image My awakening to Brazil’s documentary scene came when I first saw Jose Padilha’s gripping BUS 174 (pictured) at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Since then, I’ve seen a smattering of other Brazilian docs and heard great things about the country’s festival It’s All True named after Orson Welles’ unfinished work. My colleague Diana Sanchez who programs Latin American films for the Toronto International Film Festival suggested that I reach out to the scholar Jose Carlos Avellar, who’s written extensively on Brazilian film and literature. (If you read Portuguese, visit his website

In answering my simple questions, Avellar opens up a robust national cinema movement full of directors who were new to me, but whose work I’m eager to explore. I’ve linked several names and titles to other resources below to encourage further exploration.


Jose Carlos Avellar: Let me exaggerate a little: the tradition of modern Brazilian cinema is documentary. It goes beyond documentary films. Documentaries created the basis for the invention of Cinema Novo and its hand held camera narrative, where the filmmaker more or less improvised action as a kind of reporter. That is why many Cinema Novo directors cross between documentary and fiction. Among the documentaries from the sixties, we can keep the ones by the late Leon Hirszman and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (who received a retrospective at the 2007 New York Film Festival); and most of the 28 films from the series “A Condição Brasileira” produced by Thomas Farkas – for example VIRAMUNDO and VIVA CARIRI! by Geraldo Sarno; and MEMORIES OF THE CANGAÇO by Paulo Gil Soares. 

Three radical gestures in the following years made the bridge to the films of today: DI CALVACANTI (1978) by Glauber Rocha;  IMAGENS DO INCONSCIENTE (1988) by Leon Hirszman; and a very special documentary around a fiction (based in a true story) interrupted by the military coup d’état of 1964 , CABRA MARCADO PARA MORRER (1984) by Eduardo Coutinho.

Two poetical gestures in the middle of the bridge, short documentaries made in 1989: CARAJUJO FLOR by Joel Pizzini and ILHA DAS FLORES by Jorge Furtado.

In very different ways, the filmmaker is in the middle of the film – not only as a reporter, an interviewer, a more or less distant or not compromised observer, but as part of the story the film tells. And more, in all those documentaries as strong as the question the film documents is the poetic narrative they construct. Those signals opened space for the wide field of documentaries we have today, going from an autobiographical (HUNGARIAN PASSPORT by Sandra Kogut and 33 by Kiko Goifman) to the gentle and careful observation of the other (JUSTIÇA and JUIZO by Maria Augusta Ramos) or a gentle conversation with the other (EDIFICIO MASTER and JOGO DE CENA by Eduardo Coutinho) passing by investigations of recent episodes of Brazilian political and social life (BUS 174 by José Padilha; and O PRISONEIRO DA GRADE DE FERRO by Paulo Sacramento), going still through tense conversation in the border of madness (ESTAMIRA by Marcos Prado) and coming to the discussion on the possibilities and limits of the documentary (SANTIAGO by João Moreira Salles) or the possibility of making a documentary with almost no-subject, looking around, improvising on the emptiness (ACIDENTE and ANDARILHO by Cao Guimarães).

Any conversation about documentaries in Brazil is impossible without a direct reference to the Brazilian fiction films, because both are many times together, in a kind of fusion, one film going from one to the other side of the border. MUTUM (2007) by Sandra Kogut based in a novel by João Guimarães Rosa, almost forgot entirely the screenplay in the shooting made in a documentary: the camera follows the natural gestures and dialogues of non-actors invited to improvise his daily life for the filming. Also the shooting and the editing style of LINHA DE PASSE (2008) by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas is close to documentary: the screenplay is an impulse to the improvisations in the shooting. Both films act as documentaries, in the same way that two documentaries employ fiction: JUIZO by Maria Augusta Ramos in which young people reenact what criminal kids said to the judge and JOGO DECENA by Eduardo Coutinho in which actresses speak the words of real characters. Those four films are recent examples of the impulse to make cinema cross borders.  But maybe we can say this move starts on the documentary side of the border.


Avellar: Documentaries in Brazil are made for movie theaters. Television, the natural space for documentaries in almost all places in the world, is regarded by Brazilian audiences as the home of fiction –  stories that have no real connection to reality. This perception came from the time of military dictatorship, from the middle 60s to the end of 70s, when censorship was more effective in television due to the centralized production system. The cinema was more difficult to control because of independent production. For the public, television is fiction, cinema is reality. The most successful fictions films in last decade are all based in true stories. Documentaries occupy a significant part of the films distributed in movie theaters. In 2002 a documentary around blindness, JANELA DA ALMA by João Jardim and Walter Carvalho, was among the most successful films of the year.


Avellar: Documentaries look for funds side by side with fiction. They are seen as a starting point to enter in the cinematographic world. Three names to pay attention for the next years: Marília Rocha, because of ABOIO (2005); Evaldo Mocarzel because of his non-stop film making; and Eryk Rocha, for his recently finished PACHA MAMA, an improvised road trip through Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.

Let’s also mention two films just finishing right now, both with a new documentary voice: José Padilha’s GARAPA, opening this month at the Berlin Film Festival,  and TODO ISTO ME PARECE UM SONHO (IT ALL SEEMS A DREAM) by Geraldo Sarno, who won the Best Director award at the Brasilia Film Festival in November.