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Orson Welles plays starring role in creating Brazilian folklore

20 March 2017 University of Birmingham

American filmmaker Orson Welles changed the perception of the Brazilian Northeast when he filmed the story of four campaigning fishermen for an ill-fated and uncompleted movie, a study reveals.

Four Brazilian fishermen sailed their tiny ‘jangada’ sailing boat almost 2,500 kilometres from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro in 1941. They intended to persuade the new Government to recognise their profession as an official trade under social and labour reforms.

The men’s 61-day voyage drew extraordinary national media support and helped to redefine the way Brazilians saw the region. 

The ‘jangadeiros’ came to represent a romantic vision of the region’s people – brave, resourceful and resilient – and the ‘Citizen Kane’ director became interested in filming the men for his documentary ‘It’s All True’ after reading their story in Time magazine.

University of Birmingham Lecturer in Latin American History Dr Courtney Campbell has published his analysis of the fishermen’s tale in Past & Present.

Dr Campbell said: “The fishermen became representatives of the North, particularly the Northeast - an idealised Brazilian figure on the national stage. They became a means of uniting the Northeast and the South – bringing the country together.

“However, they fell out of favour when they chose to act in Orson Welles’ film and stepped out of their racially and regionally defined place to represent Brazil internationally. Their decision to act in his movie caused them to fall from favour in the national press.

“The fishermen of the Northeast were transformed from brave labour organisers into non-threatening figures of folklore after their fall from grace. They were eventually largely forgotten and replaced by a nameless ‘jangadeiro’ figure that persists to this day.”

The fishermen’s protest came about because their profession had been excluded from social and labour programmes being created by Brazil’s so-called New State (Estado Novo). The men belonged to communities known as ‘fishing colonies’, which were effectively unrecognised trade unions.

Dr Campbell’s analysis shows that descriptions of the fishermen were bound up with evolving notions of their region and stereotypes associated with the Brazilian Northeast.

Brazilian newspapers, magazines and radio provided a step-by-step account of the voyage and in each main city port on their trip, the fishermen met with fishing colonies and local authorities.

The men timed their arrival in Rio to coincide with the Brazilian national holiday making the Proclamation of the Republic on 15 November. Thousands greeted their arrival and they met Brazilian President Darcy Vargas, who issued a law incorporating the ‘jangadeiros’ into the national labour system of social welfare.

Orson Welles filmed the men in Fortaleza in 1942, but tragedy struck when one of them died, after the fishermen were tipped into the sea when a towline connecting their sailboat to a motor launch broke.

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