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Images for history

Film takes testimony from survivors of armed conflicts and includes documents culled from the archives of the security agencies

Above, the photo in which Guarany appears among the prisoners exchanged for the Swiss ambassador in 1970

Public domain imagesAbove, the photo in which Guarany appears among the prisoners exchanged for the Swiss ambassador in 1970Public domain images

It may seem puzzling to us today, but the repressive agencies of the military dictatorship customarily documented and kept records of a significant percentage of the violent actions that took place in barracks and police stations. For four years, Anita Leandro, a professor at the School of Communications (ECO) of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), a cinematographer, and editor of images, scoured the files maintained by the Department of Political and Social Order (Dops) of the former state of Guanabara (now the state of Rio de Janeiro), the National Information Service (SNI), and the Superior Military Tribunal. From the huge volume of material that passed through her hands she selected the lives of four individuals to serve as narrators in the documentary Retratos de Identificação (Identification Portraits)—intersecting stories of militant members of groups that set out to combat the military regime through armed conflict.

The characters are Antônio Roberto Espinosa, Maria Auxiliadora (Dora) Lara Barcelos, and Chael Charles Schreier from the Palmares Revolutionary Armed Vanguard (VAR-Palmares), and Reinaldo Guarany, from the National Liberating Alliance (ALN). Schreier was killed during a torture session (according to the currently accepted version) and Dora committed suicide in 1976 by throwing herself in front of a subway train in Berlin. In the film, the two survivors are confronted with documents and photos they had never seen, collected by the cinematographer. Rather than asking questions, Leandro let the camera record their reactions and spontaneous commentary. “Confronting people with photographs is the basis of the working method I developed,” she says. “The protagonist is the image, the file, that unleashes the speech.”

Above, the picture of Dora from the Dops files

Public domain imagesAbove, the picture of Dora from the Dops filesPublic domain images

Seeing the photos, Guarany, Dora’s partner in exile, tears up and says he had preferred not to keep pictures of her (with one exception). Espinosa observes that in the ID photo Dops took of him, his neck looks very bloody—a sign of torture. Guarany sees for the first time a photo taken at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão Airport in 1970 in which he appears among the group of political prisoners exchanged in return for the release of Giovanni Bucher, the Swiss ambassador to Brazil, kidnapped by guerrillas.

So rich and revealing is the material gathered by Leandro that, from the sequence of photos taken by a police officer who was observing Dora’s movements, it is possible to follow the path she took when she left her home in Rio de Janeiro one morning. However, the idea that the files can by themselves accurately reconstitute history is questioned by the director herself, partly because many of the documents are in extremely poor condition. “The current practice among producers of documentaries, when putting together a file, is to create a text that unifies the discourse and then use the pictures to illustrate it,” Leandro says. “But those images that are left over create irremediable gaps and so I tried to show that those gaps are part of the narrative.” The tack she took was to insert intervals during which the screen appears completely black. “That method emphasizes the uniqueness of each picture and its specific documentary value.”

Chael Schreier, whose death the film investigates

Public domain imagesChael Schreier, whose death the film investigatesPublic domain images

Leandro believes that films can be historic documents even though they are not in the “finished” form of a compendium or a thesis derived from archives in text form. “Photos do not convey information as immediately as text does; they require a more attentive, prolonged, look,” she says. Evidence of the cinema’s power to explain the past is that the film has proven that Chael Schreier’s death was not, as the official version maintained, the result of wounds suffered in a confrontation with police, inasmuch as documents from the files of the medical examiner’s office, the Instituto Médico Legal (IML), do not mention any injury. In the film, Espinosa describes the torture sessions he experienced alongside Schreier and Dora (his partner at the time). Also part of the film are excerpts from interviews with the former guerrilla while in exile, one for a Chilean documentary and another for an American one, in which she talks about Schreier. The material that Leandro gathered about the dead guerrilla was requested by the National Truth Commission (CNV), instituted by President Dilma Rousseff. Subsequently Army Captain Celso Lauria, who signed the report by the Military Police Inquiry into the death of Schreier, was summoned to testify to the CNV, but did not appear.

Leandro began the research that resulted in the film—and an exhibit staged in Rio de Janeiro in 2014—during her graduate program at ECO-UFRJ for a study about the filmed word and the publishing of archived material in documentary films. She chose to focus on the military dictatorship and human rights violations during that period because of her interest in an era that she believes is little known, or even ignored, by most Brazilians. Initially produced with her own funds, the film obtained a grant to cover the costs of finalization (about one third of the total budget) from a partnership between the Ministry of Justice’s Amnesty Commission and the UFRJ. Retratos de identificação has been shown as part of exhibits in Brazil and abroad, but there are no firm plans to show it on the commercial circuit.