Reflecting upon Transitional Justice – A guide to Brazilian documentaries

October 18, 2021

Brazil . Democratizing . Transitional Justice

This text intends to be a guide that seeks to highlight a relevant part of Brazilian documentaries that help us think about transitional justice in Brazil. It is important to emphasize that this is a selection based on films that have circulated not only in film festivals and exhibitions, but also distributed in the circuit of screening rooms, digital platforms, and television channels. The list below has more than 30 titles and is divided by sets that address agrarian, indigenous, quilombola, and civil-military dictatorship issues, with emphasis on productions made after the implementation of the Truth Commission Law, in 2011, and the opening of the dictatorship archives.[1]

Relying on distinct aesthetic choices in the mobilization of the expressive resources at their disposal, part of these documentaries have been censored and/or neglected by history. However, they are productions that deserve to be remembered for allowing the broadening of argumentative horizons in denouncing and combating the systematic violation of human rights and violence against social groups or individuals that occurred in the past and continue to occur in the country. We warn that this guide does not intend to limit the debate to these productions only; on the contrary, we hope that this list will serve as a starting point for discussions around the right to memory and truth, the processes that trigger democratic erosion, the need for historical reparation, and the various crimes against Brazilian subjects and traditional communities.

The Coup of ’64 and agrarian reform

Cabra marcado para morrer (1964/1984), by Eduardo Coutinho, is without a doubt a paradigmatic documentary to think about the rupture of the agrarian reform process in Brazil, from the João Goulart government (1961-1964), with the civil-military coup. The film is motivated by the search for the characters that were part of a fictional project about the peasant leader João Pedro Teixeira, assassinated in an ambush. The film was to be made with João Pedro’s wife, Elizabeth Teixeira, and children, playing their own roles, and other peasants from the region, but the filming was interrupted by the military coup of 1964. The crew and part of the actors had to hide and disperse. Elizabeth Teixeira, along with her youngest son, remained underground as Marta for 17 years, until Eduardo Coutinho found her again to make the documentary. Of the material filmed, only a few scene photographs and sequences that had already been developed remained. This meeting of Coutinho with the characters/actors, victims of persecution and torture, allowed, in the elaboration of trauma, what Patrícia Machado comments on Cabra marcado para morrer as being “the first Brazilian documentary shown in the country to bring the testimony of torture suffered by a peasant, João Virgínio da Silva, who describes in detail what he went through inside a military barracks” (2015, p. 274-275).

Movie Poster of Cabra marcado para morrer (1964/1984), by Eduardo Coutinho

As an unfolding of this debate around the land issue, we point out Tarumã (1975), by Aloysio Raulino, Guilherme Lisboa, Mario Kuperman and Romeu Quinto. The brief and forceful testimony of a rural worker discusses “education and working conditions in the countryside, in which the roots of exploitation and the maintenance of the context of poverty among the peasant population are revealed”, as the synopsis informs us. Considering the period of transition from dictatorship to democracy in Brazil, we highlight the following documentaries: A Classe Roceira (1985-1986), by Berenice Mendes; Terra para Rose (1987), O Sonho de Rose – 10 anos depois (1997) and Fruto da Terra (2008), by Tetê Moraes, which correspond to the “Trilogia da Terra”; Quilombo Rio dos Macacos (2017), by Josias Pires; and, more recently, Chão (2019), by Camila Freitas. These are documentaries that allow a discussion from the first formation and achievements of the MST (Landless Rural Workers Movement) to the current disputes of the movement with institutions, companies, and agribusiness.

Structural racism, expropriation and historical reparation

To think about the indigenous issue, Andrea Tonacci’s Serras da Desordem (2006), also becomes a paradigmatic film, because it exposes the conflict and the implications of the advance of progress with the massacre of indigenous people. A survivor of an attack by ranchers, Carapirú wanders alone for ten years through the mountains of central Brazil until he is found in November 1988, two thousand kilometers from his starting point. Taken to Brasília by the backwoodsman Sydney Possuelo, his case becomes notorious through the press, and from there he sets out in search of his origin and identity. Two other films are also poignant, Corumbiara (2009) and Martírio, by Vincent Carelli (2016). The former raises questions about the Corumbiara land in southern Rondônia, which was auctioned off during the military government, and which became the scene of a massacre of isolated indigenous people in 1985. The second takes a closer look at the violence suffered by the Guarani Kaiowá, one of the largest indigenous populations in Brazil today, who inhabit the lands of the Midwest. The Kaiowá are constantly the target of oppression, attacked by the forces of repression organized by landowners, cattle ranchers, and local ranchers. Other films deal with the issue of isolated indigenous people, such as Piripkura (2018), by Mariana Oliva, Bruno Jorge, and Renata Terra, having as main characters two nomadic indigenous people who survive surrounded by farms and loggers in a protected area in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

