Afro-Brazilian inflences in the cinema

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Brazil was one of the last countries in the world officially to abolish slavery . The ‘Lei Aurea’ (Golden Law), was signed by the Regent, Princess Isabel, on the 13th of May 1888, after the longest abolitionist campaign in history. No society could escape lightly from such a heritage, especially when one considers that with the slave-system, forced labour, rape and violence became intrinsic aspects of the Brazilian social framework for nearly four out of the five centuries since the Portuguese discovery in 1500. This explosive heritage of violence, corruption, abuse of power and endemic racism is compounded by the distortions provoked by the ever increasing demands of the international drug trade and the subsequent influx of illegal arms.
The 22nd of April 2000, the quincentenary of the first Portuguese landing on the coast of Bahia, was marked less by the official celebrations envolving the Presidents of Brazil and Portugal than by images relayed around the globe of the violent military police repression of the pacific march of 2500 Indian leaders from all over Brazil. The protest movement called Outros Quinhentos or « Another 500 » brought together not only the Indians’ organisations but also black groups like MNU (Unified Black Movement) and Movimento Sem Terra – MST – the Landless Labourers’ Movement. In short representatives of all those who have had little cause for celebration of the last 500 years. The violence of the repression shocked everyone. Against half naked Indian men, women and children, row upon row of riot police armed with truncheons, shields and tear gas. To many it seemed that little has changed since the scenes depicted in Lucia Murat’s film Brava Gente Brasileira (2000) premiered at Toronto this year. In Lucia’s film, the Indians create a ruse to massacre the soldiers in a Portuguese outpost in the wilds of the Pantanal, but only after they have been subject to unprovoked attacks of the Portuguese, raping and killing their women. The film ends with an old woman, a present-day descendant of these Indians, singing a lament as she leafs through the drawings made of her ancestors by one of the first Portuguese in Brazil.

After little more than a century of the 7th Art, most of existing cinema, worldwide, has been produced by an intellectual and economic elite. Brazil is no exception, and since afro-brazilians, with few notable exceptions, have never been part of that elite, the number of afro-brazilian directors in the first century of Brazilian cinema, can be counted on one’s fingers. The first record of Brazilian cinema as a created image, rather than a simple documentary register of the landscape, is known as A Dança de Um Bahiano (The Dance of a Bahian) (1901) by Afonso Segreto, who has gone down in history as the first person to bring a (Pathé) film camera to Brazil. This episode to some extent sets the stage for the Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian participation in Brazilian cinema. An essentially cerebral white man observing an essentially physical non-white man demonstrating his culture/art. This is a pattern endlessly repeated in Brazilian society from the original construction of the country with Portuguese colonisers overseeing the labour of African miners, cultivators, cane-cutters and builders, to the present day where a small white elite reaps the benefit of the toil of a vast proletariat of Amerindian and African descent. Of course from an industrial point of view, cinema is constructed along the molds of the rest of society, so even in films where the cast is all white, there are sure to be black carpenters, set-builders, elactricians, machinists, dress-makers, cooks etc.
Orson Welles, sent to Brasil on a goodwill visit in 1942 as part of Rockfeller’s strategy to persuade the nazi-sympathising Vargas dictatorship to declare for the allies, horrified both his American bosses and his Brazilian hosts by displaying an unhealthy interest in poor black people, samba, macumba (*Afro-brazilian religious practices) and favelas. He became great friends with the young actor Grande Otelo who took him round all the haunts of black bohemian Rio. An unfortunate accident resulting in the death of a fisherman who had featured in the film hastened Welles’ departure and the disgrace was such that the film was never edited. When Nelson Pereira dos Santos made Rio, 40 Degrees (1955), the first Brazilian film to venture into the favelas, he attracted the disapproval of the censors of the time. Undeterred he made Rio, North Zone (1957), revealing the sublime genius of Grande Otelo to transmit the emotions of the oppressed but ever optimistic samba composer who tries to prove his talent to a cynical and opportunistic middle class . This is the great moment of Cinema Novo in Brasil, when the black Brazilians’ and to a lesser extent the Indians’ struggle against oppression becomes a metaphor of the struggle for political and intellectual liberty of the Brazilian left. This initiated a period in Brazilian cinema in which Afro-brazilian actors were consistently given roles equal to their talents. Besides Grande Otelo, Ruth de Souza, Léa Garcia, Luiza Maranhão, Antonio Pitanga and later Zézé Motta and Milton Gonçalves brought black beauty and vivacity into the white world of Brazilian cinema. Having seen the young Ruth de Souza in the abolitionist melodrama Sinha Moça (1953) for which she was indicated for a prize at the Festival of Venice, it seems absurd to see her confined to tiny cameo parts in films such as Um Copo de Cólera – A Glass of Rage – (Aluísio de Abranches 1998). Or having seen Antonio Pitanga in Glauber Rocha’s first film Barravento to see him playing minor slave/servant parts in historical dramas like Mauá, the Emperor and the King (Sergio Rezende 1998) or Villa-Lobos, A Life of Passion (Zelito Vianna 2000). Some of the filmmakers from Cinema Novo have continued to find great roles for Afro-brazilian actors. Carlos Diegues, having made Gunga Zumba with Lea Garcia and Luiza Maranhão, went on to make Xica da Silva (1976) with Zézé Motta, Zumbi das Palmares with Zézé, Antônio Pompeu and Paulão in 1980 and lately Orfeu (1999). Among the recent harvest of historical epics we should mention two which are specifically about black personalities of Brazilian history. Cruz and Souza (Silvio Back 2000) is about the black poet of the same name, born in Southern Brazil at the beginning of the century. Considered one of the formost poets of the time, he lived in great poverty concomitant with the racist post-slavery ideology and died an early tragic death of tuberculosis. O Aleijadinho, Paixão Glória e Suplício (Geraldo Santos Pereira 2000) relates the life story of Brazil’s greatest baroque artist, a freed slave who created the world famous sculptures of the churches of Minas Gerais state, fabulously rich in the 18th century with the wealth generated by the gold mines. Aleijadinho means little cripple. The artist was victim to a mysterious disease which gradually crippled him, but he continued to work, even when his tools had to be bound to his hands. Noone would dispute that this was a life of great suffering, but the misery conveyed by the film is such that it obscures the great majesty of his art. It seems that one of the great mysteries of Afro-brazilian culture, especially to the elites, is how such oppression and misery can generate art and music and laughter.