Catarina Alves Costa

Imagining Rurality: Portuguese Documentary and
Ethnographic Film in the 1960s and 1990s

Catarina Alves Costa

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As a Portuguese anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, I
would like to reflect in this paper on the ethnographic documentary
(both academic and creative) in two important periods of the
Portuguese contemporary history, and its relation with the
representation of national identity. The paper will reflect on the
issue of ethnographic film definition as a style and a theoretical
instrument in the field of Portuguese visual anthropology. I will try to
summarize issues about the relations between institutionalized
anthropology (museological experiments) and the documentary
cinema in Portugal. The sixties and the years of the 1974 revolution
are in this presentation a reference to understand how the country
and specially the rural areas and the figure of the peasant were
represented. We would then look retrospectively to what happened
in the 1990’s years with the attempt from the documentary film to
look at ethnographic issues like  the post-colonialism, ethnic
minorities and the urban life.

I’m going to talk about Portuguese documentary film with an
ethnographic perspective in its links with the representation of
national identity. I start from the idea that this kind of film produces
a discourse about Portuguese popular culture, an idea of the
country or the memory of the country, whose homogeneity I will
question. The first large corpus of ethnographic documentaries
came about with what we call the “Cinema Novo” and afterwards
with film associated with the April 25th Revolution. I would like to
look at what happened later, from 1994 onwards, with a new wave
of films (where I include my own work as a documentarist) that look
at topics such as multiculturalism, post-colonialism or urban life.

During my talk, I will show a number of excerpts from films that
seek to open up ways to debate theoretical and methodological
questions, such as: How to work from these images? How to
construct sets of images that form a body in which we may find
recurrences? As I searched the images that were made in my
country, I kept finding this construction of an idea of the common
people, the collective people, to the detriment of an idea of the
individual. I also kept finding a rural Portugal that was archaic,
closed within itself and sad. How to turn the construction of that
idea of the common people in the images into an object of study?
These questions are, for me, the starting point of the research work
that I’ve recently begun and will not be fully answered here today.

This is the first talk I give within the framework of my doctoral
project, which is on ethnographic documentary film and its link to
representations of rural popular culture. I would like it to be as much
a contribution to Portuguese anthropology as to film history by
straddling the two disciplines in what is termed visual anthropology
in the broadest sense of the term, understood here as the study of
image production in different cultures (cf. Banks and Morphy, 1997).

Recent literature in Portuguese anthropology has focused on
popular culture in its relation to processes of objectifying the
common people and their traditions, as well as to forms of national
or regional identity representation. However, most research work on
the representation of popular culture in Portugal is based on written
texts and not on moving images and sound. With my project, which
I’ve called “Film Peasants”, I intend to carry out a thorough
examination of material that has been very little studied in Portugal,
that is to say, ethnographic film.

As I said at the start of my talk, I belong to a generation of
Portuguese documentary filmmakers who in the mid-1990s brought
back this film genre, one that seems to have fallen into a deep
sleep in Portugal. We know that documentaries were re-emerging
at this time all over Europe, but why had it been lying dormant?
What had happened to the revolutionary documentary filmmaking of
my childhood? Why did Portuguese filmmaking seem so distant
from any documentary approach and was increasingly following the
path of what José Manuel Costa called a film-poetry tradition, which
had sprung from a realist base? He went even further and argued
that this film genre did not exist in Portugal in the sense of “a
movement, even if little expressive or temporary, that was
consistently committed to the genre and had kept up a dialogue
with the genre’s more robust phases” (Costa, 2004:120).

The first question I asked myself was how to define the period I
wanted to work on. Some studies have been made in literature on
Portuguese film into the relation between cinema and national
identity. These studies are basically about fiction film, but they are
important for they help me find a chronology that defines – for
reasons I lack the time to explain now – an important period in
Portuguese film, that between 1962 and 1982. I believe that we can
find here a representation of the common people as an aesthetically
qualified and valued universe, regardless of the exact film category
it falls under (documentary, ethnographic film, fiction, etc.).

By viewing these films and questioning the images, I seek to
understand the fixation films had in rurality, traditions, roots and
authenticity. I want to find the link with ideas that run through the
history of Portuguese anthropology and to ask in what way we can
say Portuguese ethnographic film exists.

With these temporary goal posts thus defined, I will start by
identifying four large cinematographic bodies of work. First, films
made by anthropologists, such as Jorge Dias and his colleagues,
who founded modern Portuguese ethnology and the Museum of
Ethnology. Second, the work of filmmakers who filmed peasants
and their folkways in a documentary form and, above all, the
explosion of films in the wake of the April 25th Revolution. Third,
fiction films in which issues dealing with popular culture prevail as
references. Finally, I also consider the possibility of working with a
number of amateur films, generally made by an intellectual elite
who in the 1970s looked on film as a means to carry out some local
ethnography. Though it was amateur and marginal as filmmaking, I
believe we will find it has a close relationship with the other three
bodies of work.

