Citizen Boilesen | FILM: City Cinematheque

Citizen Boilesen | FILM: City Cinematheque


♪ [Theme Music] ♪ ♪ [Theme Music] ♪ JERRY CARLSON: Welcome to
City Cinematheque. Where the art and pleasure of
the movies are the subject of serious discussion. I’m
your host Jerry Carlson and I teach film studies at
the City College of the City University of New York. Today
it’s our pleasure to present the Brazilian documentary, Citizen
Boilesen. Now this is an investigative documentary
with a mystery at its center. Who, over forty years ago,
killed the corporate executive Boilesen. It’s also a
documentary that takes on some very serious questions
about the ethics of business, about the complicity of
paramilitary groups and about questions of human rights.
We’ll be talking about that and much more after today’s
screening. And it’s a pleasure to welcome to City Cinematheque
the maker of this film, Chaim Litewski. So now.
enjoy this journey into Brazil forty years ago and to a mystery
and to an investigation. JERRY CARLSON: Welcome
back to City Cinematheque. I hope you’ve enjoyed this
opportunity to see what I think is a very very strong
documentary that raises questions not only
about documentary practice, where we stand in our digital
revolution. What we can do with film and digital
technologies, as well as many significant ethical
issues about human rights, the responsibilities of
states, of companies and of individuals. That’s a lot
to talk about and we’ve got thirty minutes to do it. May
or may not be enough but we’ll try to use it
as well as possible. And I think we have the best
possible guest for those purposes and this film. We have
the creator of the film with us, Chaim Litewski. Chaim
is obviously a filmmaker of Brazilian origin, a long time
resident in the United States. He works with the United
Nations in which he actually heads their television unit.
Welcome to City Cinematheque Chaim. CHAIM LITEWSKI: Thank you Jerry.
It’s a pleasure to be here. JERRY CARLSON: Right. So
let’s, let’s just start out with Boilesen and you.
As a very first subject. Were you aware of this
assassination at the time that it happened. Does your
interest go back that far and then when did, when did
an interest or a knowledge become a project? CHAIM LITEWSKI: Right. I was
actually aware of Boilesen before the assassination.
First of all, Boilesen ran a company to deliver gas, cooking
gas, to families. It’s a large company and we ourselves
relied on that delivery every week in order to be able to
cook our food. So I was interested in the company
because I thought it was such an incredible tight
operation every Thursday, I seem to recall, in the morning
the truck would stop in front of our home and pick up the
empties and deliver full ones. And then I recall in the late
sixty’s, perhaps around sixty-seven, sixty-eight, I
would see him on television standing next to military.
And my family, you know, we usually talked about
things and we thought, you know, what is this Danish
person doing next to this military guys, you know.
He comes from such a liberal country and yet
he’s standing next to some pretty heavy right wing
guys so we in my family we didn’t quite understand
the relationship although we had heard that there
were strange connections between certain companies in the
military. And then in 1971, April 15, 1971, the day he
was was assassinated, I vividly recall thinking about the
assassination as being something very very important.
And I was already quite a pretentious young man in
those days and I thought, you know, I would like to
write about this one day. So I remember cutting his
obituary from various newspapers and magazines
and thinking, well one day I will study a little bit more
about his life, and I still have the obituaries today and I
thought, you know, I will probably write an
article or a book about it. So my and my
interest goes back well before the assassination. JERRY CARLSON: So then let’s
jump forward to the moment in which you decide not to
write the book but you decide at least to begin an
investigation. And let me put it in that way. Did you know
when you started gathering materials that the, you
know, the outcome of that, the deliverable as we now
say these days, would be of a feature length documentary
or was this something you know vaguer
in shape, when you began? CHAIM LITEWSKI: I gave up
the idea of doing a book primarily in the mid seventy’s
it was because a book about him came out in Denmark so
I thought, well there’s already, and in fact the author of
the book is interviewed in the documentary. So I kind
of gave up the idea of the book and really forgot about it.
Then, cut to Christmas 1993 perhaps, and I happened to be
sitting in a bar with one of my best friends. And we were
looking at each other and it was dark and cold and
we both wanted to do something interesting with our spare
time and I said, you know way back, way back I had this idea
for a book on this Danish fellow who was assassinated
in Brazil in seventy-one and my friend said,
Boilesen. And I said, exactly how do you know?
