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Eduardo Coutinho and person-to-person cinema

086-089_Artes_217-1Public domain imageDocumentary cinema in Brazil did not begin to establish a tradition until the end of the 1950s, with the advent of audio recording and the discovery of popular themes, especially from the Northeast. Previously, non-fiction films had been limited to the mere recording of current events, institutional or civic products and some works of an ethnographic nature. The multiplicity of styles and approaches only began to appear with the Cinema Novo movement in the 1960s.

At that time, a young Eduardo Coutinho was barely beginning his film career and still had no preference between fiction and documentaries.  As if dragged by centripetal force, he went from being an adolescent cinephile to a student at the L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies) (IDHEC) in Paris. He had participated marginally in the Cinema Novo movement, first through educational projects related to the leftist student movement (Cinco vezes favela (Five times a slum), UNE Volante (UNE at the wheel) and the first stage of Cabra marcado para morrer (Twenty Years Later)); and later in films that sought to ally their commercial appeal with a certain amount of critical examination of social processes (O pacto (The Pact), O homem que comprou o mundo (The man who bought the world), Faustão (Faustão)).

Coutinho’s curious path took a radical departure in the mid-1970s when, disillusioned with film and focusing on journalism, he was able to reconcile the two trades in the Globo Repórter investigative news shows. At that point in time, there was a certain revival of Brazilian documentaries, whether through television initiatives, like Globo Repórter itself, or through the “caravan” that producer Thomaz Farkas sent to Rio de Janeiro and to the Northeast, helping to create a whole new generation of documentary filmmakers.

This is the point at which Eduardo Coutinho said he “finally got it,” an expression that refers to both his personal path and to the direction of his career. However, the choice to make documentaries did not make it any less necessary to study fiction. This does not mean that he sought to mix genres at this time, but rather that he understood that reality is a chimera, and in the final analysis, has no cinematographic value. Ever since his years at Globo Repórter, Coutinho had understood that interview documentaries are constructed equally by the interviewer and the interviewee.

Beginning with the notable revelation represented by Cabra marcado para morrer, a collection of memories and reflections on the events of 1964, made 17 years later and within a radically different historical context, this filmmaker’s career took on the exemplary nature of a method that was refined and radicalized with each film he made.

For starters, Coutinho chose personal encounters as a way to move closer to the universe of daily life and popular culture. In so doing, he refused to accept the argument that interviews were a thing of the past, and instead, renewed the format as a vehicle for discourse with multiple meanings in which confessions, exasperated complaints, fantasies and sincere lies often mixed together in an inseparable manner. He created the myth that nobody spoke to others the way they did to him, and that he was able to get the people he interviewed to say things that others could not. According to that myth, this was the result of some strange magic, since Coutinho was not known for being especially nice to those he interviewed, nor did he curry favor with them or act like he was their friend.

Scenes from the films Cabra marcado para morrer, 1985...

Public domain imageScenes from the films Cabra marcado para morrer, 1985…Public domain image

A closer analysis of his actions will show that his fickleness does not explain everything. The fact is that in videos produced throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Coutinho honed his senses regarding the choice of his personalities, and on the pieces of his context. The so-called “prisons” of space and/or time helped him to sharpen his focus on communities, shantytowns and specific human groups, in a practice that may have its origin in the documentary Seis dias de Ouricuri (Six days of Ouricuri), produced for the Globo Repórter show. He assumed that he needed to dig deep, since the smaller the field of action, the more thorough the investigation. These constricts also served to give his work a sense of urgency. Even more important, they provided him with the possibility of failure, which was the most powerful fuel for the director’s naturally pessimistic personality.

Coutinho’s path as a documentary maker clearly led him away from all types of generalization. Even when dealing with important general or conceptual themes, like the Afro-Brazilian heritage in O fio da memória (The thread of memory), he favored personal instances of narration and inventing stories. It was a case of trading the abstract for the concrete, the didactic for the existential and the present for anthropological atemporality. For the creator in him, the macro was contained inside the micro and could only be reached through it.

