“It is the word and the image…”

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Eduardo Coutinho’s film Man Marked For Death, 20 Years Later is a vivid example of his exploratory, equalitarian talking cinema

          Cabra Marcado para Morrer, or Man Marked For Death, 20 Years Later (1984), is a film that was made, broken down and remade under tremendous pressure and hostility, but driven by invention and a will to survive.

The film’s origins can be traced back to 1962, with the brutal end of both a period of popular agitation in the North-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, and of an extraordinary life, that of João Pedro Teixeira. A rural worker and committed labour activist, his life and deeds were bound up in the Ligas Camponesas, or peasant leagues — those militant, bottom-up organisations which would rally, protest and campaign for agrarian reform on behalf of Brazil’s millions of disenfranchised and maltreated itinerant workers. The people these organisations fought for were frequently subject to poor pay and work conditions; they could be abruptly punished and unceremoniously evicted from the latifundia where they toiled for sustenance for themselves and their families, while their bosses made large profits from their labour. 

The movement dates back to 1945, but the late 1950s and early 1960s was its most energetic period, especially in the often semi-arid ‘backlands’ of the country’s Northeast with the Sapé League, in the state of Paraíba, the largest and most active league of all. Its members were buoyed by the leadership of a figure like Teixeira, who rallied a great many to his cause with his radical ideals, brave and open opposition to authority, and his warm, generous character — as one comrade states in the film, he had the features of “a good man.” It’s a profound moment in a film chock full of deeply expressive portraiture both visual and verbal, and concerned with the personally and politically revealing ways in which people conjure and frame each other’s ghosts. 

This wider battle between classes left and right was, for Teixeira, also a familial struggle. His wife Elizabeth Teixeira, also active in the league, was the daughter of a petit-bourgeois landholder called Manoel, one of his many enemies among the bosses, their lap dogs, the state and the right. These formidable  opponents finally got the better of Teixeira, at least in corporeal and brute-force terms. One night, on a rural road, he was shot dead by multiple assassins, all of whom became publicly known yet eluded justice through various interventions by powerful interests both hidden and in plain sight. 

          In 1964, two years after Teixeira’s death, with the league’s activities and unrest still in full flow, Eduardo Coutinho and a small film crew arrived in Sapé. Despite having studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris, which according to Coutinho was a fusty, studio-oriented far cry from the more radical body that would emerge later in the 1960s, his true apprenticeship as a filmmaker was grassroots, back in Brazil and through a conception of cinema as an on-the-fly endeavour based on serious, radical aims. In the beginning of the 1960s, in the early years of what would be called Cinema Novo, he became involved with groups such as the left-wing, student-led Centro Popular de Cultura (CPC) and individuals like the filmmaker Leon Hirszman, with whom he first collaborated as production manager and later as a writer. 

With production support from the CPC, Coutinho headed north to make what would have been his feature-length directorial debut, a film about the life and death of Teixeira and the peasant struggles. The film would have been a fiction film but with many of Teixeira’s family and comrades, including Elizabeth, playing themselves according to a script of their own making. However, after just a few weeks of filming, the hammer fell. The 1964 military coup, which christened a dictatorship that would last for the next twenty years, led to a crackdown on Peasant Leagues activities, including the making of the film. On the trumped-up charge of hoarding weapons for a Cuban-backed communist revolution, the shoot was cancelled, the footage confiscated, and many of the peasants involved arrested. Teixeira herself, facing torture, imprisonment and possibly death, was forced to go into hiding. As a result, her eight surviving children bar one son, Carlos, who she could take with her, were raised by extended family, friends, or sent abroad, with little to no inkling of her whereabouts.

While Elizabeth spent the next nearly two decades in hiding, Coutinho also began to move on from the film, although it would sit festering at the back of his mind. He would subsequently direct and write several fiction films, but by the mid-1970s, was disenchanted with the demands and compromises of feature filmmaking. In 1974, he was employed by the public broadcaster Rede Globo (now TV Globo) and spent the remainder of the decade directing and editing documentary programmes and films. Non-fiction became his new and enduring metier, although performance would always be an implicit part of his work, and an explicit one in the case of late films such as Joga de Cena (2007) and Moscow (2009). 

