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Uma Jornada Maravilhosa: Carlos Roberto de Sousa and Silent Cinema in Brazil

The Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso, just completing its fourth year, is one of the world’s most prominent silent film festivals.

Uma Jornada Maravilhosa: Carlos Roberto de Sousa and Silent Cinema in Brazil

The Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso, just completing its fourth year, is one of the world’s most prominent silent film festivals. Running from August 6–15 at São Paulo’s Cinemateca Brasileira, it included films from Brazil, America and Germany, with titles by Raoul Walsh, Victor Fleming and G.W. Pabst. In previous years the festival spotlighted German, French and Japanese archives; this year the focus shifted to Sweden, with a chance to see some Greta Garbo silents and a screening of the cult horror film Häxan on Friday the 13th. I spoke to Carlos Roberto de Sousa, the series curator, to learn more.

In this year’s festival, we have films from many different countries: America, Sweden, Germany, Brazil. I think that a lot of readers know that there was an American silent film industry and a German silent film industry, but they know little to nothing about the fact that Brazil had a silent film industry. So I was wondering if we could begin by talking about what the Brazilian silent film industry was like.

It was not very developed. It was very small. The main productions were the newsreels and documentaries and institutional documentaries, or sponsored documentaries. Because the movie theaters were occupied with American films, there was no distribution possibility for Brazilian films. And so the producers did not regain the investments. And then what they did, they looked for factories, industries, government powers, farmers—coffee farmers above all—and they asked, “Do you want me to make a film about your industry, or your farm, or your city, or anything like that?” This kind of production was the largest one. But the feature film production was very little. Sometimes the films were produced by the same people who made the documentaries, or by independent people who liked cinema so much that they decided, “Let us gather some money and make this scenario, this story, and try to distribute and…” But even the production companies that tried to make only feature films did not succeed.

So there were a few very small studios, but for the most part it was documentary filmmakers working independently. Is that correct?

Yes, yes.

And when did that change?

In the ‘30s, I believe, in Rio de Janeiro with this company, Cinédia, that was the first production company with equipment, laboratories, and studios. The founder of Cinédia was a film critic during the ‘20s, he wrote in magazines. And he invested all his personal fortune in this company. And obviously during the ‘30s there were the first laws passed ensuring that Brazilian films should be shown in movie theaters. But this first law promoted above all short films, not feature films. Only at the end of the ‘30s was there a law obliging movie theater owners to exhibit one Brazilian film for every eight foreign films.

So it was a quota.

Yes, it was a quota. And then in the ‘30s there was Cinédia, in the ‘40s there was Atlantida, a great production company, in the ‘50s there was Vera Cruz in São Paulo and other companies, also in São Paulo. And then the movie history changed, and there was more room for big companies. Above all there was the field for independent producers and filmmakers.

And then you get into the 1960s, with Cinema Novo and a sudden burst. When do Brazilian films go from silent to sound?

There was a period of five years transition. The first sound film—synchronized—was made in 1929, Acabarem-se os Otarios [The Gang Finishes Itself]. But that was a special case, it was not the beginning of a continual series. During some years there were films only made with synchronized music. In 1930, 1931 a film was made with synchronized music—not 100 percent talking, only partially—called Coisas Nossas [Our Things]. Then there was this mixture—films only with music, music and some dialogue. In 1933 for instance there is a great film called Ganga Bruta by Humberto Mauro, where there is music all the time and something like 12 scenes with dialogue.

So it was like in America, where you had a gradual transition process.

But it was quicker [in America] than in Brazil or in other countries.

Because the technology was better. Did the technology take a while to develop in Brazil?


You mentioned Humberto Mauro. The opening night film of this festival is Labios sem Beijos, a silent Mauro film. He was an important silent director. What can you tell me about his career?

He made four features in his village—he lived in Minas Gerais—that showed to people interested in Brazilian films that he was a very peculiar and very important and very personal filmmaker. Obviously he had an interest in dialogue with the people and the critics in Rio de Janeiro. He was kind of a master to the founders of Cinédia. It was almost automatic that when Gonzaga founded Cinédia, he invited Mauro to come to Rio de Janeiro and to make the first Cinédia production, which was Labios sem Beijos. It’s very interesting, because the first films of Humberto Mauro were very…his ideal American director was Henry King. His second film, Tesouro Perdido, is not a copy, but is very inspired by Tol’able David, all this rural life, etc. When he becomes very famous, he loses this kind of characteristic. Then he makes Labios sem Beijos (Lips without Kisses), showing in the festival], that is a typical urban film about young people who go to parties and girls who are a little audacious in their relations, and it’s a very good film. And then in August during the ‘30s and ‘40s he makes documentaries in the rural areas along with some feature films, and his work regains that rural characteristic. It’s fantastic, this kind of mixture that he makes with his personal tastes and with the urban lives and urban values, social values. When he becomes a major filmmaker, he regains all that peculiar taste from the beginning.

