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Issue 174

Brazilian Cinema and the Hybrid Documentary

Presenting documentary stories using techniques from fictional narrative cinema, these films aim to tell a greater truth than conventional reportage could offer

BY Aaron Cutler in Critic's Guides | 25 SEP 15

Adirley Queirós, White Out, Black In, 2015

Brazil’s military government came to power in 1964 and ended in 1985, when it transitioned into a problematic democracy. The goodwill engendered by recent populist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been largely squandered by his successor, Dilma Rousseff, whose narrowly won 2014 re-election has been followed by public protests and widespread calls for impeachment. Brazil today is a politically divided nation, with many of its people at odds over what constitutes fact and fiction in its governance.

Concurrently, a particular kind of filmmaking has gained domestic and international prominence in the country over the past few years. ‘Hybrid films’ present documentary stories using techniques from fictional narrative cinema. In doing so, they aim to tell a greater truth about a group of people’s circumstances than conventional reportage could offer. Oppressed peoples whose voices have been excluded from mainstream media narratives are given room to speak.

Some prominent past examples of hybrid filmmaking from world cinema include Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (1984), Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) and Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000). These films are often set within working-class communities and feature real-life residents playing versions of themselves as they work through the meanings of significant personal events and major changes that their surroundings have undergone.

Within recent Brazilian cinema, one can similarly look to films such as Marcelo Pedroso’s Brazilian Dream, Davi Pretto’s Castanha, Affonso Uchoa’s The Hidden Tiger and Gustavo Vinagre’s Nova Dubai (all 2014), which find various ways to tell tales of lives affected by their country’s development. These narratives are often assembled in piecemeal, episodic structures that implicitly combat the techniques of linear storytelling, and they deal primarily with their protagonists’ feelings, impressions and immediate sensations in contrast to the methods of impersonal official histories.

Adirley Queirós is a former regional league professional football player who hails from Ceilândia, an impoverished satellite city of the nation’s capital, Brasília. His parents were two of the many migrant workers who came to build Brazil’s new governmental centre in the 1960s and ’70s and who were subsequently expelled to that city’s outskirts, where he grew up. Queirós and the members of his production company, Coletivo de Cinema em Ceilândia (CEICINE), look for ways to record people living with the split identity of being both from Brasília and excluded from it. They produce ensemble narratives using an extended research process that involves interviewing people who eventually play versions of themselves onscreen. Queirós and CEICINE's remarkable first feature-length work, Is the City One Only? (2011), initially appears to be a documentary focused on two figures – an older female singer from Ceilândia who recalls a jingle that she recorded to promote Brasília’s construction, and her nephew, who runs for present-day political office with tragicomic results. The film’s protagonists, both of whom initially believed in an egalitarian society, come to realize that they have been deceived. The film’s viewers, in turn, eventually discover that much of what they have watched has been fiction spun cheerfully by Queirós and his collaborators in response to their government’s lies.

White Out, Black In (2015), Queirós’s second feature, begins with still photographs and a man relating the story of how police raided a Ceilândia dance party in 1986 and crippled some of the predominantly black attendees. This man, a DJ named Marquim, moves around his home in a wheelchair as he reflects upon what happened to him. His story is intercut with that of the prosthetic-leg-bearing visual artist Shockito, who similarly considers the contemporary urban wasteland surrounding him while recalling the ruins of his past. A third, overtly fictional storyline eventually emerges involving an extraterrestrial detective sent by spaceship to Ceilândia to investigate the Brazilian state’s crimes against impoverished black people. The three men ultimately work together in a way that uses art to turn a dream of revenge into reality.

Queirós’s basic unit of scene structure is the monologue, with people addressing the camera in an effort to create solidarity between protagonist and viewer. The scenes in André Novais Oliveira’s films, by contrast, are typically built upon conversations between two people before the camera as they develop a relationship. The locations most prominently showcased in this young filmmaker’s body of work – which, to date, includes several short films as well as the feature-length She Comes Back on Thursday (2014), all made through the production company Filmes de Plástico – are his family’s home and workplaces in the industrial town of Contagem, located near the much larger city of Belo Horizonte. The main characters are played by Novais Oliveira’s parents, his brother, his girlfriend and the pudgy, bespectacled director himself.

It is easy to feel, while watching these films, that they serve largely as means through which to record the filmmaker’s loved ones. The short About a Month (2008), for instance, consists almost entirely of conversations between the filmmaker and his partner, Élida Silpe, as they recall their relationship’s beginnings and discuss their hopes for its future. She Comes Back on Thursday similarly tries to mediate nostalgia and anticipation. The film opens with a succession of still photographs of the director’s parents in the early stages of their marriage and their children’s youth, all proceeding to the tune of Cassiano’s wistful love song ‘O Vale’ (The Valley, 1973). From there, a loose fiction develops in which Novais Oliveira returns home from a trip and the older couple, Maria José and Norberto, find their relationship tested by the patriarch’s infidelity, leading delicately towards a questioning of the family unit’s strength.

As with Queirós, music is vital to Novais Oliveira’s work. The pop melodies that flow throughout She Comes Back on Thursday evoke feelings of temporary peace and harmony, such as in one scene in which André and his brother, Renato, make YouTube discoveries together, or another in which Maria José and Norberto dance in their living room to a vintage Roberto Carlos song. The film itself becomes a hymn to the enduring rhythms of working-class life, formed by people whose relief and sustenance come from one another, even as their time together remains limited.

While Queirós and Novais Oliveira are ostensibly very different filmmakers, they both share a commitment to community-building through their work. It is worth noting that at the 2014 edition of the Brasília Festival for Brazilian Film – the country’s most prominent showcase for new independent national cinema – they and their rivals in the Best Feature competition agreed to split the prize’s cash reward equally amongst all the nominees, regardless of which film won. In a country with an uncertain path, they were already thinking about the future.

lives in São Paulo, Brazil. His film criticism website, The Moviegoer, is at aaroncutler.tumblr.com. The author would like to thank Filipe Furtado and Victor Guimarães for their research assistance.