Filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Photo: Marcos Pinto

At the age of 83, São Paulo filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos lives the grueling routine of press booths, previews and countless interviews for the national dissemination of the acclaimed documentary Music According to Tom Jobim, a moving audiovisual testimony of the universal work of the carioca maestro, signed by him and Dora Jobim, Tom's granddaughter. The film yielded a sequel, Tom's Light, gathering testimonies of three important women in the maestro's life: his sister Helena, the first woman, Thereza, and the second, Ana. The film is slated to premiere at the end of the first half of the year. Restless, Nelson still intends to start filming his new fictional project this year, dedicated to one of the great symbols of the country's history, Emperor D. Pedro II.

With a frantic schedule, the author of classics of our cinematography, such as River 40 Degrees, Dried lives e Memories of Prison, gave us the following interview, which would be done by email – yes, Nelson is also an electronic media enthusiast –, ended up being recorded by phone, over forty minutes, in an objective and lucid way.

Cinema seems to bring him an eternal youth (Nelson, immortal since 2006, occupies chair number 7 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters). And it's essentially about Brazilian cinema, his own experiences and impressions of the industry that helped establish what he next speaks with enthusiasm.

Brazilians - When you got involved with Cinema Novo, you had already made important films, such as River 40 Degrees e Golden Mouth. How did this approach come about?
Nelson Pereira dos Santos – When did I Dried lives, in 1963, had already shot four other films. I was co-opted by this new generation of filmmakers, in a good way, because we defended that Brazilian cinema should begin to discuss the social reality of the country. This, at the time, even became fashionable. Everyone tried to make a contribution in this regard, because there was also the political situation, which required taking a stand. The pressure on intellectuals to fight for freedom of expression and against the dictatorship was very great. But Cinema Novo did not have a homogeneous thinking, much less a single face. It was a group of friends who made movies, each with their own cultural, aesthetic and political statements.

Brazilians - What achievements did this generation bring to the country's cinema?
I see it as a great achievement – ​​let's say, for lack of another word – the fact that we ended the enormous prejudice against our own reality. Another important advance was the ethnic discussion that we proposed, because in Brazil, based on the cinema that was being made, it was possible to conclude that there were no blacks. The few roles given to blacks were employees, as in Hollywood in the 1940s. Characters linked to the Brazilian reality and its problems appeared here only with Cinema Novo. Today, the presence and ethnic variety in Brazilian production is fluent. At that time, there was a certain censorship of the market itself. They said: “Ah, but this film won't make money, film with black people doesn't make money”. There were a series of prejudices, horrible, fortunately overcome.

Brazilians - There was also a great convergence of influences among you…
Leon Hirszman, Cacá Diegues, Ruy Guerra, Glauber Rocha and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade were exponents of a cinematographic generation. My class was Italian Neorealism and Buñuel. Their generation emerged under the influence of Godard and the entire French Nouvelle Vague. Today, we have a pluralist cinema, very different from that time, which brought together some 15, 20 directors in activity. At the film school at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which I helped to found in the last century alone, 30 young people graduate each year. Other film schools in Rio, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and almost all over the country have also trained highly qualified filmmakers.

Brazilians - What do you think about the aesthetic clashes between Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal in the transition from the 1960s to the 70s?
Despite the apparent anarchy, Cinema Marginal promoted advances in the aesthetic plane and in the expression of cinematographic language here, as did the Nouvelle Vague in France. These influences are still impregnated in our production. It is possible to identify trends in Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal in many recent works produced in all regions of Brazil – in the films of Cláudio Assis and Lírio Ferreira, for example, two young directors that I really like. By the way, Pernambuco cinema has a very strong personality and this is another current characteristic of our production. In other words, it is no longer made only on the Rio-São Paulo axis. Brazilian cinema today is thematically plural and expresses diverse regional identities.

Brazilians - During the 1970s and 80s, the State subsidized a new industry, via Embrafilme, but, paradoxically, this was a period in which Brazilian cinema produced a lot and distanced itself from the general public…
NPS - The 1970s were a period of sharp growth for the industry. Official support bodies for cinema were created, ambitious projects, such as the National Council of Cinema, which encouraged the emergence of production, co-production and distribution companies. In the 1980s, this same industry began to have complications, due to the enormous inflation and our fragile economy, and we reached the point where Collor took over the presidency and ordered Embrafilme to close. Despite all the impasses, this was an important period for the consolidation of our industry, but there were exaggerations in the legislation, such as the minimum quota of 180 days of Brazilian films shown in cinemas per year and the mandatory exhibition of short films. The exhibitors, in order not to pay for not complying with the law, started to co-produce some crap. A freak. A crass and paternalistic political error, which only helped to form public opinion against Brazilian cinema.

Brazilians - In recent days, the worldwide success of music Oh, if I catch you, by singer Michel Teló, has generated embarrassment for many, for revealing a supposedly uncultured facet of the country. You've produced critically acclaimed films, but you've never had a problem dealing with the more popular culture, as in the movie road of life, about the duo Milionário and José Rico. What do you think about it?
There is, yes, great prejudice against this supposed “low culture”. I “went” from São Paulo (Nelson was born in São Paulo, in October 1928, but has lived in Rio de Janeiro since the 1960s.), my father was a caipira, from the west of São Paulo, and he was very fond of country music. My older brothers thought they were sophisticated because they liked American music and wouldn't let my father listen to country music shows on the radio. They simply censored him. When I was offered the project for the film by Milionário and José Rico, I went to see the duo sing in Parque São Jorge (the defunct Corinthians stadium, in the east side of São Paulo), which was packed with thousands of people. I remembered my father and saw that this was a very important cultural fact due to the number of people he moved, the tradition and history he carried. When I showed the film, I was criticized a lot, I was really tired, but it toured the country and was a great success.

Brazilians - Music According to Tom Jobim it is essentially cinematic. It does not bring testimonials, subtitles or any information that does not come from images and sounds. At the end, Tom's famous phrase: “Musical language is enough”. To what extent is cinema, an autonomous art like music, still enough for you, Nelson?
Yes, cinema is also a free art, like music. My training, in every way, followed a classic line of having a minimum as a maximum. Fundamentally, for me, content and form go hand in hand in filmmaking. I can express content adapting literary works or starting from original scripts, adopting different languages, but this same content can be done in different ways. The content, by itself, already imposes a certain form. All of this, of course, is inside my head, they are concepts that don't exist outside of what I'm thinking or feeling, and I'm always worried about the form linked to the content so that it doesn't get separated, it doesn't get separated. They are, for me, inseparable foundations.

Brazilians - What evaluation do you make of the so-called Retomada do Cinema Brasileiro. Has it been effective in portraying this new Brazil and rescuing our past?
This revival proves the vitality of Brazilian cinema, which had been forced out of our history. I remember a chronicle by Maria Lucia Dahl, in those days at Collor, in which she said she had come across a new broom, at home, and realized that the bristles had an image of her. They were made from recycled films, which manufacturers bought as raw materials. A clear testimony that they really ended up with the cinema around here, but, after a while, there was a: “Wait! It's not like that…” And the Rouanet Law was born. In a short time, cinema sprang up again in the country. The banks of the São Francisco River are pure caatinga, but if you take the water from the river to the ground, you can even plant grapes! Brazilian cinema also needed that little bit of water, of capital incentive, and it sprang up again with more breath and richer. The most beautiful thing is to see, today, the plurality of our cinema.


Watch the documentary on Youtube Music According to Tom Jobim


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