Recovering Early Non-Fiction: Picturesque Brazil (1925) and Online Resources

Curator's Note

As a companion to my essay on online sources for researching Latin American film history, I chose this extract from O Brasil Pitoresco (Picturesque Brazil, 1925), a travelogue made by poet and folklorist Cornélio Pires and cameraman José Palacios during a voyage to Brazil’s Northeast. Accessed across online archives, the film and its context signal how these digital sources (and their constraints) can open up new avenues for scholarly inquiry. 

Browsing a collection of silent films made freely available online by the Cinemateca Brasileira (http://www.bcc.org.br), one notes the absence of fiction features like Limite (Limit, Mário Peixoto, 1931) and Braza Dormida (Sleeping Ember, Humberto Mauro, 1928), perhaps because recent DVDs still hold some commercial value. The newsreels and documentaries in this collection invite a deeper engagement with silent-era non-fiction film. Often neglected by scholars, the genre was a vexed subject for critics and spectators in the 1920s who wished to project an image of Brazil as industrialized and Europeanized. 

Filmed in Salvador da Bahía, known for its rich Afro-Brazilian heritage, these scenes juxtapose modern modes of transport with vendors at a crowded market. Highlighting the contrast between "progress" and "disorder," an intertitle notes the safety record of one of Salvador’s funiculars: "Without accident-a unique case of discipline in Brazil."

Despite this display of modern infrastructure, these images provoked vehement objections from some spectators. A keyword search for "Brasil Pitoresco" in the Hemeroteca Digital Brasileira (http://hemerotecadigital.bn.br) turns up a letter to the magazine Cinearte that is highly revealing of intersecting discourses on race, cinema and modernization in the period. Using racist rhetoric that equates modernization with whiteness, a reader writes, "When will we stop…with this mania for showing Indians, caboclos [people of mixed white and indigenous heritage], blacks, animals, and other ‘rara avis’ of this unhappy land to the eyes of the film spectator? And if by some chance this film ends up abroad?…it will leave the foreigner more convinced of what he thinks we are: a land as bad or worse than Angola, the Congo…" For this reader, images that displayed non-white populations and rural customs could only attest to backwardness, in sharp contrast to the attitudes of travelers like Pires and modernist writer Mário de Andrade, who visited the Northeast in search of national traditions. Reading Picturesque Brazil across online archives can help uncover the politically charged meanings of non-fiction images of the nation in the 1920s.   

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