How did the Portuguese look at Goa, which they ruled for 451 years, and did Goans return the gaze in meaningful ways? This fraught and fascinating relationship between colonisers and the colonised and the way in which it played out in documentaries and newsreels is one of the themes of Portuguese researcher Maria do Carmo Piçarra’s research. Piçarra has trawled multiple archives to bring together images, videos and arguments for her project Cinema Empire: Representations of Portuguese Asia in the Portuguese Film Archives. During a recent visit to Panaji, Piçarra spoke about her findings, which include insights into how the Portuguese tried to co-opt the Goan elite and how they represented this “jewel of the empire” to their other subjects and the Goans themselves.

Piçarra is an assistant professor at the Universidade Autonoma de Lisboa and a researcher at the NOVA Institute of Communication in Lisbon. Her postdoctoral research was on “Cinema Empire” ‒ representations of Portugal, France and England empires in cinema. She is also a film programmer, co-founder of ANIKI-Portuguese Journal of Moving Image, and former deputy chair of the Portuguese Institute of Cinema, Audiovisual and Multimedia from 1998 to 1999. Excerpts from an interview.

In colonial-era propaganda newsreels – ‘Jornal Portugues’ and ‘Imagens de Portugal’ – there isn’t much footage about Portugal’s Asian provinces of Goa, Daman, Diu, Macau and Timor and a greater focus on African colonies such as Angola and Mozambique. Why is that?
Yes, that is true. For many years, the Portuguese dictatorship of the Estado Novo [1926-1974] was not concerned much in filming people or events in its Asian colonies. Films were made mainly about Angola and Mozambique.

Portugal was a kind of pioneer in the use of films for colonial propaganda to present itself to other European countries. At the time, it was concerned about William Cadbury’s accusation that Portugal had slave workers on the islands of St Tome, Principe. It also wanted to disprove American sociologist Edward Ross’s report that said there were slave workers in Mozambique and Angola.

The dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was just starting, and they began doing these films as a reaction to these accusations. By the end of the 1920s, teams went to the African colonies to make films, to show that actually there was no slave labour in Angola and Mozambique. But of course, it was propaganda. And indeed even until 1974, there were some people doing a kind of slave work.

Slavery did not exist officially, but those who could not afford to pay taxes were forced to work free for the government, building roads and bridges. At a certain point, the Portuguese regime paid for international filmmakers, French ones, to do propaganda on Portuguese colonies, as they did for Belgium in Uganda. These documentaries would be presented at UNICEF and United Nations as journalistic reports, but I discovered in the Portuguese Archives records of how much the filmmaker was paid, where the films were screened and copies of the films.

What was the approach of ‘Jornal Portugues’ and ‘Imagens de Portugal’ to the colonies?
My Masters research was about propaganda films by Jornal Portugues filmed from 1938 to 1951. It was created by Antonio Ferro, this guy who was really clever as the Director of Propaganda. He was an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, but after the horrors of the concentration camps became known, people were unwilling to work with him, and Ferro was eased out in 1948.

The National Secretariat of Propaganda was renamed in 1944 as Information Secretariat. His deputy continued Ferro’s Policy of the Spirit [using cultural promotion and symbols to create national identity] until 1951.

Imagens de Portugal [Images of Portugal] started in 1953. The first series went until 1958 and was run by someone who had the trust of the Regime and the gaze was similar to Jornal Portugues. The second [from 1958 to 1961] and third [1961 to 1970] series were given out by open contests. By that time, television rendered newsreels unimportant everywhere in the world. Even Marcello Caetano, our dictator at the time, would speak to the Portuguese people through a programme on TV called Family Talks. He would directly comment on the subjects he wanted to comment on.

Jornal Portugues’s newsreels were screened before fiction feature films in cinemas, both in Portugal and in the colonies, but gave no news about the colonies, except if some dignitary visited. So it was one-directional. There was news in the newspapers, but that too was censored.

We were a small country, concentrated on ourselves at the time, “proudly alone” as Salazar framed it. Censorship laws had double standards, in that women’s bodies could not be shown, but that applied to white bodies only.

Censors, did not for example, clip images of native African women when they were filmed in some footage. This gaze of depicting the colonised as primitive and simian, occurred in all other European colonial footage, whether French or English. Even if you were educated, people from the colonies were depicted as primitive and denied a voice or agency in how you were represented in cinema.

And these newsreels were also taken by two vans to be screened across rural villages in Portugal, some of whom did not even have electricity and whose farmers were no different from poor farmers in Goa or Angola. In the rural economy, there was no civilisational gap. But through the propaganda newsreels, the Portuguese farmers were asked to believe in the power of the regime to bring modernity and change.

