How tough it was: Micael Langer speaks about the making of Simonal at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Behind the Music with 'Simonal'

Julia Barbosa May 3, 2010

The documentary Simonal: No One Knows How Tough it Was explores the polemic surrounding Simonal, a man considered by many to be the greatest singer in Brazilian history. At the peak of his wildly successful career, he was accused of being associated with the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in the 1960s and 70s, and was subsequently ostracized by the media as well as his peers. Simonal never recovered from the boycott, and for over two decades his name was nearly forgotten. In town for the San Francisco International Film Festival, director Micael Langer talked to SF360 about the difficulties of making documentaries in Brazil and telling the story of a man whose complexity and importance vastly outweighed his controversy. Simonal’s last screening at the Festival is Tuesday, May 4, 3:15 p.m., at the Sundance Kabuki.

SF360: Where did the idea for Simonal come from?

Micael Langer: We chose him because nobody else had. He was a taboo. People were afraid to touch on the subject, which fueled us even more. And after we made the film, we realized that it was kind of not that big of a deal, you know? It’s just a guy, a story, a life, but within a political context that to this day people make a big deal out of and think they shouldn’t talk about it.

SF360: How did the three directors find each other? (Calvito Leal and Manoel Carlos are the other directors of the film). Were you approached by anyone to do the story or did you coincidently have the same idea?

Langer: Calvito and I already knew each other because we worked together in Rio, and we always wanted to have the chance to do something of our own and weren’t satisfied to just work on other people’s projects and just basically wanted to have our own voice. And then we heard the song ‘Nem Vem Que Nao Tem’ on the soundtrack of City of God, and since we are also DJs we thought it was strange that we had never heard it before. Then we started researching and found out about his story and were: ‘Whoa, this is phenomenal! How come nobody else has ever told this story,’ and we said: ‘Let’s make a film!’ And when we started contacting people we found out that Claudio Manoel had already started to make that documentary two years earlier.

SF360: So it was a fortunate coincidence.

Langer: Well, first we wanted to kill Claudio Manoel for having the same idea before we did (laughing). But then we contacted him and it turned out that he had started to work on the project in 2004, conducted four interviews and stopped because he had run out of money and just wasn’t that motivated anymore. It was a complicated subject and people didn’t want to talk, and all of that combined with the busy schedule with his TV show he couldn’t dedicate more time to it. And then two guys with a lot of steam show up and say ‘let’s do this together!,’ and he said yes. So we started to work together in 2004 and so it went until 2008.

SF360: And did you have trouble getting funding because of the subject of your film? Where did the money come from?

Langer: Absolutely. It came from our own pockets. Our film was one of the few that didn’t benefit from fiscal incentives in Brazil. It was quite difficult. Our budget was around $400,000, and only about $30,000 was from fiscal incentives (Brazil’s Audiovisual Law encourages corporations to invest in national productions in exchange for tax deductions), which is a rare case in the history of Brazilian cinema–where people/companies gave money but didn’t want their name associated with the film, since Simonal was still considered such a controversial figure. The film hasn’t paid for itself yet, despite being the highest grossing documentary of 2009 in Brazil, and is far from breaking even. But despite of the monetary deficit, it has paid off in other ways.

SF360: Do you think it will open other doors for you in the film industry after doing this project? Langer: Well, it hasn’t really opened any doors–we’re gonna have to knock those doors down (laughing). But it’s a great ‘business card’ to have, you know? We made this film knowing we wouldn’t get the financial return we needed, but what we got in return was much more important not to sound clich‚ because when we see that Simonal’s music started to be played again, and that people are discovering him, we get a tremendous satisfaction that no money could buy. Because I believe that the documentary is a social tool that you can use to portray reality and to change reality and people’s view of it. And that is not to say you cannot manipulate the documentary, but if you presume that the documentary is a search for a consensual truth, because an absolute truth does not exist–the power of the message is even greater than that of a fictional film. So, in the case of Simonal, from the moment you get people to reflect on what happened to him, and the fact that you are presenting a guy who is considered to this day the greatest singer Brazil ever had and that nobody had ever heard of, then you are indeed changing reality, and it did change it. Today you go to parties and you hear Simonal’s music playing, which was unconceivable years ago. So for us that is definitely a source of pride, and knowing that we helped achieve that, and that if it weren’t because of our work it wouldn’t have happened, is really important. For us, actually, the difficult part will be to find another project of this magnitude, with such power of transformation, but we’re looking for one.