And he said, well because I was a journalist and I covered
Boilesen assassination in Denmark, so I knew a lot
about him. And we decided to make a film together. And we
started slowly but surely to contact people both
in Denmark and in Brazil. And what happened was that
in 1994, the end of 1994, 1995, my friend moved to Romania with
his wife. His wife became a representative of UNICEF
in Romania. So I was left on my own basically making the film.
And, no, I didn’t know that it was going to be a documentary
it was basically seeing it as a hobby. I was, when I
decided to do it on my own I decided to collect
information because I had a full time, and I still
have a full time job, I could not dedicate myself one hundred
percent into the project but I would approach people
and I would write to archives in the U.S., in Brazil, in
Denmark and in Russia. So I was basically gathering
material and I thought that I would have some kind of
combination of audio visual, text, music. Talk about it
period and would highlight Boilesen. I didn’t
quite know that it was going to become a documentary
but I did quite regularly talk to people, record the interviews
and hire people as well to do some research
for me in different archives of different parts of the world. JERRY CARLSON: Let me talk
about this whole notion of who you contacted because one of
the things that are so rich about the documentary,
to me, is that we get so many angles and so many
opinions and obviously some of them are you know one hundred
and eighty degrees, you know, a part and then others
have very different shades and directions. So were there
some people that were resistant to being interviewed and on what
kinds of grounds? And then who embraced the project?
But the point is that they’re all there in the final film. CHAIM LITEWSKI: Right. They
probably contacted around two hundred people. I would say
that a third of them put the phone down and didn’t
even allow me to speak, because the first thing
I did Jerry was ready to tell everyone what I was doing.
I was very transparent and I never hid the fact
from anyone in the archives, individual peoples’
institutions, what was going on, what the film was going to be
about. The film was going to be about the relationship
between large businesses in Brazil and certain paramilitary
operators that existed at the height of military
dictatorship, OBAN being the main one. So I never
hid that from anyone. JERRY CARLSON: Okay. CHAIM LITEWSKI: And I also
used to tell them that it was going to focus on
Boilesen who was assassinated. So I said to you, the third of
those two hundred and I tried to talk to, put the phone down.
I would say to that about another third of them accepted
to talk off the record, but not on camera. And I’d
say to you that about the last third, which amounted to fifty
people, approximately, would be willing to participate.
And the basic idea as far as the structure of the film was
concerned was to get as much variety in terms of opinion as
possible. First, because that’s a good journalist
practice, I think. And second, is that, you know, as people
like to say that three way, there are three sides of
the story. Mine, yours and the truthful one. I also adopted
the same approach regarding iconography, visuals. I wanted
it to be a very richly visual film so I included, let’s
say, things that are not very usual, to use in terms of a film
like that. Such as animations, reenactment, radio, all sorts of
things that you usually don’t associate with so-called
political films. The bottom line Jerry, is that
it’s such a heavy thing that if I told the story in
a heavy way, people would commit suicide at the end of
it. So I decided to take a kind of, not light hearted,
but a light approach to the storytelling aspect in order
to make the film flow fast. But the theme being quite
serious and structure and it was primarily addressing
young people. JERRY CARLSON: Okay, well
let me just talk about, let me ask the question
about the people you did get because this is now, you
know, when we’re speaking, this is well forty years after
the events. When you are making this we, you know, this took
you over fifteen years to make, in one way or another, so
we’re at a point twenty, twenty five years out on that.
To what degree did people feel, obviously they do talk, they
felt free to talk in the sense of but both- first of
all in a legal sense? Because we have in the film
we have someone who says, I am the person who gave the
coup de gras, and we have people who were part of the
torturers who are you saying, I did this. Now it’s not common
that people come on camera and say, I conducted
legally condoned torture, or that I am a person who, you
know, gave the coup de gras in a political assassination.
