Marcel Lozinski, Tonia and Her Children, 2011, still from a color video, 57 minutes.

“THE XINGU WILL NEVER BE BOUGHT.” In recent months the Amazon’s Xingu River has been encroached upon by government development, but Megaron Txucarramãe, an important spokesperson for the Kayapó Indians, vowed his people wouldn’t leave their land. His speech preceded a São Paulo screening of Daniel Santiago’s Heart of Brazil (2011), a sweetly character-driven film in which two older men embark on a voyage they took fifty years prior into the Amazon. Heart played during the seventeenth It’s All True (IAT) documentary festival, which ran in four Brazilian cities. A scene between one of the men and an aged Kayapó chief, in which they note each other’s gray hairs before hugging in front of Xingu couples and children, proved the speaker’s point—people persist.

The festival’s eighty-odd-film selection abounded with present-day scenes of people discussing their pasts, attempting to heal the wounds inflicted via bygone governmental regimes. Throughout, politics are kept current by each film’s distinctly human narrative. The Polish Tonia and Her Children (2011) takes place entirely in an apartment study as a pair of siblings talk with the director Marcel Lozinski about their mother, a Jewish communist, who was imprisoned after World War II on espionage charges, leaving them in an orphanage. As they go through photographs and home movies, and read her letters out loud, they fight with each other and with themselves. The son confesses to changing or repressing memories because they’re too painful; the film ends when he refuses to recall any more of the past. Tonia traverses half a century of Polish history in fifty-seven minutes by showing adults articulating the ways in which it has shaped them.

The Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, recipient of an IAT early career retrospective, has been using film as a way to interrogate people for nearly fifty years. Moving from fiction to documentary at the same time he switched from film to TV, Coutinho began making news specials in the 1970s for Globo, the nation’s largest channel, through the program Globo Reporter. The “Gunman of Serra Talhada” and “Exu, a Tragedy in the Back Country” episodes screened during IAT, show towns overflowing with crimes that police refuse to investigate. “Six Days in Ouricouri” features field workers surviving a drought who return to town for a religious parade during which it rains—the entire episode illustrates faith in a power greater than themselves. The title and structure—six days, no more—indicate Coutinho’s consistently clinical approach to his on-screen subjects, which he would use throughout his filmmaking career: A person appears in front of the camera, addressing the interrogating observer behind it. The story becomes Coutinho’s distant yet developing relationship with his subjects as well as our own evolving relationships both with him and with them.

In 1964, the filmmaker visited a town where police had murdered a political activist; he started shooting a film but was interrupted by a military coup, which predicated Brazil’s ensuing takeover by a military dictatorship. In 1984, shortly before the regime ended, he returned and began the documentary Twenty Years Later, which IAT screened in a digital restoration. The film contrasts the black-and-white fragments with new color scenes and features the former actors, weathered, older, and separated from family members, but still surviving. The irreparable loss of time between the two bodies of film weighs heavily on the documentary and on each of its people, who address Coutinho frankly. Most poignant is Elizabeth Teixeira, the activist’s widow and the former film’s star, now a small, wrinkled woman searching for the children she abandoned when she fled authorities. The film concludes after Elizabeth meets her family again. Coutinho steps out from behind the camera to shake her hand. Forced into invisibility for much of her life, here she is recognized and respected as a human being.

A festival’s greatest joys are often its discoveries, and a retrospective of the work of Argentine Andrés Di Tella proved revelatory for me. Di Tella’s films open up multiple dialectics—group/individual, society/citizen, history/actuality—all of them cross-addressing each other within a live, evolving present. Montoneros, a Story (1995), for example, shows members of a guerrilla group during Argentina’s dictatorship interpreting their own stories—those left out of the newsreels—and describing how they trained themselves to commit violence against a violent state by seeing their victims as less than human, a process that led them to dehumanize their peers. Di Tella himself narrates The Television and I (2002), in which his search to discover all the Argentinean TV he missed while living abroad as a child becomes a consideration of his family’s own business of building televisions and other home appliances. More often than not he finds gaps in his family history, which become metaphors for gaps in communication between his father and his grandfather, himself and his father, as well as himself and his son.

Di Tella, like Coutinho, often creates conflict by putting himself in opposition with forces beyond his control. The struggle continues in his new film, Blows of the Axe (2011). The leading subject, Claudio Caldini, was an experimental filmmaker who left for India during the dictatorship and lived itinerantly after returning to Argentina until settling into a villa as its caretaker and lone resident. Each day he leaves the house with his 8-mm films in a mallet, as a voice-over tells of how “a man carries his work, his entire life, in a bag, on a train from Moreno to General Rodriguez.” He takes out the films to present them to Di Tella—both projecting and reenacting them—while insisting that the other filmmaker is recording his work but not defining him. “With film we want to show in images what images can’t show,” he tells Di Tella in the dark after a screening, adding, “and we try to say with words what words can’t say.” No matter how close the observer gets, Caldini refuses to be another’s character. As in other IAT films, one’s political situation influences one’s personality. While Caldini may seem cryptic, reticent, resistant, and at times even irritating, he is also free; for many who have lived under oppression, simply following your own will is an act of defiance.

Aaron Cutler

The 17th It’s All True documentary festival ran March 22–April 1, 2012.