SF360: This difficulty you had of financing your film, do you attribute it just to the fact that Simonal was a controversial figure? Or is finding funding for a documentary harder than for a fictional film?

Langer: Actually the documentary has two sides to it. You have the fact that the documentary is kind of a ‘marginal’ genre, but on the other hand, it is also a much cheaper product than a fictional film, so that actually helps in terms of financing it. People have asked us what we think about all these musical documentaries being released this year in Brazil and what we attribute it to. But the fact that lots of musical documentaries were made doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a particular interest for them on behalf of the audience, it just means that filmmakers were able to get financing for that kind of film. The truth is that Brazilian laws are quite restrictive, because everybody that has their image shown in a documentary has to authorize it. We joke that if Michael Moore were Brazilian he’d never been able to make a single one of his films. So in that sense, it explains why there has been a ‘boom’ of documentaries in Brazil, but only of a certain kind.

SF360: Because a biographic documentary usually leads to a more consensual process with less controversy?

Langer: Yes, although you can’t do the film and criticize the subject or the interviewees, because if you step on anyone’s toes or portray them in light they don’t find very flattering you are forced to remove that material and take your film back. So, in that sense, Brazilian laws are kind of a straight-jacket for filmmakers. On one hand, making a documentary is cheap, but in our case people were scared to invest because they didn’t want their names associated with Simonal. We had people that refused to be interviewed and people who wouldn’t authorize us to use their TV footage because they didn’t want to be associated with him and we would have never expected that. So there were all these things complicating the process, this taboo around his figure around the time we started to make the film, which has actually gotten a little better today. But his story definitely stills unleashes emotional and radical responses in certain people.

SF360: What about your own opinion, has it changed since you started to make the film and research his life?

Langer: Of course. First because I didn’t really have an opinion. I only had the same information that everyone else had. For instance, when I told my father I was making a documentary about Simonal, his first reaction wasn’t: Oh, the singer of ‘Pais Tropical,’ or ‘Sa Marina,’ it was ‘Oh, the snitch.’ So when we started to research his life that was all we knew. Then you find out that he was a poor singer whose mother was a maid, and that became successful on television and became a star. To this day no one has outdone him in terms of musical or vocal ability. But his life is very complex, and once you start researching you get to the controversy surrounding the episode of him and his accountant. [Simonal was convicted of and arrested for ordering policemen to beat and torture his accountant because he suspected him of fudging the books.] There are times you think of him as a poor man who wasn’t prepared to deal with his success and messed up, and that makes you feel some compassion and pity for him. It’s complicated, you go through a lot of moments. It’s funny because as soon as we got the interview with Viviane, the accountant, we thought: ‘Stop everything, we’re not interviewing anyone else, let’s go back to the editing room and see if we have a film here.’ At that point we already had 22 to 24 interviews, so we decided to present all our findings and leave the audience to discover their own truth. At first we thought to put the Viviane interview at the end, because it was the bomb that got dropped on us at the end, and convey the same feeling to the audience, but if we had done that, the audience would have left the film feeling pure resentment or anger toward Simonal, and there wouldn’t have been a counterpoint. We felt that we had the obligation to tell the audience what had happened to him after that. So it’s a guy that fascinates you as an artist, but was also a cocky, arrogant man, that committed terrible acts. And that complexity is what makes him interesting.

SF360: There are parts in the documentary where you seem to put conflicting testimonies when it comes to describing their impressions of Simonal. Was it your intention to leave his life open to interpretation and recreate the controversy that he encountered at the time?

