Remembering Eduardo Coutinho (1933-2014)

 

The shocking news of the death of Eduardo Coutinho recalls to mind the influential and groundbreaking filmography of the Brazilian documentarian, even as details of his murder by his son become better understood. Through a career spanning over forty years, Coutinho not only became one of the foremost documentary filmmakers in Brazil, but in all of Latin America.

Born Eduardo de Oliveira Coutinho on May 11, 1933, he studied Law, but he never graduated. He worked as a copy editor at the Visão magazine in the mid-fifties while also worked in theater directing some plays. With winnings from a contest, he moved to France to study filmmaking at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies (IDHEC) in Paris.

He returned to Brazil in 1960 and established contact with the Cinema Novo members and joined the Popular Center of Culture of the National Students Union where he worked in the production of some film productions including the omnibus film Cinco Veces Favela / Favela Five Times. In 1966 he created the production company Saga Filmes with Leon Hirzman and Marcos Farias and a year later, he directed the episode "O Pacto" for the feature film ABC do Amor / ABC of Love, and directed the feature films The Man Who Bought the World / O Homem que Comprou o Mundo (1968) and Faustão (1970).

For the following years Coutinho developed a successful career as a screenwriter working in numerous films including A Falecida (1965) and Garota de Ipanema (1967), both by Leon Hirszman, Os Condenados by Zelito Viana (1973), Lição de Amor by Eduardo Escorel (1975) and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands / Dona Flor e Seus Dois maridos by Bruno Barreto (1976).

Between 1975 and 1984 he worked in television news magazine Globo Repórter in the TV Globo network, where he developed a passion for documentary filmmaking working on 16mm. In spite of censorship the editorial team was able to explore and report on numerous topics.

In the early eighties, he found old footage of the time he went to Pernambuco in northeast Brazil to shoot a feature film based on the 1962 assassination of João Pedro Teixeira, militan leader of the Peasant Leagues. Entitled Cabra Marcardo para Morrer, the film's cast included, amongst other non-professional locals, Teixeira's widow Elizabeth, playing herself. Brazil's military coup of 1964 interrupted the production, Mrs. Teixeira and family went into hiding, and Coutinho's footage was seized, except for one reel. Twenty years later, in 1984, Coutinho returned to the region with his salvaged footage to track down Mrs. Teixeira and family, show them the old material, and document their reactions to it and the changing times.

Coutinho's Twenty Years Later—A Man Labeled to Die / Cabra Marcardo para Morrer (pictured above right) was an unusual and unlikely hybrid documentary which garnered top honors around the world and became an instant classic. The film was awarded the top prize at the very first Rio de Janeiro Film Festival in 1984, it was shown in New York in the New Directors/New Films festival that same year, and was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the 1985 Berlinale.

Based on the success of Twenty Years Later, Coutinho developed a prominent documentary career comprised of nine feature films and six short films. He influenced many local and international filmmakers for his formally distinguished and innovative style. His works highlight the storytelling abilities of ordinary people in films of rare beauty and impact and throughout the years they mapped a country and a society in political transition. 

Some of his most renowned titles include Santo Forte (1999) in which ten intensely religious people tell the story of their lives and their spiritual trajectories; Edifício Master / Master, a Building in Copacabana (2002, pictured above left), which shows the everyday life of the residents of an enormous apartment building located in Copacabana, a block away from the beach; Peões / Metalworkers (2004) featuring interviews with metallurgic workers who participated in the 1979–80 strikes and were led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who years later went to become president of Brazil; and Songs / As Cançoes (2011, pictured right) in which 18 ordinary people sing a song that marked their lives forever and talk about the story behind it.

One of his favorite themes was exploring the border between fact and fiction which was the subject of some of his films including Playing / Jogo da cena (2006) in which he intertwines interviews of women narrating their own life, with actresses performing those same stories; and Moscow / Moscou (2009, pictured left) in which he shoots scenes during rehearsals by the Galpão Theater Company for Chekov’s "The Three Sisters," and he tries to capture the very moment in which reality becomes fiction and vice-versa.

In 2009, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented a eight-film retrospective of Coutinho with the presence of the filmmaker. As part of the retrospective, Cinema Tropical organized a special edition is TropiChat series featuring a conversation between Coutinho and Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, at the Americas Society.

Coutinho had become one of Latin American leading documentary filmmakers, continuing the long tradition of documentary cinema in the region. In 2009's Cinema Tropical survey of the best Latin American films of the aughts, Coutinho was the most named filmmaker in the list with four titles. Reportedly, he was working on a new film project about the recent protests in Brazil.