[Written for a booklet that accompanied the film series Cruzamentos: Contemporary Brazilian Documentary. The booklet contained a perceptive overview of Brazilian documentaries by Ferñao Pessoa Ramos and this essay, which looked at the series through the lens of portrayals of the northeast of Brazil and the sertão in particular.]

“The sertão will become the seen and the seen the sertão.”*

What is this place called the sertão that seems to occupy a significant part of Brazil’s cultural imagination? In terms of geography, the sertão (often translated into English as “backlands”) is the arid, often drought-stricken region in the country’s northeast. Throughout Brazil’s history, most settlers have clung to the country’s fertile, curving shorelines, and the rugged individualists who forged inward into the sertão have been seen as living outside of society. Sometimes these sertanejos are seen as emblematic of Brazil. At other times they’re seen as a problem that must be solved. Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands: The Canudos Campaign (Os sertões: Campanha de Canudos, 1902), one of the defining books of Brazilian literature, emblematizes the sertão’s inhabitants as “the other.” The sertão is often portrayed as a place full of pain, exploitation, independence, and tradition. It is more in touch with the past, with eternity. The history of Brazilian documentary seems inexorably tied to the sertão.

The 1960 short Aruanda (directed by Linduarte Noronha) has all the hallmarks of the Direct Cinema approach that was beginning to dominate documentary filmmaking at the time, although it also harkens back to the work of the American filmmaker Robert Flaherty in its fictional recreations of life in the sertão. It became a foundational text for the politically committed, theory-fuelled Cinema Novo filmmakers in the years to follow for the way it merged its impoverished form (made outside of the industry and with few resources) with its impoverished subject (a community of descendants of runaway slaves in the sertão). The Cinema Novo movement, which adapted neorealism for distinctly Brazilian terrains, remains the most examined moment in Brazilian cinema and many of its most defining films were set in the northeast, including Barren Lives (Vidas Secas, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963) and Black God, White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Glauber Rocha, 1964). Inspired by the literature and mythologies of the northeast, these films also influenced most future portrayals of the region. In one of many examples, the global hit Central Station (Central do Brasil, Walter Salles, 1998) is a conscious revisiting of the sertão of dos Santos and Noronha to update and reassess the landscape and the people in a contemporary setting.

Within the Cruzamentos: Contemporary Brazilian Documentary series are a number of films that deal with the sertão and the northeast. By focusing on those films, it’s possible to tease out shifts in documentary film practices, both in Brazil and globally.

Twenty Years Later (Cabra Marcado Para Morrer, Eduardo Coutinho, 1985) is almost universally acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Brazilian cinema and—along with Iracema (Jorge Bodanzky, Orlando Senna, 1974), set in the Amazon, the other sprawling, mysterious region of Brazil—serves as a foundational text for the Cruzamentos film series. Released during the final year of the twenty-year military dictatorship that the film bookends, in one single work we have a bridge from the neorealism of Cinema Novo to the new emphasis on documentary in Brazilian cinema that seems to grow with each passing year.

Coutinho is now regarded as the most central figure in the history of Brazilian documentary (although I would go further, get rid of national boundaries, and argue that he is as significant a documentarian as any of the other titans of his generation, such as Fredrick Wiseman, Claude Lanzmann, or the Maysles brothers) but he started off making fiction films. Around the same time dos Santos and Rocha were filming in the sertão, Countinho headed there to make a feature film about João Pedro Teixeira, a farm labor organizer who was assassinated in 1962 by local police (with the support of landowners in the region). Coutinho started shooting the film with a nonprofessional cast, most notably with Teixeira’s outspoken widow playing herself. About halfway through the shoot, the production was shut down by the new government in power after the military coup that launched the dictatorship. In the 1980s, after the regime began to weaken, Coutinho regained the footage and set out to find out what happened to the film’s cast. This is no mere plot summary because it sets up what was to become a central element of Coutinho’s films: an emphasis on the process of how these films are made and how their subjects are decided upon. Coutinho was forced to make himself a presence in Twenty Years Later and his later films build upon this discovery, presenting a portrait of a documentarian that is as much of a seeker as he is a shaper. The finished film exemplifies a trait of many of the finest Brazilian documentaries: by focusing in great detail upon a very precise subject (in this case, the quest for Mrs. Teixeira and what happened to her and her children in the interceding years), a portrait of something much larger emerges (the history of an entire country under two decades of dictatorship).