          The luck of the abandoned production would change in 1981, when a relative laxing of the dictatorship’s repressive stranglehold under the presidency of João Figueiredo led to Elizabeth’s and the unfinished film’s footage’s return from exile. Coutinho proceeded to track her down, her family and other members of the cast and crew, with Man Marked For Death, 20 Years Later reincarnated as a documentary film that had only grown in poignancy following its many years in the dark and its sudden contact with the light: the tremendous weight of suppressed history and old wounds meets with a new political hope and a desire for confrontation and reflection born out of both present circumstances and the painful persistence of the past.

Eduardo Coutinho, with editor Eduardo Escorel(1) and multiple camera crews, uses interviews, the first productions’ reels and other archival images and materials to ambitiously weave together a film that is remarkably focused and propulsive, yet generously receptive to multiple stories and characters. In one sense, it’s a remarkable potted history of the radical, grassroot Brazilian politics of the Ligas Camponesas, with a general account of the movement and testimonies from many members, beyond the trials of the Teixeiras. Documented is the tentative optimism of the early to mid-1980s, which saw a resurgence of left-wing protest and action across the board with the founding of movements such as the militant union, Central Única dos Trabalhadores, the Landless Workers’ Movement and Workers Party, culminating (if not concluding) with the Diretas Já movement for truly free democratic elections in 1984, and finally the end of Military Dictatorship in 1985. This optimism and these movements are an implied rather than explicit presence in Man Marked For Death, 20 Years Later, but Coutinho would later return the period in detail with his 2004 film Peões.

This larger political history is folded in with a family drama, in a film about historiography and the traps and pulleys of memory, the painful ways in which those full of life eventually retreat into the hazy tomb of memory. The impulse to make fiction, to iconise and memorialise, is a powerful and  visceral urge, but not without complex consequences. 

          Andrew Sarris once wrote that John Ford’s style had “evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its immediacy and also in its ultimate memory-image on the horizon of history.” The same could be said about Coutinho in this film, most explicitly with the figure of João Pedro Teixeira who comes into view in borderline messianic terms, with anecdotes of his humbleness and generosity, recalling the life of a saint or folk hero. This is reflected in his manifestations in the original footage, where he is played as a handsome figure of righteous action and integrity. That portrait is however complicated when Coutinho interviews the actor, who was a rural worker at the time. We learn that this man was in fact not a member of the league, and was not exactly committed to its values either. The years following have turned his ambivalence into a slight bitterness, as his involvement in the film led to his firing and, most painfully, to his being shunned by his church. 

By donning the mask of João Pedro, and in a way becoming him, this man found himself swept up in the collateral damage brought on by the authorities. For the powers that be, João Pedro is not a hero or a human being, but a target of vilification, a beast whose death they celebrate by brandishing a photograph of his bloody, bullet-riddled corpse — one of the few images we see of the actual João Pedro, and a keen example of how images can be used to tarnish and disempower. In the accounts of his life from Elizabeth and several of their children, we get a less concrete, more intimate image of the man, influenced by personal memories of him as a loving husband and father, not just as a crusader for justice, and by the agonizingly palpable and irremediable absence left in the wake of his murder. 

Among the many moving examples of this agonizing mix of image, absence, loss and familial turmoil is the sequence where we meet one of Elizabeth’s children, João Pedro. His family roots are undeniable, his inheritance inscribed in the name he shares with his father and his striking resemblance to his mother, but both are shadows to him. His sense of himself is further complicated by the fact that he was raised by his grandfather, the man partly responsible for his parents’ absence and hostile to their legacy. His attempt to overcome the stark, bloodied divisions within his own family and identity, and the political strife they represent, is a perhaps futile but a profound and touching dual act of care. He concertedly tends to both sides of the divide, image and body, as he dutifully maintains his father’s memorial site while chaperoning his elderly grandfather.

