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Scientific research converted into audiovisual productions

The challenge is to make academic knowledge accessible without resorting to a reductionist approach

Scenes from the movie Tropa de elite, created based on dialogue established through research on violence and public safety

A.F. ARCHIVE / Alamy/ Fotoarena | G Collection/ Interfoto / Fotoarena

To meet the challenge of making scientific knowledge accessible, while avoiding falling into reductionist formulas, Brazilian researchers have been adapting their work into audiovisual projects. Sociologists, anthropologists, and physicians are investing in collaborations with cinema professionals to develop projects that communicate the results of their research, using visual media resources that encompass the exploration of subjectivity and individual experience.

Anthropologist and political scientist Luiz Eduardo Soares, a former professor from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), has been researching violence and public security since the 1980s. Both volumes of Soares’s books Elite da tropa (Elite squad), the first published by Editora Objetiva, in 2006, the second by Nova Fronteira, in 2010, have resulted in feature films. Soares, who had also been director of Security, Justice, and Citizenship for Rio de Janeiro State in 1999 and 2000, and Brazil’s national secretary of Public Security in 2003, among other public-sector posts, felt the need to expand the reach of his studies. “The results of my research had had repercussions among researchers, but I wanted to sensitize society more broadly about the problems of the police and combat the ‘common-sense’ view that confuses justice with vengeance,” says Soares.

Between 1995 and 1997, the anthropologist conducted a postdoctoral fellowship with the American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931–2007), who cast a critical eye on the capacity for philosophical and sociological treatises to collaborate in the building of more just, egalitarian societies. “Rorty maintained that journalism, documentary, theater, and fiction are more effective in fulfilling this task, insofar as they offer the possibility of generating empathy by displacing imaginaries and arousing the emotions,” Soares observes.

HBO Max publicity The series PCC: Poder secreto was based on a book written by a sociologist to tell the story of an organized crime gangHBO Max publicity

With these ideas in mind, in 2004 the anthropologist began writing a trilogy on violence and public security, based on empirical research, but aimed beyond the academic audience. “One of my guidelines was to avoid analyses that used specific categories and concepts from the social sciences and invest in creating a fluent text,” he recalls. As part of the initiative, Soares published Cabeça de Porco (Pig head) (Objetiva, 2005), written in partnership with rapper MV Bill and social activist and producer Celso Athayde. A story about teenagers involved in drug trafficking, the book’s film rights were sold to a production company, and it was partially adapted into the documentary Falcão: Meninos do tráfico (Falcon: Drug trafficking boys), in 2006. In the second volume of the trilogy Elite da tropa, Soares delves into the world of the Rio de Janeiro police. The book was written in partnership with police officers André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, from the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE), a special forces wing of the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police. During that same period, filmmaker José Padilha was also creating a film about the police, so the two began to work together. “Our proposal was to talk about the police, starting with their subjectivity as professionals,” he comments.

Thus, the story of Batista, who studied law by day while working at BOPE at night—even though he was a critic of violence—was the key conflict that propelled the films’ development. Released in 2007, the movie Tropa de elite, like the book, is based on real situations, although the names of those involved had to be changed to prevent revenge-seeking or lawsuits. “The book sold 200,000 copies, while the film was seen by 13 million spectators, one of the largest audiences in Brazilian cinema history,” the anthropologist says. The second volume of the book and the first film’s resulting sequel were created based on inquiries into police militias researched by Soares, with the participation of Cláudio Ferraz, who was at the time a Rio Civil Police investigator responsible for investigations that put 500 militia members in prison.

Sociologist Gabriel Feltran has been researching violence, illegal markets, public security, and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, or First Capital Command, Brazil’s largest organized crime gang) since obtaining his master’s degree—funded by FAPESP—from the Federal University of São Carlos. Feltran wrote Irmãos – Uma história do PCC (Brothers: A history of the PCC) (Companhia das Letras, 2018) to narrate the gang’s history through first-person accounts collected during his research. Like Soares, Feltran wanted to bring the findings of his studies, conducted over the last 20 years, to audiences beyond the academic world. “The book generated a lot of discussion, and I thought it would close that stage of my research on the PCC. However, I was approached by a producer interested in adapting the work,” he says.