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the fantastic contrasts, from the cutting edge of modern technology and communications in the big metropoles of Rio and São Paulo to total deprivation of the most basic necessities of life not only among the inhabitants of the outbacks of the north-east but also in the favelas and shanty-towns of the metropoles themselves, make reality stranger than fiction. In early August the whole country witnessed, on live television, the hold-up of one of the city buses near the Botanical Gardens. A young black man with a gun held his fellow passengers hostage as police, television and onlookers surrounded the bus. After hours of negotiation, he was finally persuaded to leave the bus holding a young woman hostage, whereupon a police marksman jumped forward firing at point blank range with a semi-automatic. The hostage dropped dead. While she was rushed to the nearest hospital, the unharmed ‘criminal’ was hustled into a police car where he was strangled by four police officers on the way to another much more distant hospital. It later transpired that the young man was one of the survivors of the Candelaria massacre in which a group of street children were executed as they slept in front of a city centre church. A true story even stranger than one of Brazilian cinema’s few international successes of the last decades Pixote (Hector Babenco 1980). Fernando, who acted the street kid hero of Pixote was himself executed by São Paulo police ten years later. Having failed to become a professional actor he had become a small-time criminal, but, according to his twenty-year old wife was trying to go straight and writing his memoirs at the time of the execution. The inquest proved that he was shot from above while crouched in a corner. The tragic demise of Fernando became another film: Who Killed Pixote? (José Joffily 1996)
As in Central Station (Walter Salles 1998), one of Brazil’s most internationally successful films of all times, the abandoned boy hero of Pixote was a mestiço child who could be regarded as white in the sliding scale of Brazil’s racial classifications. In both films black children play minor roles. In Central Station the black child who appears at the beginning of the film is a thief – in contrast to Josué, hero of the film who is not, even when faced with total deprivation on the death of his mother – and is brutally executed by station guards. In real life, the producers of Central Station are seeking to make sure that Vinicius, who plays Josué, fares better than the ill-starred Fernando. A former street kid, spotted by the production shining shoes at Rio’s Santos Dumont airport, Vinicius’ life has had a fairy-tale transformation as a result of Central Station as he is now in full-time education, housed and fed.
The heroes of Como Nascem os Anjos (Murilo Salles 1996) are two favela children, a black boy and a white girl, who, through a series of accidents following a botched robbery, end up holding a liberal American NGO director, and his uptight daughter, hostage in their own house. One of the highlights of the film occurs when the boy, having discovered that the house has been surrounded not only by police but also television cameras, seizes the opportunity to perform a break dance sequence on a balcony of the house lit by holoforts which he then watches on national news on his hostages’ TV set. The children end up dead which seems to be the fate of most rebellious black characters in Brazilian cinema.
The excesses of reality have lead some filmmakers to documentaries such as Notes from a Private War (Jõao Moreira Salles 1999) which tries to set the records straight about the drug traffic in the favelas of Rio, putting the lie to the official version whereby dangerous, antisocial, and mostly black, bandits are responsible for all the crime and violence which bedevil the city. His film shows the web of corruption envolving the police, the total abandonment of the favelas and the herculean attempts of some of the inhabitants to survive in such a hostile environment. For his efforts, which included paying a monthly allowance for one of the supposed leaders of the drug traffic to write his autobiography, the filmmaker was publicly denounced by the authorities and threatened with arrest ‘for aiding and abetting a known criminal’. The authorities, in common with authoritan governments everywhere, were especially incensed by his refusal to act as informant for their enquiries. Another recent documentary The Rap of the Little Prince (Paulo Caldas 2000) revolves around two black youths from the vast complex of favelas which surround Recife, capital of Pernambuco in the North-East. One is a musician trying to make good around the peripheries of city while the other is in jail accused of 22 murders having become a self-styled justiceiro whose mission is to cleanse his community of evil souls. As his mother says, everybody likes him, although she feels sorry for the mothers of his victims. There has already been a great petition for his release, unlikely since he is serving a term of 99 years. With his youthful good looks and the disarming frankness with which he explains his self-chosen profession, the juvenile assassin at first seems more at ease than the tense young musician, his back heavy with striking black tattooed portraits of Malcolm Luther King, Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Two of the most powerful images in the film are the massive queue of women and children at the prison gates, waiting in hot sunshine to be frisked for their Sunday visit and the aerial view of Recife, showing the vast complex of favelas rolling over the hills surrounding a small central area of apartment and office blocks. The pulsing rap soundtrack sets the tone for the film, signalling a savage world completely alien from the safe, opulent, middle-class model offered by television.