          The appeal and power of imaging is not bound up in the figure of João Pedro only; it is also transparent in one of the film’s lynchpin scenes where Coutinho screens the footage from 1964 to surviving participants and their friends and families. The cross-cutting between these young faces on the screen, engaged in a serious performance of their own lives and struggles, and their present day selves, their responses variously amused, overjoyed or touched as they pick out people they recognise, is a powerful evocation of the deeply human urge to make images and fiction in order to stake out the pillars and reference points of one’s own identity. It is also a poignant illustration of what survives and what does not survive the erosion of time. This powerful event echoes the later search for Teixeira’s children, Coutinho introducing each one by cutting between their present-day, fully grown selves, and excised close-ups of their younger selves, all taken from the same group photo, the last piece of pictorial evidence that they ever were a unified family. The physical differences here are therefore more than signs of the passage of time — they are marks of alienation, of how much has been lost in the time between two corresponding images, due to the parents’ ostracization. 

Coutinho often powerfully visualises this complex emotional state of being deprived of time, freedom and life, and the often vast gulf between a person’s experience and the camera’s ability to convey it, by indeed not visualising it.

The most overused image is this, or the image full of action. Also, the image of emptiness is the exact opposite of another curse in documentary, the reconstructed scene.
An “emblematic image” of the film? It is something like that. But it is also the opposite, that is, a refusal to create the image. When the person tells a thing I am going to recompose: I hate this thing, I prefer the emptiness; for example, in the speech of João Virgínio in Man Marked for Death, there is an empty penitentiary . . . That is to say, when the image is impotent, because the fact already happened, because it is a mystery, the space is extraordinary. The empty space is extraordinary in film, you understand?(2)
There are people who say that they like the film because it has ‘incisive interviews.’ If my film were actually like that, I would prefer to die, you know?

As much as it is an art of paring down, of not showing, Coutinho’s cinema is also one of the spoken word. While a great many “talking head” documentaries feel deathly circumspect, accidentally reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Play, with human beings reduced to disembodied heads, stuck spouting mechanical and preconceived lines in a frame that is as fertile as an urn, the act of conversation in Coutinho’s cinema drives, vitalises and expands. The ‘interviews’ in Man Marked For Death… and Countinho’s other films are often endlessly evolving, unpredictable events, with the heard accounts varyingly inseparable or counter to the images we see, deepening them or boring a hole through them, out of which pours much of what is repressed or otherwise hidden — but always with the openness of a conversation conducted with interest and good faith. 

This is a testament to the rich range of interesting people that appear in Coutinho’s films, but also to his brilliance as an interlocutor. A visible presence in almost all of his films, the director was not afraid to step in front of the camera and was an arresting, outgoing personality, with his slightly spiky but ultimately amenable character. Yet as an interviewer, he is remarkably minimalist, able to ask straightforward questions and get full, complex answers, with faulty, overtly manipulative tactics such as leading questions and generic assumptions essentially absent from his cinema. It’s an openness to people and an evident belief that if one persists, something interesting and revealing will be found, even if it is by an unexpected side route, a quality combined with an acute editorial instinct gained over years of experience as an editor. The purest example of this methodology is his 2006 film O Fim e o Princípio, whose impetus and challenge were to create a documentary made on the spur of the moment, with little to no research. Coutinho and crew ventured out to a small Sertão village, backed with only a possible contact able to introduce them to the community, and the desire to make a film. What they found and what unfolds in the film is a remarkable tapestry of Chaucerian scope, compassion, and humour. 

Man Marked For Death… is a more focused film but filled with the same level of unexpected occurrences, the sparks of invention and pathos flying when Coutinho collides words and images to create a cinema that works in the spaces between the lines, between the frames, between the past and the present.


1. Escorel, like Coutinho, was a Cinema Novo veteran, having worked on several major films of the movement. These include Glauber Rocha’s Entranced Earth (1967), which would make an interesting double bill with Man Marked for Death…  as a volatile treatise on democratic possibilities and their collapse from one end of the Coutinho film’s timeline. back

2. Coutinho could have easily picked, as an example of the power of refusing the image, the extraordinary moment where the details of João Pedro’s murder are revealed. On the face of it, it seems to be one of those reductive scenes of ‘reconstruction,’ but in its full unfolding, the sequence is revealed as a subversive de-reconstruction. He accompanies a step-by-step oral account of the murder with shots of the site, a nondescript strip of road and its surrounding fields, but deprived of any human presence, never mind actors. The power of the oral account, the knowledge that something terrible happened here and the ghostly stillness, are more than enough. back

Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. The managing editor of Ultra Dogme and a contributing editor to photogenié, he also sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and writes for Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound.