Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in April 2020.
Four days ago, the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, once again broke the lockdown to make a speech at a demonstration that demanded the return of a military dictatorship. For anyone following the news on and in Brazil for the past two or three years, Bolsonaro’s gesture came as no surprise. Even though efforts such as these to invisibilize the brutal history of the dictatorship have grown to be more and more frequent, the documentation of the systematic use of torture and political executions in the two decades of the military government, between 1964 and 1985, defies these counternarratives with abundant visibility. Portraits of Identification (Retratos de Identificação, 2014), the powerfully bleak feature-film debut of filmmaker and scholar Anita Leandro, takes a small collection of public documents, and works to fill the gaps between these singular pieces with the muffled voice of the victims.
Structurally, the film pours out of three mugshots of political prisoners – Antônio Roberto Espinoza, Chael Charles Schreier, and Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcellos – who were arrested together in 1969 for their participation in armed resistance groups. These photographs were found by the filmmaker in the archive of the DOPS (Department of Political and Social Order), the repressive police department that existed in the country between 1924 and 1983, and that was used by the military dictatorship to persecute groups and civilians that opposed the regime. Starting with these three portraits, Leandro patiently unthreads the consequences of systemic violence in the lives of these individuals, tracking the subtle ripples of individual action and personal sacrifice.
Portraits of Identification is a surprisingly rare documentary in Brazil to seriously engage with the archive of the dictatorship beyond its illustrative power, using it to propel the reconstitution of memory. The film is itself a missing piece in the larger audiovisual archive of the asymmetrical clashes between the state apparatus and countercultural practices, next to Emile de Antonio’s Underground (1976), Susana de Souza Dias’ 48 (2010), Agnès Varda’s Black Panthers (1968), Louis Massaiah’s and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986), and Chris Marker’s On Vous Parle… (1969-73)series, among others. Handled with a peculiar form of compassionate stoicism, the film manages to go way beyond the brutal coldness of the police archive, as the filmmaker carefully looks for ways to raise the temperature of each document until they are reconstituted as moments lived in the flesh.