In the press notes for “Lula: Son of Brazil”, screenwriter Denise Paraná, upon whose biography (originally a PhD dissertation) the script is based, advises: “This is not a political film but a human story about overcoming great odds.” Just so everybody gets the picture, director Fabio Barreto replies as follows to the question of why the film ends in 1980, long before Lula becomes president: “Because everybody knows the political life of Lula, but few know his personal life—and that is our focus and what interested us when deciding to tell this story.
In a way the absence of politics goes hand in hand with the creative team’s understanding of Lula’s legacy. With someone so resolutely beyond politics, how could anybody possibly make a political film, as Luiz Barreto states: “I followed Lula’s trajectory since the ‘70’s. I always thought he represented a new alternative in Brazilian political scene, without the left or right ideology, communism or not.”
Essentially, “Lula: Son of Brazil” is the same kind of rags-to-riches story as “Ray”, about Ray Charles, or “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, about Loretta Lynn. Instead of growing up to be a Grammy winner, Lula grew up to be the leader of a major trade union. As the director put it, “This movie is for people to see that even under the worst conditions, we can achieve great things. Lula is a migrant from the Northeast, a former laborer, one of our equals, who persisted, and worked hard, and became President.”
Ironically, despite their best (or worst) intentions, the end product is very much political since it depicts Lula very much as a careerist and an opportunist. He only gets involved with his trade union when his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him at his wit’s end. He tells his mother that he is keeping himself busy with the union just to get his personal tragedy off his mind.
The film creates an interesting tension between Lula and forces to his left and right. Like walking a tightrope, Lula always makes sure to stay on his feet. The right is symbolized by Claudio Feitosa, the piggish bureaucrat who runs the metalworkers union and who co-opts Lula on his re-election slate in order to bring “fresh blood” into the union.
Feitosa would never mistake Lula for his brother Ziza, who is a member of the Communist Party and the metalworkers union. Lula clearly regards his brother as a hothead and impractical but sticks with him through thick and thin. Their close ties are tested during a factory occupation in the 1960s in which a foreman is thrown to his death from a tall parapet in retaliation for the death of a striking worker. Lula recoils in horror, telling his brother that this is not what he believes in.
In another scene, once again involving a militant strike but this time with Lula in command, the workers are urged by him to go back to work. While such a decision is often made after a democratic discussion weighing the pros and cons, the movie depicts Lula as basically making the decision for the workers who are then asked to ratify it. When they accuse him of being a traitor to the cause, he calls a general meeting in which they are asked to vote in favor of his removal if they are unhappy. With absolutely no motivation other than hero worship, one supposes, they decide to keep him on as their Great Leader, chanting “Lula, Lula, Lula”.
The film ends with pictures of the real Lula shaking hands with Thabo Mbeki, Bill Gates and Bono—a perfect image to cap off what we have seen for over two hours.
That being said, I can still recommend the film since it contains some very dramatic depictions of the class struggle in Brazil, no matter the commitment of its makers not to stray in that direction. One scene in particular will be overwhelming. Lula is addressing the workers in a soccer stadium where there is no sound system. Guess how his words make it throughout the stadium? Guess what! He uses the mic check method of Occupy Wall Street long before the technique became so closely identified with the new movement.
You can see “Lula: Son of Brazil” either at the Quad Cinema or at the Lincoln Plaza theater. For all its flaws, it is clearly superior to the currently playing biopic on J. Edgar Hoover–to be sure.
Back in the early 90s, I attempted to come to grips with the problems of “Marxism-Leninism”, the organizational form that had led to sect and cult formations, particularly in the Maoist and Trotskyist movement. I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that looked at alternatives to that model, including the Workers Party in Brazil that had not yet taken power. I first learned about the Workers Party when I was in the Trotskyist movement in the mid-70s when it held out promise for becoming a genuine mass revolutionary party. My disappointment with what it became led me to excise the portion of my article dealing with Lula and the Workers Party. I include it below to give you an idea of the kinds of hope I had at the time. I should add that if there’s anything I have learn in politics over the years, it is the power of big capital to corrupt our movement:
One of the first fresh, new formations to emerge in this generally reactionary period was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers Party, of Brazil. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a worker and a trade union activist, was part of number of workers, intellectuals, Catholic Church priest-activists who saw the need for a new socialist party in Brazil. They thought the CP and SP of Brazil were too ready to compromise with whichever politician on the scene who best represented the forces of the “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. Another ingredient in the formation of the Workers Party was the conscious leadership of ex-Trotskyists who gave the new group badly needed organizational knowledge. This is the best role for Trotskyists around the world today: to dissolve their parties and help to form broader, non-sectarian formations like the Workers Party of Brazil.
