Olney Sao Paulo



Considerations on the artistic trajectory of the Bahian filmmaker

I take advantage of the occasion of the 85th anniversary of his birth to pay homage to filmmaker Olney São Paulo. I know the character of this article from recounted memory, the nephew that I am of the director that I never got to know. His name was always present in my home, especially when cinema or recent Brazilian history came into question. The cinema, because this was a home discovery for me, being introduced to the classics on VHS, then on DVD, in the absence of a cinema that showed such films. Olney's tastes were not overlooked in my sessions with my father, especially when Westerns came into play. It is difficult for Olney not to identify with the arid landscapes of the deserts of the American west, being himself a son of the caatinga.

The historical side of Brazil, on the other hand, refers to painful episodes to be remembered by those who lived through it, retrieved by the memory with a mixture of indignation and anger. This is because the sertanejo, who left the countryside behind wanting to find a more favorable place for his aspirations in Rio de Janeiro, found himself swallowed up by the vortex of political cruelty prevailing at the time. Following in the retreating footsteps of people like Glauber Rocha – who in new cinema revolution dedicates a beautiful chapter to Olney, calling him the “martyr” of Brazilian cinema – and joining the flank of Bahian filmmakers in the wonderful city, Olney found himself in the middle of a political-criminal process so common to the dictatorship established in 1964.

Therefore, the reader should not be alarmed if he finds the name of this director from Bahia strange, if he does not know his story or the film we will focus on in the coming paragraphs. The silence surrounding the memory of the old man from Bahia was orchestrated by the malignity that vilifies Northeasterners and burns movies.


Olney, filmmaker

The eldest of seven children, born on August 7, 1936 in the city of Riachão do Jacuípe, Olney moved with his family to Feira de Santana to continue his studies. At the time, Feira de Santana had the privilege of housing several movie theaters. It was in Feira that the young man became enchanted by the most coquettish of the arts.

A particular and curious event happened when Olney was still a teenager and it marked his whole life. Alex Viany's team landed in Feira to record an episode of wind rose. The film had German production, with directors from different countries signing each of the episodes. The Brazilian episode was starred. In addition to the already famous critic Alex Viany, he starred in the episode Vanja Orico (after the success the cangaceiro) and signed the screenplay Jorge Amado. Curious about the arts, Olney watched the footage, even getting information on Viany and Jorge Amado to exchange letters.

After that singular episode, there was no other way. He set up amateur theater groups, opened magazines, even broadcast on the radio to talk about cinema. When, in 1955, a friend showed up with a 16mm film camera, off it went Olney to try his hand at directing. In the absence of resources to mount the film, they decided that the film would be filmed in the order of events, stopping the film inside the machine. They filmed a scene, stopped, filmed again, without the possibility of mistakes or to do it again. The work was A crime on the street, recently found by Henrique Dantas in the midst of research for his films about Olney's cinema, Gray Signs e be so gray.

From the amateur venture he moved to professional cinema, with a firm style influenced by cinema novo, in particular by the films of Nelson Pereira dos Santos. In A crime on the street for scream from the earth it was 9 years. Based on the novel caatinga, by Ciro de Carvalho Leite, scream from the earth is a fiction feature film that deals with themes such as the literacy of the sertanejo people and agrarian reform. In its cast, Helena Ignez, Lucy Carvalho and Lídio Silva.

It was a luxurious kickoff to a career of 14 films in all, including features and shorts, fiction and documentaries. But in the middle of a story about a curious and creative sertanejo, willing to be part of an expensive, bourgeois art, to speak for his people, came the military coup. Along with the coup, the AI-5, which landed Olney in prison and resulted in the destruction of one of his films, gray morning. This unique process in the history of Brazilian cinema, in which a filmmaker was accused of producing a film with copies of his work destroyed, needs to be better documented and remembered so that we recognize the weaknesses of cinema in the midst of blows against democracy and rise of institutional fascism.


Olney and the process gray morning

Olney São Paulo was an employee of the Bank of Brazil. Soon after the release of scream from the earth, manages to be transferred to work in Rio de Janeiro, thus becoming closer to all the movement in cinema at the time. Already established in Rio, production begins on his second film gray morning. Based on the short story of the same title that opens his collection The eve and the song of the sun, published in 1966, the film follows a group of students who try to keep alive the flame of the fight against a bloodthirsty dictatorship. In this dystopia, arrested students are interrogated by a robot that serves as a judge, after being tortured in prison.