Regarding the indigenous issue linked to the military dictatorship, we highlight Reformatório Krenak (2016), by Rogério Corrêa, and Resplendor (2019), by Claudia Nunes and Erico Rassi, both about the reformatory, created during the military dictatorship, which functioned from 1969 to 1972 as an official place of imprisonment, torture, slave labor, and violation of indigenous rights. The creation of a rural guard composed of indigenous people corroborated the process of degradation of the community, in addition to corrupting the cultural characteristics of the Krenak by transforming the victims into torturers of their fellow human beings. As an unfolding of this theme, GRIN (2016), by Roney Freitas, Isael and Sueli Maxakali, brings the indigenous people’s accounts of the violence suffered during the period of the Rural Indigenous Guard, in addition to resuming the important image of the guard’s graduation, in which there is the only documentary record of the pau de arara – although in a symbolic way, and not of a torture session. This image returns in several films after the Truth Commission, including Martírio, mentioned above.

Índio Cidadão (2014), by Rodriguarani Kaiowá and team, presents “the historical audiovisual rescue of the participation of the indigenous movement in the National Constituent Assembly (1987-88) and interviews with memories of the coordinators of the Union of Indigenous Nations – Ailton Krenak and Álvaro Tukano – and leaders who actively participated in this mobilization as Davi Kopenawa, Mário Juruna, Moura Tukano, Paulo Paiakan, Pirakumã Yawalapiti and Raoni Metuktire. The defining moment of this process is Ailton Krenak’s intervention in the Plenary in defense of the popular amendment with the proposed chapter on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”[2]

As a debate on the need for historical reparation for Afro-Brazilian peoples, besides the aforementioned Quilombo Rio dos Macacos, we highlight Abolição (1988), by Zózimo Bulbul, and Orí (1989), by Raquel Gerber in partnership with Beatriz Nascimento. Produced during the Centennial of the Abolition of Slavery, Bulbul’s documentary seeks to investigate, socially, historically, and culturally, the life of black people in Brazil, gathering statements from important public figures and Brazilian citizens. With Beatriz Nascimento’s reflections as a guide, Orí seeks a social, political, and cultural panorama of the country in search of an identity that contemplates the black population, showing the importance of the quilombos in the formation of nationality. A exceção e a regra (1997), by filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo, also deserves mention. The documentary exposes the treatment given by the courts to cases of racism in Brazil and tells the story of the persistence of Vicente do Espírito Santo, an electronics technician who was a victim of racism at Eletrosul, the state-owned company where he worked.

As for LGBTQI+ rights, highlighting the participation of the LGBT movement in the struggle against repression during the dictatorial period,[3] we indicate Meu amigo Cláudia (2009), by Dácio Pinheiro. The documentary, by paying homage to transvestite artist Claudia Wonder, exposes several fronts of debate that shed light on LGBT political struggles in the period, with important moments such as the creation of SOMOS (Homosexual Affirmation Group), putting in evidence the police persecutions against the LGBT community during the military dictatorship and the forms of resistance. São Paulo em Hi-Fi (2013), by Lufe Steffen, records the LGBT night between the 1960s and 1980s as a great stage for political claims. Dzi Croquettes (2009), by Tatiana Issa and Raphael Alvarez, is an interesting documentary because it shows how LGBT people faced the military dictatorship with debauchery, the body as a weapon on the battlefield. Meu nome é Jacque (2016), by Angela Zoé, tells the life story of Jaqueline Rocha Côrtes, who had an outstanding political participation for the trans community and as an HIV-positive person, having fought for the effectiveness, expansion, and dissemination of public policies for treatment and prevention of AIDS by volunteering for treatment. The documentary Cássia Eller (2014), by Paulo Henrique Fontenelle, brings an important legal issue. After the singer’s death, the legal battle that her father launched against Maria Eugênia, Cássia Eller’s companion, for custody of her grandson brought into public debate the need for guaranteed rights for the LGBT community. The court victory that guaranteed guardianship of Chicão to Maria Eugênia created an important precedent for LGBT political struggles, bringing impact to the recognition of stable union between homo-affective couples.[4]

