The return to engaged cinema

LEDA CATUNDA, Another Place, 1999, acrylic on canvas, plastic, t-shirts, 670x370cm .


Engaged cinema needs to be able to highlight central points that structure the bases of social and work relations in capitalism

The constitution of Brazilian cinema intersects with the country's own economic and social development over the last 100 years, not to mention the expansion of sectors that were treated as a constituent part in the creation of a national identity. An uneven and combined development like ours, based on conservative modernizations in the economic field and driven by the maintenance of bourgeois autocracy in the political field, made Brazilian cinema deal with the most collective and dynamic themes throughout its history.

If in the 10s of the 50th century until the middle of the 1960s, cinema was related in a contemplative way to Brazilian themes linked to art, literature and society, absorbing foreign techniques in filmmaking, in the 22s we have constituted a group formed by young filmmakers accompanied by some more experienced in the cinematographic field with a high anthropophagic sense, we can carefully say that this generation has a thread of continuity with the Modern Art Week of XNUMX.

Linked to a national-popular project, which at that time was at the forefront of the left field in all artistic segments, so that cinema was the possibility of materializing before the people the desires of a political vanguard linked to the Brazilian Communist Party ( PCB) that other than that, much is explained by external events, the Cuban Revolution (1959) the wars of liberation and the anti-colonial struggle, the conflict in Vietnam and the development of socialism in China, that is, political-ideological elements that made possible the organization and application of a revolutionary strategy that would also put an end to the old colonial structure and the Brazilian system of exploitation, movements that, in short, embodied the Brazilian revolution.

The creation of the Centro Popular de Cultura (CPC) in 1962, linked to the UNE, in addition to the great artistic movement enthusiastic about the basic reform project proposed by João Goulart, influenced a series of cinematographic creations that expressed this feeling, more than that , was part of the political-cultural melting pot that had established itself in Brazil, in a country of great inequality with a high rate of illiteracy, cinema could be the gateway to raising public awareness, just as the use of images was part of the strategy Soviet power in the revolutionary process.

The introduction of the main ideals advocated by the vanguard, which was based, above all, on the national-popular strategy that guided the action of the main leftist party, PCB, had as its principle an alliance with sectors of the national bourgeoisie in the fight against imperialism and feudal remnants that devastated the Brazilian people in order to advance towards the stabilization of an independent national capitalism and that would lay the foundations for a strong proletariat that would be able to carry out the socialist strategy. This political plan was part of a staged model that guided progressive thinking in that period and that brought direct actions to society through an “enlightened vanguard” ready to carry out these objectives that history posed.

Films like Barravento (1962), God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun (1964) by Glauber Rocha, the Rifles (1964) by Ruy Guerra, Lives Droughts (1963) by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, in addition to the productions that he had already made in the 1950s and which is the starting point of modern Brazilian cinema to some extent[I] and CPC-linked “newcomer” Leon Hirszman as his film Quarry of São Diogo (1962). Many other productions were created not only in cinema, but in literature, visual arts, architecture and music, that is, a ethos which led to the condition of a supposed path towards structural changes that broke with the historically archaic forms of our social and economic formation.

Cinema Novo, as well as artistic expressions from other fields, made making art something more than personal to the author, giving voice to the collective dynamics of society, to the people who always remained on the sidelines of political decision-making processes in Brazilian history and to the at the same time tracing possibilities of an overcoming that also broke with certain cultural practices and myths ended among the popular classes to a condition of passivity and resignation before the dominator.

There was, on the one hand, the idea that certain typically national practices were forms of alienation; on the other hand, there was the zeal for these same cultural practices that derived from a direct experience of these cultural traits and, on the other hand, the lack of confidence in the technical-economic modernization process as it was taking place. On the one hand, Cinema Novo, much less Cinema Marginal, in its iconoclasm, showed those conservative traits of idealization of a pre-industrial past taken as essence. Mythical origin of the nation.[ii]

Engaged cinema, in this way, incorporated dilemmas that went beyond the filmmaker's own class and placed him in a notion that cinema itself is an expression of its time and that, therefore, cinema should be at the disposal of the ideological and political cause that was on the side of the people. Without any kind of romanticization, but also without losing the notion of the particular reality of that historical moment, we can say that the objective conditions provided an intellectual environment for such productions and that they even overcame more technical issues, introducing the aesthetics of hunger that had more to do with it. to do with the conditions of making movies, with a camera in hand and low-priced audiovisual equipment, than with the film environment.

