An Introduction to Coutinho

By Natalia Brizuela and B. Ruby Rich

from Film Quarterly Spring 2016, Volume 69, Number 3

Eduardo Coutinho, the greatest documentary filmmaker in the last half-century of Brazilian cinema, is woefully underrecognized in the United States and has not been adequately incorporated into the global history of documentary cinema.1 This neglect is an injustice not only to Coutinho but to everyone who cares about the power of documentary and its traditions. Something crucial is being lost. Criticism in English has studied Brazil’s Cinema Novo extensively, but because Coutinho is not exactly a part of this movement and because so many of his films postdate it, he is usually left out of those histories. Also, Cinema Novo was fiction, whereas Coutinho went in the direction of documentary. On his own, he developed a radically different practice that stayed focused in one place, on one person at a time, with another intent entirely: he was interested in ordinary people’s stories and how they told those stories about themselves. In a way, he was interested in the kernel of fiction at the naked heart of documentary, stripped bare not by artifice but by the lack of it.

If Cinema Novo used fiction in its most poetic dimension to function as a sociopolitical manifesto, then Coutinho does the opposite: he uses socially based documentary to uncover the rich dimension of storytelling which, with enough time and attention, ends up revealing the fable, the fabulous, the subjective, lurking within. Where Cinema Novo was mythic in its style, Coutinho was determinedly quotidian in his. In Coutinho’s films, especially starting in 1999, unexceptional people reveal themselves to be captivating characters. And 1999 is not an incidental date: it is then that Coutinho begins to be supported by Videofilmes, the production and distribution company of João Moreira Salles and Walter Salles, with a form of patronage that gave him the freedom to pursue his own kind of filmmaking, with a radical steadfastness. What could be more transformative and political than giving the screen over to people who otherwise have no claim on public attention and no purchase on the image?

The one film by Coutinho that has been recognized, analyzed, and distributed internationally is Cabra marcado para morrer (Man Marked for Death, 20 Years Later, 1964-1984).2 What is less known is the vast body of work that preceded and followed it. Eduardo Coutinho was born in 1933, became a cinephile at a young age, studied film in Paris, and returned to Brazil at the time when Cinema Novo was emerging. As José Carlos Avellar’s interview reveals, Coutinho’s very first script was written for a film that Glauber Rocha was originally asked to make but passed on to Leon Hirszman, who was one of the most radical figures in Cinema Novo and also functioned as Coutinho’s father figure at that time.

Coutinho’s work can be divided into four distinct periods. First was his participation, prior to the 1964 coup, with the Goulart-era CPC, the Centro Popular de Cultura (Center for Popular Culture), which believed that national cultural production belonged to the people and that it could be found throughout the country (particularly the Northeast, to which Cinema Novo famously paid a lot of attention) outside the main urban settings. The second stage occurs during the dictatorship, with his work in television between 1975 and 1984 where he developed many of his films and ideas in the context of television documentary. The third is the post-coup era when he co-founded CECIP, the Centro de Criação de Imagem Popular (Center for Creation of the Popular Image), and developed a documentary practice tied to questions of citizenship in the new Brazil. The last period finds him housed at Videofilmes under the Salles brothers, where he finally had the freedom to make the films he really wanted to make; this is the period when he achieved wider recognition and crystallized his theatricalization of documentary practice. He died at the age of 80, still making films.3

There is an urgency in reviving Coutinho’s model of documentary at this time. The one constant, across all the eras of his practice, was his focus on ordinary people living ordinary lives, and on the absolute fascination of this quotidian existence, lived outside the limelight, outside fame and fortune. His model of enacting a procedure whereby a community and its individuals can be enhanced and enlarged through the “deep listening” and acute vision that Coutinho learned to practice, provides a clear-eyed example of documentary engagement across difference. Today, with lives increasingly isolated into technologically bound spheres and with social systems of injustice and blindness all too commonly accepted, Coutinho’s example of documentary is a bracing tonic.