An occasional contemporary criticism of the Cinema Novo films is that they were made by leftist intellectuals imposing their ideas and preconceptions upon the stories and people of the sertão. Had Coutinho made the film he initially set out to make in 1964, he too would have likely fallen into this category. The intervention of time and history into the film’s creation caused it to shift from being a story that Coutinho wanted to tell into one that he had to discover. This new approach is apparent in The End and the Beginning (O Fim e o princípo, Eduardo Coutinho, 2006) the film that he made upon returning to the sertão almost twenty years after Twenty Years Later. Process is foregrounded by scenes with the director and his crew deciding on a strategy for making inroads with whatever small village in the northeast that they decide to film. Once they’ve found a guide, Coutinho still continues to reveal the film’s evolution. Dead-ends are left in the film as if to show approaches Coutinho don’t want to take. He wants to get encounters he couldn’t have planned and he wants the encounters with his subjects to shape the film. Eventually, Coutinho finds a village that he can make comfortable enough to charm into revealing itself. He visits with each person several times over the course of his two-week stay, and the drama of the film consists of the development of Coutinho’s conversations with these homespun philosophers. Coutinho is trying to find a more authentic way to discover the character of the fabled sertanejos.

The Earth Giveth, The Earth Taketh Away [Terra Deu, Terra Come] (Rodrigo Siqueira, 2009) doesn’t literally take place in the sertão; it’s filmed in a small community of former runaway slaves near the historic diamond mining city of Diamantina in the interior state of Minas Gerais. In other words, it’s just a bit south of the end of the sertão. But the southern edge of the sertão in Minas Gerais has its own slightly different connotations and literatures. Rather than Euclides da Cunha and his rebelling fanatics, the book most people associate with the area is João Guimarães Rosa’s untranslatable classic The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Grande Sertão; Veredas, 1956), a book whose place in Brazilian literature is often compared with James Joyce’s Ulysses in English. An almost mythic tale told in dense, labyrinthine prose, the book mirrors the peculiar landscape where each aimless path can seemingly take you in every direction.

Inspired by a line where the book’s main character says, “the sertão is inside us,” director Siqueira has made a film that seems to slip outside of time and place. The Earth Giveth, The Earth Taketh consists primarily of monologues by Pedro de Alexina, one of the last keepers of regional funereal traditions that extend beyond Brazil to the African villages where many of the colonial-era workers of the mine originated. By the end of the film, tradition and imagination seem indistinguishable, which seems like an apt way to describe many portrayals of the sertão. As a result, the film exemplifies a number of the traits prominent in many recent Brazilian documentaries: a complex character study, an inquiry into the country’s cultural history, slippage between documentary and fiction, and an examination of the relationship between filmmaker and subject, to name a few.

Filmmakers have found various ways to get outside of the traditional reexaminations and reinforcements of the stereotypes and clichés of northeasterners (the stoic machos, the long-suffering women). The previously discussed Coutinho films focused on individuals rather than types. Rodrigo Siqueira went mythic. Two other films in the Cruzamentos series aim to show the region as less homogenous than usually portrayed. Early in his career, Karim Aïnouz, one of Brazil’s most sensitive and sensual feature filmmakers, made the autobiographical short documentary Seams (1993), which serves as a dual portrait. It’s a loving tribute to his five elderly aunts, the women who raised and shaped Aïnouz. Their influence is so primary that Seams gives the impression of the northeast as being a near matriarchal society. But the abandonment and cruelties of the men linger just off-screen, especially in the sections of the film that serve as Aïnouz’s account of growing up gay in this land of machos. Similarly, Look at Me Again (Olhe Pra Mim de Novo, Claudia Priscilla, Kiko Goifman, 2011) is a road movie about being an outsider in the sertão. The film’s guide is Silvyo Lucio, who was born a woman, lived most of her life as a lesbian, and then took steps to become a man. Lucio relates to being a northeastern macho, even though he remains very much an outsider. He heads out to cross the sertão on a personal journey, and along the way meets various other groups that feel out of place in this rigid environment: LBGT youth, a man whose paternity is questioned by his family, and a group of adults with genetic diseases. He finds common ground with these disparate people through their struggles with the expectations and prejudices of their society.

