Children's Uprising Lessons

Wassily Kandinsky, Autumn in Murnau, 1908.
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By MARIANA SOUTO & MATEUS ARAÚJO*

Notes on the film “Noon”, by Helena Solberg

Helena Solberg's first fiction film, the short Meio-dia (1970) remained in the shadows until very recently, like much of the filmmaker's solid filmography, which privileged the documentary terrain over more than fifty years of work still in progress.[I] The wider circulation of his films, in addition to some better known as The interview (1966) The emerging woman (1975) and Carmen Miranda: Banana is my business (1995), will probably lead historiography to include it in the canon of the best modern Brazilian cinema, alongside the cinemanovistas, their radicalizers or dissidents and a handful of filmmakers who bypass movements.

Now, if his work remained largely unknown, Meio-dia seems to have been forgotten even more than the other films, and even, reportedly, by Solberg herself. Perhaps this is why it received so little attention in Mariana Tavares' pioneering study of the filmmaker's itinerary, Helena Solberg: from new cinema to contemporary documentary[ii], who mentions him in passing on p. 35 and does not dedicate further considerations to it. In any case, the most attentive discussion we know about the film is Camila Vieira’s text, “Rebeldia e disobedience: around Midday (1970) "[iii], to which these notes owe much.

Faced with this persistent critical silence, and a suffocating climate of political backlash that plagues Brazil,[iv] Solberg's short is particularly worth returning to. Made in São Paulo with a very low budget and non-professional actors, in 1970 it returns to the spirit of 1968 by revisiting an older tradition of films about childhood rebellion, from which Zero of conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933) and the misunderstood (François Truffaut, 1958) remain high moments.

An insurrection in ten minutes

In 10 minutes and 18 scenes, without resorting to dialogues or naming any characters, the film depicts an insurrection against the established order, of which the school appears as a microcosm and emblem. Revolt is childish, but it is not a game or a movement that ends up in the realm of play. Violence is explicit and the uprising is destructive. The film's basic operation is to project the children's school revolt into the broader context of 1968.

In a brief prologue with 4 scenes, the film announces several polarities that will organize its flow of images and sounds: between the space of the school institution and the world of the streets, between tutored expression and free expression, between the speech of parents and rebellion of the children, between containment and irruptive extravasation. In the initial 10-second shot, we see against an indeterminate background (school? house?) the face of a boy reciting the last stanza of a sonnet entitled “My son”, by the poet from Minas Gerais Djalma Andrade (1894-1977).

In the poem, a father expresses the conviction of guiding the steps of his young son well, whom he characterizes in the first stanza as sweet, innocent and obedient, overcoming the “strange anguish” of disorienting him, which appears in the second stanza, before the the last two conjure it up, by adopting the “safer route” and “firmness in every step taken”.

My son

My son, who is sweet, who is innocent,
When you go out with me, light that fascinates,
Put your pale little feet, softly,
In the marks of my feet, in the fine sand.

He follows my steps, unconscious,
But a strange anguish overwhelms me,
And treading my feet more firmly
My heart, little by little lights up.

Without knowing it, you oblige me, beloved son,
Looking for the safest route,
Having firmness in every step taken.

You will never say – what a horror in my soul!
That you got lost on a dark road
For following in your father's footsteps!

Figure 1

Figure 2

Next to a woman (mother? teacher?) whom we can barely see in the painting [Fig. 1], the boy recites the fourth and last stanza, in which obedience to the path traced by the father appears as a guarantee against the risk of the son going astray “on a dark road”. When the reading is over, the boy turns to the camera and smiles with relief, while we hear applause in the sound and see the woman's arm cross the frame and place her hand on the reciter's shoulder, thus approving his performance [Fig. two]. By saying the verses of a father who takes his son as an object and recipient, the boy reproduces the discourse of adult guardianship, and the scene itself as a whole reiterates it in the approving gesture of that female arm. Thus, in the first 2 seconds, the circle of the tutelary order of the family or school is built and closed (speech by the father / reproduced by the son / approved by the mother or teacher), which the film will never cease to attack.