IEB-USP Archive – Fundo Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, reference code: ACGR-F-006. Reproduction freely authorized by The Copyright Holders of Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, Nonada Cultural, and Tess AdvogadosAracy de Carvalho, who helped Jews persecuted by Nazism seek refuge in BrazilIEB-USP Archive – Fundo Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, reference code: ACGR-F-006. Reproduction freely authorized by The Copyright Holders of Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, Nonada Cultural, and Tess Advogados

Sold to HBO Max, the project was turned into a four-episode documentary series, titled PCC: Poder secreto (PCC: Secret power). “The work shows the history of the PCC through first-person accounts, including legal authorities and police, as well as anonymous subjects who talk about their dealings with members of the group and its founders,” the researcher says, noting that many of the interviewees were his interlocutors during his various academic studies. “The episodes are organized in chronological order, without a narrator or explanations from sociologists, as a way of clarifying the points of view of those who experienced the PCC in the flesh, which makes the series more like an ethnographic work,” Feltran notes. Formally, the sociologist worked as a research coordinator and consultant, as part of a team of more than 60 people. “Our intention was to create a public debate about the PCC, and we considered that the language of documentary filmmaking was the best route, insofar as a fictional approach could have suggested that some of the stories were invented,” he says, noting that the series was one of the most popular listings on HBO Max for weeks.

Historian Sidney Aguilar Filho also began with the premise that the history uncovered by his doctoral dissertation, conducted from 2006 through 2011 at UNICAMP (where he is now doing a postdoctoral fellowship), needed to be told with a documentary film. When he sold the film rights to his dissertation, the researcher included a clause in the contract signed with the production company, requiring that the film had to remain faithful to the arguments and findings of his research and not use fictional scenes. The doctoral research that led to the documentary originated when Aguilar was a professor of basic education in São Paulo. During a class on Nazism, a student reported that bricks with the swastika symbol had been unearthed at her family’s farm in the state’s interior.

Intrigued, the historian conducted research in various state archives and collected testimonies, discovering a story of two businessmen influenced by the concepts of eugenics, fascists, and Nazis, who in 1930 removed 50 boys from an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro and took them to the Fazenda Santa Albertina, a ranch owned by Osvaldo Rocha Miranda, in Campina do Monte Alegre, São Paulo. There the children were subjected to forced labor, physical punishment, and humiliation. “I found documents signed by judges authorizing the children to leave the orphanage and recording their arrival at the farm, which show that the events were legally sanctioned,” he states. Aguilar Filho explains that these documents indicate that the children were allowed to be taken to the farm as long as they received proper care and attended school, which never actually occurred.

Giros Movies Scenes from the documentary Menino 23: Infâncias perdidas no Brasil, which originated from a doctoral dissertationGiros Movies

The study provided the source material for the documentary Menino 23 – Infâncias perdidas no Brasil (Boy 23: Lost childhoods in Brazil), released in 2016. The work was awarded the Brazilian Cinema Grand Prix in the documentary feature film category the following year. To formulate the dissertation on which the film was based, Aguilar located one of the surviving orphans, Aloísio Silva, who lived near the farm and was willing to speak out. However, during filming, while further researching into Navy archives, a second survivor was located, Argemiro Santos, a retired seaman. Santos had run away from the farm at the age of 14 and lived on the streets until he enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. The historian was also able to find family members of a third survivor, who had passed away years ago. “The survivors and their families hid the story for 70 years. It took them decades to convince themselves that these events should be made public,” he says.

Aguilar says that one of the challenges with his dissertation and the documentary came in collecting such long-distant memories, an endeavor he associates with archaeological work. “Memory works like archaeology. After unearthing an old relic, it begins to fall apart,” he says, noting that for this reason the first testimonies people give tend to portray real events more faithfully. At the outset, Aguilar Filho wanted the documentary to deal more with historical issues and to delve less into the interviewees’ memories, but the producer insisted that first-person accounts would work better on film. “Later, I saw they were right. Telling the story through the words of actual people is an effective way of raising awareness,” adds the researcher, who donated part of the documents used in the research and documentary project to the Edgard Leuenroth Archive, at UNICAMP. In 2021, the historian published a book that compiles the findings of his research on the lives of the Fazenda Santa Albertina orphans.

