Chris Stults, associate curator of film/video and organizer of Cruzamentos: Contemporary Brazilian Documentary, offers his thoughts on filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho.
Exactly three minutes before reading the first report of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I heard that the great Brazilian documentary filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho had been murdered. Hoffman is going to receive the quantity and caliber of tributes that he deserves. He and James Gandolfini were two of my favorite actors and their losses have both hit me hard. But Coutinho’s death is not likely to be widely reported in North America, but is just as significant for cinema. And it’s a particularly difficult one for me (and for the Wexner Center and many folks around the world) to accept.
The companion Cruzamentos events, one subtitled Contemporary Brazilian Documentary and the other Contemporary Art in Brazil, just opened days ago and are two of the most ambitious projects that the Wexner Center has embarked upon. Coutinho was one of the guiding inspirations for these projects and his unexpected, tragic death will cast a mournful tone over a number of events in the coming months. But it also confirms the vitality and significance of the art and film that we’re presenting. This is the largest survey of Brazilian documentaries ever presented in North America and one of greatest pleasures of this project is asserting Coutinho’s importance and introducing his films to new audiences. So now it feels especially urgent to pay tribute to one of the finest filmmakers of our time with our upcoming screenings. I realize that even dedicated filmgoers in the United States know little about Coutinho, so before discussing his influence on and presence in Cruzamentos, I’d like to give an introduction to the man and his work.
Eduardo Coutinho began his career as a journalist before working on scripts and productions for a number of significant films (most prominently, co-writing the screenplay for the enormously successful Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands). From the mid 70s to the mid 80s, he began his own career by making episodes of the influential and groundbreaking “Globo Reporter” TV news/documentary program. This led the way to his subsequent career in documentary filmmaking, which began quite unconventionally in 1984 with the release of his masterpiece Twenty Years Later.
Production on that film begin in the early sixties when Coutinho, following the route of other Cinema Novo filmmakers such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Barren Lives) and Glauber Rocha (Black God, White Devil), headed to the rural northeast of Brazil to make a film about the life of 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 Joao Pedro 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 country’s twenty-year dictatorship. In the 80s, after the dictatorship 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 is forced to make himself a presence in this story 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.
A contemporary criticism of the Cinema Novo films is that they were made by leftist intellectuals imposing their ideas and preconceptions upon the stories and lives of Brazil’s poorest populations. 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. As a result, he made the defining film of Brazil’s years during the dictatorship, and one of the country’s greatest films. This story of a single family becomes a larger portrait of the real world effect of larger political and cultural issues.
Coutinho appears on camera throughout Twenty Years Later but he has the presence of a curious reporter rather than an on camera documentarian performer (like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock). But over his career, Coutinho begins to emphasize his relationship with the subjects of his films as one of his primary interests. From the late 80s through the 90s, he made a number of smaller–budgeted documentaries that saw him exploring various neighborhoods and conducting interviews with a range of ordinary, but engrossing citizens. Santa Marta: Two Weeks in the Slums (1987) saw him spending time one of Rio’s favelas, Boca de Lixo (1993) was composed of interviews conducted with the people who make a living off of a garbage landfill off the coast of Rio (almost a decade before the Vik Muniz film Waste Land was made at the same location), and The Mighty Spirit (1999), where Coutinho conducts interviews with Brazilians about the unique combinations of religions that emerge across the country.
But it was in the 2000s that Coutinho truly developed his mature voice once Videofilmes, the production company run by Walter and João Moreira Salles, began producing his films and giving him greater resources. He became entirely comfortable in front of the camera and the rapport between Coutinho and his interviewees allowed for unusually authentic and diverse portraits of humanity. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can capture the spirit of a person in so short a time. In just three minutes of screen time, Coutinho can create an indelible portrait of an individual. And as he learned from Twenty Years Later, the process of making the film became his later films’ great subject. The string of films he made in the 2000s is as essential a body of work as any documentarian made during that decade.
This process-based approach is apparent in one of his most underrated films of his mature period, The End and the Beginning (2006), a film that he made upon returning to the northeast of Brazil almost twenty years after Twenty Years Later. Process is foregrounded by scenes with Coutinho 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 film consists of the development of the conversations Coutinho with these homespun philosophers. Coutinho is trying to find a more authentic way to find the character of the fabled hardscrabble northeasterner.
After perfecting his seeking approach to filmmaking, Coutinho then shifted into what can now be seen as a more self-conscious late period with the great Playing (2007). The film is an exhilarating look at performance, storytelling, the lives of women, the line between fiction and documentary, and so much more. Coutinho placed an ad in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper asking for auditions from women over the age of 18 with interesting stories to tell. A handful of these women then filmed interviews with Coutinho and recount dramatic stories of heartbreak, loss, love, and life. Coutinho then complicates things by having some of Brazil’s finest actresses recreate the interviews with Coutinho, treating the monologues as texts. As the film progresses, the difference between the authentic interviews and the acted ones becomes ever more slippery. But, as always, the bond between filmmaker and subject remains.
I have to admit that I had only a cursory knowledge of Brazilian cinema and had never seen a film by Coutinho before I began working on what became Cruzamentos. Inspired by my colleague Jennifer Lange’s quick embrace of the Wexner Center’s larger Via Brasil project, we started studying Portuguese and reading and watching as many relevant books and films as possible. Over the course of three trips to Brazil, we both realized that the process of learning about and opening ourselves up to this endlessly fascinating country and its people was a central part of the Cruzamentos project. It was only after hearing about Coutinho’s senseless death—he was allegedly stabbed by his schizophrenic son, who also allegedly stabbed and severely wounded his mother before stabbing himself—that I realized how much his approach to filmmaking inspired our approach to Cruzamentos. With humility and curiosity, we encountered unforgettable people, art, films, cities, and sights and tried to accurately and respectfully convey these encounters with our programming.
This past year was a particularly exciting moment in Coutinho’s long and storied career. A massive monograph on his work, as substantial a book as any contemporary filmmaker has received, was published to coincide with his 80th birthday, he was given a retrospective at the São Paulo International Film Festival (where I saw him give a typically feisty conversation with film students—as a filmmaker told me on that trip, hearing Coutinho speak was better than Breaking Bad), he made a followup to Twenty Years Later for that film’s upcoming DVD release, and was talking about starting a new film dealing with the riots (and related issues) that overtook Brazil last year. We had invited Coutinho to visit the Wexner Center in March as one of the central guests for our Cruzamentos symposium. Due to his increasingly frail health, Coutinho had to reluctantly decline our invitation. Now his appearance in Columbus for Cruzamentos is a true impossibility. But his spirit informs much of what you’ll experience if you come to our cinema or galleries in the coming months. I’d like to particularly encourage you to come see The End and the Beginning (March 21), Twenty Years Later (March 27), or Playing (April 3) and encounter the work of a master filmmaker whose death will reverberate for some time to come. But his life and work will reverberate even longer.
We send our thoughts and love to Coutinho’s family, his professional family at Videofilmes, and all the viewers, artists, and filmmakers who have been inspired and moved by his work.