Torre Bela: The Portuguese Revolution

It was on his arrival in Lisbon 1975 that the German filmmaker Thomas Harlan first heard about Torre Bela, the occupation of the Portuguese aristocratic Lafões’ family farm by its former workers in Ribatejo, central Portugal. Harlan had driven to Portugal in the spring of 1975 with a group of friends, motivated by a desire to document the Portuguese socialist revolution.[1] Francis Pisani, one of Harlan’s associates, said that for those living in central Europe, ‘Portugal was the revolution at the end of the southern highway. Instead of the Cuban, the Chinese or the Chilean Revolution, which were far away, you got in the car and you arrived there’ (Costa, 2011b, 69′). [2]

In joining the people in Torre Bela’s farm, the international film crew documented one of the most important events of the land reform in the revolutionary process. However, the presence of the film crew was not a neutral one. Forty years after the launch of the film Torre Bela (Harlan, 1977), Portuguese director José Filipe Costa interviewed Torre Bela’s protagonists and crew members for the film, Red Line. (Red Line, Linha Vermelha, 2011) When talking about the making of the film, Harlan told Costa in the interview:

I believe that objectively, with camera in hand, we were manipulators. How that actually worked, I do not know. But it pushed things forward, rushed them. There was a pressure that came from us. (Costa, 2011b, 46′)

Harlan’s interview invites questions about the presence and interference of the director and his crew in the unfolding of the events in Torre Bela. Are Harlan and his crew mere observers or professional documentarians/journalists? Can Torre Bela give a clue about how image production helped to forge an historical event in revolutionary Portugal?

The longest dictatorship in Europe (1930–74) was overthrown on the 25th of April 1974 by a revolution led by the military in Portugal. The Portuguese dictator António Oliveira Salazar had ruled the country for almost five decades, followed by Marcelo Caetano, who governed until the outbreak of the revolution. The new system that came about in 1974 was pitched against the dictatorship’s ideology, which had been based on repression, censorship, poverty and colonial imperialism (in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Macao). Led by the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas – MFA) and anti-fascist political organisations, the socialist revolution bore the challenge of bringing many different things to the political agenda: public education, housing for all, unionisation of the labour force, decolonisation of overseas territories and land reform.

The PREC (Período Revolutionário em Curso, or Ongoing Revolutionary Process) is the name given to the two-year transition period from the end of the dictatorship to the first free elections, during which many of the planned transformations took place. Land reform played an important role in changing working conditions, land distribution and the organisation of workers into cooperatives. In this context many occupations took place across the country; however, the occupation of Torre Bela was unique in its nature: it became a national reference point for political transformation and social justice.[3]

Torre Bela’s occupation stood out for two main reasons. First, it was an occupation led only by its former day labourers and local inhabitants. Although similar occupations were happening across the country, this occupation was unique for the absence of a political party’s involvement. Many of the squatters from the surrounding villages were illiterate, came from families that had lived under the Lafões family’s oppression for generations and were participating in direct political action for the first time (Rezola, 2007).

Secondly, the event was committed to memory by means of Harlan’s documentary film, shot as the event unfolded. Looking at the documentary film and the presence of Harlan and his crew in Torre Bela, the formation of the event can be deconstructed into the following elements: agents, setting, script and repetitions. Almost like a staged scene in a film, events, such as a revolution, are composed of multiple small stagings and restagings. The film Torre Bela (1977) and an analysis of its making can give insights into the mechanism of production of an event, thereby providing ways of understanding how it is represented and how it plays out.


The Film

With similar motivations to those of the militant films shot in Portugal during the same period, the film Torre Bela[4] is the documentation of a self-proclaimed independent community of peasant workers seizing control of the estate where they had worked for generations. The film takes us directly into the internal working processes and contradictions of the revolution. However, Torre Bela manages to step out of the common tropes of other films that documented the historical process.