The next shot eliminates the adult presence: a student, whose face is not clearly visible, but enough to make it clear that he is chewing gum, writes on the blackboard in a classroom, with his back to the camera, the title of the film, which he erases in followed by writing the names of Helena Solberg, José Marreco and João Farkas, without specifying their respective roles as director, director of photography and main actor. With these summary and laconic opening credits, and the blackboard as a clapperboard, Meio-dia settles in the classroom space, which appears right away as the anchor point of its enunciation, but through the action of a student, without manifest teaching supervision and without assumed hierarchy within the team.

The third shot shows a close-up of the face of another teenager, played by João Farkas.[v] In an indeterminate space again, he looks straight ahead, as if observing something off-camera with circumspection: the blackboard? the film? Reinforcing its prominence, a zoom-in closes the frame on his face, while some instrumental bars of a song burst into the sound, which we will discover later on to be It is forbidden to forbid (1968), by Caetano Veloso. These bars continue until the middle of the next scene, of the same teenager concentrated on reading a magazine next to three older boys, who are talking animatedly in the bedroom of a house without us hearing their voices.

Suddenly, the teenager drops the magazine on the table, picks up a plastic bag and sticks his head in it, simulating a situation of torture by asphyxiation, contrary to that animation. New zoom-in on his face, sealing the gesture of the narrator's attention to the character, who from then on will assume the protagonism once and for all, without acting alongside any figure of authority: neither his parents nor his teachers will grace the film, and he will not follow nobody's steps, as if he preferred the “dark road” to the “safer route” referred to in the opening poem.

*

From then on, the film follows a day in his life and that of his school, whose class he skips. Or half a day, as the title says, suggesting that the action is concentrated in one morning. After drinking a cup of coffee, crossing the front door and reaching the street, he arrives at the school door, whose wall reads the graffiti “A Dictatorship is fuck”. About twenty students gathered there on the sidewalk are entering little by little, he alone remains outside and decides not to enter, exchanging the routine of the class that morning for the adventure of the streets.

From there, we follow in five sequences (2'32”-5'40”) his solitary wanderings through various spaces in the city, in whose dynamics he tries to participate. We see him walking down a busy sidewalk, spying on the posters of a movie theater and the magazines on a newsstand, taking a bus, reaching a large lawn and sitting down next to three workers who are weeding it, trying to participate in a ball game in a circle in which an adult rejects him, reacting to this rejection by kicking his shirt and then a dog, running away from the adult who chases him for attacking the dog, kicking a can on the road and throwing his school supplies – books and notebooks – into a river (Tietê ?Pine trees?) on whose bank he had lain.

This urban tour is followed by a long parallel block inside the school (5'41”-9'6″), where the rebellion takes shape. From the notebooks thrown into the river, we migrated to open notebooks on desks in the classroom. There, the camera wanders between obedient male and female students, heads down, while the teacher circulates around the room, inspecting their reading. One by one, they look up, surreptitiously watching the teacher [Fig. 3]. With each cut, we see one or two new children and sense an imminent uprising that will eventually corner the teacher. Before the confrontation, the students draw their weapons, placing pencils, rulers and sticks on the tables, giving the scene a threatening tone [Fig. 4].

Figure 3

Figure 4

While the sharp eyes remain attentive to their target, the small hands hit the objects on the desks, marking a rhythm that accentuates the tension. The teacher manages to snatch them from one of the students' hands, but the class reacts immediately and jumps to their feet. A moment of suspension freezes the impasse between the two sides: students and teachers are immobile. The montage dilates the tense wait, highlighting the students' defiant gazes [Fig. 5 and 6] and accentuating the feeling of closure. From the perspective of a student, the camera moves upwards, revealing raised arms and clenched fists, a reference to resistance movements [Fig. 7 and 8]. Children, although small, scare by the amount. There are many, in front of an adult teacher, but vulnerable due to lack of peers. The little ones, generally weak and submissive, reverse the game through the union of their forces – and from there emerges a possible analogy with the people/power relationship

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

When the attack on the teacher is triggered, the students throw themselves at him, but they also knock over tables, break chairs, throw books and boxes into the air [Fig. 9-12], echoing the gesture we saw just before the protagonist throwing his schoolbooks into the river. As if the protagonist's inconsequential outbursts (kicking his shirt, a dog and a can), or that other more significant one of destroying his school supplies, would now gain a collective, much clearer expression, transforming into a properly political gesture against the school institution. Indeed, the revolt of the students does not only affect the teacher who embodies authority, but also the space of the school as an institution.