When the empire began to crumble, one million Portuguese men – many of them poor farmers – were sent to Africa and Asia to “protect” the empire. They got their real political education when they saw conditions in Guinea-Bissau, or were scorned by the regime, when they returned defeated from Goa as POWs [prisoners of war].

Maria do Carmo Piçarra.

How did Goa feature in these newsreels? Are you saying that the Portuguese government in Goa did not shoot much footage for consumption by the local population?
I don’t think there was an interest in promoting films for local people. There were screenings of Camoes, a film made in Portugal, on the great poet. Jornal Portugues, which ran until 1951, had almost nothing on Portuguese India.

But the Goa question – on the integration of Goa with India – arose after 1947. The Portuguese regime had to address this and they did it with propaganda films. After the satyagraha movement picked up, the Imagens de Portugal propaganda series was run in all the main cinemas here in Margao, and Panjim.

It tried to provoke anger against Gandhi and Nehru, saying the movement was not actually non-violent and showed the movement of security police to tackle this. Portuguese society was afraid of losing Goa, and films slowly began to portray how the Goan people lived.

There was also an altered approach to Portuguese Asia. The overseas minister Sarmento Rodrigues decided to visit Portuguese lands in the Orient in 1952. He came to Goa, Timor, and Macau. It was the first time that someone really important in the Portuguese government came to these territories. He was very well received. Rodrigues was a very intelligent man, and was more open than most others in the Portuguese regime.

Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre was invited to all the colonies. Freyre gave a conference in Goa in 1951 and later wrote his books, where he spoke for the first time about Lusotropicalism. He meant that the Portuguese had a special way of being in the world, they mixed with other people, and were able to respect other religions, other cultures. He favoured miscegenation and he thought the Portuguese people have this characteristic.

But he probably did not know that the problem with Portugal is that it is a very small country that had a lot of big colonies and needed people to run the colonies. In Goa, miscegenation was a policy followed from the time of Afonso de Albuquerque, that worked both ways – to build alliances and share power with local elite families.

The overseas minister also brought with him a filmmaker called Ricardo Malheiro. Malheiro made films on the travels of Sarmento Rodrigues, but returned in 1953 for the Old Goa commemoration of Francis Xavier and made Paths of S Francisco Xavier. Malheiro also made promotional films for local firms in Goa, Macau, Angola and Mozambique.

A Spanish team also came at this time and made films and made a documentary about Goa and Xavier. Miguel Spiguel, a Jew based in Portugal, came and made interesting films on Goa, Macau and Timor around the late 1950s and ’60s.

Aside from government films, Spiguel also made promotional films for companies, especially in Macau, where he had high political connections. Two years ago, I was able to present Spiguel’s Goa film at the Cinemateca Portuguesa and also that of Antonio Escudeiro and they are very beautiful, in terms of colour. It is not because they are very well-made films, but because Goa is beautiful and you have these beautiful images that now you cannot find very easily.

Where are these films?
All in the Portuguese film archive. But it’s not easy to access and present them. The rights to Spiguel’s films were being held by his niece, who is no more, so one does not know what will happen. During the late 1950s, other kinds of films were also made here. Scientific films made by a team of economists led by Vasco Nunes Pereira Fortuna from the MNHNCP [Natural History and Science Museum, Portugal/University of Lisbon], came to study the economy here.

They made four films – one, an hour long, another a 40-minute montage and another small film of a small girl dancing. They are more interesting than propaganda films, because they were not intended for the public but were anthropological records of Goa’s culture and landscape.

Jerry Braganza made his first Konkani film in the mid-fifties, and others followed.. What we also have are reports made by Portuguese public broadcaster Radio e Televisao de Portugal [or] RTP, whose archives have some 20 films on colonial era Goa [such as this, or this, or this].

The emphasis was on Africa, because of gold and diamonds, whereas the colonies of the Orient/Asia were not so well represented in film and newsreel.
One factor is the distance. It was very, very far and costly to send a cinema team. Portugal was a poor country and Salazar was no spendthrift.

Timor was an agricultural economy, with little manufacturing. Macau was a small city, 15 km of land, though it was strategically important because of [its] location. But Goa was the Jewel of the Empire – historically very, very important, as the first place where the Portuguese landed. Mixed marriages between Portuguese men and local women created strong relations and links.

I don’t think there was this kind of relationship with other territories. Not with Macau, because most of the people did not speak Portuguese at all, neither did many speak it in Timor. I don’t think there were marriage alliances either, even though there was Catholicism elsewhere.

