The Day That Lasted 21 Years (2012)

FILM, Film Festivals, Film Society
img_thedaythatlasted21yearsPreviously at the Wellington Film Society: reexamining Brazil’s decades of dictatorship.

The United States’ notorious Cold War push into Latin America is perhaps best remembered in relation to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and in the support for the Argentinian junta’s ‘dirty war’. However, it was South America’s largest country Brazil that suffered a particularly brutal military dictatorship. It began in 1964 and lasted 21 years with more than a little American assistance as documentary The Day That Lasted 21 Years potently shows. 50 years on, and its anniversary is sombrely being marked in Brazil.

Camilo Tavares’s film, screening here in collaboration with the Reel Brazil Film Festival, is breathless in its depiction of the superpower’s involvement in the overthrow of President João Goulart. Goulart, whose populist and anti-foreign rhetoric alarmed a U.S. administration already spooked by the fall of Cuba and parts of South East Asia, was overthrown with quite stunning speed by a military coup d’état. The documentary assembles considerable declassified information into an account of the build-up to the coup, and the interviews, phone calls, and internal memos are particularly revealing of how much the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were involved.

The Day That Lasted 21 Years is structured like a thriller, with its use of nerve-jangling music and sudden reveals. The editing is edgy, and the use of ‘3-D’ photos—a fairly recent but now commonplace technique used to create movement when photos are all that exist—gives the film a fast-paced feel. The main focus of the documentary is on the U.S. government’s influence, and one wonders if a richer film could have incorporated more about the Brazilian and military collusion, and given a bit more of a back story to the history. (Brazil was unfortunately subject to more than a few coups and attempted coups throughout its relatively brief life.) After all, coup d’états don’t simply just happen and become accepted, and the U.S. involvement, while undeniable (and idiotic to deny on the basis of the film’s accusations), was also part of a wider Brazilian context. With the wealth of material, a less rushed approach to the history would have assisted in drawing a wider sense of the events.

That said, the film is energetic and does not pull any punches in recounting events. Perhaps Tavares’s personal history added to this. Following the AI decrees, Act 5 in 1968 (see my 2007 interview with Helena Ignez, an iconic Brazilian actress during the Cinema Novo period, for an account of the pressures faced by artists) in particular led to the torture and murder of thousands by the military government. In response, activists kidnapped the American ambassador to Brazil, Charles Elbrick. Elbrick was only freed after the release of 15 political prisoners—one of which was Tavares’s parent. As such, a linking to the personal may have added more emotional weight to proceedings, as the U.S. involvement obviously had an effect on the personal as well as on the ideological. Nevertheless, a fascinating account of a troubling period, where ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ were comfortably discarded for the sake of ideology and profit.

But lest New Zealanders get too complacent about their past, preceding the documentary was a short film, Milk & Honey (Marina Alofagia McCartney, 2012). Based on the terrifying Dawn Raids of the 1970s, it depicts a happily fascistic New Zealand past in which certain racial minorities were targeted for political purposes. While the film could have been expanded to nail its impressive mood (though the use of slow motion was excessive) and thematic concerns (collusion and belonging are an interesting mix), it certainly has potential for a feature length version.

The 5th Reel Brazil Film Festival continues in Wellington until May 18. It concludes in Nelson on May 15-21.
Film Societies in fourteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at filmsocietywellington.net.nz, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.