So what was the status that they would feel
that they could do that? CHAIM LITEWSKI: There
had been a general amnesty for political crimes in Brazil
that both sides benefited from particularly the
governmental side, the military side, which was
of course much more involved in political
assassinations and torture then the left wing. The left
wing groups were pretty much wiped out by
the mid-seventy’s. JERRY CARLSON: Right. CHAIM LITEWSKI: So
very few, in fact, left. I mean I’m talking about
actively left. JERRY CARLSON: Right, right. CHAIM LITEWSKI: So the military
benefited from an amnesty so they were willing to talk about
it because there were no legal consequences to whatever
they had to say in the sense that they had been
benefited by this amnesty. As far as getting
them to talk where they talked, well I’ve been doing interviews
pretty much my entire life as a professional journalist,
as a professional television journalist, and you know there
are certain techniques that we use. You win them
over slowly, you know, you’ve been transparent
you don’t hide anything. But, you know, you insist
on the same question until they’re tired. They tell you
they don’t want to answer or they say something so that
primarily the technique I use. It’s kind of, overwhelming
them with the same questions over and over until
they give up. JERRY CARLSON: It’s interesting
the level of candor that you were able to get
from them because, you know, as you point out
there are two sides to that. One side is the legal, but
then the other side is just the personal. How comfortable
do they feel in telling, in telling their story? Let’s
come back a little bit to the to the documentary, you
know, technique itself because I’m very interested in
the fact that this is a highly textured film. It’s not- it
has many talking heads but you also, in a very nice sense,
not only have to pay attention but want to pay attention to
what’s happening visually in the film. And I think there is
another voice in the film besides all of these voices
and that is in many ways the filmmakers, the filmmakers
voice. So, you know, there’s one school that says,
I’m just outlining schools here that says, you know you have
to be as straightforward as possible. You should have
a voice that is the voice of authority. And when you mix
images and sounds together they should really always mix,
not in counterpoint, but they should mix for absolute,
absolute clarity. Call me crazy but I don’t think either of
those things happen in your head, in your film, because
you use you use counterpoint in image, considerably, and
while obviously no one is going to come away from this film
thinking that Boilesen was not a sadist, was not involved,
the facts are all there. You allow, and I’m
not saying this is a bad thing, you allow the people who are in
denial about all of that to be in denial about it
on the screen. CHAIM LITEWSKI: On the other
hand, no one will doubt that he was an excellent father.
That he was a good and solid businessman. That he benefitted
a whole lot of poor people in Brazil allowing them to do
internships and to study and so forth. Jerry, like
anybody else, we are, we’re not black and white.
We are very, we belong to very many shades of grey.
Boilesen, of course, is an extreme example and that’s
what makes his story, his personal history, so
interesting is the fact that he had a bit of a Jekyll and
Hyde character in him. One of the interviewees,
a psychologist that worked with Boilesen in Brazil, a
Danish fellow, says that he would never be able to do
that in Denmark in Brazil he could do it. So, you know, I
suppose that when people, in my life, professional
life, tells me that given the opportunity people will do
things that sometimes you don’t expect them to do. As far as the
style that you alluded to, the richness of the elements
that I tried to utilize. I used different, as I said, different
types of iconography including fiction films, documentaries,
all sorts of things that I could grab my hand on, which all
purchased legally by doing. I bought the copyrights of
everything. But they were not used in a kind of gratuitous
way. There are certain things that I just could not
find. So I use, for example, bits of fiction film in order
to advance the narrative and they’re there to illustrate a
particular point that they cannot really show because
there’s no visual records of someone torturing someone
or making arrangements to watch a torture later
on in that day. But if I found these elements
elsewhere I would incorporate, in the way subvert their
meaning, into my film in order for two things to happen. A.
to illustrate the point and B. to advance the narrative
slightly for them so I could pick up and move further after
that. So they are not there just because they happen
to be interesting but they’re also to advance the story
telling aspect of the film. JERRY CARLSON: I’m very
interested in this archival research because there are,
I mean, you have at one extreme you have contemporary
animation that’s in there. And then we have lots of kinds
of images that we don’t see anymore because the
television technology of near fifty years ago was by our
standards so primitive that the image is not of a quality
that we want to see anymore. How hard was it to get all
of that kind of imaging? CHAIM LITEWSKI: It was
extremely hard. It was very very hard indeed. I spend a good
five, six years to gather the material you see on the film.
It was exhaustive and it was expensive and was maddening
and a lot of the images had to be reworked electronically in
order to enhance the quality, the visual quality. But was
also very very pleasant and pleasurable because whenever
I found something that I thought of significance,
I would sort of jump about of happiness. I mean, when
someone- I mean the same goes for the interviews.
When someone who I thought was particularly important
in the story allowed me to talk- JERRY CARLSON: Right. CHAIM LITEWSKI: -I would be
so happy and the same goes for the array of documentation
that I found in the archives, hidden, most of the documents
were in fact secret documents about the situation about
Boilesen and whenever I actually had them on my
hands I was so happy really. And I tried also to use the
documents in the same way as the archive material
in order to illustrate a point and advance the narrative. JERRY CARLSON: And one has
to say that you’re talking about something that as
time speeds up in our world, that not only means we move
into the future, more rapidly but that the past recedes
much more much more rapidly. So there’s a way in which
you’ve gathered a lost time capsule here in which we can
imagine these events through these textures themselves. One
other question about the kind of formal aspects, because
this has a rich and if I may use the adjective, jaunty,
musical source. So how were you thinking about how music?
