In the 2000s, videos produced by residents living in the outskirts of the city of São Paulo called the attention of researchers to a new expression of video activism. It was the work of groups that questioned the representations of the poorer areas of the city and of their inhabitants. The lowered prices and the easier portability of audiovisual equipment, combined with increased access to training courses and funding options for production, have motivated young people to come together and create groups dedicated to showing a new vision of São Paulo. Unlike what were known as “the people’s videos” in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, which were politically oriented and focused on workers’ struggles and movements against the dictatorship, twenty-first century video activism addresses social demands, cultural expressions, and identity-based representations of lower-income populations.
Anthropologist Guilhermo Aderaldo, a postdoctoral student in the Department of Anthropology within the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), who is currently a research intern at the University of Buenos Aires, recently released Reinventando a cidade – Uma etnografia das lutas simbólicas entre coletivos culturais videoativistas nas “periferias” de São Paulo (Reinventing the City: An ethnography of the symbolic struggles among video activist cultural collectives in the lower-income regions of São Paulo), the result of his doctoral dissertation from USP. The researcher attributes the emergence of collectives to the work of organizations—and of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in particular—that have started offering courses and workshops on audiovisual education for young people in the lower-income regions of São Paulo, which are often located on the outskirts of the city. “These courses have helped to proliferate and influence the emergence of festivals and shows. Government agencies have created funding programs to foster a production model that has come to be known as favela cinema, peripheral cinema, community cinema, ‘divergent’ cinema, the people’s cinema, or ‘broke’ cinema,” he says. The Valuing the Cultural Initiative Program (VAI), in effect in the city of São Paulo since 2003, was part of this process. It has funded artistic and cultural activities among low-income youth. VAI has subsidized 956 projects for activities among young people from the outskirts of São Paulo. These efforts have corresponded to R$18 million, according to official figures from the city. A total of 143 audiovisual initiatives have been supported thus far. The other projects involved different cultural activities, such as theater and music.
Aderaldo analyzed the ambivalent nature of some of these training programs created by NGOs, since these institutions offer technical training in video production while also employing an institutional language based on the logic of social responsibility. Aderaldo says that this language, rather than treating young people as political players claiming their rights, may end up portraying them as having only the moral condition of “vulnerable victims” simply waiting for opportunities in the market. Another problem is that some of the training providers later hired these young people under the table, without formally registering them as employees and at salaries below market value. According to Aderaldo, discontent with this situation was one of the factors that led several young people, especially those with more schooling or with a history of involvement in social movements, to organize around the filmmaking collectives focused on independent audiovisual production as a way to implement their knowledge beyond the scope of the non-profit sector.
Aderaldo’s research addresses the works of urban ethnographers such as American researcher William Foote-White (1914–2000) and French researcher Michel Agier (1953–), as well as theorists from the field of cultural studies who have proposed interdisciplinary analyses of aspects of the culture. These theorists include Stuart Hall of Jamaica (1932–2014) and Homi Bhabha of India (1949–). Aderaldo arrived at his findings through research focused on the observation of the daily experiences of young people who participated in collectives. One of the groups studied was Cinescadão, formed by residents of northern São Paulo. The collective organized cultural activities in the Peri favela, or slum, where most of its members live. These activities included the video production, film showings, presentations by rap groups, and murals painted in different areas of the city. One of the films produced by the collective was Imagens Peri Féricas (Peripheral Images, a play on words using the name of the favela), which shows a series of actions practiced by the collective. The focus of the film was the cultural activities carried out in the community. A showing of this movie to the Peri favela community was organized as well.
Aderaldo also studied the activities of the Popular Video Collective (CVP) network, which brought together different groups interested in audiovisual production and which also included media groups involved in social movements. “The network has integrated audiovisual work into the social reality of populations that, though geographically distant, exhibit symbolic proximity,” reports the researcher. This was the case, for instance, with a favela on the northern outskirts of São Paulo and an occupation that took place downtown to reflect the struggle for housing in the city center.
Gabriel de Barcelos Sotomaior, a journalist with a doctorate in multimedia from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and a scholar of filmmaking based on social movements, says that video activism is also present in rural organizations. One example is the work of the Audiovisual Brigade organized by the peasants’ rights group known as Via Campesina, which has also participated in the CVP network. Created in the first half of the 2000s, the group brought together organizations such as the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), the political organization known as the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), and the Brazilian non-profit known as the Pastoral Committee for the Land (CPT). Their purpose was to show a new perspective on the representation of the struggle for land rights. “The collective came about as the result of a college course in which the students were dissatisfied with the way audiovisual topics were addressed; they created a series of documentaries with records, discussions, and demonstrations of the daily experiences in the field,” says Sotomaior, who runs the site known as Cinemovimento, with works on audiovisual topics and social struggles.
From the construction of these “communicative bridges” between collectives and social movements from different regions of the city, Aderaldo argues that a new type of interpretation of the landscape and the inequalities of the metropolis emerged. “The concept of ‘the outskirts,’ which in corporate media is usually represented as being synonymous with fixed, low-income areas, has given way to new representations,” he says. In these new interpretations, “the outskirts” come to refer to sites of mobile processes in which people and places connect because of unequal access to rights. For the researcher, audiovisual experiences have allowed young people to redefine the meaning of the urban landscape, to the point where they broke with the institutional language that conceives of them only as dependent or in need of protection. Aderaldo notes that the meanings of the words “outskirts” and “favela” change depending on the context in which they are used. “While some institutional entities may speak of ‘the outskirts’ as equivalent to needy and violent places, rappers often use the term to designate notions such as struggle, honor, or resistance,” he says.
