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In 1942, the year after he finished Citizen Kane, Orson Welles spent six months in Rio de Janeiro working on a documentary feature which, as he asserts in It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, he was “never allowed” to complete. It’s All True, directed by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel, and Bill Krohn, combines interviews with people who were involved in the project—including samba star GrandeOthelo, longtime Welles collaborator Wilson, and Welles himself—and fragments of the director’s surviving footage in an attempt to piece together both the unfinished film and an accurate explanation for its eventual fate.
Welles’ uncompleted It’s All True has always generated considerable speculation. As Wilson tells it, Welles’ South American filmmaking stint was intended by his studio, RKO, as a “gesture of hemispheric solidarity” at the dawn of World War II. Wealthy power brokers Nelson Rockefeller and Jock Whitney sat on RKO’s board of directors, and the film suggests that both were instrumental in sending Welles to Brazil. The Hollywood/Washington axis hoped that a U.S. film project would stave off the emergence of Brazilian Nazism; on the heels of Citizen Kane‘s dazzling success, Welles was as high-profile as American directors came, and so he went south. Whatever the motives of those who sent Welles packing, It’s All True emphasizes that the director had little say in the matter and that, once in Brazil, he was made to stay put (indeed, he describes himself as having been “trapped” there).
As its title suggests, Welles originally conceived the project as a collection of true stories: His film was to have been divided into three parts: “My Friend Bonito,” “The Story of Samba,” and “Four Men on a Raft.” Only snippets of the first two appear in the film, while the third appears in its entirety. Those parts of “My Friend Bonito” (the titular pal is a wide-eyed calf) that survive depict a traditional blessing of young animals by a village priest. “The Story of Samba” fragments contain the project’s only technicolor footage—appropriately, of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. Says Welles, filming the revelry was like “trying to capture a hurricane.” This part of the film also boasts some hilariously outdated sound bites in which Welles as narrator attempts to explain the samba to his audience (sample line: “Dig that rhythm, you cats!”).
But it is “Four Men on a Raft” that holds the most interest today. Viewing this segment, it’s almost possible to believe archivist Fred Chandler when he claims in the film that he immediately knew who had directed the unmarked footage he unearthed in 1985. “Four Men” ‘s story, which made headlines in 1941, is that of four Brazilian fishermen (jangadeiros) who sailed 1,650 miles from northern Brazil to Rio de Janeiro on a raft made of six logs. By choosing to re-enact this tale, Welles immediately politicized his project, since the four men made their journey to protest the jangadeiros‘ deplorable working conditions, and were, for that reason, popular heroes. Clearly not the sort of sunny, tourism-promoting film that its U.S. backers—or, for that matter, the Brazilian government—had in mind. Worse, Welles’ interest in the jangadeiros‘ cause was perceived by his detractors as evidence of his communist sympathies, and an accidental drowning during the sequence’s shooting was taken as evidence of his mismanagement.
The segment—wordless against a background of music—is modestly eloquent, even if Welles did put the stamp of Hollywood on the story by preceding the jangadeiros‘ journey with a mawkish fictional love story. (It’s more of a love vignette, really, in which a young fisherman drowns soon after his marriage to a beautiful girl.) More revealing is the level of ingenuity Welles employed in shooting on a shoestring budget. In the absence of the appropriate equipment, parts of the film were lit with anti-aircraft lights borrowed from the Brazilian army, and because he was sent no moving cameras, Welles had to improvise to shoot the angles he wanted. When changes in RKO management ushered in an antagonistic new administration, funding for the project soon dried up. Back in America with an unfinished and unfinanced film on his hands, Welles soon became enmeshed in the infighting surrounding his next two features, and the Brazilian project was never completed.
Though it offers an intriguing view of how the era’s studios treated their artists and of how rumors about the project came to be assimilated as fact, It’s All True is perhaps most instructive as a missing piece of the puzzle that is Welles’ subsequent career. For this reason, it might have been more effective had the filmmakers spent more time detailing the entire episode’s effect on Welles’ concurrent filmmaking efforts. As it stands, only Welles buffs are likely to appreciate the gravity of its revelations. If the viewer doesn’t know what impact The Magnificent Ambersons debacle had on Welles’ career, it’s hard to fully appreciate the scenario offered up by It’s All True: that his imminent departure for Brazil demanded that Welles rush to complete two films at once (Journey Into Fear and Ambersons), and that he was forced to edit the latter via cables sent back and forth between Rio and Hollywood. And, as Welles notes here of Ambersons, that picture “destroyed me.”