But the sertão is not the northeast. There other climates and geographies and, most notably, a string of large cities along the Atlantic coastline. However, the sertão’s history, traditions, and proximity can be felt even in urban environments. So while the sertão is not the northeast, the northeast is the sertão. The largest city in the region, Recife, has developed one of the most exciting film communities in the country. (São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have more established filmmaking traditions, often tied to industry, while Recife and Belo Horizonte have scenes that foster independent filmmaking and are often tied to other art-making practices.) The Recife film that has received the most global attention, Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012), is most often described as a drama about modern urban environments and many international critics have said that the film could take place in any major metropolitan area. Yet the film ties Recife’s present-day situation into distinctly northeastern histories.

An entire film series could be devoted to the documentaries produced in Recife in the past few years. Nearly all of them are made by young filmmakers and they show a stronger than usual use of formal and conceptual conceits in order to get at subtle political or cultural ideas. Instead of surveying the Recife scene, Cruzamentos provides a mini-spotlight on Recife filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro by including two of his features: High-Rise (Um Lugar ao Sol, 2009) and Housemaids (Doméstica, 2012). Housemaids is the more conceptual of the two. In it Mascaro commissioned children to make films about their housemaids. Mascaro’s act of “directing” was to select the children and to assemble the footage. The resulting footage displays an intimacy and raises questions that he would never been able to get at by shooting the footage himself. Both films were shot in multiple cities in different parts of the country, and both films see Mascaro creating mosaics of Brazilian life as it is lived all over. Mascaro isn’t making films about the sertão, but it’s worth noting that while filmmakers from around the country used to come to the northeast to explore their national identity, now a filmmaker from the northeast is travelling across Brazil to explore the nation’s identity. Turnabout is fair play.

Another Recife-based artist, Jonathas de Andrade, inaugurates the Wexner Center’s Cruzamentos screenings with his recent video The Uprising (O Levante, 2012-13). The video has a fascinating, complex backstory that’s as important as the resulting artwork and an installation in the center’s Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil exhibition (on view in conjunction with this film series) provides additional details. The Uprising shows the urban streets of Recife turned over to the horses, carts, and riders that once played a crucial role in city life (and are still present despite being recently outlawed). As the video’s title makes explicit, all of Brazil’s long history of discontents are allegorized in this vision of the people – the dispossessed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the landless – taking over the city.

Getting to the heart of many of the central ideas in the Cruzamentos film series, de Andrade’s video consists primarily of two documentary elements: footage of the horse race that de Andrade initiated (a fictional structure for a real event) and video and audio of an aboiador (a regional folk singer) who unexpectedly showed up at the event. By fusing these ostensibly documentary elements, de Andrade has created what could be called a speculative documentary. Filmed just months before real uprisings overtook cities across Brazil, The Uprising documents a reality that could, but doesn’t, exist. He also shows a vision of the northeast that doesn’t have to be equated with rurality or poverty. We’re presented with a vision of the city that acknowledges its regional traditions and uniqueness. The Uprising is born from such a complex set of circumstances that documentary and fiction are indistinguishable. Tradition and invention are united again. The sertão inside us in unleashed upon the world. This metaphorical sertão is reprocessed through an artist’s vision and made manifest. Is that a documentary? What is a documentary?

*The title of this essay plays off the phrase “The sertão will become the sea, and the sea the sertão.” Originally attributed to the renegade prophet Antônio Conselheiro in Euclides da Cunha’s Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, the quote became a prominent refrain spoken by a Conselheiro-like character in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo no terra do sol, 1964).

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.

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