Figure 9

Figure 10

Figure 11

Figure 12

Physically attacked by the students, however, the teacher manages to escape to the courtyard, out of breath and staggering. Outside, he comes across other groups that are arranged in small circles around the patio, probably at recess. He loosens even more his tie, already badly adjusted, a result of the previous suffocation. The students, this time much bigger, gradually become aware of his presence and do not take long to surround him, approaching with sticks and stones they find on the ground [Fig 13]. The new attack precipitates, led by a young man with a mustache, with the appearance of an adult [Fig. 14], and caught by another teacher who arrives at the patio, and sees her colleague on the floor, inert and bloodied. Dead? [Fig. 15].

Figure 13

Figure 14

Figure 15

In the moments that preceded this second attack, strange noises appeared in an instrumental section of the song “É forbidden to prohibit”, by Caetano Veloso, which had already erupted at the beginning of the film over images of the protagonist simulating torture by asphyxiation in the bedroom. Now, his return in sound suggests a kind of continuity or solidarity between the protagonist's extra-school situation and the intramural action of the students at his school. Once the attack is complete, festive images parade of a small crowd of euphoric students (younger than the second attackers), running, playing and dancing in the courtyard [Fig. 16-17], as we listen to the second verse of the song and its reiterative refrain:

It's Forbidden To Forbid
Caetano Veloso

[...]

Give me a kiss, my love
they are waiting for us
Cars burn in flames
Knock down the shelves
The bookshelves, the statues
The windows, crockery, books, yes...

And I say yes
And I say no to no
And I say:
AND! prohibited forbid
It is forbidden to forbid
It is forbidden to forbid
It is forbidden to forbid
It is forbidden to…

Figure 16

Figure 17

Inspired by a report on the French movement of May 1968, the song borrows one of its best-known slogans in the title and chorus.[vi]. In this second stanza, the speaking I asks his lover for a kiss in the first verse and observes in the second that someone is waiting for them: “they are waiting for us”. The pronoun “they” remains undetermined: are they the companions of the rebellion or the representatives of the order that one wants to challenge? So are they waiting for the shared adventure or for the confrontation, to which the third verse already alludes, about the cars set on fire by the rebellion? Verses 4 to 6 seem to complete the sentence of verse 2 by suggesting that others are waiting for them (to) knock over shelves, shelves, statues, etc. They thus constitute a call for the destruction of symbolic goods from the social order (shelves, shelves), official culture (statues, books), domestic space (crockery), configuring a comprehensive insurrectional program, to which the song's self adheres, saying yes, saying no to no, and repeating the slogan of the French May (“it is forbidden to forbid”).

The insertion of this song about the images of the children playing euphorically in the schoolyard after the rebellion in class and the aggression against the teacher tends to juxtapose that insurrectionary program with the particular situation shown in the film, thus expanding the social universe figured in their school rebellion, and giving it a much wider scope than that shown in the image. In a word, it tends to seal the political allegory drawn in those school incidents on a morning in São Paulo, which saw the number of the political and social demonstrations of 1968 in the world or the fight against the dictatorship in Brazil (already mentioned in the graffiti on the school’s façade, according to which “dictatorship sucks”).

If we have already seen in the film images the destruction of books (by the protagonist, outside of school) and school objects such as tables and desks, similar to the shelves and shelves mentioned in the song, the penultimate scene adds the sound motif of broken windows, which the final scene will confirm the image, helping to give concreteness to the insurrectional metaphors mobilized in Caetano's verses. After the explosion of freedom in the courtyard, we see a small boy running from the end of a long school corridor towards the camera. At the end of its journey, we heard the strident noise of breaking glass. One Raccord takes us to the protagonist also running towards the camera, centered in the frame like the first boy, but now in the street.

The similar composition of the frame and the Raccord of movement tend to assimilate, or at least to visually sympathize with the two races, one inside, the other outside the school. The protagonist is returning to school after his tour of the city, and upon his arrival the chorus of Caetano's song bursts into the sound (“And I say yes / and I say no to no / And I say it is: forbidden to prohibit / It's forbidden to prohibit / It's forbidden to prohibit / It's forbidden to prohibit / It's forbidden to prohibit"), the same one that rocked the euphoric celebration of the children in the courtyard, which exuded a powerful sense of freedom. The common refrain of the two scenes further reinforces the solidarity between the two adventures (inside and outside the walls), to which we will return.