Migration researcher and historian Mônica Raisa Schpun, of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, in France, conducted a study on cross migration and the lifetime friendship between Aracy de Carvalho (1908–2011), a Brazilian consulate functionary in Hamburg, Germany, and a Jewish refugee, Margarethe Levy (1908–2011). Carvalho was head of the passport sector in Germany from 1935 to 1941, holding a key position at a time when Jews had begun seeking refuge in other countries, including Brazil. In order to follow the trajectories of 16 people who had been helped by the Brazilian official, Schpun researched the archives of the Gestapo (the Nazi regime’s secret police) and Carvalho’s personal documents, now stored at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP), among other collections. Levy was one of the people she helped and was able to embark for Brazil with her husband in 1938. In 1942, Carvalho herself returned to Brazil with her future husband, the deputy consul and writer Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967). Once in Brazil, Carvalho and Levy met again and became friends. “Since she never had children, in time Levy was cared for by Carvalho’s son, Eduardo. Their friendship lasted seven decades,” the historian says. Schpun explains that Carvalho was recognized with the “Righteous Among the Nations” award in 1982, a title awarded by the Yad Vashem institute in Jerusalem, Israel, to non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi persecution. In the Americas, only six people have been given the award, three from the United States, one Chilean, and two Brazilians. Worldwide, about 29,000 have been so recognized.

Schpun’s research gave rise to the book Justa— Aracy de Carvalho e o resgate de judeus: Trocando a Alemanha nazista pelo Brasil (Righteous—Aracy de Carvalho and the rescue of Jews: Trading Nazi Germany for Brazil) (Civilização Brasileira, 2011). The film rights were sold to Rede Globo in 2018. Last year, the work served as the basis for an eight-episode dramatic series. Although the chosen format was fiction, at the end of each episode, the descendants of people Carvalho saved tell their actual stories. While the book sold over 8,000 copies, the television series reached two million viewers, according to data from IBOPE (the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics). “That’s an unattainable number for a university book,” emphasizes Schpun, adding that the Franco-German chain Arte is producing a documentary about Carvalho that should be released in 2022, which is also based on the history brought out through her research. Schpun adds that Globo partnered with Sony International to produce the series, which has already been aired in countries such as India, Spain, and the United Kingdom. “Fiction raises the possibility of causing emotional impact and arousing empathy, especially among people who aren’t familiar with certain realities, something that the academic text doesn’t do,” she concludes.

Ariela Bueno / GullaneThe drama series Unidade Básica furthers debates on the limits of biomedical discourseAriela Bueno / Gullane

A specialist in studies on Juscelino Kubitschek (1902–1976), the economist, historian, and politician Ronaldo Costa Couto believes that the stories and scientific findings from research should offer elements that arouse emotions in people when translated into the language of image and sound. “To interest production companies and television broadcasters, the research needs to offer the possibility of creating good scenes and dialogue,” says Couto, author of at least a dozen books, who has collaborated on more than ten projects for cinema and television. One of his best-known books that was turned into a fictional television series was Brasília Kubitschek de Oliveira (Editora Record, 2002), published on the centenary of the politician’s birth. Couto sold the film rights to the work to Rede Globo and participated in the project as a consultant. He is currently negotiating the rights to another work on its way to becoming an audiovisual project: Matarazzo: A travessia (Matarazzo: The crossing) (Planeta, 2004), the result of five years of research conducted in Brazil and Italy.

In the field of public health, audiovisual media has also been seen as a tool to disseminate public policies. This is the view of physician Ricardo de Sousa Soares, from the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB), who researched the government program Mais Médicos (more doctors) between 2018 and 2022. During this period, he visited 14 cities in the state of Paraíba to learn about the program’s impact on people’s lives. Two scientific articles were published based on the study’s results, which showed that the presence of Mais Médicos in communities is statistically related to a reduction in mortality from preventable causes in the cities studied. The research combines statistical information, collected from Ministry of Health databases, with qualitative data. The scientific articles focus on quantitative results, while parts of the qualitative findings were portrayed in the documentary + Doctors, released in late 2019 through a partnership between the departments of Communication and Health Promotion at UFPB.