The Portuguese really needed the elite Goans to be part of the status quo. Marriages between Angolan and Mozambican women would not have been considered proper. Until Freyre developed the theory of Lusotropicalism, dominant anthropological schools from Porto and Coimbra were against miscegenation of people and blood. They would make awful anthropological studies regarding intelligence, the size of the skull and facial measurements.

Even in the 1950s, there was an anthropological mission to Timor and there were 20 films made during this mission and in one or two of the films you can see important anthropologists in Portugal doing these kinds of measurements. It’s awful.

Here in Goa, I think it was different. There were no films of that kind. In the 1940s there was a geographical mission, but they did not make any films. They took a lot of photos. They were led by Raquel Soeiro de Brito. She’s still alive and told me the photos she took – wonderful photos of the people here. Later she came and made films to show her pupils, because there was a University of Overseas where Moreira [overseas minister in 1960-’61], wanted to implement Lusotropicalism.

And where might one see her films?
The films are in the Portuguese film archive. They are interesting as documentation, but not as films. You can see it in Lisbon. That is why I am trying to source funding through the Portuguese Foundation of Science and Technology, to create an online platform for this material.

The Portuguese Army Audiovisual Centre [CAVE] that holds hundreds of films is willing to put everything they have on the platform. We are going to make the protocol regarding that. I would also like to have the support of the Oriente Foundation, here and in Lisbon, for further research and conferences.

Will this platform have empire-era films from all the colonies?
The plan is to start with the so-called Portuguese Orient and then make it bigger by approaching European funding. It’s a huge project and needs money, because the films must be digitalised.

You have also discovered references to films made by a Portuguese school inspector, M Antunes Amor. Tell us about them.
Antunes Amor came to Goa in 1916 to be inspector of schools. When in Macau, to modernise teaching there, he brought a film camera and did a film about Macau. By the end of 1922, he returned to Goa and made many films, a lot about the schools in Goa, and events at the schools. He also made some films on historical themes, like Old Goa. But these films are all missing.

To my knowledge, he was the pioneer, since they were the first films made by someone from Portugal here in Goa or even by local people. They were presented at local cinemas in Goa and Lisbon. In 1930, he was in Lisbon due to an illness he contracted here. He never returned and died in 1940, when in his fifties. He had no children and the films got lost.

I have located one of his nieces. She has a lot of photos, but did not indicate having any films. Cinemateca Portuguesa, does not hold these films. They have the 1922 Macau film that is online.

But the films from Goa are all gone. Goan painter Antonio Trindade has painted him, and the portraitis in the Fundacao Oriente’s Panjim office, but he is misrepresented as Mr Amor, the Portuguese agent. He was actually a teaching agent who propagated the use of cinema in schools. He wrote a book, and 40 pages are on how he used cinema in schools in Panjim and invited surrounding schools as well.

An RTP documentary on Monsoon Rains in Goa, shot in 1961, has the most amazing footage on a sluice gate construction.
Yes, it has amazing footage. I inquired with RTP who filmed it, because the style and gaze of the filmmaker and camera are so different from other films I’ve seen. It is very well shot, you can almost touch the people. But they do not know.

Monsoon Rains in Goa (1961). Courtesy RTP.

Were local film crews and cinematographers shooting either for RTP or other filmmakers?
The camera work in Monsoon Rains in Goa is not the typical style of the propaganda cameramen that I know. It may have been shot by local cameramen. I think by that time Ganesh Studio was working in Goa and the owner had a 16mm camera. Portuguese TV started regular emissions in 1955. I think they probably paid someone local to do the filming – either Souza & Paul, Ganesh Studios or some other studio.

How did you begin looking at films on Portuguese Asia? What are the interesting films you’ve found in the post-1961 era?
It was a challenge thrown at me six years ago. There was one interesting documentary on religion and culture, made in 1961, when the Portuguese were afraid of losing Goa. I was not able to present it.

After 1961, films would show solemn annual commemorations of Goa’s December 19 takeover, which was still considered in Portugal as occupied territory. In 1963, there was a collection of scientific films documenting the huge exhibition of Indo-Portuguese artifacts [furniture, statues, etc] in the Geographical Society in Lisbon. There’s an interesting 1974 film A Procura do Tempo Perdido, made by Luis Miranda, which interviewed people from OHeraldo and all the freedom fighters.

In 1980, Antonio Escudeiro’s documentary on Goa for RTP is interesting. Few see cinema and films as documents. Through films we are able to see how our identity was shaped and the way we see ourselves. There’s a lot of cultural data that needs interpretation. I am also trying to source amateur films and family footage shot in colonial times, if people will share these.