The emotion of the idea when it sways: Aloysio Raulino and the essay film tradition
In this piece, Victor Guimarães reflects on Western interpretations of the essay film such as those written by Thomas Alsaesser, and how notions of political engagement have thus been superimposed on works by filmmakers from the Global South. Guimarães anchors these reflections on the six short films screening at the Essay Film Festival, made by Brazilian filmmaker, Aloysio Raulino.
When we face the short films composed by Brazilian filmmaker Aloysio Raulino between 1970 and 1986, structurally built around ideas more than stories, full of textual and sound quotes, we are tempted to approach them through the well-known tradition of the essay film. Yes, they are much more subjective than conventional documentaries, and, compared to narrative fiction, as Thomas Elsaesser would put it, “argument and association prevail over anticipation and narrative momentum” (Elsaesser, 2017, p. 241). They are often, as Laura Rascaroli would say, “the expression of a personal, critical reflection on a problem or set of problems” (Rascaroli, 2008, p. 35), such as urban inequalities, colonialism or underdevelopment. But if we want to be accurate and do justice to Raulino’s films, we must rethink essayism from a different perspective, and question some of the assumptions we commonly associate with this genre in Europe and North America. First and foremost, we must doubt the assumption that these films “do not usually offer the kinds of pleasure associated with traditional aesthetic forms like narrative or lyrical poetry”, and that “they instead lean toward intellectual reflections that often insist on more conceptual or pragmatic responses” (Corrigan, 2011, p. 4-5). For in Raulino’s work among other Latin American filmmakers, body and intellect are never apart; emotional responses are as important as conceptual ones; theory and poetry always go hand in hand.
Thomas Elsaesser claims – quoting Sven Kramer and Thomas Tode –, “after more than a decade of increasing academic attention, a consensus is beginning to emerge that seems to confirm that essay films ‘are films which reflect their own representational mode, are more likely to develop an idea than narrate a story, and at times produce intellectual and philosophical works that are a form of thought or at the very least, they stimulate thinking’”. The academic consensus seems to indicate that the essayistic film is chiefly an intellectual excercise. Aloysio Raulino’s cinema, although essayistic in many ways – constantly reflecting on its own modes of representation, constructed around ideas more than stories – is constantly defying that assumption. His camerawork is strongly tactile; his approach to the bodies is sensual and analytical at the same time; his style of editing is intellectually challenging, but never distant and pensive – it is rather musical; emotionally engaging.
If we think of a film like Lacrimosa (1970), made in collaboration with Luna Alkalay when they were still students at university, we could certainly identify some politicalideas that the film is willing to reflect upon. The opening title reads: “An avenue has recently been opened in São Paulo. It forces us to see the city from the inside”. Then a journey through the margins of São Paulo begins, and the camera seeks to explore the viscera of a broken city, proposing a poignant reflection on urban decay and chronic underdevelopment. But when the man with the movie camera (Raulino himself) enters a favela on the side of the avenue, what moves us is not the textual information brought by the sparse titles (“Rubbish is the only means of survival”), but the faces of the children running through the territory, the aggressive movements of the camera, the abrupt silences and the sudden attacks of Mozart’s Requiem. Through the film’s camerawork and sonic texture, the favela becomes a ghostly terrain inhabited by the damned of the Earth, compelling us to a radically emotional, embodied response (although never an easy or unambiguous one). By the end of the film, the associations between a poem, a song (both by Chilean poet Ángel Parra) and a provocative image of a Brazilian map in negative bring us back to a rational thought process, but it’s too late: we will not forget those children gazing radically into the axis of the camera.