Langer: Well, if we really wanted to do that we could have taken roads we decide not to. For instance, Jaguar was quite unfortunate when, in an interview, said that they [O Pasquim, the left-wing periodical that resisted the military dictatorship] didn’t worry about researching and that he didn’t he didn’t regret ‘fucking up the life of that nigger.’ So there was already polemic parts to the story, we didn’t have to ignite it anymore. But it’s complicated when people are talking about something that happened 40 years ago. Each one has their own memory, their own history, their own truth, and we even play with that in the film, where we put together different people giving various versions of a story and exaggerating facts and numbers. But you also have to be careful about that and not take someone’s account to be the ultimate truth and rest all your credibility as a filmmaker on it. So we tried to verify all information we could to see if it made sense, because this whole story about being a snitch or not we’ll never know. I have my opinion on the matter, but it was based on the facts that we discovered and that made sense to us. But of course that something that makes sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. And if other documents ever surface to prove my theory wrong, we would obviously recognize that we were wrong.

SF360: With three directors working on the projects, did you encounter difficulties to piece the story together in the same direction? Were you synchronized?

Langer: Well, the day that 3 people are in perfect sync it’s because they were lobotomized (laughing). But of course we agreed more than we disagreed. We have the same basic overview of the film industry, and I think that helped the film, because we knew we wanted the public to relate to our film. I think when you make something too sophisticated you alienate people and fail to communicate, and that’s not what we wanted. You have to make a film for other people, not for yourself. Aside from that, having three people making decisions is already like having ‘test screeners’ all the time, because if an idea gets the stamp of approval from three different people, it can’t be that far off, and in that sense having three directors was more beneficial than two because we never got tied up when making a decision about a scene or cut–we would take a vote and move on.

SF360: You already have previous video-making experience, and said earlier that you wanted to communicate with the public. Was the look of Simonal, with lots of colorful and playful tone and animations an attempt to reach a younger and/or broader audience?

Langer: I think that if you don’t take the audience on a journey that has highs and lows, thrills and surprises and that is pleasant to watch, then you’re done. You will lose that viewer within just a few minutes. And that was something else that we all agreed on–we wanted to do something ‘commercial’. In Brazil there is this skewed notion that doing something mainstream is necessarily doing something worse or less sophisticated. And that is a problem, because if something is overly sophisticated you will lose a lot of your audience along the way. And that was a fundamental thing for us: to reach both a 15-year-old boy and an 80-year-old man. And we were actually criticized for that. They would ask: ‘Why would you animate photos?’ It’s obvious: because a still photo is just too boring to watch. And there is also the fact that we were portraying a time, in the ’60s, where things were colorful, and it had to do with the cultural movements of that time. Sometimes I even catch myself asking where there was the necessity to insert so many songs of him in such a short period of time, but then we thought we needed to show the audience as much of his art as possible because he was completely forgotten, so every chance you got to show that, it was a good thing. Our story was already based on archival footage and talking heads, so we had to create a product that was dynamic and engaging.

SF360: For me the film was short, in a sense that I was craving more information, wanted to know more about his career and his personal life. Did you have to leave a lot out that you have liked to see in the film?

Langer: Yes, it was hard getting down to 85 minutes. We had to leave a lot out, and there are stories that just didn’t fit in the film and we had to drop them, but they will be in the DVD, which has almost 1 hour of extra materials. But here’s the thing: the film has a specific function. It wasn’t to show the personal life of Simonal extensively, it was to show the artist and what happened to him that destroyed his career and ultimately his life. Plus there were other things that we just couldn’t get a hold of, like archival footage of his TV show, that got lost because of floods or fires, or they had simply been taped over. And that was unfortunate to have to leave out.

SF360: What were the difficulties you encountered finding the material that you did put in the film?

Langer: They say Brazil is country with no memory, and it was true in this case. It was hard for us–and for anybody–to find documentation, archives, registries. We had to walk into a courthouse and scan a document that was burned and destroyed two weeks later. Had we taken longer it would have been gone. Some of the commercials were fortunately found, but they were all the way down in Porto Alegre, so there we went, piecing together all the little things we could find scattered around. Not to mention that it is expensive to make use of these images and you need to require authorization to use them, and that was when we were lucky enough find them in good conditions. It was definitely a battle.