I thus leave out mainstream films produced during Salazar’s
dictatorship and concentrate on what was produced on the margins,
mainly left-wing incursions into popular culture. It is interesting to
look for the moment of change in amateur filmmaking in the 1960s
and what this represents; to understand the social and ideological
context of that generation; to explore the discourse of the time as to
popular culture; explore the relation of film with popular art and
collecting objects; address the relation between the artistic avant-
garde and popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, in this talk I will only deal with the first two groups of films
as I will leave out fiction and amateur films and focus on the
documentary. The first group of material is a number of
ethnographic films (I shall show you excerpts) made by Jorge Dias’
team, one that Veiga de Oliveira would later lead. The films were
made between 1962 and 1980 and they all have rural themes that
focus on the materiality of popular culture, especially traditional
crafts and technologies. The themes are important here as they
lead to the use of a camera as a means of replacing lengthy
ethnographic descriptions. They influence the way of filming. More
than anything else, these films deal with traditional agricultural
activities (the linen cycle and tools), “handicraft” or material culture
(basket making, pottery), and finally, the theme of ritual (folk
religious festivities). In the case of these films, which we could call
“museum films”, the close connection between the various tools of
interpretation (drawing, photograph, film and text) means that they
depend on a context that is given by a set of materials, including
museum collections. Another trait these films share is that they
were not made “to be viewed” but rather to be kept in an archive.
That is to say, they were conceived above all as a way to record
and not so much as a form with its own expression. Film here
becomes essential in a museum discourse that wanted objects to
be given back their original living settings. A question of aesthetics
is also at play here, that of giving depth back to the object, which
can only be given within its own context of production and use. The
controlled and systematic manner of filming and the use of “real
time” in editing allowed an image to be recorded, preserved and
repeated so that it might be examined in detail. These films are
“passive and record what is happening without raising questions”
(Leal et al., orgs., 1993:56-58). They are likewise films that are
marked by urgency, shared throughout Europe, to film what was

The second large body of cinematographic work is the work carried
out by documentary filmmakers who embarked on the popular
domain. (I will now show you excerpts from António Campos’ films.)
Popular culture is synonymous with rurality in professional
documentary, apart from some films made during the April 25th
Revolution and its aftermath and which dealt with urban
populations. On the other hand, the films we are looking at now,
again except for the revolutionary wave of films, are not about the
contemporary world but are instead “witnesses of the past”, “a past
that has to be reconstructed through interpretation, that must be
recorded before it disappears, that must be preserved, that has
perhaps to be ‘purified’” (Leal, 200:41). To understand this group of
films, we must take into account the 1974 Revolution. Films were
already being made on the margins of the political regime. Fiction
film directors, caught up in the events, returned to what was really
happening in Portugal. They wanted to record not so much what
was coming to an end and was important to save, but the historic
moment. The result was that a large quantity of films appeared
during these years with a new language and a new representation
of the common people. (We will see excerpts from As Armas e o
Povo, a collective film, and Deus Pátria e Autoridade, directed by
Rui Simões.) Many of these films show workers in the Alentejo
taking over and occupying farms.

There are two regions in Portugal that appeal to filmmakers: Trás-
os-Montes in the northeast and the Alentejo in the south. The
former seems “like a chest filled with traditions, roots, identity
references, which had been lost in those troubled times. In the end,
we needed to reconstruct our identity a little. We went to the most
hidden and remote province (Trás-os-Montes) in search of our past,
whatever it was […]. In the Alentejo, it was clear that the quest was
for a future […], films made about the occupation of lands, films
made about the way the future was being prepared” (Pais de Brito
in Leal et al., orgs., 1993:104). Trás-os-Montes (excerpt), directed
by António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro, came out in 1976 in the
turbulent years following the revolution, and can be used as a case
study of this representation of rurality.

Ultimately, most of these films seem “[…] as a certain kind of fiction.
That is to say, by means of a resolute effort of abstraction, they
pretend that a certain reality remains unaltered and endeavour to
film it in its intangible purity by suppressing anything that might
disturb the portrait in the clarity of the early morning. These works,
nearly always admirable, feed off a widespread fiction of popular
culture” (Prado Coelho 1983: 70). There is a correspondence
between this kind of Portuguese documentarism about the rural
with folklorisation processes that modern anthropology studies. The
“creator/manipulator” work of these filmmakers was taken to a
certain extreme in Trás-os-Montes, where Reis shows a people as
“guardian of traditions and Utopia, and opportunity of redemption for
the city dweller” (Nunes, 2003:303).

At the time, films made by leftwing filmmakers were visible in
contrast to the total invisibility of films made by ethnologists.
Looking at these two groups of films, we can only ask ourselves
why they failed to establish a standard tradition of Ethnographic
Film in Portugal. As for an explanation for the non-existence of
documentarism and the existence of documentaries, José Manuel
Costa asks whether “the flight from a realistic and direct discourse
about the real contemporary Portugal was something more than an
impossibility on a practical level and might be rooted in a broader
cultural tendency?” (2004:122).