Jardim Nova Bahia (1971) might be Raulino’s most conceptual work. It begins as a portrait of Deutrudes Carlos da Rocha, a car washer from the Northeast of Brazil struggling to survive in the megalopolis of São Paulo, but soon breaks into a reflexive, metalinguistic film when the participant is invited to produce their own images. The film is an early experiment in both participatory filmmaking and reverse ethnography (one of the most poignant moments is when Deutrudes films a bourgeois couple at the beach), and is constantly inviting us to question cinematic form, power hierarchies and the relationship between who films and who is filmed. There is no voice-over, no overthinking of the gesture, no verbal reflection on the results of the experiment. Instead, there is constant movement, from extremely bright colors to melancholic black and white, joyful music to sad dancing. The most important thing in Raulino is never the strength of the concept, but “the emotion of the idea when it sways” (“a emoção da ideia quando ginga”), as in a verse of a song about football by Chico Buarque.
Teremos Infância (1974) begins as both a portrait of Arnulfo Silva, “the phenomenon”, a man who wanders the streets of São Paulo and describes himself as “the most erudite physicist who guides the universal peace of mind”, and the film is a reflection on impoverished childhood in the big city. But when the film encounters two boys who were watching the shooting and drifts along with them through the city, it becomes essentially an essay on portraiture. The camera seeks the children’s gaze, as they return the look and question the gesture. The camera inhabits a liminal space between attraction and repulse, between transparency and opacity, as if it were possible to intensely work towards revelation while reflexively throwing the cinematic gesture into a crisis. The filmmaker urges the children to speak, but they refuse, and all that’s left to the spectator are the shards of an impossible relationship. Raulino’s essayism is a haptic one: although the film certainly addresses the most poignant questions of the documentary tradition – otherness, power imbalance, standpoint – it does so using a visceral approach, opening questions with the physicality of the camera and making them explode in the rhythm of the editing.
O Tigre e a Gazela (1977) is Raulino’s film with the biggest amount of textual information. At first glance, it could be seen as an essay on colonialism based on Frantz Fanon, where the portraits and the landscape images work as illustrations to the thesis. But it is much more complicated than that. The texts by Fanon and Aimé Césaire do relate to the images of poor, mostly Black people on the streets of São Paulo, but there is always something that exceeds illustration or definition. The immemorial resistance manifested in each gaze, the indomitable joy of the bodies, the singing of the woman who at first appears as a confirmation of the damages of colonialism, but then resurfaces as a heroic fighter for liberation. “Oh, my body, make of me always a man who questions”, says Fanon’s sparkling phrase that closes the film; questioning with the body: a principle that could encompass all of Raulino’s oeuvre. Towards the end, no word can define reality anymore, and the film breaks with rational analysis and becomes pure devotion to energy: the images of street Carnival reanimated by the Afro-Brazilian music of Milton Nascimento are an explosion of color contrast, intense movement and bright lights. Raulino’s faith in feast [EY1] is present throughout his oeuvre, but here it becomes a strong, aesthetical and political escape from colonial rationality.
At first glance, O Porto de Santos (1978) seems to be a travelogue, portraying life around one of the biggest ports in Latin America. As we listen to the sounds of hammers and horns and sea waves, Raulino’s camera drifts along in a landscape composed of enormous cargo ships and huge metal structures, searching for the faces of the dockers, the last indigenous fishermen, the prostitutes who work at night. There is some sparse historical and sociological information about the city delivered in voice-over, but the essay on the social contradictions of the region is mostly composed of accurate observational takes and fortuitous encounters. Like other essay films, as Elsaesser puts it, Raulino’s films “are driven by a structure of thought, however apparently hidden or at first glance imperceptible this thought-process may be” (Elsaesser, 2017, p. 241). But then there is the unforgettable shot where a man in his underwear dances provocatively in the middle of an unpaved street, while his neighbors come to watch the performance and we listen to an entire popular song in the soundtrack. Raulino’s camera is constantly dragged by the affirmation of life, and his editing does not hesitate to abandon the intellectual task, surrendering to the impulse of joy and sensuality. An essayistic film, yes, but one that knows how to dance.
