January 2, 2017


Alberto Cavalcanti (1897-1982) b. Brazil.

Alberto Cavalcanti

Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti, born in Brazil, he seems to have been a lot brainier and at least a little more argumentative than average from the beginning. He began law studies at the age of fifteen and remembers being the youngest student in the university, but he was ‘expelled because of a quarrel with an old professor.’ His father sent him to Geneva on condition that he steer clear of both law and politics, and he trained as an architect. At eighteen he was working in an architect’s in Paris. From there he switched to interior decoration and then to the art department of the film studios. He made his mark in films with the French avant-garde in the 1920′s as writer, art director and director, making his debut with Rien que les Heures (1926). He then moved to England in 1933 where he spent sixteen of his most creative years. He joined John Grierson‘s GPO Film Unit in 1934 and became a key figure firstly as sound expert,  then producer and wrote and directed several admired documentaries, among them Coal Face (1935), Message from Geneva (1936) and Four Barriers (1938). There were years when Cavalcanti’s name never went on a GPO picture. ‘My name is not on Coal Face,’ says Cavalcanti. I cut the film completely myself, the whole conception of the sound. It was library film. It was an experiment for Night Mail. On Night Mail (1936), I have the Auden and Britten title for ‘sound direction’ which doesn’t exist as a credit. When I did much more than that because the whole cutting, the conception of the whole thing, is the result of Coal Face. But I didn’t care about that at all. I had no credits for half of the stuff I did.’ Cavalcanti was so happy at the GPO Film Unit he stayed seven years there working at Blackheath mainly amongst budding young directors like Harry Watt. Cavalcanti left the GPO Film Unit when he was informed the only way he could officially be in charge was to become a naturalised Englishman, he refused and left. He then joined Michael Balcon‘s Ealing Films – the only two movements that have pioneered styles of film-making indigenous to Britain. At Ealing, 1940-46, as art editor, producer and finally director, his most famous works being the ‘Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ episode of the classic anthology film Dead Of Night (1945) and Cavalcanti’s personal favourite Went the Day Well? (1942). He left Ealing in the late 1940′s after a disagreement over money, Cavalcanti believed he could earn more as a freelance. Subsequent films were made in England, then left and returned to Brazil in 1950 to directed three films, but was blacklisted there as a communist and went to Europe to make his final fiction films, most notably the Austrian-made Herr Puntila Und Sein Knecht Matti (1955). Interviews in Screen, Summer 1972, and Sight and Sound, Autumn 1975; see also ‘The Rise and Fall of British Documentary’ by Elizabeth Sussex, 1975. Cavalcanti made a telling contribution that really put British documentary on the map and is perhaps an underestimated figure in British film history.

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