SF360: The young crowd that is watching the film didn’t get to live during that time and sometimes doesn’t even know exactly what the dictatorship meant to the country, and the context in which Simonal lived. Do you think that the fact that young people are attracted to the film is partly due to the fact that the film makes you reflect not only about the past, but also about the present?

Langer: I think that having some distance to analyze the political and historical context enables us to see it more impartially. I also think that it is an opportune time for the film to be released because the left has finally gotten to be in power, and a lot of people haven’t had their expectations met. 10 years ago people would probably not be interested in a story of a person that had suffered because he wasn’t with the left wing. And the film is also important because it serves as a reference, in a sense that we had to contextualize the film for the 15-year-old who doesn’t even know what the dictatorship was, or thought it was a past too distant for him to understand–and also for the people that were here yesterday watching it (Simonal screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 23, at the Sundance Kabuki Theater). And I am confident that this documentary will be seen later on as reference for anybody researching the subject. And thinking that someone might be watching our film 20 years from now to learn more about history is very gratifying for us.

SF360: What do you think makes Simonal a universal figure? The audience not only showed up to watch it, but was also responding positively to the film.

Langer: He was a black man with little instruction who climbed up to the top because of his talent. He was discriminated against. He got ‘drunk’ with all this new-found power and started to think he could do whatever he wanted. It’s also the Icarus complex–you think you are infallible, and try to fly higher than you can and end up plummeting to your death. It speaks to several aspects that I’m sure we each can relate to on some level. But I must say I was surprised by a person that lives in the United States be interested in watching a guy which they’d probably never heard of before, and live in a country that has never endured a dictatorship like us in Brazil would want to know about that story. Of course everyone has their own motives–some have Brazilian family members, or are just generally interested in Brazilian music. But it was surprising to me that Simonal also managed to do that. It was a crowded screening and people received it very well.

SF360: But despite the initial interest, the satisfaction is still there, and you can’t attribute that only to Simonal. You guys had a big part in it, don’t you think?

Langer: Yes, but one thing is certain; it is much more him than us. Because I think there are two types of documentaries. There is the documentary that takes a mundane story or fact and turns it into something extraordinary, and there is the other one where the extraordinary story is already there begging to be told, and all you have to do is not get in the way. And that’s what all we had to do–not get in the way. We just researched and presented our findings so that the audience could reach their own conclusions.

SF360: Despite trying to present a story that leads the audience to reach its own conclusions, surely you must have an opinion of Simonal that you want your viewers to leave the theater with.

Langer: Everybody has their own filter. People have accused us of making this film to absolve him. And I say: absolve him of what? Because there are two crimes he was accused of–ordering a man to get beaten by the police and of being a snitch. The former is what we investigated, and tried to answer those questions. But mostly we wanted to discover how a criminal case became a political case. So what I would like people to see is that he was the greatest singer Brazil has ever had–and that’s no small feat–and that because of unfortunate mistakes he made he was completely ostracized, forgotten and simply erased from our musical history. And that’s something that cannot happen. The leftist party at the time didn’t tolerate any dissent–so if Simonal wasn’t with them, he was considered to be against them. So we might say that not being politically engaged was his biggest crime, because he was convicted and arrested for beating up a man, he paid his dues. But it was the fact that he might have sympathized with the military dictatorship at the time is what people could not forgive. I am part of a generation that was prevented from knowing that part of history. I grew up without knowing that Simonal existed. So despite his crime and his personal problems, his art stands on his own, and deserves to be recognized.

SF360: What were your expectations and impressions of the audience here at SFIFF?

Langer: It exceeded all of my expectations. This documentary had until now stayed within Brazilian festivals, and being a contender in the GGA category alone is a victory. I expected a good reception in theory, because San Francisco has such a diverse audience, but to actually experience it was surprising. It was to my surprise and delight not only we had a broad audience from all ages, but that they opened up to the film, laughed and sighed, and just let themselves be taken away by the charisma of the great performer and artist that was Simonal.

Julia Barbosa is an intern with