Inventário da Rapina (1986) is the easiest of Raulino’s films to relate to the hegemonic tradition of the essay film. The meditative tone, the fragmented and heterogeneous structure, the “shifting multiplicity of the material” (Corrigan, 2011, p. 4-5), and especially the deeply personal approach. Here, “the authorial ‘voice’ approaches the subject matter not in order to present a factual report (the field of traditional documentary), but to offer an in-depth, personal, and thought-provoking reflection” (Rascaroli, 2008, p. 35). The film brings together intimate family moments (Raulino appears in front of the camera for the first and only time in his films), quotations from Norman Mailer to Paulo Emílio Sales Gomes to Leni Riefenstahl, carefully composed allegorical images, poems by Cláudio Willer written in various surfaces or read by Raulino himself in the soundtrack, a variety of songs, and of course, the street encounters with workers, artists and drifters that have always populated this filmography. Although it is difficult to pinpoint a single subject emerging from the furious stream of images and sounds, the film is mostly an inventory of the traces and the consequences of colonialism in Brazil. It is a deconstruction of monumental discourses and violent practices and the affirmation of a dissonant vision. But it is so enigmatic and cryptic that, even for a person who spent years watching and rewatching and analyzing this film, some moments still resist interpretation. Even Raulino’s most essayistic work is extremely close to poetry. Even his most intellectual film is a musical. Even the most melancholic one is full of utopia. “Not this ghostly country / that wants itself to be present all the time / and tries to invade even our dreams / but another country / rediscovered now, once again / in this encounter between our gazes / another country which still throbs / under the shaken rug of the third world”, says the poem, while the children remove the blindfold and look, once again, directly into the axis of the camera.
Thomas Elsaesser writes: “Now that the essay film is gaining ground also outside Europe, in Latin America and Africa, where traditionally documentaries were expected to be hard-hitting instruments of political advocacy, supporting specific causes, exposing social evils, or act as militant weapons in political struggles—think Argentinean “Third Cinema” or Brazil’s “Cinema Novo”— the adoption of the looser and more reflexive form of the essay film may be an indication, not necessarily that these struggles have been won, but that a more pensive tone or melancholy mood now reflects the state of politics and personal engagement also in the countries of the Southern Hemisphere” (242-243). This kind of depiction of the history of documentary filmmaking in Latin America is very common among critics and historians from the Global North, but it is both blatantly ignorant and mostly incorrect.
If we attach political engagement and didacticism in such a totalizing sense, what would we do with the ambivalent, provocative, ironic, subjective and reflexive essay films made by Gerardo Vallejo, Nicolás Guillén Landrián, Sara Gómez, Arthur Omar, Ana Carolina and Paulo Rufino, Raúl Ruiz, Gabriela Samper, Carlos Álvarez or Aloysio Raulino throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s in Argentina, Cuba, Chile, Brazil and Colombia? There’s no automatic link between a film being a weapon in a political struggle and its form being didactic, clear and unambiguous. Also, pensiveness and melancholy should not be a criterion for essayism in cinema. A lot of Latin American filmmakers have composed intellectually and formally strong essays, but in an engaged, furious, and sometimes joyful and emotional way.
The narrative arch that suggests the story of a form being developed in Europe and North America and then coming to the Southern Hemisphere to complexify those poor militant documentaries is not only politically problematic, Iit is historically incorrect. The subversive, polyphonic, inexhaustibly rich form of essayism practiced by those filmmakers has nothing to lose in comparison with any of the strongest essay films made in Europe or North America in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and anyone who knows those artists can confirm that. Maybe we could start by inverting the question: what does the Latin American tradition of essayism have to offer to the thinking of the essay film in general?
Elsaesser, Thomas (2017). ‘The Essay Film: From Festival Favorite to Flexible Commodity Form?’ , in Alter, Nora and Corrigan, Timothy. Essays on the Essay Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 240-260.
Corrigan, Timothy (2011), The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rascaroli, Laura (2008) ‘The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments’, Framework, 49, 2, 24–47.