Yesterday I picked up some samizdat editions of a forthcoming reader on Communist politics and Spaghetti Westerns. A book version is forthcoming. The pamphlet version of the reader will be distributed this weekend at a series of screenings, Death on the Run at Lima Zulu, London, details of the weekend programme of films over at Full Unemployment Cinema. Benjamin Noys whose article, Spaghetti Communism, helped inspire the screenings series and publication is speaking at the event on Saturday.
My contribution on Cine Novo’s reterritorialisation of the western to Brazil’s Nordeste can be read below. (Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil will be screened 21.00 Friday. Godard’s Vent d’Est, in which Rocha makes a cameo, will be screened Saturday 12.00 )
God Separated the Earth and the Sky, But He Was Wrong*
By Anthony Iles
There was great damage
In hell that day.
All the money that Satan
Possessed was burned.
The registry of control and more than six
hundred million cruzeiros
Of merchandise alone
– Arrival of Lampião in Hell
Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o Diablo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) (1964) opens with a shot of the desert, interminable specks of shrub and brush riddle the white, over-exposed expanse. The second shot is a close up of a horse’s mouth filled with flies, its skin peeled to the bone and an eye still in its socket, as it lies prone in the barren landscape. In the third shot a man strokes his chin, apparently troubled by the sight of the dying horse or simply in trouble. He rises, the camera remains still on his waist and fly – his double folded trousers and strands of leather hang from his waist – before he turns and mounts his short horse and heads sullenly off into the same landscape. It’s barren. In the next shot the camera pans slowly from the bright white sky down through trees to settle upon a similarly desolate landscape in which pilgrims bend to their knees and advance towards a black preacher raising a long stick formed into a small cross framed by figures either side of him bearing torn flags and ribbons. Our horseman, Manuel, races out of the wood towards this procession as it advances indifferently, singing and praying past tall cacti. In the fifth shot Manuel returns to his shack to tell his wife: ‘Rosa, I saw Saint Sebastian. He said a miracle will save the world.’ Rosa indifferently continues to wearily pulp the unknown substance in the wooden trough before her. ‘No one believes me.’
We Are Equal In Hunger and In Death
In Rocha’s film we encounter social forces and struggles within them. They are religious and theological, material and of a class nature. But, the first opposition we encounter is between a hostile landscape and man. We are in North-Eastern Brazil in the sertão or backlands.
Here are shrubs with scarcely any roots in the scant earth and with intertwining branches, with solitary cacti here and there standing stiff and silent, giving to the region the appearance of the edge of a desert.1
The characters in Black God White Devil mill about this vast desert edge that’s vegetated and populated with the dead and barely living for the course of the film as if in hell. These figures in a landscape suffer the harshness of alienation and hunger. Only the black prophet, Sebastian, offers a way out. This is the land of no exit. Thus exit, or exodus, takes the form of a cosmic revolt and reversal of existing dualities: that is a miracle, which catalyses and animates the previously slovenly and recalcitrant sertanejos or backlanders. Sebastian’s speech is classically millenarian:
We must show the authorities the power and force of the Saint […] Those who wish to save their souls must follow me from now on until the day when God’s sign appears in the sky. A hundred angels with their swords of fire, shall come to herald our departure, and open our way through the darkness of the backlands. The land will become the sea and the sea the land. He must leave the land that doesn’t belong to him, so that he can reach the fields of heaven. The poor will be rich and will sit on the right hand of God. The rich will be poor and stand on the left side of the Devil. We will not be alone because the Lord has sent down warring angels, to cut out the heads of our enemies.2
Gathering an ever bigger crowd of followers, children, peasants, prostitutes, indigenous people, ex-slaves and old people, as well his ‘warring angels’, such as Manuel, Sebastian leads his mob through the surrounding towns taking townsfolk from their houses, beating and robbing them before returning to the mountainside.
Rocha’s film is set twenty years or so after the Canudos rebellion, a singularly traumatic historical event and allegory of some of the deep contradictions that pierce Brazilian modernity. In 1893, at the very inception of Brazil’s republican government and during a period of drought and famine, a band of rebels, outlaws, peasants and fellow travellers formed a commune, Canudos, on a squatted estate around the millenarian preacher Antonio Conselheiro in the sertão close to Monte Santo. Declaring the imminent arrival of heaven on earth and the return of Dom Sebastião (King of Portugal 1557-1578) from the sea, they rejected the republican government, whose taxes and declarations on conscription were popularly perceived as marking the reintroduction of slavery. They attacked nearby estates and towns, throwing out priests, tax collectors and representatives of the State. Teaming up with the cangaceiros, bands of outlaws, including the famous bandit Lampião and jagunços (ruffians), former armed hands or bodyguards hired by big landowners (known as ‘colonels’), they successfully resisted the local forces of the law. They then repelled a succession of poorly organised expeditions by government troops and decorated the landscape with their remains.