What do you mean peculiar?

He regains his style, a more direct link with his rural values. In his personal life, it’s also curious, because he returns to the country where he was born.

You made the Henry King comparison. How would you describe Labios sem Beijos’s visual style?

You probably have seen some silent films with Joan Crawford like Our Modern Daughters. It’s in this style, with this visual plasticity.

So the filmmaking is very fluid.

Yes, and visually it also has some signs of what was considered modernity in urban life. And it also has some documentary values in the beginning of the film. Before you meet the characters, you meet the city, and you see some of the crowds in the streets and the shops and the mountains and some beaches under a storm. It’s fantastic, because there is a storm that then links the characters in the story. And Ganga Bruta also begins with some documentary scenes. Mauro really was a very good documentarian.

Is [silent documentary filmmaker] Joris Ivens a useful comparison?

Yes. And I think you can make some comparisons between their lives. This taste for the documentary. Because you know that Mauro worked for more than 30 years in the National Institute for Educational Films, which was funded by the federal government. He had the ambition to make feature films that would be distributed in schools throughout the whole country, but it hardly reached out of Rio de Janeiro. And Mauro made something like 250 documentaries during this period and supervised a lot of other films made in the institution. And some films, which is where the comparison with Joris Ivens comes in, were above all films about industries. The fabrication of glass, the making of screws, and some films about chemical industries. They are very sensitive in explaining how things are made, who does this work, with a deep concern to show the man who makes the things.

It sounds like a large number of Brazilian silent films have a strong sympathy with the working class, which seems to me to be something unique about Brazilian silent films as opposed to silent films from other countries, which are more focused on the middle class. Is that correct?


How else are Brazilian silent films unique?

It’s hard to explain. We know a few silent Brazilian films. There are many that have not survived, and we have only a slight idea by photos of their images. But stills are not the film. And it’s not easy to say because we have only…some films are complete, others are only fragments, and for the great majority we have nothing. We have a research group here and we are very interested in answering this question. There are some texts that were written by some scholars from the group, and we have a serious intention to work on this. But I could not answer what is unique about Brazilian silent films.

Because there’s such a small sample size, so that the search for them becomes almost archeological.

Yes. Fiction films are very difficult to talk about. Some documentarians like Silvino Santos and Luis Thomaz Reis are very good. We are going to show three films from Reis and one film from Santos in the next [Italian silent film festival] Pordenone.

What is the relationship between this festival and Pordenone?

It’s a friendship. When we began to think about making the Jornada, one of the inspirations was Pordenone. We knew that it would not be as great as Pordenone, and this was not our intention. But since the beginning I’ve had very good relations with Paolo Cherchi Usai [Pordenone curator], and he stimulated the idea. After our first edition he asked me what I’d think if we had a permanent session with films that were screened in Pordenone. I said it was great. I loved the idea. And now he makes an annual list of 10 titles and we discuss, and I choose the films, and then he writes a text to introduce the selection. He calls us the Jornada Pordenone’s “younger sister,” and I call Pordenone our older sister.

What is unique about this year’s festival selection?

Annually, we choose a country to show not just examples of their silent films, but also a selection from their archive. Something that is unique about this year’s selection is that it was a very close collaboration with the Svensk FilmInstitutet’s Jon Wengström. He proposed some titles and we discussed other titles, and he proposed other titles. It was a very good collaboration, because in the beginning of this century at the Mostra Internacionale, a festival organized by Leon Cakoff, there was a show of Sjöström films—2005, I believe. And Jonn proposed that we bring some that were shown already in São Paulo, and I said no, we don’t want to show the same films. And he said that now he had some new restorations of some films, and would we agree to show them? And I said that we could show new restorations. It was very good. I think that this kind of a collaboration resulted in a show that is unique, as concerns the Swedish films, but also as concerns the foreign films that are kept in the Svensk.

You have a few Sjöström films, you have Terje Vigen, which is a legendary film—

It’s a new restoration!

You have a few Garbos, like Flesh and the Devil. What else this year are you especially pleased with?