Opening the gate, he observes, in a side view that reproduces his point of view, several windows of the building destroyed, probably due to the rebellion of the students shown shortly before. His countenance is serious and ambiguous. He looks to the left, he looks to the right, and he seems to hesitate: will he finally enter the school? Will you go back to the street? In the close-up of his pensive face, the film ends.

From the childhood rebellion to the 1968 emblem: dialogues and expansions

As we saw in our brief review, Meio-dia not only does he show how he seeks to articulate two forms of opposition to the school institution, a metonym of the social order of Brazil in the 1970s against which he takes a resolute position: on the one hand, flight, abandonment, desertion – individual exit; on the other hand, organization and confrontation – collective exit. Although they materialize in different sequences, with different characters and situations, the two postures are united, so to speak, in the images and sounds of the film – in the common gestures of the characters (to spill over, to destroy objects), in the musical commentary of the song of Caetano that erupts in sequences of both the absentee protagonist and the rebellious students, in the Raccord which unites a student's run in a school corridor with the return of the protagonist to his entrance gate. Without getting confused, one posture echoes the other, as if they constituted two faces of the same refusal to obey that Order.

This articulation mobilizes a dialogue with two strong moments of a cinematographic lineage of childhood rebellion, both assumed and claimed by the filmmaker in her statements about the film: Zero of conduct (Jean Vigo, 1933) and the misunderstood (François Truffaut, 1959). The first works as a kind of model of the school rebellion carried out by the children. The second, the evasion of school in favor of the adventure of the streets, carried out by the protagonist flâneur.

Vigo's film presents, in its story of school rebellion, a dispersed role among at least four boys (Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard), captains of a generalized riot, a “children's plot”, concentrated in the space of school. Although it does not result in serious violence, such a plot mobilizes slogans extracted from the revolutionary lexicon. One of the boys shouts in the tone of a manifesto: “War is declared! Down with the teachers! Down with punishments! Long live the revolt! Freedom or death! Let's fly our flag! […] Tomorrow we will fight old book scams!”.

Truffaut's film features an entire youth cast, but is strongly anchored in a protagonist, Antoine Doinel.[vii] The boy's life is divided between, on the one hand, the family/school routine and, on the other hand, competing with it, his adventure on the streets and popular attractions of Paris (cinema ahead), basically shared with a friend. Concentrated on external scenes, such an adventure is lived as an experience of freedom, drift and wandering, accentuated in the moments filmed with camera in hand. Throughout the film, the character's rebellion translates into small moral infractions, at school, at home and on the streets.[viii], but ends up costing him a stay in a correctional home – which he escapes from in the end.

Meio-dia combines elements of both models. On the one hand, the wandering of the protagonist who moves from school benches to city streets; on the other, the collective rebellion in the school – with a more violent result than in Vigo's film, despite the equally childish atmosphere of its joyful celebration. The two lines meet at the end, when João returns to the school and finds its entrance empty and its windows shattered. Has he missed the bandwagon of the revolt, or is he coming to widen the field of possibilities for him, based on his experience on the streets?

At the same time, Solberg's film takes up the lessons of those two films in another context and introduces differences. Unlike those shown by Vigo and Truffaut, their school is now co-ed, and the girls also take an active part in the revolt, which kills a male teacher but spares his colleague. And authority figures tend to disappear or lose agency. The protagonist's parents, as well as those of the other students, never appear, the only teacher we see in action is massacred by the students (the other one who caught the scene does not act or reappear later), no policeman appears on the street or at school. No transgression is punished, from the mildest (the act of skipping class, kicking someone else's dog, discarding books and notebooks thrown into the river) to the most serious (assault and murder of the teacher at school).

Children seem to reign free, unpunished and victorious. But the marks of our years of lead are there, magnetizing the entire film, from the simulation by the protagonist of torture by asphyxiation [Fig. 18] and the graffiti on the school wall according to which “dictatorship sucks” [Fig. 19] to the already commented iconography of clenched fists [Fig. 7-8] or throwing projectiles (books, school objects, boxes) [Fig. 10-11] that express the rebellious impetus of young people. In addition, the film's soundtrack was dominated by the song inspired by the French 1968 by Caetano Veloso, then exiled by the dictatorship after being imprisoned with Gilberto Gil.