[…] the jagunços then collected all the corpses that were lying here and there, decapitated them, and burned the bodies; after which they lined the heads up along both sides of the highway, at regular intervals, with the faces turned toward the road, as if keeping guard. Above these, from the tallest shrubbery, they suspended the remains of the uniforms and equipment, the trousers and multicolored dolmans, the saddles, belts, red-striped kepis, the capes, blankets, canteens, and knapsacks. The barren, withered caatinga now blossomed forth with an extravagant-colored flora: the bright red of officers’ stripes, the pale blue of dolmans, set off by the brilliant gleam of shoulder straps and swaying stirrups.3
It was this sight, of skeletons and fragments of military clothing decorating the trees and undergrowth alongside the road to Canudos that greeted the fifth and final expedition. The eschatological settlement met its final reckoning at the hands of a terrified and vengeful army of over two thousand troops. Canudos was completely destroyed and almost all its inhabitants massacred.
If Blood is the Law
Euclides De Cunha’s book on the Canudos revolt and its supression, Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), published in 1902 has been termed ‘the Bible of Brazilian Nationality’. It is considered the beginning of Brazil’s intellectual coming of age, despite the author’s claim that it is rather a ‘cry of protest’, the condemnation of a ‘crime’ and an ‘act of madness’. Whether or not nationalistic claims for the book are valid or not, it’s an extraordinary work, less salacious exotic journalism and more an extraordinary materialist natural history of a people as shaped by and shaping a landscape. George Lapierre, a member of the French insurrectionary anarchist group active in the 1980s, Os Cangaceiros, who named themselves after the Brazilian bandits, produced his own study of millenial revolts in the sertão.4 His argument furthers the picture of these underclass figures and their unique combination as one of quintessential anarchic revolt for all or nothing.
They stood against the entire world; and from all sides, they were destined to a struggle without respite that urgently demanded the convergence of all their energies, to a war in which they would not allow themselves to be conquered.
Whether millenarians or cangaceiros, they were cowhands, sharecroppers, mule drivers. They were part of the rural society that was continually threatened in its existence and substantially in its freedom. They had been produced by it. They not only found a real complicity in this society, but they also expressed its deepest aspirations. All in all, very little differentiates the two groups. The millenarians were carriers of a positive social project, but it had a religious essence, while the cangaceiros were carriers of a purely negative social project that was not religious in its essence.5
However, this ‘purely negative’ rebellion was entangled in forces beyond its control in a way that makes this image of underclass revolt more complex than Lapierre suggests. Namely, these forces were the foreign interests represented by Brazil’s British creditors that consistently and profitably maintained the country in a state of credit dependency, reliance on coffee and cocoa monocultures whilst exposing its economy to the chaotic influence of international financial crises.
The dismal decade of the 1890s, which combined drought with the international deflation of commodity prices and a national financial panic, was particularly devastating in the Nordeste. By 1897, for example, the transport price of sugar exceeded the selling price offered by brokers, and numerous plantations and usinas (sugar refineries) went belly up. (‘Only southern Bahia’s cacao region avoided the overall economic decline of the 1890s, chiefly because prices for cacao on the world market rose during this period and planters were able to profit from cheaper labor costs because of an influx of migrants driven from the sertao by drought.’)
As the Nordeste’s economy slumped into a coma, supernumerary labor was either pushed into the sertao’s ‘black, barren fields of hunger’ (Tavora) or induced to gamble with disease and exploitation in the rubber forests of Amazonas.6
This Spear Shall Split the Earth in Two
Glauber Rocha was one of the more influential members of the movement in Brazilian film known as Cine Novo which self-consciously sought to connect left intellectual concerns with the cramped spaces and histories of Brazil’s working class and peasants. Ruy Guerra, a contemporary of Rocha’s, directed Os Fuzis (1964) in which a group of soldiers try to prevent the population from sacking a food depo in the poverty stricken Nordeste. In 1980 Guerra returned to Mozambique where he shot Mueda, Memória e Massacre, that country’s first feature film. While in Mozambique, Guerra shot many short films and helped the creation of the National Institute for Cinema. In Guerra’s psychedelic allegory of the Nordeste’s late-19th century crises, Of Gods and the Undead (1970), two gunslingers squat by a tree discussing documents detailing Brazil’s foreign debts in 1910 that they have stolen from a man whose corpse lies hanging from the tree next to them.