Opening the archives

The opening of the archives of the dictatorship, through the installation of the National Truth Commission, allowed access not only to documentation of the Brazilian military regime, but also the collection of testimony from survivors who had their rights violated[5] and agents of the State implicated indirectly and directly in crimes of persecution and torture. We point out at least three documentaries that are fundamental for understanding the importance of opening the archives and collecting these testimonies. The film Retratos de Identificação (2014), by Anita Leandro, refers to the simultaneous arrest and torture of three militants, Antônio Roberto Espinosa, Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcellos (Dôra) and Chael Schreier, among whom only Espinosa was still alive and participates in the documentary. The documentary also includes the account of another militant of Ação Libertadora Nacional, Reinaldo Guarany[6] – who lived with Maria Auxiliadora in exile until her suicide in 1976. Based on the accounts of Espinosa and Guarany, as well as documentation on the death of Chael Schreier, identification photographs of the militants’ passage through prison, and excerpts from Maria Auxiliadora’s testimonies in exile, the director seeks to reconstruct the violence on these bodies.

Pastor Claudio (2017), by Beth Formaggini, as the synopsis indicates, “proposes a historical encounter between two personally antagonistic figures: evangelical bishop Cláudio Guerra, responsible for murdering and incinerating opponents of the Brazilian military dictatorship, and Eduardo Passos, a psychologist and human rights activist. The director makes use of archival images projected so that Pastor Cláudio can recall the violations suffered by the dead and disappeared militants, in addition to presenting excerpts of the pastor’s visit with representatives of the National Truth Commission at the sugar mill where bodies were incinerated.

Orestes (2015), by Rodrigo Siqueira, draws a parallel between the need for a revision of the Amnesty Law, since the crimes of the dictatorship committed by agents of the State were not properly[7] judged and those responsible punished, simulating a court of accusation and defense with jurists; and the need for elaboration of mourning by survivors of persecution and torture. Through psychodrama and visits to the places of memory, Siqueira proposes a collective process of remembrance that also implies the presence of the parents of young people murdered by the police, who do not accept the “auto de resistência” [8] as a justification for these deaths, questioning the version of the police officers involved. Thus, the documentary attempts to show the passage of police violence from the dictatorship transferred today to the poor, especially to black and peripheral youth.[9]

Cidadão Boilesen (2009), by Chaim Litewski, profiles Henning Albert Boilesen, a Danish businessman living in Brazil accused of being a major financier of the violent repression of the armed struggle against the military dictatorship.

In another perspective, in which the filmmakers themselves are directly involved in the theme addressed, in Que bom te ver viva (1989), filmmaker Lúcia Murat, a victim of torture during the military dictatorship, presents a series of testimonials of former guerrillas who, in their daily lives, elaborate on the sentidios of carrying on with life. [10] Other films go in search of the missing memories, such as Os dias com ele (2013), by Maria Clara Escobar, whose late meeting of the director with her father, Carlos Henrique Escobar, when talking about his absence, brings important revelations about the torture he suffered while in prison. Diário de uma busca (2010), by Flavia Castro, seeks to reconstruct the life and death story of her father, Celso Castro, a leftist journalist found dead in the apartment of a former Nazi officer; and the more recent Fico te devendo uma carta sobre o Brasil (2019), by Carol Benjamin, which involves three generations of a family affected by the Brazilian military dictatorship. Based on the refusal of the father, César Benjamin, a militant arrested when he was only 17 years old, to talk about this period, the director goes in search of testimonials from those who lived with him in exile and, together with archival material and records of the tireless fight of the grandmother, Iramaya Benjamin, for her son’s freedom, seeks to break the silence in a personal commitment to memory.

Two important issues that mark the cinema about the military dictatorship are censorship and exile. Countries like Chile and Argentina had most of their filmmakers in exile. In Brazil, Glauber Rocha was a notable absence, but most of the filmmakers remained in the country. As Sérgio Muniz points out, until 1968, there was a climate of hope that the situation would not be prolonged. And then, with AI-5, everything changed. From then on, a self-censorship was established that, on one hand, undermined some of the possibilities of cinematographic production and, on the other hand, provoked a series of metaphors and expressive resources that could, in a certain way, circumvent censorship.

It is in this context that Sérgio Muniz directs Você também pode dar um presunto legal. The film, made in 1973, together with Caravana Farkas, spent 33 years in hiding. It was clandestinely shot and developed in 1970, in São Paulo, edited in 1973[12], and exhibited in Brazil only in 2006. Through archival footage, theatrical staging, texts, and newspaper clippings, it deals with the Death Squad and the widespread methods spread by police chief Sérgio Paranhos Fleury. Some of the images, particularly the one in which Fleury is decorated, still have its cameraman unknown, for security reasons. This is one of the first Brazilian documentaries to deal with the dictatorship.