Fuzzy yellow chicks are packed onto a series of rapidly moving conveyor belts. As one belt gives way to the next, the chicks fall, tumbling over and onto each other. Workers pick up each chick and hastily determine its sex before throwing it down one of two stainless-steel chutes. The chicks disappear through a hole at the bottom and reappear on another belt, from which they are picked up one by one and their heads pressed against a hot metal bar that smokes as their beaks give way. Meanwhile, a snow monkey, its pink-lidded eyes half open, sits languidly in a steaming mountain pool.
Such are the juxtapositions which typify Baraka (a Sufi word that means “blessing, breath, or the essence of life”), Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke’s visually arresting and wordless bid to capture some essence of the interaction between man, beast, and planet. Producer Magidson and director/cinematographer Fricke are no strangers to the use of images without dialogue: The pair co-produced Chronos, like Baraka an IMAX film, and Fricke served as co-editor and director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi.
While it dwells at length on nature’s more spectacular beauties—gauzy cloud cover, a mound of bright green lizards, magnificent waterfalls—Baraka takes as its primary theme the arena in which human beings and nature overlap. And of this interaction, the film takes a very dim view indeed. Almost every link that it depicts between the human and natural world results in disaster for the latter; a chain saw gouges a tree, strip mining levels a mountain, a road has been burned and blackened by bombs. The filmmakers’ agenda becomes more explicit still when a block of high-rise tenements is contrasted with a cemetery of above-ground mausoleums—the two structures proving almost identical. Mankind, it seems, is destroying himself along with his environment, a premise which can hardly be called a novelty these days.
But it is one which can be readily substantiated. Take the evils of industrialization: When Baraka seeks examples of man’s attempt to impose order on the natural world, it turns again and again to factories, whose assembly lines it uses to exemplify humanity’s capacity for dehumanization. In the aforementioned poultry plant, chickens are subject to this imposed order. Later, it is suggested that the workers in a dark and crowded Third World cigarette factory are analogous to the chicks. Seldom are humans and animals shown coexisting in harmony; in a somewhat heavy-handed bid for irony, one of few such examples depicts people and wild dogs foraging for food side by side in a massive garbage dump.
The filmmakers claim inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, an influence discernible in Baraka‘s focus on religious ritual. A majority of the people who appear in the film are engaged in religious ceremony, and it is interesting that a film which documents the havoc wrought on earth by mankind is primarily concerned with humans as religious entities. The film’s panorama of elaborate religious rites and of ritual adornment seems to imply many things—the underlying similarity of all worship, the inherent danger in rigid specificity of belief, man’s dual nature, or maybe just that if everyone spent less time engaged in religious ceremony, the world would be a better place—but it’s not easy to gauge the filmmakers’ intent.
While Baraka‘s themes are not particularly startling or visionary, the film is pretty to look at—especially, I would hazard, on the70 mm screens for which it is intended. After a while, however, the film’s jumps from locale to locale and culture to culture become dizzying. It is difficult not to tire of venturing half-baked guesses about the identities of the film’s subjects, most of which are not readily apparent. (Presumably such specifics are what separate Baraka from a National Geographic special.) Clearly, this wouldn’t matter so much if it didn’t seem that the filmmakers were relying on recognition to convey a portion of their message. Still more vexing is the film’s music: Baraka would have been much enlivened by a more arresting score. Composer Michael Stearns’ bland new-age fare hardly makes an impression, much less a contribution. (Where’s Philip Glass when you need him?)
Though the filmmakers went to great length to incorporate a breadth of peoples into Baraka—the film includes footage from 24 countries—the most overwhelming sensation that it evokes is one of commonality. Which, after all, is probably one of its fundamental points. At any rate, it’s the only one it makes effectively. Baraka includes too few moments like its most provocative, which exemplifies without judgment the coexistence of old and new, tradition and technology: A South American Indian gingerly uses a plastic comb dipped in color as a tool to apply his tribal face paint. Still, the conviction to never eat chicken again is the only one the film is likely to inspire.