Santos, Silvino (1886-1970)*

Silvino Santos ,appropriately dressed for filming in Amazonia, in hunting gear and a jaguar skin hat, in what was probably a publicity photograph for No Paiz das Amazonas (1922).

Silvino Simoẽs dos Santos e Silva was a pioneer figure in the history of Brazilian documentary film-making, most remembered for the films that he made in Brazilian Amazonia and the neighbouring Putumayo region of what was then Peru.

Of the many films that Santos made in the Amazon region, a large number, perhaps the majority, are lost. Of those that have survived, by far the best known is No Paiz das Amazonas, first released in 1922 on the occasion of the celebration of the centenary of Brazilian independence. This offered an epic and unprecedentedly comprehensive overview of a region that was still largely unknown to most of the urban population of Brazil.

It is a film that has many ethnographic qualities in that although its principal purpose was to celebrate the natural resources of the region and the potential that it held for economic development, it also focuses in a sympathetic manner on the everyday activities of the workers involved in extractive industries (rubber-tapping, Brazil nut collection etc), ranching, fishing and hunting.

There are also three sequences on indigenous groups. Two of these were then still living under relatively traditional circumstances, the recently ‘pacified’ Parintintin of the Madeira River region and the Witoto of what was then Peruvian Putumayo (in a political settlement in the 1920s, this region became part of modern Colombia). The third was the Sateré-Mawé, a group that had undergone a much greater degree of change as a result of contact with the national society and whose territory lies on the right bank of the Amazon, downstream from Manaus.

Also frequently cited among Silvino Santos’s films is No Rastro do El Dorado, released in 1926. This film follows the expedition led by the amateur US geographer Hamilton Rice in its progress up the Rio Branco and Uraricoera Rivers in Roraima, in the far north of Brazil, in what would prove to be a vain attempt to reach the headwaters of the Orinoco via a tributary of the Uraricoera, the Parima River.

However, this is not only a much less complex film, but it is also of only limited ethnographic interest in that it is primarily concerned with the logistics of the expedition, its scientific and technical objectives, and the natural environment. Although it refers to the expedition’s contacts with a number of indigenous groups, these sequences are all very brief and mostly consist merely of the encounter itself rather than offering an account of the way of life of the indigenous groups in any more general sense.

Biographical background

Silvino Santos was born into a well-to-do family in  northern Portugal in 1886 but as he showed only limited academic aptitude, in 1899, when he was fourteen, his father allowed him to go to Brazil where the family had  business interests. At first, Santos lived in Belém do Pará on the Atlantic Coast, where he worked in a bookshop. At the same time, he became an assistant to the painter and photographer, Leonel Rocha. At some point, Santos appears to have travelled with Rocha to Iquitos in Perú.

In 1910, Santos moved to Manaus, the capital of Brazilian Amazonia and the commercial centre of the rubber boom that was still then in full flood.  Initially, he worked in his brother’s retail business, but after only a year, he set up his own photography studio. It was through his photographic work that he came into contact with Carlos Rey de Castro, the Peruvian consul in Manaus. Rey de Castro commissioned Santos to travel to the Putumayo region and over two months, August to October 1912, to take photographs during a tour of inspection of the rubber collecting stations of the notorious Casa Arana.

On board his steamer, The Liberal, Julio César Arana, extreme left, entertains the US consul, Stuart Fuller (in white suit) and the UK consult George Michell (in starched collar). To the right of Michell, is Carlos Rey de Castro, the Peruvian consul in Manaus who recruited Silvino Santos, and on the extreme right, the steamer captain, Ubaldo Lores (photographs by Silvino Santos, in Chirif et al. 2013, pp.55, 102).

This tour of inspection involved the British and US consuls in Iquitos as well as Rey de Castro and the owner of the company himself, Julio César Arana. It was taking place in response to the denunciation of the Casa Arana in London, where the company was registered and many of its leading investors were based.

In 1910, following allegations in the British press that Casa Arana was holding indigenous workers in conditions of slavery and that it was responsible, directly or indirectly, for tens of thousands of indigenous deaths, the British government had sent an official  envoy, Roger Casement, to inspect.

In his report, published in March 1911, Casement had confirmed the truth of these allegations, as had a parliamentary committee report in June 1912, based on a broad range of witness statements, including by both Casement and Arana. The purpose of the consular tour to be recorded by Santos was to prove that Casement’s original report had been exaggerated and that in any case, conditions had improved.

Photographs taken by Silvino Santos during the consular inspection of the operations of the Casa Arana in the Putumayo, August -October 1912 (from Chirif et al. 2013, pp.113, 140).

In accordance with the tour’s aims, Santos’s photographs show the indigenous people to be in a generally reasonable state of health, without any evidence of coercion. The photographs themselves are technically competent though aesthetically limited in that they consist largely of subjects standing in a line before the camera or of distant shots of indigenous dancing.

Arana was seemingly pleased with the results, however, because he then commissioned Santos to make a film about his operations in the Putumayo, probably for the same purpose, i.e. to demonstrate the probity of his operations to his British investors.  He was sufficiently convinced of the potential value of such a film that he paid for Santos to go to Paris to buy the equipment from Pathé and tropically adapted stock from Lumière, and most importantly, to train as a film-maker.

Santos returned to the Putumayo in August 1913, married Arana’s step-daughter Anna María Schermuly, an orphan of German descent, and over the following two months shot the film commissioned by his new father-in-law.