The huge challenge posed by Santo forte (Powerful Saint), which was to examine mysticism inside a shantytown community exclusively through verbal reports, opened up a kind of third life inside Coutinho’s career and had an impact similar to that of Cabra marcado para morrer. More than just a successful film, it featured a carefully refined method and ethics. This continual outpouring, visible in movie after movie, which would lead to the exceptional human concentrations in Edifício Master (The Master Building) and O fim e o princípio (The end and the beginning), is the result of self-criticism and rejection of the superfluous.

In the 1970s, the documentary Teodorico, o Imperador do Sertão (Teodorico, the Emperor of the Sertão) achieved a rare feat within the format of the Globo Repórter show–the suppression of the omniscient narration by one of the network’s announcers. In Coutinho’s future works, the gradual disappearance of off-camera narration and a greater concentration on a dramaturgy of speech could be seen.  The body and soul of the voice–which he called “incorporated speech”–is always present in his most recent films. Other suppressions followed: parallel montage, cover images, non-incidental music, material from the archives.

There are those who see in this regime a rejection of cinematographic instrumentalism and an inglorious purism. This criticism would make total sense if Coutinho had not offered so much in exchange for what he takes. He rebelled against the commonly-held notion that cinema is a phenomenon conditioned only by the visual and one in which words are attributed a lower status. As his menu of resources got drier and drier, the lines in his movies became richer and the charisma of speakers became more highly valued. His rejection of materials from the archives was part of his respect for the current moment of the conversation. In order for some pre-recorded photograph or image to be shown, it had be present at the moment of the interview; in other words, it had to be incorporated into the absolute present of that which the filmmaker could no longer surrender. Even in a historical research film like Peões (Laborers), images and photos of the 1979/1980 metalworkers’ strikes only appear as dramatic material directly inserted into the reality of 2002/2003.

Coutinho’s austere regime is justified by a fundamental proposition: his films, especially those from the post-Cabra phase, are not about events, nor do they refer to a past that is already buried. They are not even films about people or groups. They are films about the encounters between the documentary maker and certain individualities. These are encounters of full physical proximity, even though the social distance may continue to be evident and is not disguised. There was no attitude on his part to seek a temporary equality that would facilitate dialogue. Coutinho was interested in the Other, in what is socially and culturally different. Thus, it was hard to imagine that he would come to be interested in the elite to which, to his chagrin, he belonged. Excluding the peculiar case of Moscou (Moscow),the lower middle class residents that were the focus of Edifício Master seem to constitute his limit in matters of examining social neighborhoods.

... and Edifício Master, 2002

Public domain image… and Edifício Master, 2002Public domain image

An integral part of this person-to-person cinema is the exposure of the documentation process within the film itself. The arrivals of the team, which were always documented by a support camera that doubled the axis of vision of the main camera, had become one of his hallmarks since Cabra marcado para morrer. Likewise, the image of the director, face to face with his interlocutors and almost completely unaware of the technical apparatus around him, appears intermittently; not to make it the catalyst of the spectacle of the information (as is the case with Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield), but just enough to underline the condition of an encounter and the nature of the conversation. The montage also assimilates dialogue “noises,” payment of appearance fees, bits of conversation on the sidelines, etc., elements that are normally deleted during the editing of traditional documentaries.

However, there were well-defined ethical limits for this exposure. Coutinho’s humanist tendency, together with his long experience in contacts with the disadvantaged, led him to be ever more careful with the words of others. Always guided by a concern to not feed into stereotypes, nor make generalizations or damage the image of his “characters,” he often sacrificed dramatically strong or potentially amusing scenes. His limit is the moral integrity and social dignity of The Other.

This ethic also appeared in the refusal to treat interviews as only one piece in the gears of a story or as a preconceived notion. Especially in his more recent films, Coutinho did not cut his interviews up into smaller pieces for the sake of the convenience of a thematic presentation or to produce artificial contrasts and interactions. Each person remained on the scene until he established himself as the subject of his own discourse and the owner of a consistent human story, no matter how small. It was not uncommon for interviewees to be able to transmit a complex interior life that pulsated through their words in the time they had before the camera.