In 1999 Carlos Diegues brought a fictionalised version of this world to the screen in Orfeu, based on the same play which inspired Marcel Camus’ Orfeu du Carnival. Diegues’ Orpheus composes sambas on a laptop, his Euridice is an emigrant from the destitute North-East, and he loses her when he measures forces against the leader of the drug traffic in the favela. Film critics sniffed their disapproval at Diegues’ ‘populism’ and criticised the main actors, reggae singer Tony Garrido and North-Easterner Patricia França. The producers promoted open air sessions on big screens in the favelas of Vigário Geral, Vidigal and Mangueira with the presence of the main actors and crew to delirious applause. For many, it was the first time they had seen a film on a big screen. While the peak audience of a popular soap opera on the television can reach 100,000, going to the cinema is a middle class activity. Brazilian television is only just beginning to attempt some kind of relationship with Brazilian cinema – most of the films shown on television are packages of Hollywood b-films – the same kind of dumping to be found all round the world. The general public is only occasionally drawn to the cinema as a result of massive publicity campaigns, as in the case of Titanic. Small wonder then that the working classes, which include most of the population of African descent, are hardly even aware of the existence of national cinema. However the experience with Orfeu proved that a potential audience exists.
A new generation who are growing up to the sound-track of the rap and hip-hop of their own communities, the lyrics about inequality and police brutality and the state of public abandon of huge numbers of the population, are clearly looking for positive role models, people they can look up to. Traditionally the only way up for a young black man is football or music. Over the past decade several young men have made fortunes as singers in « pagode-samba » groups or of course as footballers. In the same period many cultural groups have emerged from favela communities and city slum areas. The basis for most of them is music, from the afro-carnival groups of Salvador – Ile Aiye, Olodum, Ara-Ketu which have been in existence for 2 decades and provided a role model for many other groups all over the country such as Afro-Reggae in Rio who are already doing world tours themselves. However the organisation of the community in a cultural group soon reveals other talents. Olodum has generated a successful theatre group, whose actors proved their worth as secondary cast in Monique Gardenburg’s Genipapo (1995) which raises questions about the fight for land reform in the interior of Brazil. One of the actresses of the group – Virginia Rodrigues – has become an internationally recognised singer.
Community TV groups – whether organised on the basis of a big screen with a projector showing programmes in the open air like TV Olho in Recife, TV Machambomba in the suburbs of Rio or TV Tagarela in Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela – or whether by closed circuit TV over a small radius as in the favela of Santa Marta – have introduced a new generation the possibility of creating their own programmes, making their own films, albeit on small format video equipment. Obviously production is precarious, but Rio International Film Festival 2000 includes a section called Future Generation showing various programmes and short films produced by adolescents, including a group called Nós do Morro (We of the Hillside) from the Rio favela of Vidigal who have produced a 40 minute fiction film in super 16mm called A Brazilian Way of Being Portuguese. The activities of Nós do Morro began with theatre and many of the smaller parts in the film are played by members of the group who have also distinguished themselves as secondary cast in Orfeu and in the films of a young Rio filmmaker Rosane Schwartsmann (How to Be Single in Rio de Janeiro – 1997), one of the main instigators of the film school in the favela.
Jefferson De, a young black filmmaker from São Paulo has achieved a certian notoriety by producing his own version of Dogma 95 – the Dogma Feijoada or BlackBean Stew Dogma – precepts for a black Brazilian cinema:
1. The film should be directed by a black Brazilian filmmaker.
2. The protagonist should be black.
3. The theme of the film should be related to black Brazilian culture.
4. The film should have a achievable chronogram.
5. Stereotyped characters whether black or not are not permitted.
6. Superheroes or bandits should be avoided.
7. The script should be based on ordinary black Brazilians.
Jefferson De having produced several videos and a three minute short, Genesis 66 , as part of his film school project, is now making a twenty-minute short with a grant from the São Paulo government and has a script for a feature film waiting for investors. Nós do Morro have more scripts in the pipeline and an ongoing film school in the favela with older members of the group giving classes as well as professional filmmakers. Recent technological advances such as small format digital cameras and low-cost editing programmes such as Final-cut pro and Première now offer the possibility of creating cinema quality images on a low budget, impossible with the previous generation of video equipment. It will be interesting to see what the next generation can do with this equipment.



///Article N° : 5478


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