There was a turning point in this process that has direct links with the military-Bonapartist coup that took place in 1964, the biggest shock of the progressive field came from the artistic sector which was like entering a period of “trance”, immobility that surrounded their actions and a widespread disbelief, it is worth mentioning here one of the scholars of modern Brazilian cinema, it is the work of Reinaldo Cardenuto who has a work within the history of cinema focusing on the works and thought of Leon Hirszman (1937-1987) .

“With the failure of the political project of the nationalist left and with the crisis of existing representations in the first art of the national-popular, Cinema Novo would no longer find the disposition to re-enact revolutionary pretensions or assess utopian idealizations of the future. In general, the filmmakers ended up giving up the previous positivity to adopt another dialectic whose strength, in dictatorial times, would reside in critically observing the symptoms of a society in crisis. By rejecting the old teleological inflection as politically naive, accusing it of being populist, they turned to narratives that reflected on the historical retreat of the left, in which the climate of defeat put characters in deep agony on the scene. Proposing a counterdiscourse in an attempt to denounce Brazil taken over by authoritarianism, the political drama began to compose the exhaustion of the drifting subject, deprived of utopian projections and violently placed on the sidelines of the processes of social transformation. In its multiple manifestations, this crisis is central in films like The Challenge (1964), by Paulo César Saraceni, Terra em Transe (1967), by Glauber Rocha, Hunger for Love (1967), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Girl from Ipanema (1967), of Hirszman, The Brave Warrior (1968), by Gustavo Dahl, and the Heirs (1969), by Carlos Diegues”.[iii]

The debate between filmmakers expanded throughout the 1960s and 1970s about the type of cinema to be made and, more than that, thinking about the possibilities of material support in national cinema, which throughout its history has always been one of the main difficulties. for those who were in this environment looking to develop an expressive art for others. So, many filmmakers turned to themes portraying characters, classics of literature, periods and events in Brazilian history to raise public funds and consequently give continuity to their works. This was not a consensus within Cinema Novo, many claimed that this was a principle that previous productions denied and that it ran away from artistic making itself within cinema, others dialogued between the middle ground in which they recognized the connection of this filmic making with the industry cultural, but which would still allow for a critical and subjective approach in these same spaces.

Debates like these occurred continuously in later decades, as we do not intend to write a broad text on the history of cinema, but only indicate notes. In today's world, with a neoliberal expansion in all spheres of human life, words have changed upside down, worker has become a collaborator, a boss has become an employer and engagement has become synonymous with views on social networks.

Far from it, we propose here the notion of engagement in its most political sense, which is precisely the reproduction of a praxis in the spheres of human life in its objective and subjective representation and transformation of social conditions. Cinema today, in this sense, more than an aesthetic reconstitution of hunger, needs to objectively face a society that underwent a conservative capitalist modernization during the military period and that in the last 25 years has restructured itself to meet the needs of foreign capital with an agenda neoliberalism and even with the intensification of dependence through foreign debt and an allocation by the State to finance the losses of the internal bourgeoisie and socialize the misery among the Brazilian people.

The objective of the labor, social security and administrative reforms is to reproduce this logic and which, apart from that, has engendered a base of informal workers at a growing level. Engaged cinema needs to account for this movement, something that has already been made explicit in English filmmakers and as an example we can mention the films of Ken Loach Sorry We Missed You (2019) and also I, Daniel Blake (2016), highlighting central points that structure the bases of social and work relations in today's capitalism, perhaps, is also the basis for the renewal of Brazilian cinema, instead of the search for the postmodern subject, current cinema must resume the collective and draw points that dialogue with a negative aesthetic of society, placing elements of uneasiness on the question of images and their measurements as forms of social relationship, within this political-ideological broth what is real and what is just farce?

Technology and the advancement of information are placed in a continuous development in the sense that a person who was born in recent decades is not used to analyzing all of them in an integral way and, therefore, becomes a slave to fragmentation and subjective exploration , these questions make cinema with politics expand and these notes serve for an active reflection.

*Lucas Pereira da Paz Bezerra is majoring in History at the University of São Paulo.


[I] Productions like: Rio 40 degrees (1954) and Rio Zona Norte (1957)

[ii] Ismail Xavier. Modern Brazilian Cinema, Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 2001, p. 21.

[iii] Reinaldo Cardenuto. For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance, São Paulo, Ateliê Editorial, 2020, p.66.

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