‘…we find progressive issues…’ ‘…in the international financial…’ interests ‘They are infiltrating and spreading…’ ‘…inside the crucial sector of the Brazilian’s economy.’ ‘The external debt of Brazil grows from…’ ‘…30 millions to almost 90 millions in 1910.’ ‘Concerning Cruelty and Clemency.’ ‘Whether it be better to be loved than feared…’ ‘…or feared than loved?’ ‘War is just when it is necessary.’ ‘Arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.’
Omitting the essential component of foreign interests in structuring the freedom, or lack of it, in the Sertao, Lapierre also shies away from nuanced understandings of the complex racial politics at work in the Canudos revolt and others like it. According to Mike Davis, the destruction of Canudos became ‘became a macabre racial allegory’ for the creation and maintenance of ‘the mother of all dual labor markets’.7 Davis describes how in the middle of the drought the inhabitants of the Sertao were kept from migrating south to the cocoa plantations by army roadblocks, whilst at the same time the Republic, at great expense, subsidised the entry of European immigrants into the Brazilian labour market. This mechanism, encouraged by the Rebublic’s British creditors, was supported by scientific eugenicist ideology promoted by the new State.
Leading fin-de-siecle savants like the Bahian scientist Nina Rodrigues corroborated fears that ‘race mixing’ was responsible for all social deviance such as banditry, religious heresy, and the like.’de-Africanizing’ and ‘whitening’ Brazil.8
From the 1870s into the 1930s the Nordeste continued to be starved of internal investment and its inhabitants produced as an unruly but available cheap labour force feeding the failing plantations of the sertao and the boom and bust cycles of the coastal sugar refineries. With any exodus or viable social protest effectively blocked, banditry and millenarianism flourished – the Sertao was a concrete dystopia that harboured the anti-project of an impossible escape from Brazil’s uneven modernisation.
For them, the future was not a return to the past, but rather the end of a world, an overturning of society from top to bottom, a revolution for which the humanity that was there from the start finally returns as realized humanity.9
Lapierre’s vision of ‘realised humanity’ is indirectly critiqued and brought to another level in the work of the Cine Novo filmmakers. Rather than the fulfilment of an authentic humanity, the passage out of this world we must leave is via the inauthentic, inhuman, it involves getting out of the cage of authentic selfhood and the restraints incurred by living and dying under the shadow of violence and hunger.
Towards the end of the film, leaving the site of the massacre of their fellow pilgrims, Manouel and Rosa wander through the backlands falling into the company of eccentric cangaceiro, Corisco, former band-member of Lampião. Corisco, himself fleeing Lampião’s defeat, desparateand on the run vows revenge and war on the government, renames Manouel ‘Satan’ and seduces Rosa before dying at the hands of the mercenary Antonio Das Mortes. Whilst the ‘two-headed’ cangaceiro and the reluctant mercenary seem self-consciously propelled towards their mythic fate, already part dead, part legend, Rosa and Manouel scrabble away as cowering survivors through the half-desert and shrub, towards the coast.
Until Dirt is Dirtier
The Sertao’s colonial dynamic is raised to cosmological plane in Glauber Rocha’s title, Black God, White Devil, and also reflected throughout the trilogy of which it is a part and in his other films, each of them riven by conflict, deeply ambiguous characters, all equally polemical and contradictory. A later film, Der Leone Have Sept Cabeças (The Lion Has Seven Heads) (1970), focuses specifically on African decolonisation struggles, a black Brazilian wielding an automatic weapon announces: ‘This spear shall split the earth in two! On the one side the executioners: on the other, all Africa… free… ’.10 So often, as with the phrase used for this text’s title – pronounced by the prophet Sebastian – Rocha’s film invokes this kind of cleaving of reality in order to complicate it and derange the coordinates of all dualities. Nature and the natural order present an impasse through which only the miraculous, and self-destruction as self-overcoming can break through. Rocha’s film has multiple solidarities with De Cunha’s prose and in both we find a strong attention to the particularity of landscape, man’s estrangement from it, its hostility but also its metabolic qualities. Thus, with closer attention to De Cunha’s racial politics we can begin to question the uses of his prose, and perhaps the Western genre generally, to present a picture of national unity. Lapierre’s inattention to the structural factors conditioning both racialisation and ‘freedom’ in the Sertao was not reproduced from De Cunha’s work. Early on in Os Sertões he asserts: ‘We do not possess unity of race, and it is possible we shall never possess it.’ This position was strongly criticised by certain critics, so to defend his position De Cunha added an extensive note to later editions that greatly enriches our view of the author as a strong critic of ‘civilisation’: satirist of anthropologists and phrenologists, and a complex thinker of both hybridity and resistance.11 The hunger present in the film (several characters appear visibly at the point of hallucinatory starvation) has been related directly to a technique and politics Rocha developed as an ‘aesthetic of hunger’ alongside the loose band of cohorts (Julio Bressane, Carlos Diegues, Ruy Guerra, Helena Ignez, Walter Lima Junior, Rogério Sganzerla and others) working in the framework of Cine Novo:12
