What is documentary mise-en-scène? Coutinho’s mannerism and Salles’s ‘mauvaise conscience


Using Eduardo Coutinho’s Jogo de Cena and João Moreira Salles’s Santiago as case studies, the article juxtaposes two fundamental documentary filmmaking approaches: direct-action against constructed acting. The authors elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of both techniques.

In its introductory section, the paper acknowledges that the meaning of the term “mise-en-scene” in documentaries differentiates from its definition in live-action, as it refers more to the composition of the shot and the body language of the characters rather than on a preliminary designed setting and stylisation. Before the discussion of the two approaches, it is noted that they are of a very broad nature and should be utilized as general referencing terms that “serve merely to position us in a much more nuance-rich context.”

The first analytical section focuses on direct-acting and alludes to the cinema verite’ movement as a reference. It defines the essential principle behind the approach as a camera-subject intervention without a preliminary construction. The key aspects mentioned are the naturalistic dynamics of timeflow and the focus on expression rather than action, which result in a higher interest in the face of the portrayed subjects rather than their bodies.

The second analytical section focuses on constructed-acting. It ascribes it to the classical side of cinematic tradition due to its reliance on traditional methods such as voice overs, reenactions and usage of sets and scripts. It is noted that constructed-acting “is often interspersed with archive footage, interviews or statements (in direct-acting mode).” The authors indicate the deductive character of the approach which requires the idea to be established before the production process, whereas with direct-acting the ideas can float during filming (the process builds the idea, and not vice versa). The other strong opposition with direct-acting is that constructed-acting “does not explore radical ambiguity in the flow of duration.” Therefore, unlike direct-acting, the action of a character is of a higher importance than his physiognomy.

The following two sections expand on technicalities and controversies of both approaches confiding on Salles’s and Coutihno’s works as illustrations of the presented arguments. Salles’s Santiago stands as an example for constructed-acting. However, the film is mostly self-criticism for the initially chosen approach. The footage reveals elements that hint on unauthenticity and limitation, e.g. usage of commanding tone for direction of the subject. Therefore, the film becomes a blend between a portrait of the protagonist Santiago and a portrait of Salles’s development as a filmmaker. A strong distinction between direct-acting and the case study is made when discussing the director’s choice to shoot inanimate objects to illustrate voiceovers “in a metaphoric crossover style far from verité rhetoric.” The critical tone of this section leaves the impression that the authors favour the direct acting approach, and the following passages serve as a proof to that notion.

Coutihno’s work is of experimental character as similarly to Santiago, it does not conventionally follow its documentary mode, which draws the readers back to the understanding presented in the introductory section: The analysed approaches are to be utilized as general references and should not affect the rich spectrum of nuances contained in a non-conventional film. Jogo de Cena is defined as a “fake documentary”. Similarly to Santiago, its narrative structure allows the film to go beyond an exploration of a subject and play with the documentary medium in itself.  The director reforms the common understanding of authenticity and realism in documentary. He questions old strategies and devices by blurring the border between reenactment and testimony, using footage of actresses that reenact the testimonials of the subjects rather than showing the subjects themselves. As the authors phrase it, “Coutinho’s stylistic deconstructs direct-acting and spreads it through a mixture of different types of constructed-acting.”

In its entirety, the paper is a deconstruction of two opposing fundamental documentary modes: direct-acting and constructed acting. The curious insights of the article are concerned with the nuances of both approaches and the examination of moments of overlap. The directors behind the case studies, Coutihno and Salles, are praised for their innovative methods that do not succumb to convention.

Ramos, FP 2014, ‘What is documentary mise-en-scène? Coutinho’s mannerism and Salles’s ‘mauvaise conscience’’, Studies In Documentary Film, 8, 2, pp. 143-155, Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost, viewed 11 October 2016



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