Of silence and men

– “Will you come back?”, he asks in a trembling voice.

His wife is putting away the clean laundry pile that’s over the couch, hiding it from the public eye, is what I suspect. I look back at him, his arms searching for something or someone to lean on as we go over a step to walk into the kitchen together, all of us – family and film crew. It is in this kitchen that he tells us his story.

– “Yes, of course, we’re coming back, on Friday, as we discussed before”, I whisper, lending him my arm for balance. “We can have you sign these papers then.”

I nod to the sheet of paper I have under my right arm, the one I’m using to help him sit by the kitchen table. He then lets go of me to sit down.

Seu Juca lives in a simple house he built himself from scratch and he has a family to call his own – wife, kids, in-laws, grandchildren – all of which stand beside, behind and around him as we come in for each interview. We met him three weeks before the shooting for the film started, during the preparation we conducted to find the right locations, define the best angles from which to film, set the dates for our return with the crew and meet with the other people who were going to be interviewed. A local teacher led us in the right direction, which brought us to him.

– “And you’ll come back, right?”

– “Yes. On Friday.”

He stares me in silence.

– “Not on Friday.”

He waves his hand in slicing motion.

– “All right. That’s fine. Would Saturday be a good day? Better?”

Everyone is quiet.

– “No. Not Friday nor Saturday. Will you come back?”

He meant if we were coming back after the interview, once the movie was finished.

– “Yes”, I reply, “Yes”.

His age unknown to us, Seu Juca is an elderly man with one leg 9cm shorter than the other. The left leg shorter than the right one. He survived a shoot out between workers and the army at a giant steel factory that is the live and pulsating core of the city he lives in, Ipatinga, in Brazil. “The Massacre of Ipatinga”, as it came to be known, happened on October 7th 1963. A young worker at the time, Seu Juca was coming in to the plant as some of his colleagues protested in front of the site against their labor conditions, a quarrel that had begun the night before. To control the situation, the army was called in. Their confrontation got out of hand, the soldiers opened fire and Seu Juca, among others, got hit. In 1963, Ipatinga wasn’t a municipality, so there was still no local police.

Political interpretations of the incident link it to the military coup d’état that took place almost six months later, in 1964. And four weeks after the new government was established, Ipatinga was emancipated. The number of casualties is, to this day, unknown. Many were those who fled town and never returned.

Seu Juca wasn’t directly involved in the protest, but collateral damage. The bullet was never removed, its fragments spread between his shin and his thigh. He went back to work a few months later, but once his contract ended, he was laid off. He doesn’t properly limp, but swaggers in a particular manner, much like a pirate. His walk is accompanied by a fixed yet vague stare some feet ahead of him, down towards the ground. He shows only minor difficulty moving about his small house, like when he goes up stairs or needs to sit down. Outside, he uses a broomstick to shake the branches of a lemon tree in his front yard, but lets the kids pick them up and bring them inside to the kitchen.

To this day, there are roughly no celebrations held in memory of those who either survived it or perished. The local steelworker’s union is an exception. Over the last few years, they have tried to contact Seu Juca on a number of occasions. They saw a possibility there, but Seu Juca wanted no part in it. During the shooting of the film, the union even tried to use us to get close to him, but we refused.

– “No one stopped by to see how we were doing. No help was ever offered.”

He looks around behind his back. We can see the garage, a bicycle leaning against the wall, stairs leading up to the roof, concrete apparent and no cover paint. He raised his family, built his house and lived his life on a state pension.

– “How come they only show up now? We don’t want nothing to do with them. We won’t sign nothing. They’ll just take what they need and never come back.”

When we come back for the interview, the kitchen is bright, which forces our photographer to adjust the lighting. Untroubled by it, Seu Juca sits facing the window where the sun is reflecting. Discrete yet visible, a thin layer of opaque moisture covers his eyes. There aren’t any tears. I never saw him cry.

– “Do you understand why we need your signature, why we need you? Your testimony is truly valuable to the story we’re telling.”

– “What are you going to do with it, with my signature?”

– “Keep it. It’s stays with us.”

– “Oh…huh. You’ll have to talk to my wife too.”

Later that day, from home, I call his house and I repeat my monologue to his wife, who promises to talk it over with him. I stress how important it is that he signs it.

– “I’ll talk to him, ok, we’ll discuss this. You’ll call us back?”

I don’t tell her we can’t use the footage if his signature is not there.

On the day Seu Juca signed the papers, I came back, alone, and he held my hand.

Fourteen months after this took place, Seu Juca died. We got the news by email, one year after his passing. There was a moment of silence, not a solemn one, but one for remembering. He never watched the film once it was finished. We managed to get copies out to all of the others, but no one ever answered the phone at Seu Juca’s place and we weren’t sure if they were still around or if perhaps they had moved.

Before he died, he was given a small sum of money by the government to amend the situation, half a century later. Not nearly what was rightfully his, but a settlement, nonetheless, and a sense of closure, I suppose. He used the money to take his wife to Portugal, where their son lives. She passed away shortly after their return home and Seu Juca followed some two weeks later.

– “For a long time, no one opened their mouths”, he tells, in a scene that made the final cut.

For 21 years, the country was smothered by a military dictatorship.

There is a memorial built and standing in Ipatinga to remember that day. By a shopping mall, it sits in the middle of a turning point of a busy 4 by 4 lane avenue, inaccessible to pedestrians. There’s nowhere to cross or to park. No more than a landmark to, perhaps, help locate the mall. We took Seu Juca there on Sunday, but never made it across the avenue. Not with his bad leg.

– “And now, still we hear nothing… it’s been forgotten.”

Over two years have gone by since we shot “Silêncio 63” and 48 years have passed since the events took place. Seu Juca died over a year ago. There’s a signed contract in a folder at home and, as promised, we’re keeping it.

But we never went back to see him.

José Elias dos Santos ("Seu Juca"), at home in July 2009 (Ipatinga, MG/Brazil)

Visit: www.silencio63.com

2 thoughts on “Of silence and men

    • :’-) love you carolyn.
      Thanks for encouraging and believing in a voice only you heard from a yet voiceless brat.
      our conversations are portraits in my memory and you’re the best listener I’ve ever encountered.
      I miss you every day.

      Like

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