Soares explains that the film creates a dialogue with the statistical results, for example, by portraying the story of a Cuban physician who worked in the program. In the documentary, the Cuban doctor says that when he signed onto the program objectives with the Mais Médicos coordinators, it was stipulated that it would be acceptable to register up to one infant death in the municipality after his arrival. “In response, the Cuban says that he wanted to stipulate that there wouldn’t be even one child’s death,” says Soares. The documentary also shows its characters emphasizing the expansion of attending care, with doctors available every day at government health clinics, in addition to others making home visits, information that explains the reduction in mortality from preventable causes in the cities surveyed. Published in September 2020 and August 2021, the scientific articles had around 3,000 hits as of August 2022. “Meanwhile, the video was recently posted on YouTube and in fewer than 10 days it had more than 600 views,” Soares says.

Finally, infectious disease specialist Helena Lemos Petta (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 309), a researcher at the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, created the drama series Unidade básica (Basic health clinic) for the cable channel Universal TV. Based on real cases, the series follows daily life at a government health clinic on the periphery of São Paulo. The first season aired in 2016 and the author is currently finalizing scripts for the third. Petta says the series promotes debate about the limits of biomedical discourse by portraying the daily lives of characters who foster an expanded approach to healthcare, including a deeper understanding of their patients’ living conditions. During the series’ creation, Petta developed a thesis (with funding from FAPESP) to deepen knowledge regarding the relationship between the field of public health and the audiovisual language. “In my thesis, I argue that audiovisual productions offer the possibility of using an affective aesthetic that collaborates to generate engagement with collective health issues,” she concludes.

1. Community movements and democratic culture: Politics in everyday life. Experiences of the favela defense movement and the May 1st community project in the São Paulo Metropolitan Area (nº 01/06933-1); Grant Mechanism Master’s Fellowship; Supervisor Evelina Dagnino (UNICAMP); Beneficiary Gabriel de Santis Feltran; Investment R$25,636.05.
2. The “world of crime” on the outskirts of São Paulo: Interactions with sociability and public policies (nº 08/55265-0); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Eduardo Cesar Leão Marques (USP); Beneficiary Gabriel de Santis Feltran; Investment R$59,056.11.
3. Global cars: An international urban survey on the informal vehicle economy (Europe, Africa, and South America) (nº 20/07160-7); Grant Mechanism Thematic Research Grant; Principal Investigator Gabriel de Santis Feltran; Investment R$735,194.00.
4. Marginal connections: Peripheries, illegal markets, and the expansion of criminal factions in Brazil (nº 19/25686-9); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Gabriel de Santis Feltran; Investment R$112,036.45.
5. Mass media and communication on public health and primary care: Analysis of the production experience of the television series Unidade Básica (nº 15/24160-2); Grant Mechanism Doctoral (PhD) Fellowship; Supervisor José Ricardo de Carvalho Mesquita Ayres (USP); Beneficiary Helena Lemos Petta; Investment R$91,835.40.

Scientific articles
HONE, T. et al. Impact of the Programa Mais Médicos (More Doctors Programme) on primary care doctor supply and amenable mortality: Quasi-experimental study of 5,565 Brazilian municipalities. BMC Health Services Research. 20, 873. 2020.
BEXSON, C. et al. Brazil’s More Doctors Programme and infant health outcomes: A longitudinal analysis. Human Resources for Health. 19, 97. 2021.

AGUILAR FILHO, S. Entre integralistas e nazistas ‒ Racismo, educação e autoritarismo no sertão de São Paulo. São Paulo: Alameda Editorial, 2021.
COUTO, R. C. Brasília Kubitschek de Oliveira. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2002.
FELTRAN, G. Irmãos – Uma história do PCC. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018.
PETTA, H. Unidade Básica: A saúde pública na TV. São Paulo: Hucitec Editora, 2020.
SCHPUN, M. R. Justa: Aracy de Carvalho e o resgate dos judeus: Trocando a Alemanha nazista pelo Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2011.
SOARES, L. E. et al. Elite da tropa. São Paulo: Objetiva, 2006.
SOARES, L. E. et al. Elite da tropa 2. São Paulo: Nova Fronteira, 2010.
SOARES, L. E. et al. Cabeça de porco. São Paulo: Objetiva, 2005.