You Brazilians think about music a lot I fear. CHAIM LITEWSKI: I wanted to pay
homage to a particular type of music that was being
played at that time. It was the time I grew up. I was an
adolescent so I was quite in tune with the stuff. So, you
know, it was some sort of local like samba, boleros and stuff
like that with more pop orientated stuff. It was a
time when the government encouraged composers
to write positive things about the country so I did a little
parody in the film to illustrate that. And again, you know
was a way to punctuate the film in order to indicate to the
viewers what kind of mood I wanted to create. Some of the
mood, as you probably realize, was quite sort of comedic, in
a way, because it is a kind of unbelievable almost
ridiculous situation and I wanted people to know that
that’s what I thought about it. So I use music in different ways
again advancing the narrative to create a mood and to indicate
to the viewer what kind of view I had of the situation. JERRY CARLSON: And that’s that
voice I was talking about, that’s there, it just happened- CHAIM LITEWSKI: Yes, absolutely. JERRY CARLSON: So let’s-
we’ve now been talking about the film. We’ve had
the pleasure of screening it on CUNY TV and really the honor
of doing so I have to say. So let’s talk about
the film and Brazil. Tell us, it’s been screened
there and what was the response to its screening? How was it
screened? And then are there any consequences of that? CHAIM LITEWSKI: The
film won, to my surprise, a number of very
significant prizes in Brazil. Some of the biggest prizes to
documentaries and to film in general. So it was preceded
by this incredible vast array of prizes. Then it was screened
in various independent cinemas throughout the country.
And it got pretty good, I must say again, to my surprise
pretty extraordinary reviews. Then it was purchased by the
Brazilian film channel so it was shown there and then was
purchased by the public service network and it was
shown there. So we had, and then it’s being
pirated left, right and center. Both as DVD- today I was
actually trying to count the number of pirate versions on
YouTube and I think it stopped at fourteen versions but I
don’t mind that. I’m happy with that. JERRY CARLSON: And in
practical terms, has it had an effect on civic society there? CHAIM LITEWSKI: It has had a
major effect on civic society and I will just tell you, two
effects which I’m particularly proud of. First is that since
the release of the film a truth commission has been
created to investigate the crimes of the dictatorship
and I’ve been told that they have the film in great esteem
and it has been a source of inspiration for them and
they are indeed investigating the role of the business
community had in financing some of this paramilitary
groups. And I think to a certain extent my film
help that, triggered that, investigation. And the second
thing, and even just as important is the fact that
one of the companies for the first time in Brazils
recent history, one of the companies that cooperated
with the paramilitary groups in operations, which is one
of the biggest newspapers in Brazil, came out and
said that they were involved in supporting the paramilitary
group and that’s the first time that either a company or person
came out to say that. And that was a direct
consequence of the film as well, so those two things really make
me very very proud Jerry. I mean, you know, I’m totally
overwhelmed by the results quite frankly. I’m not trying
to be over humble here but I did not expect that. JERRY CARLSON: Well, but,
those are the surprises that make following a passionate
line of investigation because you did this for over fifteen
years to get the product, this is not a home movie made
over the weekend of a birthday party no matter what. But
I think that’s a very good moment for us to end, to
know what effect, what real world effect that
this film has actually had. If you’ve liked this film and
you’d like to know more about film on City Cinematheque,
please join us next week and other weeks. But before
that what you can do is that you can look into
what we do at our website. Please visit www.cuny.tv There you’re going to find information about
City Cinematheque, the other programming on CUNY
TV and ways to communicate with us by e-mail. So please
take a look at www.cuny.tv Chaim, let me tell you what
a true pleasure it is to have you here to give us some
background on what I think is an extraordinary and powerful
film that shows how film really can, not only
affect civic society in Brazil, but can communicate
very important things across international lines. I think
it’s a film that everyone here can understand just as much as
perhaps as a Brazilian. It’s a pleasure having you
here. Thanks for joining us. CHAIM LITEWSKI: Thank
you very much indeed. JERRY CARLSON: And thank
you for joining us here today. And if you’ve enjoyed City
Cinematheque please join us again as we stroll through
the archives of film history. Bye bye for now. ♪ [Theme Music] ♪

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