How a Video Store Became My Film School in ’90s Brazil

Director David Charles Rodrigues never got any formal film education. Instead, he learned everything from his favorite video-store clerk, Cláudio.

My film school was a video store in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. What will yours be? In dire times like ours right now, I find myself going back to when I was a kid. The early ’90s was an earth-shattering shift in my life, at least for a nine-year-old. My parents uprooted us from a small suburban town in Massachusetts to Belo Horizonte, one of the biggest and most dangerous urban sprawls in Brazil. Right when we got there, the country was experiencing one of the greatest economic and political crises of its newly reinstated democracy. From comfort to total chaos and learning to live with very little.

It was also the best thing that ever happened in my life. I learned all of my survival skills – the “way of the coyote,” as my friend Bud put it – a mix of street smarts, stupid resilience, and a deeper connection to my intuition, also known as how to figure stuff out under any circumstance. On top of that, because of the violence and lack of resources, I had to stay home a lot, so I watched movies day and night. All of which, in hindsight, became the film school I was never able to afford. And every school has a mentor, a teacher you never forget. Mine was Cláudio de Souza, then a young clerk at W-12 Video Club, the rental spot around the corner from my apartment.

Already social-distancing: David Charles Rodrigues (far right) in a class photo from 1993.

My parents were completely broke and during the summer of 1993, all they could afford to keep me busy was a membership to Cláudio’s video store. I could rent five (non-new release) movies a day, and I did exactly that. For three entire months, I lived through a self-imposed quarantine, and I watched every movie you can imagine, and some, like Reservoir Dogs, a total of 18 times.

I owe a lot to Cláudio and his recommendations. He treated me like a grown-up, a true film buddy, and opened doors in my mind that would’ve taken decades to open if it weren’t for the five films he put aside for me every morning. Sadly, he went off to college after that summer and I didn’t see him again for a very long time.

Our paths crossed again in the early 2000s. I was then a creative director in advertising, and Cláudio, one of the most celebrated account executives in the industry. But that’s a story for another time.

David Charles Rodrigues at the launch of his first comic book in 1996.

For right now, for this piece and thanks to social media, I tracked Cláudio down and, after many years, asked him to recommend some movies, a refreshed curriculum, so we can all be home-film-schooled during these times of social isolation. As a bonus, I’ve also added some of my own favorites during that summer of ’93.

Here’s a little chat I had with Cláudio de Souza over Messenger. We’d never really talked about that pivotal time that much before, so it was extra special to ask him these questions.

When you were a video store clerk, did you know you were inspiring future filmmakers with your movie selections?
Not necessarily, but movies have been my passion since I can remember, and when you really love what you do, it is easy to share your passion and enthusiasm. To understand the craft and share everything that I knew with my clients and friends, like you, was the best part.

What responsibility did the video store clerk have in the past?
The most important thing, at least for me, was to have a deep understanding of what I was “selling,” and who I was selling to. It was easy to get someone to rent a blockbuster, but the secret sauce was to recommend the hidden gems that nobody wanted to see anymore because they were not on the New Release shelves.

This way, I could make a recommendation that wasn’t a recent movie, but probably the customer would like. Long story short, and maybe a little bit extreme, we used to be the human algorithm that today is the secret sauce of the streaming services such as Netflix. The company estimates that 70 percent to 75 percent of viewer activity is driven by recommendation. Back in the day, the video-store clerk was the one making those recommendations. Once we got it right, we got a loyal client.

Do you need to go to film school to be a filmmaker?
In my opinion, no. There are a lot of paths that naturally can lead you to become a filmmaker. … You don’t need to study literature to become a writer. And I believe that this applies to many other professions. Several of my favorite filmmakers were self-taught, such as Stanley Kubrick, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino, to name a few. Actually, Tarantino famously worked as a video store clerk for almost six years.

Video store clerks on screen: Deborah Goodrich, Kevin Dillon and Christopher Wynne in Remote Control.

Cláudio’s “Home-Film-School” Curriculum
1. Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
2. Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1968 and 1984)
3. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
4. Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)
5. Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
6. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
7. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
8. 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)
9. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
10. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

Video store clerks on screen: Tony Nardi in Speaking Parts

My Top 10 Films Rented at W-12 Video Club in the Summer of 1993
1. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
2. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)
3. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Akira Kurosawa, 1990)
4. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
5. Drop Dead Fred (Ate de Jong, 1991)
6. King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
7. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
8. The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)
9. Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks, 1991)
10. Dark Habits (Pedro Almodóvar, 1983)

David Charles Rodrigues is a Greek-American-Brazilian filmmaker and equal rights activist. Rodrigues is a Sundance New Frontier and Doc lab fellow and his feature documentary debut, Gay Chorus Deep South, had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is in now in theaters through MTV Documentary Films. His work leverages art, music and cinematic narratives to trojan-horse challenging messages into people’s hearts and minds. Rodrigues’ short films and commercials have garnered over 1 billion views online and were featured at MOCA Los Angeles, MOCA Tei Pei, The San Jose New Media Biennial, Skirball Cultural Center, The Art Directors Club, Cannes Lions and Art Basel Miami.