In this scope of rare films, it is fundamental to mention the work of João Silvério Trevisan. In 1969, the director clandestinely made the short film Contestação, which deals with resistance movements and popular struggle in various parts of the world. Considered by Trevisan to be a “guerilla film”, it is a collage of images from newspapers, printed matter, and television that bring images of confrontations between young people and the police in various countries, contextualizing the height of the world counterculture period.

Luiz Alberto Sanz was arrested and tortured, and later, in exile, made the film Não é hora de chorar, together with Chilean filmmaker Pedro Chaskel, in 1971. In the documentary of interviews, we get to know the story and the experience of torture of five militants, recently released after the kidnapping of the Swiss ambassador. Among them is Maria Auxiliadora Lara Barcelos, who years later becomes the object of investigation of the film Retratos de Identificação, already mentioned. It is a film of denunciation, because, at that time, little was known about the human rights violations that were occurring in Brazil under the military regime.

After this sequence of films, it is important to emphasize the historical character of the productions, as a mark not only of resistance, but of the difficulties of making cinema in the context of the military dictatorship. Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán calls attention to the fact that Latin America is one of the continents where more film negatives are lost every year.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, production intensifies, motivated by the political opening, the 1979 strikes, and the union movement. In this spectrum, we recommend Braços cruzados máquinas paradas (1979). Directed by Roberto Gervitz and Sérgio Toledo, the documentary registered the strikes of metalworkers and the election for the category’s union in São Paulo in 1978. ABC da Greve, by Leon Hirszman (1979/1990), follows along with the first general strike after AI-5, in which over 180 thousand metalworkers stopped production. The labor movement gains strength in the ABC Paulista, and in this context, Linha de Montagem (Renato Tapajós, 1981) is also made, strengthening the link between the Metalworkers Union of São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema and documentary cinema. Also noteworthy is Greve (1979), by João Batista de Andrade, from the same context.

It is important to highlight that several workers were victims of persecution and torture, as is the emblematic case of Volkswagen’s involvement in denouncing to the military regime the employees that it considered subversive. This surveillance system, typical of totalitarian regimes,[14] served to persecute those who fought for labor rights, as shown in the documentary Cúmplices? – Volkswagen e a Ditadura Militar no Brasil, by the German public television DW (Deutsche Welle), with correspondence in Brazil.

This list can be expanded, as it is a first cut – in process -, the result of an effort to gather documentaries that help in the reflection around our authoritarian past. Furthermore, we believe and hope that the films mentioned will contribute to the understanding of the need for historical reparation and to ensure that justice operates against democratic erosion.

By Glaura Cardoso Vale* and Julia Fagioli**

For more information:

●  20 films directed by women about the military dictatorship (Luísa Pécora – March 31, 2019)

●  Elizabeth Teixeira’s family: the reopened story (Cláudia Cardoso Mesquita, 2014).

Image-performed and image-attestation: the Brazilian documentary and the reemergence of the spectres of dictatorship (Andrea França Martins and Patricia Machado, 2014)

Transitional Justice Library

Da cena do contato ao inacabamento da história: The Last Isolated (1967-1999), Corumbiara (1986-2009) and The Arara (1980-) (Clarisse Alvarenga, 2017)

Irresolution, mourning and elaboration in Orestes a historical proposition (Cláudia Cardoso Mesquita, 2021)

Pride and resistances: LGBT in the dictatorship (Memorial da Resistencia de São Paulo).

Montage and History. An archaeology of the images of repression (Anita Leandro, 2015)

Video in the Villages

Ditaduras Revisitadas: cartographies, memories and audiovisual representations (Editors: Denize Correa Araujo, Eduardo Victorio Morettin, Vitor Reia-Baptista, 2016)

* PhD student in Social Communication at PPGCOM/UFMG, PhD in Literature at FALE/UFMG, technical scholarship holder at the Center for Studies on Transitional Justice at UFMG, researcher for Media and Narrative (PUC Minas) and Poetics of Experience (UFMG).

* PhD in Social Communication by the PPGCOM/UFMG. PhD in Social Communication at PPGCOM/UFMG. Fellow of Capes at PPGCOM/UFJF, where she participates in the research group Communication, Art and Media Literacy. Taught, in 2021, the minicourse Documentary, Memory and Military Dictatorships.


ITALIANO, Carla; BELICO, Ewerton; MIGLIANO, Milene. Para que seus sonhos imaginem outros mundos – reflexões a partir de uma curadoria. In: Catálogo do  Belo Horizonte: Filmes de Quintal, 2020. p. 21-26 (Impresso); p. 23-28 (On-line).

