Hands of Steel, Hearts of Gold
Unsanitary conditions and low wages meet a line of exhausted men and women as they prepare for another day’s work in an automobile assembly factory. One man has been working seventy days straight, without a break. Another man can’t afford a jacket to protect him from the uncharacteristically cold conditions. Almost everyone incurs some sort of scar, whether physical or emotional, as they toil at the mercy of their bosses.
With its dynamic action and tendency for worker exploitation, metal-working meets the criteria for a good thriller-esque documentary. But Peões (2004), a feature-length film profiling numerous blue-collar Brazilian metalworkers, is just as unpretentious as its subjects. Rather than rely on action shots, the film compiles lengthy, minimally-edited interviews to create a portrait of those whose extensive toil as metalworkers — and consequent involvement in São Paulo’s momentous 1979-1980 strikes — significantly shaped their experiences with love, parenting, and employment going forward.
The film opens with fast-moving pans of suburban Brazilian streets — at face value, a glimpse of the home lives of the documentary’s subjects; more symbolically, a leftward regression in time. It’s a fitting introduction, considering the bulk of the interviews are about memory. The metalworkers recount (often with surprising ease) their universally impoverished childhoods, the pain and unpredictability of manual labor, and the cathartic thrill of striking at a time when it was “forbidden to fight.”
While the interviewees are united by their metalworking experiences, they share present gripes, too. Almost all subjects are divorced (usually, a product of politically-charged disagreements with their significant others), and many admit to poor parenting as a result of their political involvement. One man missed his own daughter’s birth because we was driving protesters to a march, and another woman laments the fact that she “never saw [her] kids grow up” because of her unwavering involvement in the strikes. While some interviewees take on other blue-collar jobs after metalworking — one spending twenty-one years as a taxi driver; another as a janitor — many are now unemployed, subsisting off either welfare or retirement pensions. Lastly, and unsurprisingly, none of them want their children to be metal-workers. It was “nothing but suffering,” states Zacarias Feitosa de Morais. “They treated us like slaves.”
While the interviewees are quick to point out their physical scars, it’s the emotional ones that take longer to express. Perhaps that’s why Coutinho relies on long takes and sparse editing, all within the casualness of a home-based interview, to delve deeper into people’s lives. He captures their oddities — for instance, a man’s book-filled pantry — but also rare moments of candidness. One elderly man, for instance, joins his daughter (at first reluctantly, but then with increasing zeal) in performing a bittersweet song in their kitchen. Ultimately, these interviewees aren’t just metal-workers: they’re real people with real concerns and quirks and relationships. As metalworker João Chapéu deftly summarizes: “My life is being filmed today.”
But Peões transcends the stories of individual subjects, offering an additional examination of a larger political climate. Many of the featured workers offer surprisingly intimate reflections on Brazil’s soon-to-be president Lula (whom they call “a second father”), who dominates the real footage of 1980s strikes. We see the fervor with which he championed workers’ rights and the fervor with which thousands responded. But perhaps most striking in Coutinho’s interweaving of old footage with new footage is the similarities between the two: the unchanged landscape of São Paulo’s protest venues; the parallels in color and sentiment between scenes; the ease with which elderly metalworkers can identify themselves (and each other) in grainy footage of crowded protests. In a sense, it’s like no time has passed at all — a notion that, for a documentary that explores aging and memory, is uniquely refreshing.