“The Answer, My Friend, is Blowin’ in The Wind…”: Making a Documentary Film (1978)

Still from “Portugal: a past in search of a future”, 1978

Portugal: a Past in Search of a Future.”(1978, 28 min)

By Douglas Lanphier Wheeler

My purpose as a novice documentary film-maker seemed simple enough: since my students at my University knew little or nothing about Portugal, either before or after the Carnations’ Revolution of April 25, 1974, it made sense to create a film with basic facts, sound generalizations and stunning scenery which I would show in class. Before I arrived to begin filming on location in Portugal, I had familiarity with the country during sixteen years since my first visit as a Fulbright exchange student in 1961-62 and, in addition, I had published on Angola, Portugal’s largest former overseas colony, and I had studied Portugal’s first attempt at a democracy, its first Republic (1910-26) as well as Portugal’s end of empire.

Whatever my original motives for making such a film, I soon experienced fascinating surprises while film-making in Portugal’s young democracy. Our film-making team consisted of two public television staffers: Tom Merklinger of New Hampshire public television and Paul Hoagland of the State University of New York at Buffalo’s television station. Tom was to direct the filming on location and record interviews of subjects. Paul’s job as the 16mm. cameraman was to film on location and then to develop and complete the film. Filming in Portugal occurred during 10 days in July 1977. Operational base was the historic Hotel Palácio Estoril, which recently had hosted many unlikely guests: scores of retornados (“returned ones”) fleeing civil war in Angola in 1975. We interviewed on camera more than a score of these displaced colonists residing still at the nearby Hotel Paris, Estoril.

Still from “Portugal: a past in search of a future”, 1978

Persons and scenes filmed included Ana Vicente, an important advocate for women’s rights in Portugal; Francisco Balsemão, publisher of the major Lisbon weekly, Expresso, leader of Portugal’s Social Democrats, (and a future Premier in the 1980s); in the market at Cais do Sodré, a young banana seller who had voted  for Portugal’s Communist Party; the song of a Portuguese fado singer; a large garlic market next to the historic Mafra Palace and Church;  and scenes near the 25th of April Bridge spanning the Tagus River at Lisbon; a wedding party outside Mafra.

Though our film team recorded most of what we had planned to film, there were two disappointments.  After a long negotiation with the staff of then Premier Dr. Mário Soares, we had run out of time since our film team had to return to their jobs in the U.S. and we had run out of film.  Premier Soares’ staff was unhappy with our film company, but the day was saved to a degree when we included a statement by Soares in the completed film. After all the back and forth with the Soares’ staff, we never knew whether Soares or his staff even saw our film after its release.

A second disappointment came in our efforts to film a night-time discoteque scene in a youth nightclub adjacent to Hotel Palácio Estoril. We set up our camera and waited for hours but we were denied permission to film, since the owner feared that the film would record scenes of young people interacting with persons of whom the parents would disapprove and that our film would then be widely seen in Portugal.

Several other surprises arose in the course of filming during that hot July. While filming near the wharf of Praça do Comércio, Lisbon, I noted strange pieces of paper blowing in the wind. When I examined what turned out to be currency, I had discovered Biafran currency pound notes which apparently had been manufactured in downtown Lisbon at the behest of the long gone, “Republic Of Biafra” from the Nigerian-Biafran Civil war of 1967-1970. As Nigeria and Britain opposed the secession of the tiny “Republic of Biafra” in 1967, Portugal, South Africa, Zambia and several other countries backed Biafra.

Still from “Portugal: a past in search of a future”, 1978

Finally, another odd surprise came in our final filming of a tiny beco [alleyway] overlooking Praça dos Restauradores. Just before we stopped filming suddenly a pedestrian walked in front of the camera and was filmed. He was an elderly person using a cane, an old man who amazingly resembled the Estado Novo’s last President of the Republic, Admiral Américo Tomas. Nothing daunted, our film team decided to keep the shot and freeze it as the film’s final image before the titles and credits. During five months of 1978 the film was prepared and arranged for sale or rental and in June 1978 the film began its distribution phase.

Adding a new dimension to our experimental film-making in Portugal is the fact of the discovery of errant Biafran pound-notes in Lisbon: The fact that the notes were being carried by the wind and caught our attention, suggested to me the spirit of the popular Bob Dylan folk song of the 1960s, in which we hear the line, ”And the answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Our film’s principal subject was a brief survey of Portugal since the 25th of April 1974 golpe and Revolution. The chance appearance of the Biafran pound notes suggested as well that much remained to explore in the final years of Portugal’s 48 year ditadura. But that’s another story.

Douglas Wheeler, Professor of History Emeritus, Univ. of New Hampshire; Coordinator, International Conference Group on Portugal. (1972-2002); General Secretary, Society for Spanish & Portuguese Historical Studies (SSPHS), (1982-84).

Written in July 2019, based on the presentation of the film followed by debate at ICS-ULisboa (for more on the event see here)