LEANDRO, Anita. Os acervos da ditadura na mesa de montagem. LOGOS 45, v.23, n.2, p. 103-116, 2º sem. 2016.

______. Você também pode dar um presunto legal: um filme clandestino sobre o esquadrão da morte. In: AGUIAR, Carolina Amaral de [et al.]. Cinema: estética, política e dimensões da memória. Porto Alegre: Sulina, 2019.

MACHADO, Patrícia. Imagens que faltam, imagens que restam: a tortura em Cabra marcado para morrer. Significação, v.42, nº44, p. 271-293, 2015.

[1] The dictatorship archives became publicly accessible as of 2005, but the secrecy of part of this content was only possible to be broken a little more than a decade later, when the National Truth Commission, established on May 16, 2012, had access to the existing documentation.

[2] Reported by the film’s youtube channel: Índio Cidadão.

[3] The topic was addressed in the Democratizing article “Dissident sexualities in the Brazilian military dictatorship: brief history of repression and resistance of the LGBT movement – CJT – Center for Transitional Justice Studies“, written by Ester Wagner Siqueira, Geovane Campos Alves, and Raissa Michaela Pereira Costa e Silva.

[4] To arrive at this set of documentaries on the LGBTQI+ issue, we counted on the collaboration of Bruno Hilário, programmer and film manager at Cine Humberto Mauro/Palácio das Artes. It is also worth checking out the series produced by TV USP, in 2018, which shows the pioneering struggle of LGBTs against repression in the dictatorship.

[5] In the dissertation, Formas cinematográficas de rememoração da ditadura militar pelas mulheres: uma análise do filme Retratos de identificação (2019), by Letícia Marotta, under the guidance of Roberta Veiga and Anna Karina Bartolomeu, the researcher presents a significant quantitative survey of documentaries that address the theme of the military dictatorship from the opening of the archives with a focus on the particular interest of women filmmakers in the theme.  See Chapter: “Between the past and the present: the opening of history through women’s cinema”, p. 40-46.

[6] Reinaldo Guarany also participates in the documentary Setenta (2013), by Emilia Silveira, about (and with) the political prisoners who were exchanged for the Swiss ambassador, Giovanni Enrico, kidnapped on December 7, 1970, in Rio de Janeiro, by the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (VPR).

[7] Democratizando published the article “The conviction of Carlinhos Metralha, former agent of the Brazilian Military Dictatorship: a historical precedent to guarantee Transitional Justice“, which discusses the first conviction of a defendant, in the criminal sphere, for having acted in the persecution of political opponents during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985) by conducting the kidnapping of former Marine Edgar de Aquino Duarte in 1971.

[8] The documentary AUTO DE RESISTÊNCIA (2018), by Natasha Neri and Lula Carvalho, seeks to highlight this debate. It is “a precise follow-up of the cases of homicides committed by the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro classified as ‘autos de resistência’, that is, legitimate defense. During the processing of these occurrences in the courts, the corporation’s imprudence pattern becomes evident: bizarre investigations and defective forensics, in which 98% of the inquiries are filed,” as the synopsis describes.

[9] On a subject dear to human rights, the issue of mass incarceration, we indicate two striking documentaries to think about abuses and violation of rights: Juízo (2008), by Maria Augusta Ramos, the same director of O processo (2018), seeks to approach the theme from the point of view of the trajectory of young offenders in the prison system and O prisioneiro da grade de ferro – Auto-retratos (2003), by Paulo Sacramento, in which the Brazilian prison system could be seen from the inside, one year before the deactivation of the Carandiru House of Detention (São Paulo). In the documentary, the inmates learn how to use video cameras and document the daily life of what was the largest prison in Latin America.

[10] On this approach, we recommend the documentary Repare Bem (2013), directed by Portuguese filmmaker and actress Maria de Medeiros, which tells the story of three generations of women who suffered the impact of the dictatorship in their lives.

[11] About the marginal production of this period, it is important to mention the research of Naara Fontelele, about the “Critical, engaged and experimental forms in Brazilian cinema”. Part of it is available in the Catalog of the 19⁰ Belo Horizonte International Short Film Festival.

[12] The film was assembled between Paris and Rome and finalized in Havana, with the support of ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematographic Industry). Importantly, the institute offered fundamental support to filmmakers and directors from Brazil and other Latin American countries living under military dictatorships.

[13] Years earlier, João Batista de Andrade had made Liberdade de Imprensa (1967), which deals with ideological aspects, economic power, foreign capital and political censorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1967. It has images of the main events alternated with interviews with specialists and politicians.

[14] Cf. As origens do totalitarismo (1951), by Hannah Arendt.