The film Trás-os-Montes could in fact be used as an anchor to
discuss this question of representation of the other and art’s
cinematographic eye when faced with ethnographic films of a
scientific kind that were being made at the same time. This film is
put forward as being the most interesting of its time in
cinematographic terms. “The most radical and aesthetically
revolutionary films thus emerge as remaining completely distant
from revolutionary “ongoing events” and activist “participation”
(Ferreira, 2002: 304). This is not about comparing the two types of
approaches – that of auteur cinema or ethnographic film – but
rather of putting into perspective the type of different but
ideologically marked representation they both created of popular

In terms of representation of geographical space, both these two
groups seem to be entrenched in the country, which presents a
symbolic geography with different north/south representations. It is
interesting to understand the discourse about landscape in the
depiction of the peasant’s universe, the way the countryside is “a
place of pleasant landscapes and noble virtues” and at the same
time “a place where life is harder than what the beauty of the
landscape allows us to suppose” (cf. Leal, 2001:141). However,
there does seem to be a romanticised representation of rural life, a
search for a harmonious relationship with nature, ancient forms of
social organisation and sociabilities associated with a view that
attaches more value to the collective at a cost to the individual. The
search in this cinema for the exotic in country life, seen here as
marginalised and isolated, is in fact made more intense with the
cinematographic language used.

In March 1999, the Portuguese Cinemateca organised a film cycle
called “New Documentary in Portugal”.  The catalogue puts
together a group of films made between 1994 and 1999 that show
themselves not to be a movement but a resolve, a recent impulse,
and says that we need more distance in time before we can
examine them. It also mentions the total void from the late 1970s
until now in which the cinema has not lived the international
adventure of direct film (Costa, 1999). We may subsequently think
that there has been a beginning and an end to a certain way of
looking at Portugal along the general lines I’ve been trying to
describe. Here, in this new documentary, everything starts again, as
if this film genre had no past. This is about a group of directors for
whom documentary film is not a minor genre but an option and they
are in tune with international trends, with new means of production
linked to video. But the question I would like to end this talk with
involves the topics we have reviewed and helps us put into
perspective what we have examined for the 1960s and 1970s.

Another retrospective of Portuguese documentary films in 2001
brought together several themes: films about art, artists and
exhibitions, introspective and intimate autobiographical films
demonstrating greater experimentation in form, and addressing
current social topics connected to urban life and Portugal’s
historical past, especially its relations with Africa (Baptista, 2001).
We can consequently consider that in relation with what I said about
the previous period, the image that this cinema projected of
Portugal has been openly rejected. When this fictionalised “people”
appears, as in the case of the film Polifonias of which we will see an
excerpt, it is more as a means for presenting new characters –
those who were once in search of that people.

Bibliographic references

Banks, Marcus and H. Morphy, 1997, Rethinking Visual
Anthropology, Yale University Press.

Baptista, Tiago, 2001, Catálogo dos XII Encontros de Cinema
Documental, Centro Cultural da Malaposta.

Coelho, Eduardo Prado, 1983, Vinte Anos de Cinema Português
(1962-1982), Lisbon, Instituto de Cultura e Língua Portuguesa and
Ministério da Educação.

Costa, José Manuel, 1999, Catálogo “Novo Documentário em
Portugal”, Cinemateca Portuguesa-Museu do Cinema.

Costa, José Manuel, 2004, “Questões do Documentário em
Portugal”, in Nuno Figueiredo e Diniz Guarda, orgs., Portugal: Um
Retrato Cinematográfico, Lisbon (volume of Número: Arte e

Ferreira, Manuel Cintra, 2002, “Cinema português: as excepções e
a regra”, in Artes e Letras, vol. 3 of Fernando Peres, ed., Século
XX: Panorama da Cultura Portuguesas, Porto, Edições
Afrontamento and Fundação de Serralves, pp. 281-311.

Leal, João et al., eds, 1993, Olhares sobre Portugal: Cinema e
Antropologia, Lisbon, Centro de Estudos de Antropologia Social,
ABC Cineclube and Instituto Franco-Português.

Leal, João, 2000, Etnografias Portuguesas (1870-1970): Cultura
Popular e Identidade Nacional, Lisbon, Publicações D. Quixote.

Leal, João, 2001, “Orlando Ribeiro, Jorge Dias e José Cutileiro:
imagens de Portugal Mediterrânico”, Ler História, 40, pp. 141-163.

Nunes, Catarina Silva, 2003, “Documentarismo e folclorização”, in
Salwa Castelo-Branco and Jorge Freitas Branco, eds, Vozes do
Povo: A Folclorização em Portugal, Oeiras, Celta, pp. 297-307.