By giving up audiovisual embellishments and reducing his esthetic to a matter of ethics, Eduardo Coutinho sought to restrain the pride of authorship, dissolving it into the act of simply listening to others. However, in doing so, he entered into a curious contradiction, since at the same time as his movies were being reduced to the essential and relied on pure popular speech, they were also becoming more and more unique and inseparable from their creator. Besides its worship of spontaneity, his method was also based on an engineering of the selection, cut, and purification that has its moment of epiphany in his filming.

Coutinho became the most important and influential modern-day Brazilian documentary maker, not only due to his judicious way of proceeding, but also because of the body of work he produced throughout his career. In it, the themes evolved like the branches of a constructivist tree, moving from film to film and changing in nature from secondary to principal themes. Popular religiosity was the object of his growing attention in Santa Marta: duas semanas no morro (Santa Marta: two weeks on the hill), O fio da memória and Santo forte, which always returned as a supporting interest in later films. Life in the shantytown was present in Santa Marta, Santo forte and in Babilônia 2000 (Babylon 2000). Family rivalries in the Brazilian Northeast were in focus in the fictional Faustão and in the documentary Exu, uma tragédia sertaneja (Exu, a tragedy of the Sertão). Power in the countryside was the theme of Cabra marcado para morrer and Teodorico, o Imperador do Sertão. Survival eked out from trash was touched on A lei e a vida (The law and life) before it became the central theme of Boca de lixo (Scavengers).

Underlying these major themes were some recurring sub-themes. Food and death, for example, are unusually common in the situations and stories presented by Coutinho. Family relations are fertile ground for his dramaturgy of the real, with roots going back to his picking up the pieces of Elizabete Teixeira’s family in Cabra. Added to this is the affirmative strength of women, another constant ingredient in works as different as Cabra, Mulheres no front (Women at the front), O fio da memória, Santo forte, Babilônia 2000 and Jogo de cena (Playing).

The masterpiece Edifício Master reached the screens in 2002, at a time when documentaries were seen as one of the stars in the resurgence of Brazilian cinema. As diversified as fiction films, documentaries were popular with the public, exhibited in movie theaters and on TV, received support and sponsorship and had repercussions in festivals, etc. The discreet Eduardo Coutinho was an important part of that rebirth and his works were seen as a benchmark of quality and commitment.

Since then, his everyday works followed paths that became increasingly experimental. While in O fim e o princípio, one of his most essential films, he began at ground zero of documentary making (without preliminary research, defined locations, or chosen characters), to reap pure popular expression in the interior of the state of Paraíba. In his later films, he curiously moved towards different keys of the artistic universe.

The idea of representation, embraced and encouraged in the interview movies, came to the forefront in Jogo de cena, a minor revolution in Brazilian documentaries, which brought it to the level of the most interesting international experiences. Coutinho radicalized his procedure of indifference, true information and self-fiction in interviews. The recourse to both better and lesser known actresses, together with real personalities served to relativize the value of truth and shift the emphasis to the stories being told, to the detriment of the legitimacy of those who told them.

Moscou brought this criterion to the field of theater, inverting the flow between art and life. Here, the actors were encouraged to insert their personal memories into the semantic field of Chekhov’s work. In As canções (The Songs), the director dedicated an entire movie to what was just an additional resource in so many others. Song, which was sometimes used to reveal the deep identity of the characters, here became the main device. In turn, Um dia na vida (One day in the life), dissected the sub-artistic maelstrom of Brazilian TV.

The finished or unfinished projects left by Coutinho indicate his openness to both new scenarios and to a revisiting of past scenarios. One of them consisted of his return to an encounter with characters from several of his films, not to mention the reencounter of characters from Cabra for the extra feature on the DVD. Thus, his works had been unfolding into themselves in a unique process in terms of Brazilian moviemaking. For someone who had previously rejected the idea of returning “to the scene of the crime,” this was a change and then some. Death, so present in many of his films, interrupted what had been the definitive encounter between Eduardo Coutinho and his most mature dreams.

Carlos Alberto Mattos is a film critic and researcher. The preceding text was adapted and updated from the introduction to his book: Eduardo Coutinho, o homem que caiu na real (Eduardo Coutinho, the man who “got it”) (Festival of Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal, 2004).