The film was made throughout 1968, being completed in 1969. Before submitting the film to censorship, Olney exported copies of the film, which was shown at festivals in Chile, Germany, Italy, and at the Directors' Fortnight of the Festival de Cannes.

In 1969, a plane carrying the US ambassador to Brazil was diverted to Cuba. Among the guerrillas present at the kidnapping was the coordinator of a film club in Rio de Janeiro who, a few weeks earlier, had asked Olney for a copy of gray morning. in your recent On the wings of Pan Am, Silvio Tendler recalls the case (not to mention Olney, a flaw in the documentary), as he was a friend of the guerrilla fighter and wanted by the military during the investigation. Olney was not as lucky as Tendler. They accused him of having participated in the hijacking, since his film was allegedly shown on board.

At the time of the incident, Olney was in Chile performing a gray morning. When she came back she found out that his name was involved with a strange case. He presented himself to the authorities to give a statement of his own free will, saying that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping. After a first audition, he was released by the authorities, who were still suspicious of his trip to Chile during the same date. When he returned for the second scheduled date, he was detained and taken to an unknown location. He was unable to be reached, leaving his wife and three children to depend on the help of friends to get by during the days of his disappearance.

Before returning to Chile, the authorities of the dictatorship had already visited the laboratories where copies of gray morning, as well as cinematheques, for apprehending the material. With Olney detained, before his departure for an unknown location, he was escorted to his residence and seized more material, treated as a criminal in front of his children, in an episode that left marks in his memories.

In jail, Olney was brutally tortured to make him inform other names that would have participated in the hijacking of the plane. Seeing that Olney was “only” a filmmaker, they forced him to name names so that the guilt of the whistleblower persisted. As reported by José Carlos Avellar, who worked as a photographer for gray morning, to Henrique Dantas in Gray Signs, Olney carried the guilt of having said the names of his teammates. “But the names are all in the film”, Avellar would have replied. In any case, it is part of the process to perpetuate barbarism in those who suffer it.

A surviving copy of the film, which later remained in the possession of Olney in clandestine exhibitions, was the result of the cleverness of the curator of the MAM cinematheque, rendering a great service to the national cinematographic memory. Knowing the interest of the military in hunting the film in question, he changed the tin film, allowing the gray morning earn survival.

Olney leaves prison after 12 days and is admitted to a hospital. Debilitated, he suffers from the lungs, an affliction that would be the cause of his death in 1978.

Angela José, Olney's biographer, compares her judgment with the process of Joseph K., in Kafka's famous book. If Olney was initially arrested for alleged involvement in the hijacking of the plane, the case files involving gray morning show the accusation against a director for having made a deeply subversive film. Olney is obliged to defend his work and justify the fact that he did not pass the censorship before sending copies abroad. He points out that the images of arrests in lawsuits were obtained from TV Globo, and says that the film has a commercial and surreal aspect by using rock music and using a robot.

The penance would last until 1971, when the court finally acquitted him. The prosecutor in the case asked for a new trial, which would only be denied in 1972, when the case was finally dismissed. During this entire period, Olney feared a return to prison. His following years were of active cinematographic production, dedicating himself to documentaries, but still suffering from the screams of his prison period.


gray morning

The opening credits show an overcast morning, people going about their lives like just another day. The gallops of history come silently, Walter Benjamin reminds us. Over these images, he pulsates the fervor of a Creole mass, giving the beginning of the film a somewhat epic, or surreal, tone. Are we entering a different universe, another reality?

The end of the credits is marked by the abrupt change in sound from the mass to that of distorted rock, coming out of a radio. We meet in a classroom. A young woman with long hair and a skirt above her knees dances before a congregation of students seated prostrate at their desks. The montage alternates between the girl's dance and the youth's apathy. Some of them seem to be mobilized by the girl's attitude, albeit timidly: they clap their hands on books to the rhythm of the music and move their feet under the tables. Nobody gets up, nobody joins the girl.

From the frozen classroom, we are launched into the future. The girl who danced before her companions is in a stylish police car. They are prisoners. We are in a totalitarian country that imprisons political opponents. The montage jumps from the fictional recitation (speech) to the emulation of a newsreel in which a student demonstration scheduled for the next day is reported, followed by an impassioned speech. As with Citizen Kane, there is a rhythmic construction in gray morning which greatly benefits from the continuity of the sound, creating the hook between disparate situations, between different events, making the connection between documentary images and others worked on by the actors.

In a union of the two poles, documental and fictional, the student leader couple appears in the middle of a real demonstration, walking among the group. At one point, the boyfriend goes up to an elevated and begins to simulate a speech. The images in which the couple from the film appear alternate, images of young people with sticks and stones smashing cars, of burning cars. In the dynamic speed of the images, we see students being arrested, taken to police cars.

the assembly of gray morning is accelerated. As any researcher who spends some time reading about the film will discover, the term coined by Glauber is the most recurrent to describe it: kaleidoscopic montage. Your timeline does not obey the dictate of beginning, middle and end. In the comings and goings we see fictional images and documentary images coming together in a story about the dictatorial government of a nameless land. Students discuss resistance while trying to shake off their own apathy. They act, but end up trapped in their uprising against the imposed authority. They are judged by an electronic brain that has recorded the speeches of the young student leader. Not being a fair judgment, the robot even compartmentalizes the image of what will happen, of the future, with the execution of the rebellious couple.

“Progress” is a recurrent word in the Brazilian political imagination, at the service of private and not collective interests. The robot's presence in the trial scene gives the film a science-fiction feel. The machine would an advanced brain, devoid of prejudices, but it is not. We see throughout the trial the manipulation of the machine to check the sentence wanted by the prosecution. In one of its best moments, the machine evokes an image of the professor (Lídio Silva) scream from the earth. The teacher teaches the peasants how to read and write, here appearing under a speech by the girl to her judges. Paulo Freire's method, suggested by the girl, is seen as subversive by the accusers. “Chinese signs, Excellency, Chinese signs”, says one of the uniforms present there.

During the trial, the archetypes created by Olney for his characters are very strong, especially for the protagonist couple. The soldier who arrests them, and later participates in their trial, is an apparent defender of rationality, at the same time that he says that “the people never knew how to think”, thus putting himself against the project of literacy for the masses raised by the girl. The student leader boy is the intellectual, he appears reading the final paragraph of The plague, by Camus, in a loud voice, and he is the one who speaks at demonstrations. But he carries a deep feeling of discontent, that his fight will not succeed. In the classroom meeting, he says that "everybody betrayed himself". Seen as the brains of the operations, he undergoes the most severe torture before the trial, and throughout its course he remains prostrate, eyes closed, unable to remain seated in his chair.

On the other hand, there is the girl who dances. It is she who calls for action. “Something has to be done,” she says to her partner. During the trial, she sits provocatively, placing one leg higher on the chair, sneering at her judges, responding to their statements. She dances in an attempt to entice her companions to remain on their feet. When placed against the wall to be shot, she dances again, stunning her executioners. Dead, the film returns to see her dancing, because she will be found standing. Even dead, she still stands.


olney after gray morning

During the court proceedings of gray morning, Olney was retired due to disability from his job at Banco do Brasil. What was initially received as yet another blow and yet another shame, later turned out to be the possibility of devoting his full time to cinema. It is from this period that his most prolific phase is born, which includes the filming of the feature film The strong, based on the work of Adonias Filho, and some of his most outstanding short films, among them the beautiful Under the dictates of a rude soul: signs of rain.

Just like the girl who dances gray morning, the dictatorship's attempt to impose silence on Olney did not work. He even filmed the return of politician Francisco Pinto, whose mandate was revoked in 1964 when he was mayor of Feira de Santana. He had bolder projects that never got to be recorded, such as the revolt of the tailors and a biopic of the dissident Lucas da Feira, a figure surrounded by controversy in the Feira de Santana region.

He died in Rio de Janeiro, aged 41, still planning films with each of his friends who came to visit him.

*Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral student in philosophy at UFBA. Book author The metaphysics of cinephilia (Fi publisher).


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