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Brazzil - People - June 2003

Orson Welles' Youth's Folly in Brazil

The story that so much interested filmmaker Orson Welles, was
the tale of four fishermen who sailed 1,650 miles along the coast
of Brazil, during 61 days, in an attempt to bring attention to the
impoverished jangadeiros of the Brazilian Northeast.
After retiring, they had to beg to survive.

Alan P. Marcus


There is a chance to take a rare glimpse of life in the Northeast of Brazil during the 1940's, masterfully exposed by Orson Welles' uncompleted film It's All True (1942). The story behind this film that "never was", is filled with cruel tragedy, and Orson Welles himself, claimed it was the manifestation of a curse. According to Welles, this was the curse of a macumbeiro, (from the Afro-Brazilian religion Macumba); or as Welles more dramatically claims, it was the curse of a "Brazilian Voodoo witch-doctor" he had met in Rio de Janeiro in 1942. Whether the story of the curse is true or not, the rest of the story… is all true.

In 1942 the US Committee for Inter-American Affairs decided to send 26-year-old filmmaker Orson Welles to Mexico and to Brazil. The objective was an attempt to improve diplomatic relations with Latin America during World War II. The USA had just entered World War II, and henceforth, Washington D.C. was particularly uneasy with Nazi sympathizers within Getúlio Vargas' government in Brazil, and appointed Welles to head a new "cultural exchange" project to Latin America.

In 1941, Citizen Kane had become a widely acclaimed film, and Orson Welles was at the height of his success as a film director and producer, and as an actor. Welles was given one million dollars by RKO studios, in Hollywood, and by Nelson Rockefeller to produce a documentary film about the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and, in addition, to operate as a "cultural ambassador", part of the US "good-neighbor policy" with Latin America at the time.

RKO studios in Hollywood and Nelson Rockefeller perhaps thought that Welles would come back from Rio with an innocuous and docile documentary of the Carnaval in Rio, and as the late Brazilian actor Grande Othello put it: "They had sent the wrong person…they had sent a genius". Welles' rapid visual perception, awareness and fascination with Brazil on a deeper level, did not resonate well with shallow Hollywood executives or with Washington D.C. expectations.

The film It's All True was never completed and was eventually "lost" and forgotten in some archives in a Hollywood studio, only to be found several years later in 1985. There were 300 cans and 20 hours of reels of film found, which were carefully reconstructed and edited by Richard Wilson, Bill Krohn, and Myron Meisel. The film consisted of segments, and among them, one segment was shot in Mexico called: "My Friend Bonito" and another, which is the focus of this article, called "Four Men and a Raft" based on the story of four fishermen in Brazil.

Orson Welles was genuinely fascinated with samba and Carnaval in Rio, and had commented that filming Carnaval in Rio was like "trying to capture a hurricane". At the same time Welles was fascinated with Rio's samba and Carnaval, another aspect of Brazilian culture captivated his attention. This was the true story of four jangadeiros.

These jangadeiros were Brazilian fishermen from the Northeast of Brazil, whose fishing boats are called jangadas, a boat made from six logs and a sail.

Four Men and the Sea

This particular true story, that so much interested Welles, was the story of the four fishermen: Jerônimo, Tatá, Manoel Preto, and Jacaré, who sailed 1,650 miles along the coast of Brazil, from Fortaleza, Ceará, to the city of Rio de Janeiro, in 61 days. This "Homeric" voyage was an attempt to bring attention and to rally political and popular support for the plight of the impoverished jangadeiros of the Northeast of Brazil, who still worked under a semi-feudal system, since they did not own their own jangadas, and boat-owners kept half the fish-of-the-day. Furthermore, the fishermen claimed that once a jangadeiro retired, there was no social security or healthcare available to them, and a jangadeiro was thereby doomed to beg on the beach for alms, in order to care for himself and his family.

When these daring jangadeiros eventually did arrive in Rio, under much public fanfare and media coverage, including coverage in a Time Magazine article, they met with the President of Brazil, Getúlio Vargas. They demanded the implementation of a proper fishermen's Union and the development of a social security system that would allow them to retire, and hence, secure an adequate quality of life in the future for them and their families.

Orson Welles decided he also wanted to film the plight of these jangadeiros, and, in addition, dramatize their story by developing a fictional love-story. By this time, RKO studio executives in Hollywood had not liked what they had seen of his Carnaval and samba film-footage. According to Welles, they had not even heard the music of the samba, but had nonetheless told Wells they were not impressed with the film from Rio, since to them it was "just a bunch of black people jumping up-and-down".

Whilst Orson Welles was in Brazil, the film The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) was being shot and edited at this same time back in Hollywood, and eventually the length and actual ending were edited and shortened without Welles' knowledge or consent.

Nevertheless, Welles was not discouraged by Hollywood and the filming of the jangadeiros began. Welles and his crew were filming the re-enactment of the now-famous voyage and entrance of the jangadeiros into the Guanabara Bay of Rio de Janeiro. During one particular film-take, the jangada, carrying the original group of fishermen who had traveled to Rio from Ceará, had capsized and Jacaré, the leader of the jangadeiros, had fallen into the sea and drowned. Welles and his film crew were devastated. Now his determination was furthermore accentuated and particularly enhanced by the death of Jacaré. He had decided to leave north for the state of Ceará, and continue filming "Four Men and a Raft".

Welles had used no actors, only the locals of a fishing village who had never even seen a film before, and there is no talking in the entire film, only music and sound. The performances in this film are moving and the film itself is a superb and rare gem of Welles' production that vividly captures the geographic and human landscapes of the Northeast of Brazil.

The filming techniques used in the film were original and innovative, since Welles was not allowed additional equipment or funds from RKO studios, and finally, much to his chagrin, Welles was not allowed to ever complete the film. RKO studios eventually fired Orson Welles. He never recovered professionally and RKO studios, according to Welles, had made a detrimental publicity of the fact that Welles had gone to South America without a script and had "thrown away" all the money on a fruitless film project on Brazil.

The film "Four Men in a Raft", a segment of It's All True, is a poignant and sensitively made film. Orson Welles magnificently articulates in silence, the geography, the music, the beauty, the sorrow, and the hardships about the land and the people of the Northeast of Brazil. Unfortunately he was never able to complete this film or to receive the accolades deserved for it, but fortunately, at least the film was found and preserved.

  [Also see article written by this author for Brazzil in June 2003, on the plight of the Northeasterners of Brazil: "Nordestinos Get No Respect": http://www.brazzil.com/p105jun03.htm]


Alan P. Marcus (Master's of Science in Geography, in progress) is a Brazilian living in the USA. He has also written other articles on Brazilian identity, "race" and ethnicity, and animal ethics for Brazzil magazine, available online: www.brazzil.com

E-mail contact: amarcus@geo.umass.edu





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