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A documentary about Capoeira


Dr Fatmir Terziu

The idea of making a documentary fact and fiction about Capoeira came throughout my desire to make a documentary about this form of movement that combines spins, turns, precisely aimed kicks, evasive defence moves, and breathtaking acrobatics into a rich fabric of motion, percussion, and song. The concept developed through a contrast to the documentary Ginga: a Capoeira Documentary (2004) that is the story of how Jelon Vieira’s Capoeira training inspired five young people from Boca do Rio, a poor district in the outskirts of Salvador, but features no details about the art. We decided to call the documentary Capoeira: Dance or Fight? for the fact that this documentary has to be related to the unit as fact and fiction. For Buttle “Capoeira is the latest fitness craze to sweep the country” (2005).

Initially the structure of the documentary was a combination of everybody’s ideas. Based in what Nichols argued “documentaries are fictions with … characters, situations, and events like any other” we as a crew started to think more into these elements in relation to the structure of the documentary (Nichols, 1991: 107). “As a practice and form, documentary is strongly informationalist, but it is an exercise in creativity” (Corner, 1996: p.15). This was the fluid motion of a theory and practice combined with long intervals between edits which could stimulate an “invisible observer” putting the viewers closer to the participants and suturing them into the on-screen world (Branigan, 1992: 172). Initially I knew that I wanted the documentary to have an element of narrative, but I was uncertain as to the documentary structure. Despite this, I was certain of the visual style and its relationship with the sound and music that I wanted to capture and record. This was fluid motion of a tripod camera, with boom and radio microphone combined with long intervals between edits. This style of filming and sound recording is used a lot by the directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth in the film Kickboxer I (1989). It is also a style made popular by the film Bloodsport: The Next Kumite (1996) and the documentaries Jogo De Capoeira (The Game of Capoeira) (2002) and Barravento (1961). I also knew that the location had to be somewhere where Capoeira could be played and we had the perfect locations in mind, which were a Church Hall in Angel Town [The Claremont Project], Hornsey Vale Community Centre and The Spacecentre. We decided that the documentary would show the participants playing the usual Capoeira and music with three characteristic instruments to this play, which are berimbau, drum and tambourines.

Once the group had been decided we held production meetings to discuss the structure of the documentary collectively. Progress was slow and since there were a few basic elements that were established we set about concretising them. These were necessity for participants and good location site for playing Capoeira. Meanwhile Jose drafted a rough structure based on group feed back production meetings. It depicted the three participants and interviewer but I felt lacked the element of narrative fiction and proper speech. We discussed documentaries that were about the theme as a source of inspiration for our own. Ginga: a Capoeira Documentary (2004) and Jogo De Capoeira (The Game of Capoeira) (2002) were mentioned as interesting research and so I watched both as inspirational education.

Our Producer, Jose set about organising participants through telephone contact for an audition. We decided to film on Monday 31st October after the participants agreed to be filmed during their usual play Capoeira. Meanwhile I decided to do more research and theory study for the use of sound equipment. Rabiger said “camera and sound people learn to work in perfect harmony” and it was my priority to achieve this (Rabiger, 2004: 318). As the decision to film was taken I saw something wrong was going in terms of the structure and documentary script. For this reason I asked the producer to agree that the scriptwriter needed some knowledge about the style of writing. After the meeting we decided that Nahom should write the script. Meanwhile Nahom rewrote the script from scratch, this was the origin of the final script and interview in the documentary. We discussed the changes to the documentary script in a production meeting and the added interviews were accepted but a definite conclusion to the documentary was still needed. Originally we had planed for the main interview to be done in different locations, while the interviewer is talking about Capoeira and its history. This would have been the important part of the documentary for creating suspense and every movement from one place to another with the interviewer would involve collecting evidence to convey different kinds of meaning of Capoeira to the audience. Rahim came up with the idea of adding the slow motion from the beginning in which we discover that in fact the play is fiction, which opens up many more questions about what we see and why creation things happen. If looked at it objectively one could realise that maybe the slow motion of the legs and arms of the participants is a part of the rhythm of Capoeira. The relationship of these images in slow motion with the music in the background creates the final sort of meaning to the script.

From the outset the form and content seemed to be set in parallel tracks to each other. The form of the piece was decided upon at a similar time to the overall content, although the form was less subject to change over the period of pre-production and production. The content of the documentary was reliant on form to a large extent. The camera is hand held which gives the piece a distinct form, but the shots were also affected by shooting restrictions on the days of filming. The space that we had to occupy was very small, meaning that camera positions were more restricted than I would have liked resulting in limited shot angles. I thought that ‘fictive ingredients’; the use of high or low camera angels, close-ups could be seen in what Renov argues “documentary shares the status of all discursive forms with regard to its tropic … and that it employs … devices of its fictional counterpart” (Renov, 1993: 2-3). We tried to use this as an advantage in the form of the documentary by utilising depth of field and pulling of focus of the camera lens to concentrate on important elements of the narrative.

The production process started well, very fluid and well organised. Everyone who had a hand in the pre-production pulled their weight and worked well, which meant that we would be left with ample time for post-production and editing any final touches. We were eager to start the documentary quite early in relation to the length of the project which we hoped would give us enough time to fix things should a catastrophe hit our group at any stage of the production.

We organised capoeiristas to attend an audition at the Claremont Community Centre in Angel Town, while the script was in the final process of finalisation and a week before shooting was scheduled to begin. After watching Pastinha (Una Vida Pela), a documentary about Capoeira with English descriptions and Olinda to London, with traditional Brazilian music of Capoeira I had a good idea to the use of music and sound that I felt were appropriate to the parts in the documentary. I also felt that a natural level of connection with the participants’ identities was important, so I was not using and recording ready soundtrack. After we decided that I would lead the interviews I created a set of questions that would test all the elements that I was looking for in the mestres of Capoeira [interviewees].