What happened to this material is surrounded by legend. The most commonly repeated story is that it was lost at sea when the ship carrying the negatives sank in the Pacific on the way from Iquitos to Lima (via the Panama Canal, as was then a common practice ), or in some accounts, on the way from Lima to the US to be developed. Some even claim that it was on its way to Europe, while others suggest it was on the way back. Moreover, it is often alleged  that the German navy was responsible for the sinking: in some versions of the story, it involved bombardment, in others a torpedo. But neither  seems likely at that stage of the First World War, certainly not in the Pacific theatre, if indeed the war had even begun by the time that Santos was sending off his negatives.

What is certain is that Santos returned to the Putumayo several times over the ensuing years (which is hardly surprising since his wife came from Iquitos and his father-in-law continued his operations there with impunity) and he appears to have shot a considerable amount of further footage there.

In July 1916, according to the catalogue of the Cinemateca Brasileira, the local press in Manaus contained reviews of Índios Witotos do Rio Putumayo, a film by directed by Santos and produced by none other than Julio César AranaBut it is not clear whether this was based on the footage supposedly lost at sea, or on some part of the footage shot in 1913 that had not been dispatched on that fateful journey, or possibly on entirely new footage. Unfortunately, however, this film too is lost, and neither technical details nor its content are described in the catalogue.

The following year, 1917, again according to the Cinemateca Brasileira catalogue, Santos shot another film in the Putumayo, though it was not until 1919 that it was actually released as Scenas Amazônicas. This appears to have been a very substantial film: the catalogue reports that it was organised into “four long parts” with a duration of 2.5 hours. This too is lost but the catalogue reports that in the last part, it features “Indians in a savage state, completely naked, just as they are in nature”.

This film was produced Amazônia Cine-Film, a company set up by a group of Manaus businessmen. Santos himself was a partner, as well as technical director. In the years 1918-20, he made a number of films in and around Manaus for the company on a variety of mostly local topics :  the botanical garden, a football match, the inauguration of a bank, a flag ceremony in a local barracks, the arrival of a transatlantic liner, local family scenes, an eclipse. Sadly, these too are all lost.

But he also went further afield. Santos’s most significant project for Amazônia Cine-Film was a film entitled Amazonas, O Maior Rio do Mundo. To make this film, he travelled from the mouth of the Amazon to Iquitos, with a further trip to the Putumayo to film “the Indians in their ceremonies”. All told, he is reported to have shot five hours of footage which he then cut into a six-part film.

Silvino Santos at the Salto de Teotónio, Madeira River. This image has been dated to 1918 but it is probably later since he appears to be using a Mitchell Standard camera, a model launched in 1921.

Not only did Amazonas cover the Putumayo but it also included a number of sequences on topics that also crop up in his subsequent film, No Paiz das Amazonas, including fishing, Brazil nut collecting and rubber tapping. But after it had been edited, though before it had entered distribution, the master copy of Amazonas was stolen and sold to the French distributor Gaumont, who then screened it all over Europe under a different title and without authorial attribution for almost a decade.

Although no copy of this pirated version of the film has yet been located, on the basis of some subtitles that have turned up in Germany as well as various contemporary reviews in France, Italy and Britain, some scholars now believe that various parts of Amazonas may have been recycled and included in No Paiz das Amazonas.

But whether all the footage shot for Amazonas was lost, or only a part, the theft was sufficient to bankrupt Amazônia Cine-Film. It was at this point, in 1920, that Santos first came to be employed by João Gonçalves de Araújo, a leading Manaus businessman of Portuguese origin, who since the collapse of the rubber price had diversified into many other fields.  It was Araújo who commissioned Santos, in conjunction with Araújo’s son, Agesilau, to make No Paiz das Amazonas.

Around 1923, Santos went to Rio de Janeiro to promote the film, remaining there about a year. During this time, again in collaboration with Agesilau de Araújo, Santos shot a film about the city, emphasising its modernity and sophistication. The film was given the title, Terra Encantada. Only some fragments have survived, though these were reconstituted into new films in the 1970s.

On his return to Manaus in 1924, Santos made a number of further films in and around the city before setting off in August on the  Rio Branco expedition of Hamilton Rice during which he would shoot the material for No Rastro do El Dorado. This would prove to be Santos’s last major film, though he remained an employee of the J. G. de Araújo company for the rest of his working life.

Silvino Santos in his improvised ‘laboratory’ during the shooting of No Rastro do El Dorado, 1924-25. Photograph by A. Hamilton Rice.

In 1927, Santos moved back to Portugal in the company of the Araújo family and spent several years with them there. Whilst in Portugal he shot some  footage about the Araújo family as well as various other local events. A selection of this footage was gathered together into Terra Portuguesa: O Minho, with Agesilau de Araújo credited as a co-director. This was released in 1934 when Santos returned to Brazil.

Santos appears not to have gone back into full-time film-making at this point and to have held various managerial positions in the Araújo company.  But alongside this more conventional employment, he continued to make films about the company’s activities as well as about the Araújo family.

Between 1948 and 1957, Santos made his last film, which was the only film that he made in colour. Produced by Agesilau de Araújo, this film chronicled the construction of Santa Maria da Vila Amazônia, a new town which lies downstream from Manaus, towards the mouth of the Amazon. This was built on land bought by the Araújo company after it had been expropriated from Japanese settlers following the Second World War. A highly deteriorated copy is reported by the Cinemateca Brasileira to exist in Manaus.

By this time, Santos was a largely forgotten figure in Brazilian cinema circles. It was only in October 1969, shortly before his death in May of the following year, that his major contribution to Brazilian cinema history was finally recognised in the form a personal homage during the course of a new film festival in Manaus.

It was also in 1969 that he wrote an as-yet unpublished account of his extraordinarily varied life as a film-maker in Amazonia.

TextsSantos 1969, Chirif et al. 2013,  Martins 2013a, Martins 2013b, Oliveira 2014, Stoco 2016, Stoco 2017, Paiva 2018.