Sociologist Noel dos Santos Carvalho, coordinator of the degree program in Social Communication and Mediology of the Art Institute of the University of Campinas (IA-UNICAMP), contextualizes the argument of the young people who position themselves as protagonists in the audiovisual representations in the outskirts of the city as part of a broader movement. According to the researcher, with the emergence of new social movements in the 1960s, minority groups slowly gained a voice and the power of self-representation; these groups include the LGBT community, black Brazilians, women, and indigenous peoples, and their movements have shifted the boundaries between the traditional Brazilian concepts of the urban center and the urban periphery. “Where are the center and the periphery if we speak of indigenous groups in relation to black Brazilians?” he asks.
An interlaced history
Although the collectives studied by Aderaldo grew most significantly in the first half of the 2000s, video activism has been in practice since before digital platforms and social networks were available. “Video activism is often confused with the history of documentaries and video art. If understood as a way of generating visibility for a cause, a group of people, or a certain situation, this practice has existed since the very emergence of the documentary as a medium,” observes Tarcísio Torres, a professor in the graduate program in Languages, Media, and Art at the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (PUC-Campinas) and author of the book Ativismo digital e imagem – Estratégias de engajamento e mobilização em rede (Digital Activism and Imaging: Strategies for network mobilization and engagement). The development of the documentary as a genre is associated with American filmmaker Robert Flaherty (1884–1951), and, in particular, with Nanook of the North and Moana, produced in the 1920s (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 255).
Torres recalls that the launch of the Portapak camera in the 1960s, lighter and cheaper than its predecessors, provided a series of experiences among the first video artists, among them American artist and director Andy Warhol (1928–1987) and South Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006). Meanwhile, the practices of video activism as they are known today consider the 1999 Seattle WTO protests to be an important historical moment. That year, activists from various fronts united in the United States to protest the neoliberal ideas that they believed had permeated the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting. The demonstration resulted in the creation of the Independent Media Center (Indymedia), a platform for independent videos that offers content from the point of view of the demonstrators in order to provide an alternative to the narratives provided by corporate media.
“Today, Indymedia is a network of platforms spread around the world. In Brazil, its name has been translated to Central de Mídia Independente,” explains Torres. When the YouTube video platform was launched in 2005, there was already an extensive network of organized activist content. “The new channel represented a way to spread information that was already being used, and improvements in Internet connections created the possibility of dynamic and immediate sharing,” notes the PUC-Campinas professor.
In Brazil, documentary filmmaker Denis Porto Renó, a professor in the Department of Social Communication at São Paulo State University (UNESP) in Bauru, pinpoints the beginnings of video activism between 1970 and 1980, when the practice was referred to as “the people’s videos” in Brazil. At the forefront of this movement was the Brazilian Association of the People’s Video (ABVP), one of the founders of which was Luiz Fernando Santoro, a professor at the School of Communication and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). In the 1980s, Santoro wrote a groundbreaking thesis on the presence of video activism in the country. “In the late 1970s, unions and social movements began to fund the production of films to combat the military dictatorship. These filmmakers were not concerned with the language of film, and their purpose was to make the ideas circulate in society,” says Santoro, distinguishing between these productions and films made by current collectives.
Santoro states that, while the recent groups express a previously non-existent concern with audiovisual language, they also have little circulation in the spaces of formation of public opinion. On the other hand, the ABVP created practices to spread these videos throughout the country in the 1970s and 1980s. These practices included showings at union headquarters and to social entities on the television channel TV dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ TV). The association also maintained partnerships with schools so that teachers could rent the videos produced and show them in the classroom.
In addition, Santoro recalls that, in the 1970s and 1980s, video activism focused on issues such as struggles to increase factory workers’ salaries, and that today’s collectives focus on cultural expression and the representation of identities. “In an environment of greater democratic participation, the range of topics covered is broader and encompasses more specialized issues of social rights and citizenship,” compares Carvalho.
A period of transition
The phenomenon of the collective in the 2000s has undergone many changes. Today, faced with Brazil’s economic recession and cuts in public spending, the situation has become unfavorable. The CVP network, for example, has been demobilized. “In addition to personal issues among participants, political and economic changes in the country have also impacted video production. There is less funding, fewer public bid invitations, and less dialogue with the government,” says Aderaldo. He explains that the Cinescadão collective has been reconfigured since the time when he studied it, but it is still active. The researcher, however, identifies the emergence of new collectives, some of which are made up solely of women, and some of which adopt gender inequality and racial issues as their central focuses. “Video activism is a dynamic field, and it changes according to the political temperature of the times,” concludes the researcher.
ADERALDO, G. Reinventando a cidade – Uma etnografia das lutas simbólicas entre coletivos culturais videoativistas nas “periferias” de São Paulo. São Paulo: Annablume, 2017.
SANTORO, L. F. A imagem nas mãos – O vídeo popular no Brasil. São Paulo: Summus, 1989.
SILVA, T. T. Ativismo digital e imagem – Estratégias de engajamento e mobilização em rede. Jundiaí: Paco Editorial, 2016.