Figure 18

Figure 19

This set of references to 1968 and, more particularly, to the civil-military dictatorship in Brazil leads us to the second constellation of films with which Meio-dia entertains a dialogue. Less evident, not claimed by the filmmaker, this dialogue is however no less effective, and its examination seems to us to be an important task in the upcoming exegesis of Solberg's film. What constellation is this about? That of insurrectionary cinema around 1968. Diverse and varied cinema that, in Brazil, goes through political films directly featuring the mobilization of young people, clashes between opposition demonstrators and forces of repression, or state violence in the systematic practice of torture institutionalized by the civil-military dictatorship.

Dealing with these issues, creating a dramaturgy or an iconography related to them, a series of Brazilian films followed the radical retrospective of earth in trance (Glauber Rocha, 1967), whose allegory focused on the period that preceded the 1964 coup, now to show its immediate effects: Temporary life (Mauricio Gomes Leite, 1968), 1968 (Glauber Rocha and Affonso Beato, 1968), Hitler 3rd World (José Agrippino de Paulo, 1968), Killed the family and went to the movies (Julio Bressane, 1969), Contestation (João Silvério Trevisan, 1969), gray morning (Olney São Paulo, 1969), war garden (Neville d'Almeida, 1970), among others.

Informed or not by such films at the time, Solberg's short is inscribed, in the eyes of today's historian, in its constellation, in which it assumes a unique timbre. The choice of children and young people of different ages (adolescent protagonist, younger students in the classroom and in the playground, older students in the teacher's massacre in the courtyard), the combination of physical confrontation at school (= armed struggle?) and the discovery of the world through school evasion (= desbunde?), the use of a political song that defied the dictatorship but at the same time displeased the orthodox left-wing youth that fought it, everything in the film suggests and points to a broad front, at the same time political and existential, against the repressive order.

One fact, however, singles out such a broad front: it is not the engaged and militant adults of the other films of the period, but the rebellious and happy children who embody it, perhaps in a glimpse of a long-term struggle, which will be projected in time, with a horizon of properly generational transformation of institutions. Without saying so explicitly, without mentioning any long-term project, without departing from the urgency of immediate gestures, Meio-dia thus ends up suggesting that the struggle against oppression will be carried out by youth. The protagonist's circumspect face, whose close-up rhythms the whole film, seems to express doubt about his paths: escape, party or fight? Facing the school, the city (and the country): love them, leave them or take them by storm?

*Mariana Souto is a professor at the Department of Audiovisuals and Advertising at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (FAC-UnB).

*Mateus Araujo is a professor at the Department of Cinema, Radio and Television at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP).

Originally published under the title “A child 1968? notes about Noon, by Helena Solberg”, in the magazine Eco-Post (online), Vol. 21, n.1, 2018 (“Dossiê “50 anos de 1968”), p.263-276.

Notes


[I] In these 50 years of career, Solberg has already left us 16 films, of which 14 are documentaries and 2 are fiction.

[ii] São Paulo, It's All True, 2014.

[iii] Included in the precious catalog of Helena Solberg Retrospective (Belo Horizonte / São Paulo: Filmes de Quintal / CCBB, 2018, p.46-49), organized by Leonardo Amaral and Carla Italiano.

[iv] And it seems resignedly integrated (in terms of melancholy) even in a film that focuses on 1968, such as the last documentary by João Moreira Salles, In the Intense now (2017)

[v] Son of Thomaz Farkas (whose family Helena became close to), then 15 years old.

[vi] On the genesis and meaning of this song, which was asked of him by Guilherme Araújo in 1968 to serve as a commentary on the French May, see Caetano Veloso's own considerations in Tropical Truth (3rd Ed. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, p.305-314), in addition to the information provided by Carlos Calado in Tropicália: the story of a musical revolution (4th Ed., São Paulo: Ed. 34, 1997, p.216-38)

[vii] So expressive and potent for the history of cinema that it goes beyond the film and reappears in later works by Truffaut, in his prosperous partnership with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud.

[viii] Clowning and whistling behind the teacher's back, insolent compliments to a priest, lying to parents and school authorities to cover up their absences from school, theft of money or a typewriter, soon returned.

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