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Les États généraux du film documentaire 2007 Doc History : Portugal

Doc History : Portugal

Presenting the history of documentary of a country means being interested, at least in part, in its history. A programme of five screenings is necessarily partial. This has forced us to make some drastic choices. First of all, we could not deal with the history of Portugal through its documentaries, even though some of the films we have selected inevitably deal with some of the country’s historical episodes. We did not want either to present a purely chronological programme representative of the evolution of Portuguese production. This selection above all is a point of view on the history of Portuguese documentary, putting the accent on esthetic aspects and the trends which have emerged as durable all along its history.

The political history of Portugal had obviously a great influence on its cinematic production. The military regime from 1926 to 1933 which placed Salazar in power, and the Estado novo (New State) which followed until the Carnation Revolution of April 25,1974, did not leave the cineasts with total liberty. Nonetheless, documentary cinema was able to emerge as elsewhere. Like in the other countries of Europe, Portuguese documentary developed in the 1920s. The influences were the same: on one hand obviously newsreels and travelogues, and on the other avant-garde films and the "Russians". The first years of Portuguese documentary between 1929 and 1931 were marked by films clearly influenced by Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City and by Dziga Vertov. Nazaré, Praia de pescadores (1929) by José Leitão de Barros, Alfama, Velha Lisboa (1929) by João de Almeida e Sá and Douro, travail fluvial (1931) by Manoel de Oliveira, all show this influence, visible clearly also in other avant-garde European cinemas: these are films with incontestably strong formal positions but which also look at daily life and labour – in the towns, neighbourhoods or on the seafront.

In 1930, José Leitão de Barros returned to Nazaré to shoot the "romanced documentary" Maria do Mar. His cinema was inspired by the Soviet films of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. With a strong dramatic story line and two major stars from Portuguese theatre as principals – Adelina Abranches and Alves da Cunha – José Leitão de Barros bore a profoundly human documentary eye to the life of fishermen in Nazaré. We find this mix between documentary and fiction in many films which have marked the history of Portuguese documentary cinema.

To provide an image of the New State, the Salazar regime created the "Secretariat of National Propaganda", later redubbed "National Secretariat of Information, Popular Culture and Tourism" (SNI). Within roots anchored in catholicism and anticommunism, the new state wanted to be a strong, paternalist and based on traditional values, notably the church and a corporatist organization. Tradition, church and nationalism, or according to Salazar’s slogan "Fado, Fátima and Football" were to be promoted in  A Revoluçao de Maio. If José Leitão de Barros was contacted to direct a propaganda film on the New State, it was finally his assistant director in Maria do Mar, António Lopes Ribeiro who directed A Revoluçao de Maio, in 1937. A film of "nationalist exaltation" in which Lopes Ribeiro fictionalised documentary archives, and in particular Salazar’s speeches, to celebrate – as they merit – youth, labour and life.

Almost forty years later in 1975, Alberto Seixas Santos took up the idea of the Estado novo and its paternalism in La Douceur de nos mœurs. Through a family of the middle bourgeoisie, the film represents the family and the conflict of generations as a metaphore for the political system of the Estado novo, using archives, propaganda – in particular the film A Revoluçao de Maio. Once again, fiction and documentary fuse to produce an highly effective film.

During the fifties and sixties, documentary cinema was above all dominated by the productions of the SNI, dealing mainly with the Portuguese colonies. Nevertheless, as long as the subjects were not too politically sensitive, some filmmakers managed to make films outside the system. It is important to note some trends, including portraits of artists – like Le Peintre et la Ville (1956) by Manoel de Oliveira – or more ethnographic films – like those of António Campos who began his filmography in 1961 with Almadraba Atuneira on tuna fishing. But the sixties also marked the beginning of the Portuguese Cinema Novo, taking up these trends but also displaying an enriched formal research coupled with a taste for experiment. In this line, Belarmino (1964) by Fernando Lopes is the portrait of a boxer and his city, Lisbon. Through its images and the editing, already remarkable in his even more experimental film As Pedras et o Tempo (1961), Fernando Lopes creates a dynamic and realistic portrait of Belarmino Fragoso and his city. Among the ethnographic films, Vilarinho das Furnas (1970) by António Campos remains remarkable through its formal play between the images and the soundtrack.

These trends, as well as the recurring mix of fiction and documentary, characterise also the films of two major authors in Portuguese Cinema: Paulo Rocha and António Reis. In Mudar de Vida (1967), Paulo Rocha collaborated with António Campos (assistant director) and António Reis (screenplay) making a film using fiction to get more easily inside the Real of the life of man, the land, progress. Doubtlessly, this collaboration with Paulo Rocha was one of the great influences on Reis, who knew how to capture with perhaps even more poetry the essence of daily life, particularly in his films Trás-os-Montes (1976) and Ana (1982), where the landscapes become characters as important as the men and women.

The Carnation Revolution changed the situation for Portuguese documentary production. During the first period, many militant films were made, directed by collectives – such as As Armas e o Povo (1975) or A Lei da Terra (1976), signed Grupo Zero but whose direction was mostly handled by Alberto Seixas Santos. Later, after the arrival of television, documentary production suffered hard times before finally getting back on its feet in the nineties.

Around the Carnation Revolution, we will return to certain particularly memorable films which will close the programme: Que ferais-je avec cette épée ? in which João César Monteiro revealed through an original approach his particular style, using images from Murnau in the struggle against the presence of Nato. Bom Povo Português (1979), where Rui Simões analysed the hopes and disillusions of the Carnation Revolution.

With the "Doc History" program, Lussas allows the public to see emblematic films. Emblematic for the history of a country, emblematic for its history of documentary cinema or emblematic for documentary in general. Most often, we only know of these films via the literature on documentary cinema as we do not have the chance to see them. Luckily, cinemathèques et film archives, the guardians of living memory, preserve the treasures of documentary history. "Doc History" cannot exist without their valuable assistance. This year, the Cinemateca Portuguesa was a primordially important source, allowing you to (re)discover these films, and we thank them deeply for their collaboration.

Guests :
Le programme « Histoire de doc : Portugal » se prolonge par un « Fragment d'une œuvre : Manœl de Oliveira » mercredi 23 et jeudi 24 août.
À noter la parution du N°61/62 de la revue Images documentaires dédié au documentaire portugais.
Remerciements à Pierre-Marie Goulet pour sa précieuse collaboration.