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Documentary Filmmaking as Commitment: Interview with Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha

18 Mar 2008

It is not surprising that many of today’s most promising filmmakers are Brazilian, and that the country’s cinema – capped by the successful 2002 release of Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lunds’ “City of God” – has received much international acclaim. After all, poverty and oppression (as well as an inchoate social movement resisting such conditions) make for such gripping subject matter for filmmakers. Motivated by the need to create films that overtly mediate into the country’s political issues, a neo-realist movement called the the “Cinema Novo” was born during the 1960s. Initially influenced by Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave, it has been said that, in fact, Brazilians started making overtly political films earlier that their European counterparts.

Such a movement has even influenced today’s Brazilian filmmakers. One such filmmaker is Jose Padilha, director of the award-winning documentary “Bus 174”, about a disenfranchised young man who ended up holding up for four hours a busload of passengers in Rio de Janeiro in June 2000. The film was previewed at the Cinemanila Film Festival in Makati City recently.

Sinewaya: How did you get your start as a documentary filmmaker?

Padilha: I always liked documentaries and my father had produced some fictional films in Brazil. So I decided to open a company to produce documentaries. My fisr project was a film called Charcoal People. That was back in 1998, and I as the films producer. At the time I had never directed documentaries, so I hired Nigel Noble, a great British documentary filmmaker who was an Oscar winning filmmaker and also a documentary teacher at NYU (New York University). It took us 3 years to finance and produce the film, and during this period I learned about filmmaking from Nigel.

Sinewaya: How did you choose your subject for your films (any insipiration or experience that provoked you into making this film)?

Padilha: I try to make films about things that I think are important and that I am curious about. As I live in Rio, I always thought that there was a relation between the way the state treats street kids and juvenile delinquents and the violence the population faces on a day to day basis in Rio. When I saw the bus hijack I realised that Sandro´s life ilustrade this relation, so I decided to make the film.

Sinewaya: Do you think there is future for documentary filmmakers, especially with the way the worldwide film industry is doing now? Please expound.

Padilha: The theatrical market for documentaries is certainly expanding, and some films are reaching very large audiences. I can also sense more interest in festivals, so I think that there is a growing market for documentaries. Nevertheless, the decision to be a documentary filmmaker still is not an easy one as sometimes the financing and the production of films can take a very long time. So I think that there is a future for documentary filmmakers, but almost exclusively for those who love documentaries and are prepared to dedicate the time and effort it demands.

Sinewaya: Do you think the recent massive controversy surrounding — and the subsequent commercial release of — the political film Fahrenheit 9/11 in the US would help in the popularization of documentary films as a legitimate form of cinema?

Padilha: Yes, I certainly think it wil popularize documentaries. Nevertheless, I would not say that it will help to make documentaries a legitimate form of cinema simply because I think that documentaries are legitimate form of cinema regardless of how big its audience might be. I simply see no relation between being popular and being legitimate as far as cinema goes.

Sinewaya: What do you think sets the documentary film as a form of cinema apart from “regular”, conventional films, in terms of content or subject matter?

Padilha: This is a complex question, and the answer depends on the definition adopted for documentary. My short answer is: documentaries are simultaneously concerned with the question of presenting a real story in a true way and also presenting it with a compeling dramatic structure. So documentarists are concerned not only with the art of film, but also with the truth-value of the stories they tell. # Kenneth Roland A. Guda

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