Reis, Luiz Thomaz (1879-1940)*

Luiz Thomaz Reis as he appears with his Debrie Studio camera in the opening sequence of Ao Redor do Brasil (1933).

The principal contribution of Luiz Thomaz Reis to ethnographic film history is the film  Rituais e festas borôro, which was shot in 1916 and released in 1917, and which Reis shot, directed and probably also edited.

This film constitutes possibly the very first ethnographic documentary in the modern sense in that it was based on a comparatively extended shoot of three months, and presents a narrativised account of the Bororo funeral that is its central subject matter, without any of the fictional elements that characterised the work of Robert Flaherty and other early ‘documentary’ makers in his mould.

However, this film, which was made relatively early in Reis’s career as a film-maker, was not typical of his work as a whole. Most of his works were expedition films, shot in the course of Brazilian government expeditions through remote parts of the interior of the country or around the frontiers. These offered very literal, chronologically-structured accounts of the logistics of the journey undertaken by the expedition as well as of the places and people whom the expedition encountered along the way.

Many of these expeditions were led by Colonel and then later General  Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a leading figure in Brazilian public life on account of his role in ‘opening up’ the interior of the country. In accordance with Rondon’s personal interests, many of these expeditions involved contact with indigenous groups, and this is reflected in the films that Reis made about them.  But never again did Reis remain long enough in any one indigenous community to produce a film with anything like the ethnographic complexity of Rituais e festas borôro.

In addition to Rituais e festas borôro, this website includes entries for one of his earliest and most commercially successful films, Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso (1915) and for Ao Redor do Brasil (1933), a compilation of some of his later work. There is also an entry concerning a number of film fragments of ethnographic interest held by the Museu do Índio in Rio de Janeiro, most of which were shot by Reis, here. His other films are discussed more briefly in the tentative outline of his complete filmography offered here.

Biographical background

Luiz Thomaz Reis [right] and Colonel Cândido Rondon [centre] with a group of Paresí beside the Utiariti waterfall. This photograph was probably taken during the shooting of Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso , c. 1914. [Acervo do Museo do Índio/ FUNAI – Brasil, CRNV0614].

Reis’s film-making career began in 1912, when he was appointed to run the Photography and Cinematography Section of the ‘Rondon Commission’. The official name of this body was Commissão de Linhas Telegráficas e Estratégicas do Matto Grosso ao Amazonas, but on account of Rondon’s high personal profile, as well as for brevity, it was, and is, almost invariably referred to in this shorthand form.

The Rondon Commission was originally set up in order to build telegraph lines connecting the western frontier of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and other important cities in the east. But right from the time of  its establishment in 1900, Rondon went out of his way to involve scientists of various kinds in the activities of the Commission, including the anthropologist Edgard Roquette-Pinto, so that they could study  both the natural and social environments  that were being opened up by these new lines of communication.

Rondon also had a very modern sense of the need to use visual media to bring his Commission’s work to the attention, not only of the politicians, but also to the Brazilian public at large. From early on, he had employed photographers for this purpose but by about 1907, he began to feel that the Commission should be making films as well. After some unsatisfactory results using private studios, he decided that the Commission should set up its own film-making unit.

When he was appointed to run the new section of the Commission, Reis seems to have had no previous training or professional experience even as a photographer, let alone as a film-maker. At the time, he was a 2nd lieutenant in the Brazilian army and had been appointed to the Commission in 1910 to work in the Design Section, which was primarily concerned with producing, distributing and archiving documentation associated with the Commission’s activities, including photographs as well as such things as maps, scientific reports and budget statements. Even so, within a short period of time, Reis proved himself to be both a highly accomplished film-maker as well as photographer.

Reis was clearly highly competent in a technical sense, managing to maintain his equipment and develop his films under the most adverse conditions in the field. But he thought of himself not merely as a technical operator, as many cinematographers of his era did, but rather as an artist and he often identifies himself as such in his reports.

Shortly after he was appointed, Reis was sent by Rondon to Europe to buy the equipment necessary to set up the new section. This consisted primarily of two cameras, a Williamson bought in London, and a Debrie Studio, purchased in Paris. Of the two, Reis preferred the Debrie, probably because it could hold a much larger roll of stock, offering around six minutes of shooting, then considered a great deal.

In Ao Redor do Brasil, released in 1933, the opening shot is of Reis himself operating a Debrie Studio,  certainly of the same model and perhaps even the same camera that he had purchased in Paris two decades earlier (see the image at the top of his entry). Shortly afterwards, he appears to have upgraded to the Debrie Parvo L (launched in 1928) since it is this model of camera that appears in the equipment list of the  Inspetoria Especial de Fronteiras, for whom Reis shot his last film in 1938. The Williamson, however,  is still listed as one of the back-up cameras [Lasmar 2011: 312].

Reis’s first major success as a film-maker was Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso, released in 1915 to great popular acclaim. This film follows a number of expeditions led by Rondon in the far west of the country, close to the Bolivian border, through the Serra dos Parecis, which acts as the watershed between the upper Paraguay River and the Amazon Basin.

In the course of the film, the expeditionaries encounter various groups of Paresí and Nambikwara, though these contacts are mostly relatively brief and superficial, so  the ethnographic interest of the material is therefore limited. A prominent feature of all these encounters is Rondon giving away gifts of industrially manufactured goods, often clothes. This would become the pattern for most of Reis’s films thereafter, though none of his later expedition films would have quite the popular impact that this one did.

Frame-grab from Luiz Thomaz Reis’s film Parimã, Fronteiras do Brasil (1929). Colonel Rondon observes the body decoration of a young Trio man in a village close to the northern border with Surinam.

In the early 1920s, Reis accompanied Rondon on a number of different projects, including the relief of drought in the Northeast of Brazil and the suppression of a military revolt in the state of Paraná in the southwest of the country, but the films that he made on those occasions are lost. Later in the decade, he made several films with Rondon when the latter became the Inspector of Frontiers. Extracts from some of these were gathered together in Ao Redor do Brazil.

Thereafter Reis’s film-making activities diminished as the political star of his principal patron, Rondon, was temporarily eclipsed. Inspetoria Especial de Fronteiras, released in 1938, proved to be his last film. This followed Rondon’s successor as Inspector of Frontiers on his visits to the Colombian and Venezuelan borders around the headwaters of the Rio Negro. Whereas Rondon had had a deep suspicion of missionaries, his successor did not, and much of the film, which is very long at 99 minutes, consists of visits to mission stations. There is only a very brief visit to a traditional indigenous village right at the end of the film, seemingly after the main business of inspecting the region has been completed.

Not long afterwards, in 1940, having survived all manner of physical challenges during his many years in the interior of Brazil, Reis lost his life in the most tragically banal circumstances, when he was aged only 61. As he was filming the demolition of an army barracks in Rio de Janeiro, he was struck by falling masonry and died not long afterwards in hospital.

Texts: Rodrigues 1982, Tacca 2005, Lasmar 2011, Lobato 2015, Caiuby Novaes, Cunha and Henley 2017.