Lula was born in 1945 in the poor northeastern town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco. He was the youngest of 8 children born to Aristides and Euridice da Silva, subsistence farmers. In 1956, the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the back of a bar. They shared the bathroom with bar customers.
At the age of thirteen Lula went to work in a factory that manufactured nuts and bolts. There were 12-hour work shifts at the plant and very little attention paid to the safety and health of the workers. Consequently young Lula lost the little finger of his left hand.
Lula, whose older brother was a CP’er, became a union activist in the early 1970’s. In 1972, he won election to the Metalworker’s Union directory board of Sao Bernando. Three years later, he became president of the union. He won with 92 percent of the vote from the 140,000 members.
In the late 1970’s, a wave of labor militancy swept Brazil under the impact of IMF-imposed austerity. Lula’s union struck the Saab-Scania truck company in May of 1978. It was the first large-scale strike in a decade. Lula spoke to a strike assembly for the first time there. On day one of the strike, workers showed up but refused to operate their machines. The struggle spread to other multinational automobile companies. At the end of the second week, some 80,000 workers were on a sit-down strike. Their strength caught the government by surprise and it could not mobilize the army in time. The strikers won a 24.5 pay increase.
This was the background of the formation of the Workers Party. A founding convention on February 10, 1980 launched the party. Lula addressed the 750 attendees, “It’s time to finish with the ideological rustiness of those who sit at home reading Marx and Lenin. It’s time to move from theory to practice. The Workers Party is not the result of any theory but the result of twenty-four hours of practice.”
At the Seventh National Conference of the Workers Party in May 1990, the party defended socialism without qualifications. The collapse of bureaucratic socialism throughout the Soviet bloc inspired the document appropriately called “Our Socialism”. The party upheld democratic socialism everywhere. The document said, “We denounce the premeditated assassination of hundreds of rural workers in Brazil and the crimes against humanity committed in Bucharest or in Tiananmen Square with the same indignation. Socialism, for the PT, will either be radically or it will not be socialism.”
In section seven of the document, the Workers Party explained its conception of how to build a revolutionary party. “We wanted to avoid both ideological abstraction, the elitist offense of the traditional Brazilian left, and the frazzled pragmatism of so many other parties. A purely ideological profundity at the summit would serve no purpose unless it corresponded to the real political culture of our party and social rank-and-file. Besides, the leadership also lacked experience that only the patient, continuous, democratic mass struggle could provide.”
Compare this with James P. Cannon’s declaration that his minuscule Trotskyist faction was the “vanguard of the vanguard” in 1930. The Workers Party leadership had already led mass strikes against the bosses, broad struggles for democratic liberties and peasant movements, including the one that took the life of Chico Mendoza, a party member. Yet it says that it lacked experience. This type of modesty coming from forces obviously so capable of leading millions in struggle is truly inspiring.
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If “Lula: Son of Brazil” is an exercise in avoiding politics, then the “Robinson Trilogy” now showing at the Anthology Film Archives until the 18th is an example of what a committed radical filmmaker is capable of given the social and economic crisis of Great Britain for the past seventeen years. Back in 1994, director Patrick Keiller made “London”, a lacerating look at the decay Tory rule left in its wake in the capital city. This first installment in the trilogy was followed three years later by “Robinson in Space”, which despite its title is all about the same kind of decay occurring throughout the country. The Anthology is pairing these two works with Keiller’s latest, “Robinson in Ruins”, that was made in November 2010.
The eponymous Robinson is a fictional character used as a device to structure these sui generis documentaries that owe as much to the written essay as they do to film. In the first two films, the late Paul Scofield narrates along the lines of describing what Robinson saw and did in his travels around the country. The unnamed narrator is a friend of the fictional character Robinson who symbolizes the country’s political and ethical soul. He wanders about taking in the contemporary rot, trying to place it in historical context making reference, for example, to the enclosure acts.
In the last film, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator, once again giving voice to the fictional Robinson. Rather than trying to describe these unique documentaries, I invite you to look at “London”, the first film in the series. If this strikes you as worthy, then do not waste time. Go to the Anthology and catch all three.