We [the Cinema Novo] understand this hunger that the majority of Europeans and Brazilians don’t understand… They don’t know where this hunger comes from. We know – we who make these sad and ugly films, these desperate films where reason doesn’t always possess the loudest voice, that hunger will not be cured by the planning of the cabinet [i.e. government] and that the strips of technicolor will not hide but amplify its tumors. That said, only a culture of hunger, looking at its own structure, can rise above itself, qualitatively speaking: it’s the noblest manifestation of cultural hunger and violence.13
A Wild Man From the 16th Century Thrown in the Middle of a Concrete Jungle
A cyclical and persistent dynamic, of banditry, revolt, hunger, violence and desperation, is transposed by Rogério Sganzerla, in his film The Red Light Bandit (1968), onto the Boca do Lixo (so called ‘Mouth of Garbage’) a notorious downtown area of São Paulo. From which his protagonist, modelled on the criminal João Acácio Pereira da Costa, breaks into the homes of the rich, raping, killing and stealing, even occasionally pausing to dress up in borrowed clothes or have his hosts cook him a meal before disposing of them. Sganzerla called his film ‘A Western about the Third World’ and drew on the transgressive figure of the contemporary criminal and that of the cangaceiro or bandit to explore a trash aesthetic which, similarly to Rocha’s oeuvre, disturbs polar organisation of the archaic and the modern, the corrupt and the just, genre film and experimental film.
The characters of this magical and roguish film are sublime and uncouth. Stupidity and uncouthness are political data, revealing the secret laws of body and soul as exploited, desperate, servile, colonial and underdeveloped.14
Cine Novo’s programme antedated the imposition of dictatorship in Brazil and continued to develop in increasingly clandestine directions under it. Whilst Sganzerla continued to develop his aesthetic of trash in Sao Paulo’s slums, Ruy Guerra headed for Africa and Glauber Rocha traveled extensively in Europe, making a small but significant cameo in Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s satirical western shot in Italy, Vent d’Est (1971). In fact, as well as the influence of Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave on renegade Brazilian cinema, Rocha’s cameo indicates the powerful influence of Cine Novo. In this scene from Vent d’Est, a number of people are gathered at a deserted spot reflecting on what it is to make movies and it is Glauber who at a crossroads-shows the different paths of cinema, including the one of the Third World, which is ‘dangerous, divine and wonderful’.15
Rocha’s influence can be found at another pole of dissent against both capitalist and Stalinist stagnation, in 1960s Yugoslavia where film-makers Aleksandar Petrović, Pavlović, Dušan Makavejev, Boštjan Hladnik, Krsto Papić, Bahrudin Čengić, Puriša Đorđević, Želimir Žilnik and others were enjoying relatively liberal circumstances in which to make experimental and political films. As a result of Tito’s split with Stalin and formation of the Non-Aligned Movement with India, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia supported independent film-making in the region and tended to distribute anti-imperialist and anti-colonial films in its cinemas. Under the personal patronage of Tito, the Yugoslav Republic developed a culture of lavishly produced partisan films, large scale epic spectacles drawing on the schematics of the Western and featuring international stars such as Yul Brynner, Hardy Krüger, Franco Nero, Sylvia Koscina and Orson Welles. Whilst contrasting the low-budget and experimental output of his peers to these State-endorsed epics, Želimir Žilnik nods to both the expanded influence of the scene and its debt to the Yugoslav model of non-alignment.
I learned some of my most important lessons from Medvedkin, De Sica and Glauber Rocha, who placed their protagonists in the middle of ‘tempestuous historical happenings’. […] free from didactics, social realism, and Party propaganda. These films were made in the era of ‘mature Titoism’, a time when the Yugoslav model was more open, more successful and more communicative than other state models of socialism.16
These thin red threads can be gathered together to connect messianic religion, slave liberation and communist film culture across three continents. Yet, further precision would be needed to understand how the western film both conforms to and spills beyond the self-mythification of anti-imperialist states. There are subsequent questions of how this minor anti-tradition can be connected to the Atlantic history of slavery, colonialism and resistance? Moreover, how we might now still retrieve something redemptive in the leisure hours of mass workers all over the world spent stoned laughing and cheering at rough nomadic men carrying out desperate, violent and irreverent acts on screen against a backdrop of remote, inhuman and epic landscapes?
