By Michael Chanan

Curated at [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014 by Catherine Grant


By Michael Chanan

The above video was prepared for a conference panel at the London Film and Media Conference in tribute to the Brazilian documentarist Eduardo Coutinho, who died in tragic circumstances in February 2014 at the age of 80. I had already written an obituary which reviewed his extraordinary contribution to documentary cinema, and didn’t want to repeat myself, so when the panel was organised I immediately thought of presenting a video instead of a paper.[1. The first consideration was purely practical. I already had copies of several of Coutinho’s films that he’d generously given me himself a few years ago, before they were out on DVD; obtaining the more recent films was now easier, since they’ve been issued commercially in Brazil. Thanks to Dago Schelin (http://dagoschelin.weebly.com) for getting them for me.]

The first element came from one of those mental lists that you lodge in the back of your mind: exemplary scenes, like the opening of Boca de lixo, or the stammerer in Edificio Master. What made them exemplary was the way they inscribed the relationship between subject and camera, moments when the presence of the camera is producing a certain response—a vector that is absolutely central to Coutinho’s sense of documentary. Coutinho’s cinema, as he said of it himself, is conversational, but the camera doesn’t just record or observe the conversations he has with his subjects, it is benevolently complicit in them. These are scenes where this is foregrounded.

Coutinho often appears in front of the camera coming and going, so some such shots, some of them incidental, were also necessary. Likewise the act of singing, which, in a couple of the films, figures prominently. Filmic logic provided a structure, which begins naturally enough by allowing Coutinho to introduce himself, as he generally does in many of his films. Short captions are used as signposts: ‘The invitation’, ‘Uninvited’ and ‘Arrival’ indicate different forms of set-up Coutinho uses in different films. ‘Power of speech’, ‘History’ and ‘Media and memory’ reflect just a few of the themes, and in two places longer captions explain some of his working premises.[2. These texts are:

1. ‘In Coutinho’s documentaries, there is no argument being made, and there is no big story being told, only lots of little ones.’ / ‘He said he wanted ‘to look and listen to people. Mostly, the rural and urban poor, to social and cultural Other… To try and understand the country, the people, history, life and myself, but always connected to the concrete, the microcosm.’ / ‘He found the microcosm in the principle of the unique location, the place where the film is shot, with the lives of the people living there.’

2. ‘He spoke of a “conversational cinema”, the spontaneity of oral expression, the impromptu and ad-lib, without imposing and predefined scheme.’ / ‘The result is like Deleuze speaking of certain moments in films by Pierre Perrault and Jean Rouch, where the character “becomes another, and begins to tell stories without ever being fictional”.’ /

‘And then he pares things down even more, and takes away the location, and focuses in on the act of story telling in front of a camera…’]

I confess I was not at all sure I could fashion these elements into a satisfactory whole. To the extent that the task demanded an analytic approach, I had no expectation that it would possible to convey the real feel of watching Coutinho’s films, whose aesthetic effect is a function of the suspension of linear discourse over a certain length of time. There is no argument being made, and there is no big story being told, only an accumulation of lots of little ones. A bit like the meandering temporality of free improvisation. I was surprised as the video came together that it took on the same feel. Even selecting the most telling clips, the material was diffuse and dispersed and yet refused to shed its particularity and individual identity. But this is exactly the world as Coutinho pictures it, and I remain happy at the thought that maybe this small digest of his films indeed manages to communicate something of the sentience of Coutinho’s filmic vision.

Michael Chanan is Professor of Film & Video at Roehampton University, London. Documentary film-maker since 1971, erstwhile music critic, and author, editor and translator of books and articles on film and media, on subjects including early cinema and Cuban cinema, the social history of music, and the history of recording.