalism. There is no room for people in these films, since nature, reproduced as a spectacle, has to give room only for the public to identify itself emotionally with the animals, either extinct or alive.

Technology is at the service of the show: the special effects are the great attraction, whether in the special omnipotent cameras that put us face to face with large animals, or in the computer which gives life to what can no longer be seen. It is all narrative, bordering fiction, an agreeable artifice achieved by means of off-screen narration and editing the images: scenes filmed on various occasions are joined together so as to give the impression of a continuity of actions. This is how we “see” the lion looking at the prey, thinking how to attack, and, there it goes, the great struggle for life in the savanna begins. Nor is the sound real, but the fruit of post-production. The final effect is powerful and convincing. We switch channels believing that we are richer in knowledge and ecologically aware.

But the questions are many: is it right to reconstitute natural events for the camera? Can it be that the excesses of special effects draws the attention away from the main thing, knowledge, and diverts it to the accessory, to mere entertainment? What are the ethical topics that guide the production of a documentary? We cannot fool ourselves about the power of the market and audience share that orientates a good deal of the documentaries, in the same way as other TV programs. The visual impact and the increasingly strong presence of technology may be taking away from these films their real motivation and showing a distorted vision of the natural world, and, running counter to what is perceived, leaving even further apart the frontiers between men and animals.

Adventure, dangers, man versus nature, spectacle, all under the guise of being scientifically approved (hence the testimony of the “men of science” which legitimate everything that is said on TV: who can doubt them?), the transformation of natural phenomena into fictional ones – these hazards are even greater with the immense present-day technological capacity. From the documents, it really seems to be very difficult to deal with the animal world, let alone to preserve it in a real context. The pleasure of entertainment seems to be leaving behind the pleasure of knowledge. “There is the danger of infantilization, that is, of transforming natural reality into a game and entertainment, but it must be realized as well that we can demystify the very process of knowledge, with the new technological resources, if used in a creative way, an interesting and fecund direction”, in the assessment of Thales de Andrade.

But this is not a new or even an international phenomenon. In January 1969, just one month after the AI-5 (decree that that turned Brazil into full-blown dictatorship), Amaral Netto the Reporter had its debut on Globo. “His documentaries would send inside people’s homes images of a Brazil that was almost a legend, a land that was hardly known and not even conceived. We only know for sure that the reporter had been there. At the frontiers of the imaginable, showing the true face of regions that remained shrouded in mystery and fantasy”, says the introductory text of the television series, as Thales de Andrade reveals to us. The climate is very close to what we see even now in nature films, with a mixture of suspense and heroism, which starts even before the arrival of the objective of the program, right from the hitches that await Amaral?s team in the course of his journey to mystery, at the risk of his own life.

Amaral, though, risks all, conquers, and “has been there”. Albeit with the help of planes of the Brazilian Air Force , corvettes of the navy, and the expertise of the military, to give the last “scientific” word on the unknown Brazil. And, of course, Amaral arrives there with his cameras and technological apparatus. “All these concatenated elements instituted an aggressive look at Brazilian nature, fully integrated with the political moment and the stage of technological improvement that the country was going through. In short, an aggressive narrator trying to make intelligible, a hostile and exuberant space, an allegory of Brazil forged by the also aggressive elites of those days”, Thales notes. “These elites believed they were performing a great economic and technological leap forward, the great conservative modernization. In this frenzy of ideas, Amaral is almost an inebriated poet, transmitting implausible and spectacular information and promises”, he says.

In this movement of showing the country as being in a permanent “state of war” between the natural and the civilized, Amaral, notes the researcher, not only linked himself to the military jingoism of the moment, but, importantly, draws his language close to the auditorium programs, the popular esthetics in vogue on TV of those days. Nature becomes a spectacle, albeit grotesque. And to do so, everything was valid, even personifying the natural: the Amazon tidal bore becomes “the thousand-faced monster”, and the Atol das Rocas a strange “isle of naught”. “The Itaipu hydroelectric power plant, the Rio-Niterói bridge were ‘full’ elements, replete with rationality and functionality, while spaces like Rocas were defined as empty, despite their biotic wealth.” The exaggeration even went so far as to bother some wings of the military regime, who hated Amaral’s jingoism without substance, which ended up working against the carefully wrought official propaganda.

Different demands
Twenty years later, in 1990, the picture is another, because the demands of the market and of the public are different. The dangers and deformities of savage nature leave the scene, to give room to a new ecological conscience, in which society likes to see itself portrayed on TV as agents of changes of the environmental cause. As the author notes, the sailors and the soldier leave the scene, and in their place we have environmentalists, scientists, riverside dwellers, and, astonishingly, artists. This is Globo Ecology, which needs to show, to a public that is young (hence the use of the language of video clips and rock, with programs presented by Globo TV soap opera actors) and active, that “things can work out right”. It is a new optimism that invades nature by means of the discourse of modern sustainability.

“The occasional and shared solutions, linking sectors both close and distant, make up the new condition of optimism. ‘Working out’ (the name of one scene from the program) represents more than a successful managerial behavior, it also implies emptying the debate of political/ideological aspects, clashes superceded in the current scenario”, Andrade observes. All by means of the apology of communitarian practice and of involvement, in the majority of times, anonymous, of civil society in the environmental causes. The elite is no longer interested, as it was in the times of Amaral, in discovering, with a blend of horror and admiration, Brazil’s monstrous natural potential. It is now the turn of the small actions that work out.

“The courses that our culture of the spectacle has been following should interfere in the social allocation of the problems of ecological degradation. Making reality artificial leads to the realm of simulation, in which the ecosystemic shortfalls may take on several looks, in accordance with the prevailing cultural goals”, the researcher notes. “It is viable for new poetics about the environmental discussion to be tested. A less aloof look, and one that does not surrender, without contestation, to the consumer preferences of the audiovisual market is the final goal of a television production that incorporates the environmental theme with all its complexity and plasticity”, he says. Only thus, it only in the cinema that dinosaurs have nicknames and whales like children.

The project
Ecological Saturday Mornings: the Spectacle of Nature on Brazilian Television (nº 02/01593-0); Modality Publication Grant; Researcher
Thales Haddad Novaes de Andrade – College of Social Sciences/PUCCamp; Investment R$ 2,509.50