By neither employing the everyday political language typical of radio and television of the period, nor by producing a congruent narrative towards a political and social message of emancipation of Torre Bela’s workers, the film is a unique example of the period’s documentary filmmaking. The shooting of the film overlapped with the people’s action in the building of a new social order and the emergence of a new political awareness. What drove the making and editing of the documentary was not an expository framing or voiceover, which drives, makes, frames or organises images. Instead, Torre Bela is edited into a linear narrative that follows the events in the farm, from the public meetings and discussions in the square to the formation of the cooperative. Despite its realistic tone, the film maintains a certain spatiotemporal and narrative unity from which the squatters’ contradictory actions and doubts emerge (Costa, 2011). The scene of the occupation of the palace is a good example of how Harlan conserved the frictions, complexities and ambiguities of the event.


Staging the Occupation Scene and the Space Behind-the-Camera

The absence of a voiceover or the presence of the filmmaker was an unusual feature within militant cinema made in the same period. Alongside the scene of the palace, these elements start to raise questions around the realism of the documentary. While the people gather outside the palace before entering the property, the camera films the palace’s interiors. It is only after the camera has wandered for a few seconds inside the building that the squatters enter it and are seen grabbing books, trying on clothes and examining the belongings of the aristocratic family. Judging by how the occupation scene was filmed, the camera must have been placed inside the palace before the squatters entered. The sequence of the scenes yields questions regarding the hows and whys of the filming as well as about Harlan and his crew’s agency in its staging.







Thomas Harlan and his crew were not mere observers or even professional documentarians or journalists. After taking over the land and means of production, the workers were afraid to take the next step: occupying the palace (Costa, 2012). The director, wanting to speed up the process, acted behind the scenes as an emissary to the military police and arranged for a meeting between them and a group of squatters in a military headquarters in Lisbon. During that meeting, captured on film in Torre Bela, Captain Banazol tells the squatters: ‘You should not wait for a legal decree that states you can occupy it. Occupy it and the law will follow’ (Harlan, 1977, 69’). With this statement the squatters’ forthcoming action was legitimised.[5]

At the same time, despite Harlan’s assertions, the narrative emerging from the event as a result of the film-crew’s pure manipulation seems too simplistic. This glimpse of the presence and influence of the film-crew does not invalidate or undermine the revolutionary emancipation of the rural workers, but expands the event’s space of production. What was seen as the cause of the event – i.e. oppression of the people leading to the occupation of the local bastion of aristocratic power – cannot be seen as the only element fostering the emancipatory episode. Harlan and the crew – those behind-the-camera (or the unseen) – are therefore also participants in the incident, albeit acting backstage.

Harlan brings his knowledge and political awareness into the orchestration of the events, and moulds the sequence according to his own revolutionary grammar – including how the occupation of the palace should be seen by the camera. In this way, the cinematic apparatus, sitting between the occupiers and the film-crew, operates as a mechanism that renders the single event into a complex set of interferences beyond what is visible and audible. Thus, the cinematic apparatus is simultaneously that which brings something into visibility and turns it into a thinkable matter as much as it fosters and participates in the unfolding of that event.

[1] Another Country (Outro País, 2000), directed by the Brazilian-Portuguese filmmaker Sérgio Tréfaut shows directors, photographers, journalists and activists who travelled to Portugal in 1974–76 to document the event, including Robert Kramer, Thomas Harlan, Glauber Rocha and Sebastião Salgado.

[2] Francis Pisani, Torre Bela: On a tous le droit d’avoir une vie (Paris, 1976).

[3] However, as time passed and neoliberalism edited and demonised the initial socialist politics, responses to the events at Torre Bela began to limbo from admiration to contempt.

[4] According to José Filipe Costa’s research: ‘Torre Bela was presented for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival 1977. It was only released commercially in a Portuguese theatre in 2007, although a DVD version had been circulated in 2004 as part of a cinema collection promoted by Público, a leading Portuguese national newspaper. The rights for the film were sold to Italian, French and German TV channels. Footage from Torre Bela can be found in at least two other Portuguese films, Bom Povo Português (1980) and Lei da Terra (1977)’ (Costa, 2012, p. 5).

[5] Harlan even asserts that the position of partner in the ‘unlawful’ occupation—a role that he believes should have been the army’s—was actually taken by the film-making team. (Costa, 2011)