Artistic freedom in Yugoslavia was certainly not autonomous from state-formation nor participation in a capitalist market, just as freedom in the Sertao, was never anything ‘natural’ but a consequence of native annihilation and the flight or exodus from wage labour.17 The self-destructive character prevalent in the mythic popular of Cine Novo films pertains to the violence necessary for Brazilian modernity to take place at all. Fated to be an agent of genocidal crime and partake in the immiseration of wage labour and/or agricultural self-sufficiency – the success at which would make one at best a settler prey to passing bandits or large landowners’ hired thugs – drives both the collective narrative of exodus from state and nature, and the individual self-dissolution in violent crime and death. Each path pierces the impossible unliveable reality of now-time with mythic perspectives. As practical activity that probes and irritates the outline of a hole through which myth can enter into the present, each pulls the forces of order into their contradictory vortex, appearing seemingly from nowhere and leaving a wound of trepidation through which similar actors will inevitably pass.
Commonly environment is assumed to be neutral or in concert with cultures of resistance, but the western and its sub-genres present the opposite view. Nature in the Cine Novo western is hostile, an impasse to liberation. To paraphrase Sganzerla, the natural is as false as the false. There is nothing natural in nature and only an indigestible politics of radical inauthenticity can animate this admixture of defiance and despair. The nature we inhabit today is one of smooth functioning capitalism, the spell-like total environment of surreal subsumption which we know as we glower at our own distorted reflection in the glass of so many crystalised edifices of finance. Yet, this too was once and will be sand… it is the desert we know and shall surely be an unknowable desert one day.
* The title of this essay is taken from a line from a sermon by Sebastian in Glauber Rocha, Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) (1964). The subheadings are derived from the films of Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra and Rogério Sganzerla.
1 Euclides Da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands, (Translated from Os Sertões by Samuel Putnam), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, p.10.
2 Sebastian’s clifftop sermon in Glauber Rocha, Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil), 1964.
3 De Cunha, op.cit., pp.274-276.
4 George Lapierre, ‘Prophets and Outlaws of the Sertão’ in Millenarian Rebels: The Writings of Os Cangaceiros, Volume Two , (Trans. Wolfi Landstreicher), Eberhardt Press, 2008.
5 George Lapierre, op.cit., p.68.
6 Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, London: Verso, 2002, pp.381-382.
7 Both quotations from ibid., p.383 and p.384 respectively.
8 Ibid., p.383.
9 George Lapierre, op.cit., p.32.
10 Glauber Rocha, Der Leone Have Sept Cabeças (The Lion Has Seven Heads), 1970.
11 De Cunha, op.cit., see author’s note V, p.481 ‘The vicissitudes of history, by freeing him [the mixed race inhabitant of the backlands] in the most delicate period of his formation, from the disproportionate exigencies of a borrowed culture, have fitted him for the conquest of that culture one day.’ see p.88 and p.481
14 Rogério Sganzerla quoted in Jorge Didaco, ‘Annotations from the Edge of an Abyss: Rogério Sganzerla’s Anthropophagic Film Collages’, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/rogerio_sganzerla/
16 Dominika Prejdová, ‘People from the Fringes of Society are the Spiritus Movens of Life in the Balkans (An Interview with Želimir Žilnik)’ http://www.zilnikzelimir.net/film/node/269 For a politicised account of Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema see also, Gal Kirn et al (Eds.), Surfing the Black: Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and its Transgressive Moments, Maastricht: Jan Van Eyck Akademie, c.2012.
17 ‘The lives of all the dwellers of the backlands were inescapably linked to the fluctuations of the seasons, but none so closely, hence so vulnerable, as the small subsistence farmer. In November and December he would burn off the dry stalks remaining from the previous season, preparing to plant his beans, corn, and manioc in the ashes of the previous crop; if the land had yielded poorly the past year, he might move to a new location. When the first rains arrived, usually in January, be would plant his seeds and hope for their continuance.At intervals, the rain would fail completely, or hold off so long as to make a successful harvest impossible. Only then would the stubborn backlands farmers leave their homes and move toward the better-watered hills, the coast, or, as a last resort, to the towns and cities like ‘[…] so many errant ants hunting food wherever they could find it, crossing and recrossing the toads and on t h em meeting others in similar condition.’ In the towns they would seek work, or failing that, surrender their pride and beg, but only until such time as they could safely return to their plots of ground.’ Roger Cunniff, The Great Drought: Northeast Brazil, 1877-1880, Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, Austin 1970, quoted in Davis, op.cit.