Eduardo Coutinho on location with his crew and subjects shooting O fim e o princípio (The End and the Beginning, 2005).
Photo courtesy of João Moreira Salles

What form does his kind of documentary take? Ever since his first film for Globo in 1976, Coutinho pursued the idea that, in the context of conversation, everything worth knowing will emerge. It is through conversation that subjectivity rises to the surface and that the perceived distance between the self and the other can be bridged. Coutinho’s approach, as simple as it is sophisticated, offers a model worthy of renewed consideration at a time when increasingly formal approaches have become dominant in contemporary documentary. The field today risks losing this quality of direct, bare-bones attention: a camera in front of a person, a voice asking, “so how long have you lived here?” and an answer that ends up encompassing the universe.

This dossier has been created to call attention to Coutinho in a contemporary context by privileging multigenerational Latin American perspectives on his work. Ismail Xavier, a member of Brazil’s first generation of film-studies academics, was one of the first scholars to write extensively on Coutinho’s work. His article was the first to name Coutinho’s practice as one of conversation as well as theatricality (jogo de cena) and was therefore influential not only for later scholarship but for Coutinho himself. José Carlos Avellar, a contemporary of Coutinho, is a public intellectual who wrote consistently in the newspaper and also served as the vice director and director of the cinemateca of Rio’s Museum of Modern Art, worked at Embrafilme and Riofilme, and facilitated both the creation and reception of many of Coutinho’s films. Avellar’s interview conversation has the richness of someone who has lived through fifty years of cinema with Coutinho—in this text, encompassing his work up through the release of Santo Forte (The Mighty Spirit, 1999) in 2000, when the interview was conducted. These two texts, originally published in Portuguese, appear here for the first time in English.

The other three articles have been written for this dossier. Consuelo Lins is a filmmaker, professor, and scholar of documentary cinema who has collaborated with Coutinho on a number of occasions, most significantly through her collaboration on Edificio Master (Master Building, 2002), based on an idea that she gave him. Her essay here focuses on his final, uncompleted film, Últimas Conversas (Last Conversations, 2015), which was posthumously edited and released, and which she reads through his earlier work. Cecilia Sayad and Natalia Brizuela represent a younger generation of Latin American scholars who are working outside of Brazil and studying Coutinho’s work in a cinema-studies context rather than in a context of Brazilian cultural production. Cecilia Sayad applies her expertise on the status of the author to the one film of Coutinho’s that now can never be screened, Um dia na vida (One Day in Life, 2010), which consists entirely of images from one day’s television broadcasts and which she uses to argue for a revised notion of authorship. Natalia Brizuela takes up his much-debated theme of conversation, and juxtaposes the conversational to the questions of temporality and duration that occur across Coutinho’s entire body of work.

Finally, a filmography is included to encourage renewed exhibition and discussion of Coutinho’s important example—in the hope, especially, that his films will be, at last, distributed in the United States and be incorporated into curricula, repertory exhibition, and documentary scholarship. His filmic example of a mutuality of conversation and understanding conducted across barriers of class and race could not be more necessary.

1. Exceptions in the United States include the exhibition at MoMA in 2009 as part of Premiere Brazil, where a tribute of eight films was organized by the late Jytte Jensen; and the Walker Art Center tribute, a part of its “Cruzamentos: Contemporary Brazilian Documentary” in 2014, which Coutinho had planned to attend. This FQ dossier is accompanied by a special tribute at Pacific Film Archive, “Eduardo Coutinho: A Cinema of Listening,” exhibited during February–April 2016 in conjunction with the opening of its new facility in the new Berkeley Art Museum building.

2. Such scholars as Robert Stam, Julianne Burton, Randal Johnson, Michael Chanan, and many others began writing on Coutinho at the time of Cabra and have written extensively on his work and that of other Brazilian filmmakers, as have many younger scholars.

3. He was quite ill already in February 2014 when he was tragically murdered.