I love this film, Bed and Sofa. I think that this is a discovery. One cannot lose this film. It’s a kind of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, but it is shot in Moscow. A lady that has two husbands, and the story is fantastic because it’s always absolutely socially explained. Because the second man comes to live with the couple because there is no place to live in Moscow. And then he becomes friends with the husband, and the husband invites him to live on the sofa. There are no rooms in the houses. And then obviously you can imagine, the husband travels, and there is a love affair between the friend and the lady, and then the husband comes back, and then the lady says, “I will have the two. I want my husband and my lover.” And then they live together, the three. And then I will not tell you the ending. It’s absolutely lovely filming. The space where they live is filmed beautifully. It’s not an intimate drama, because, for instance, the husband is a builder of the Bolshoi Theater, and you see the roof of the Bolshoi Theater and all the works. Absolutely extraordinary.

So it doesn’t keep the characters indoors. It’s constantly following them outside.

Yes. And The Nurtull Gang is also wonderful. A comedy in which all the leading characters are women. I think it’s the only comedy in the Swedish selection, the rest are more mysterious. And obviously the selections from Pordenone. Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration, and Clarence Badger’s Hands Up!, the best comedy in the Jornada. I had never seen a film with Raymond Griffith, and I think he’s fantastic.

What do you like about him?

He makes kind of an impassable character with an ironic smile. He’s a bad man who doesn’t play right with anyone.

He’s a trickster.

And he wears a tuxedo and a tall hat—in the West. He goes to Nevada and plays with Indians. It’s a surreal film. Not as surreal as When the Clouds Roll By [a Victor Fleming-Douglas Fairbanks film also showing in the Jornada]. And obviously also the Brazilian films, above all Companhia Mogyana and Companhia Paulista de Estrada de Ferro. Companhia Mogyana is lovely for me, because I am not from São Paulo, I am from the hinterlands. I love trains, and there’s a little sentimentality for me about it.

In America, about 25 percent of all silent films survive. Do you have a sense of the numbers for Brazil?

We have an estimate of 10 percent in terms of titles. This does not mean that we actually have 10 percent. From some films, as I was telling you, we have only fragments. For instance, we have fragments from a feature film that was made in the south of the country, and we have only four minutes.

So of all the Brazilian silent films that were made, you have only 10 percent of which you have anything, any piece whatsoever.


You mentioned that it’s tough to get a sense of the Brazilian silent film industry because you have so few surviving titles. Why did you choose this year’s Brazilian films, and do you think they’re representative?

I love trains. These two Companhia films are documentaries on railways. Companhia Paulista is a very interesting film because the film begins with a traveling shot that I think was the first one we saw in Brazilian films, and it takes almost five minutes. It’s a continuous shot that begins with a high plant with workers and lots of machines, and then the camera goes down, slowly, slowly, slowly, and then it pans—it’s absolutely extraordinary.

Is the camera on a crane while it’s panning?

Obviously, because afterwards we see this machine is picking up parts of the railway. It’s obvious that they put the camera up and then used the machine. This documentary shows, more than other films, the people who are working in the general services. The first part, almost half of the film, shows a big mountain of workers putting together locomotive pieces that come from the United States. They have to put in, in six months, more than 700 locomotives and railways. It’s concentrated on work. And the other one, Companhia Mogyana, is fantastic because it shows above all the train going in between the cities, and showing the railway stations, and showing people coming and going from the trains, and showing parts of the cities that move along the railways. It’s very beautiful, very poetic.

What opportunities do Brazilian audiences have to see silent films? Are they shown often?

No, just in the cinema courses in the universities. I think that after the beginning of the Jornada there is an increasing interest in silent films. Not specifically Brazilian silent films, but silent films in general. Several festivals I believe are including one silent film with musical accompaniment.

What makes a good accompanist?

There is no rule. We’ve experienced a lot. We’ve had some wonderful moments, and we’ve had some flops. I think that what’s important is to get a common experience with the audience, to make the people and the film and the musician all reach the same level of understanding. And we’ve gotten this emotion with different accompanists, with only a pianist or a rock group or different accompanists. Like the last year with a girl that interpreted like a benshi. Go to see Häxan, with a musician who interferes with the film and tells jokes. The audience loves it.

Is there anything else about this year’s festival that you’d like audiences to know?

We have two roundtables. One is specifically about the role and utility of film archives, and I think this is a very important question. The other is something that I’ve tried to make in all the Jornadas, which is to include some relevant research. This year we have two research projects, one, using public records, about movie theaters in São Paulo until 1920, and the other, using economic records,about theaters in Rio de Janeiro in 1914, specifically the company that represented Pathé Fréres in Brazil.

What were Brazilian theaters like?

I think it was very much like—always late—but very much like North America. There were little spaces like the nickelodeons in the beginning, and the movie palaces were made just at the end of the second decade in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Thank you very much.

Aaron Cutler has written about film for Slant Magazine and The Believer.

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