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Coal Face, a film by Alberto Cavalcanti

A British worker in Coal Face, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (1935)

Coal Face is an English documentary of over 11 minutes, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti in 1935. With few resources available, Cavalcanti made a film that is still a landmark in British cinematography.

With poetry by WH Auden and music by Benjamin Britten, the film concisely shows the working conditions in the mines, the homes of workers, the importance of coal for the English capitalist system at that time, and the desolation of the landscape during the period when World War II began in Europe.

The film is part of a set of works known as the British Documentary Film Movement, financed by the state, between 1926 and 1939. The group, led by fellow filmmaker John Grierson, produced films that aimed at providing information to the British population about aspects of the country's life, as in the case of the coal industry, the railroad transport system, or the Post Office.

Cavalcanti arrived at the GPO Film Unit as a name in French cinema, where he trained. Linked to surrealism, the filmmaker closely followed the transformations that made cinema evolve from a mere mass distraction at the end of the 19th century to a new and complex art form during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Throughout his career, interrupted by his death in 1982, he produced and directed films in France, England, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. During his short stay in Brazil, he helped create the Vera Cruz studios in the 1950s, when the local bourgeoisie wanted to build an industry along the lines of the American one.

As a documentary filmmaker in England, he received recognition as a pioneer of British cinema, alongside John Grierson and Robert Flaherty.

Learning more

An introduction to Cavalcanti's work is in the master's thesis Coal Face, a film by Alberto Cavalcanti, which I wrote at the University of São Paulo.

The idea arose during my brief stay in London, between 1994 and 1995. In England, I had the opportunity to attend a course on Film as Art at the University of London. To my surprise, in the documentary film class, the teachers used Cavalcanti as an example. To this day, I remember my surprise: "The Brazilian?", I asked. And they: "Yes."

After the end of the master's degree, the thesis lay dormant for a decade. In 2014, I sent the text for publication in USP's theses bank, a huge online repository, where thousands of theses and dissertations are stored as digital files in .pdf, the result of the strength of research of our most important and best university public.

To my surprise, after seven years, the thesis came to life. It is possible to track the number of visitors and downloads the text has achieved. To date: 1,774 visits and 1,159 downloads, something that would be difficult to measure if we had only one printed copy on a shelf in the physical library.

The interest in the filmmaker and his work is remarkable. My dissertation very much reflects my academic moment. If it were today, the text would be completely different, mainly on historical and materialist issues. However, for those looking for an introduction to the subject, it has its function.

The dissertation has two parts and aims to analyze the filmmaker's passage through the GPO Film Unit. The first part focuses on Cavalcanti's origins in Brazil and his trajectory to France, describing his beginnings as a film director. It also presents Rien que Les Heures (1926), his most important film in France. The second part talks about why Cavalcanti accepted John Grierson's invitation to join the GPO Film Unit.

You can watch Coal Face on Vimeo. The surrealist Rien que Les Heures is on YouTube.


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