The Representation of Brazil in the 1920s through Silvino Santos’ Camera

This post was contributed by André Reyes Novaes, Visiting Fellow in the Department of Geography, University of Nottingham and Lecturer in the Department of Geography, State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

Cinema and national pride have been articulated in very different contexts. As a kind of national allegory, films can become a monument and participate in the construction of identities by highlighting national virtues. These ideas were the starting point for the analysis of the representation of Brazil in 1920s cinema by Professor Eduardo Morettin, presented in the seminar series organized by the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies at Birkbeck.

Eduardo Morettin is a Professor of Audiovisual History in the School of Arts and Communication (ECA) at the University of São Paulo. His paper focused on three specific films: 1922: a Exposição da Independência (1970, Arno Konder and Roberto Kahané), No país das Amazonas (1922, Silvino Santos and Agesilau Araújo) and No Rastro do Eldorado (1925, Silvino Santos). Each film was analyzed taking into account their historical context and their functions. Morettin’s talk provoked active participation of the audience chaired by the discussant, Dr Luciana Martins, who has also published on Silvino Santos’ films.

Documenting the Brazilian Centennial Exhibition

The first film discussed by Morettin was 1922: a Exposição da Independência, which was made during the Brazilian Independence Centennial World Fair (1922-1923), the first international exhibition that took place in Rio de Janeiro after the World War. The filmmaker Silvino Santos, who was at the exhibition for the screening of his film No país das Amazonas, took the opportunity to film the event, which was intended to celebrate Brazilian independence (1822). Santos was a photographer and cameraman of Portuguese origins who lived most of his life in the Amazon region in Brazil. His films represent an important record of the transformation of many Brazilian landscapes.

1922: a Exposição da Independência displayed a newly transformed area of Rio de Janeiro that was opened up by the leveling of the Castelo hill at the heart of the city. Outdoor and indoor scenes of the temporary pavilions and permanent buildings provide a picture of the city that celebrated Brazilian modernity. The visitors of the exhibition – mostly white and well dressed – promenaded on the exhibition’s boulevards, while in the interior of the pavilions Santos’ camera showed several products and scientific innovations.

Amazon and Modernity in the Early Twentieth Century     

Screened at the Amazonas State pavilion, No país das Amazonas was very successful in terms of public and critics, as Morettin argued. The film was produced by the commercial company of J. G. Araújo, which had business in the city of Manaus, the capital of Amazonia State, and across the Amazon region. No país das Amazonas thus worked as a visual catalogue of local products and their productive processes. According to Morettin, the film was an invitation for foreign investments in the region.

By comparing the representation of the film with earlier paintings, such as the painting by Felix Emile Taunay (Mata Reduzida a Carvão, 1830), Morettin suggested that the film reproduced a familiar visual trope in the context of the Brazilian nation’s iconography, ‘the submission of our exuberant nature to the purpose of civilization’. The beginning of the film, with urban landscapes from Manaus and the emphasis on industrial activities, demonstrates the intention to construct this dichotomic image between the forest and the modern activities. In an important scene of the film, Santos evoked the famous scene of the Lumière brothers, showing workers leaving the factory. 

Scientific Exploration and Indigenous Representation

Although the main goal of J. G.Araújo was to show a modern and developed state in the Amazon region, Santos’ camera focused repeatedly on people working: fishermen, rubber tappers, Brazil nut peelers in the factory, and many other characters were highlighted, showing different elements of Brazilian modernity. In contrast to this emphasis on activities related to the commercial and industrial context in the Amazon, the last movie shown by Morettin displayed a more typical vision of the region, that of the jungle. In No Rastro do Eldorado, the film by Santos on the expedition of the American physician and geographer Alexander Hamilton Rice to the interior of the Amazon Basin, the emphasis was on indigenous people.

Invited to make the record of a modern expedition, which used new technologies such as a hydroplane and radio, Santos produced a film that showed the exuberance and the beauty of the Amazon forest. According to Morettin, in addition to focusing on the scientific activities and the potential of the region, No Rastro do Eldorado also showed the explorer’s routine, observing the native Indians with empathy. Santos’ film provided a more complete picture of the Amazon region, which went beyond the rational and economic discourse present in Alexander Hamilton Rice’s writings.     

By analyzing these pioneering Brazilian films, Morettin explored different aspects of the representation of the country during the 1920s. In a period characterized by the absence of documents and records, the films by Santos are an inestimable register of Brazil and deserve the attention of researchers from many different areas. This seminar offered to the audience a glimpse on the tensions and contradictions of Brazilian modernity during the 1920s.


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