From the audition I choose interviewees for two points in the documentary, one being the professional on this play and the other having a Angolan accent. The protagonist [mestre] for the interview had already been chosen from the capoeiristas in their workshop, so it was easy for me. From the audition, capoeiristas, the producer and myself selected two interviewees for each part of the questions, then through a process of careful instruction based on their knowledge about Capoeira, I achieved what I had intended. One of the interviewees [Chris] was also chosen to be narrator. For Nichols “the realist image [certifies] the authenticity of what is seen and heard” and “voice-over commentary is another familiar form of binary support” (Nichols, 1994: 68). Similarly Renov argued “narrativity … assumed to be sole province of fictional forms…” (Renov, 1993: 2).

Before the shooting days the script had to be finalised and a storyboard had to be drawn up along with a shooting schedule. Since Nahom was the director of photography the obligation for the storyboard fell on him, but since he expressed his inability to draw, we discussed that Jose would draw the storyboard.

The actual shoot itself went fairly smoothly, but without a real structure, because the producer had not done any work on it. We knew that early start was essential and aimed to begin shooting at about seven o’clock afternoon after the capoeiristas got ready for the play, and after we had finished the first rehearsal. The filming on the first day was at the Claremont Community Centre in Angel Town, and quality of sound and images was good. Nahom and Rahim were the cameramen and I was sound recorder. Jose came late, but managed to help with the organising and to check the quality of the shots. In this day we finished the first interview.

The second day of the filming took place at the Spacecentre in Old Street and had no problems. All crewmembers arrived at the shooting place on time. During this day we managed all the processes of filming together, which meant everybody was in front of the camera and sound recording. During this day we completed the interviews with the narrator and mestre Cobrinha [Cobra Mansa]. “Mestre Cobrinha is well known in the world of Capoeira” (Wikipedia, 2005). The interview was good and the questions related to the fact and fiction aimed to explore what we were thinking about the documentary. For Bruzzi “voice – over conclude by suggesting that the dialectical relationship between the event and its representation is the backbone of documentary filmmaking” (Bruzzi, 2000: 10).

The last day of shooting had more problems. Nobody arrived on time. I was the only person on time at the Hornsey Vale Community Centre in Finsbury Park, where the shooting was to take place. This was an important day of shooting, because after looking at the previous filming, we were going to film what was missing. But Jose and Rahim who had the camera came two hours late, towards the end of the Capoeira. Nahom did not come. After this we managed to film some footage and we got what we needed, because the capoeiristas extended the Capoeira for about one hour.

I wanted to show a slow motion of the two capoeiristas playing in daytime in natural area, but the idea failed because we could not find participants to do this. I also insisted on recording of the sound of movement to enhance the fight and play between the capoeiristas. Clint Eastwood uses this style in the film Crocodile Dundee. Izod suggests “sound effects can be recorded direct, or post-recorded” (Izod, 1987: 87).

I feel that this documentary has a quality sound and images. The theme is one that has not been too highly popularised in this angle, which makes it interesting to anyone who can relate to the documentary fact and fiction elements. The script is not what can be expected, though I feel that the style may have been let down a bit by some times overly intrusive editing style. Tobias said “the real work began in that editing room” (Tobias, 1998: 183-193). Overall, I feel this documentary is surprisingly well constructed and smooth.


Branigan, Edward (1992) Narrative Comprehension and Film (1st Ed) London & New York: Routledge, p. 172.

Bruzzi, Stella (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction (1st Ed) London & New York: Routledge, p. 10.

Buttle, Linda (2005) The Capoeira Craze [Online] Available at http://www.,,181166_183020,00.html (accessed 18 November 2005).

Corner, John (1996) The Art of Record A Critical Introduction to Documentary (1st Ed) Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, p. 15.

Izod, John (1987) Reading the Screen (2nd Ed) Harlow: Longman, p. 87.

Macdonald, Kevin & Mark Cousins (1998) Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (1st Ed) London & Boston: Faber and Faber, p. 116.

Nichols, Bill (1991) Representing Reality Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1st Ed) Bloomington & Indianapolis, p.107.

Nichols, Bill (1994) Blurred Boundaries Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (1st Ed) Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, p. 68.

Rabiger, Michael (2004) Directing the Documentary (1st Ed) London & New York: Focal Press, p. 318.

Renov, Michael (1993) Theorizing Documentary (1st Ed) London & New York: Routledge, pp. 2-3.

Tobias, Michael (1998) The Search For “Reality” The Art of Documentary Filmmaking (1st Ed) Michigan: Michael Wiese, pp. 183-193.

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopaedia (2005) Mestre Cobra Mansa [Online] Available at (accessed 6 November 2005).

Batista,Tadeu (2005) The Brazilian Berimbau [Online] Available at (accessed


Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986, Australia).

Ginga: a Capoeira Documentary (Gustavo Moraes, 2004, Brazil & US).

Kickboxer I (Mark DiSalle and David Worth, 1989, US).

Bloodsport: The Next Kumite (Alan Mehrez, 1996, US).

Jogo De Capoeira (The Game of Capoeira, 2002, US & Brazil).

Barravento (Glauber Rocha, 1961, Brazil).

Olinda To London (Lucas Amorin, 1994, Salvador & Brazil).

Pastinha (Antonio Carlos, 1999, Brazil).

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