The camera, if used consciously as a tool to understand different interpretations of a culture and not as a tool to reproduce objective exotic proofs, can assist not only in revealing to ourselves our own cognitive and cultural constructions, but it can also allow others to tell their stories in their own voice, with their own views.
Gender Representation in Visual Ethnographies (1990)
Fourth-wall-breaking in the contemporary documentary tends to be either aggressive, or absent entirely. As America’s preeminent investigative filmmaker, Errol Morris appears now comfortable (or perhaps desperate) enough to just yell new questions from behind the camera, and filmmakers like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield have made careers out of cushioning their own alienness to their topics within the films’ texts, mugging and pontificating like they’re hosting a reality TV show. The legacy of direct cinema (epitomized by Robert Drew and the Maysles Brothers) only finds quarter in specific situations that happen to unfold as they’re being documented—which is to say, they require a foundation in reportage not all filmmakers are necessarily comfortable with. And the celebrated issue doc, with its emphasis on slick edits and appropriation of Hollywood aesthetic tropes, grows ever less reliable even while its corresponding market is mushrooming. Verisimilitude can be a stylistic choice or a protocol of epistemology, but the general trend suggests neither approach is mandatory for a documentary to find an audience in 2014.
A different approach can be sniffed out in the documentaries of Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho. The filmmaker was stabbed to death by his schizophrenic son last February at the age of 80, a net loss not just for world cinema but for the documentary form at large. Film critic Ismail Xavier has proposed that Coutinho’s approach was more radical, even, than Jean Rouch’s cine-trance, shifting the burden away from the documentarian’s self-acknowledgement and back onto the reactive properties of the subject captured in the lens. (Evidence can certainly be found in 1992’s Boca de Lixo, wherein a young slumdweller—who makes his living by sorting through mountains of steaming garbage—asks Coutinho, and thus his audience: “What do you get out of this, holding this thing in our faces?”) Along this line, Coutinho’s role is neither to depict a facsimile of somebody else’s day-to-day life, nor is it for him to vanish behind the camera: it is to give the interviewee a sense of awareness, and prod that tension accordingly. 2007’s Playing (Jogo de Cena) prioritizes neither his authority nor the supposed verity of his findings half as much as the collision between artifice and reality he manages to create in concert with his “cast.”
It begins with a simple ad posted in a newspaper: if female readers are over 18, live in Rio de Janeiro, “have stories to tell, and want to make an audition for a documentary film, call us.” From 83 applicants, Jogo de Cena zeroes in on 10 women who sat for Coutinho, each with the same empty theater to her back. The setup is rigorously minimal, and the sound mix doesn’t hide that Coutinho’s questions are being audibly pitched from behind the frame to its center. The film more than accommodates his interruptions and remarks: the decorum of its sit-down format is broken often, suggesting a comfort shared by Coutinho and his interviewees that precludes the finished product. However, just as the women appear their least guarded, unmissable similarities will emerge across their multiple testimonies, and it becomes apparent—without being declared outright—that Coutinho has hired actresses to perform from the same “monologues” yielded by the original interviews. Soon the discussions are not just autobiographical but also meta-textual, with performers discussing their line-for-line technique, and the emotional differences between them and their characters.
By handing the interviews’ text to three prominent Brazilian actresses, Coutinho allows for an awareness of different, but somehow coexisting dramatic plausibilities. Fernanda Torres—who has worked with filmmakers such as Ruy Guerra and Andrucha Waddington—appears mystified by her role as an interviewee named Aleta, telling Coutinho: “I can’t separate her speech from herself. I simply can’t. I was speaking while you were looking at me, and I felt my memory was slower than hers. It seems the text comes before I notice it.” At risk of sounding maudlin, the film’s anthropology is one of life experiences—weddings, divorces, jobs, pregnancy tests, motherhood—more than it is ethno- or econo-graphic: no exterior facts of any kind—surname, age, income, hometown, education, etc.—penetrate Coutinho’s discussions with these women. The depositions by the non-actresses are just as laden with biographical information as are the actresses’ shop-talk, with Coutinho intriguingly vacillating between the roles of a journalist and a dramatic impresario.
By the same token, Coutinho’s method of shooting and editing his interviews is the same even when the words presented belong to somebody other than their speaker. Jogo de Cena (which translates literally to “playing a scene”) is, rather than a mix of fact and fiction, a documentary of both deposition and reenactment as willful acts. The uneasiest it gets is when Coutinho seems to be tiptoeing around the amount of “acting” people put into their recollections of real life, but obviously the presence of both camera and filmmaker changes everything. Acting appears as a means of documentation unto itself, no less fraught with the potential for oversight than merely pointing a camera at somebody. For its unsentimental explication of biases implicit in the talking-head documentary approach, Coutinho’s film manages to be both dense with implications and light of touch. As actress Andrea Beltrão claims of her role, “If I had prepared myself to cry as an actress, I wouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable.”
Jogo de Cena will screen on Saturday, November 8th, at Hunter College as part of Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture.
STEVE MACFARLANE is a filmmaker, writer, and programmer based in Ridgewood, New York.