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29 January 2008

films to watch black



'Quilombo Country', a documentary film shot on digital video, provides a portrait of rural communities in Brazil that were either founded by runaway slaves or began from abandoned plantations.

Contrary to Brazil's national mythology, Brazil was a brutal and deadly place for slaves. But they didn't submit willingly. Thousands escaped, while others led political and militant movements that forced white farmers to leave. 'Quilombo Countr'y provides a glimpse into these communities, with extensive footage of ceremonies, dances and lifestyles, interwoven with discussions about their history and the issues most important to them currently.

The film takes place in three distinct settings: The Trombetas region of the Amazon, Marajo Island at the mouth of the Amazon River, and the Itapicuru-Mirim area in the state of Maranhao. It is narrated by the legendary hip hop artists and public commentator Chuck D of Public Enemy.

This month, this award-winning documentary will have it World Theatrical Premiere on Saturday, the 23rd of February (Black History Month) at 8pm at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.) in New York City, followed by a Q&A with director Leonard Abrams

In this interview by David Insley for Gothamist filmmaker Leonard Abrams talks about the process of making Quilombo.

Quilombo - Ambrams

For four years now, you've been working on a digital documentary "Quilombo Country" a story of the present day quilombos in Brazil. What's a quilombo?
A quilombo is a community founded by escaped slaves. It is also a community that was begun on the remnants of an abandoned plantation. You see, in Brazil a lot of plantations went out of business in the late 19th century because the sugar industry was a lot more efficient in the Carribean and many landowners just abandoned them. Of course, the price of sugar wasn't the only thing going on. There were upheavals and murders and mass unrest. The word itself derives from an Angolan word which simply means encampment. So when the slaves in Brazil ran away the first thing they did was set up camp.

There's a popular misconception that traditional Africans of this time period were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, etc. but the truth of the matter is that most Africans weren't and aren't. They were sedentary and they practiced complex forms of agriculture. But when they ran away they had to adopt a more nomadic style of living similar to some of the indigenous people of the region because they were on the run.

Was there a driving force that inspired you to make the documentary?
I'm hoping that by presenting the quilombo people in their normal everyday lives that the public will not see them as inferior or less deserving; I'm also hoping to reduce the otherness currently attached to the people living on quilombos. I want people to see their uniqueness but realize that an otherness doesn't really exist.

See, Brazil has a history of fucking over people who can't protect themselves. It's changing but you have to remember that this is a country that had a military dictatorship from the 60's to the 80s. There are a lot of poor people in Brazil. More poor people than anything else. The difference with these people is that they're rural, they've kept certain traditions and yet they're isolated more than anything else due to race.

But Len, there are a lot of poor people in the world. A lot of social injustice.. Why quilombos?
Purely elective on my part. I was in Salvador Bahia in 1995 for Carnival and there was this bloco, which is basically like a samba school, and this bloco was marching these teenage girls and there was this whole routine of drumming and dancing that was really hot. It happened to be the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi. Zumbi was the leader of Palmares which was a very large and evolved quilombo of 20,000 or more people during the 17th century. He's very important in quilombo history. So I'm there on the streets of Salvador seeing these posters for Zumbi and I'm wondering who the fuck is this guy. Well, I found out. And I began thinking "man oh man when I make my film this is going to be it."

So you went back to New York and began planning this film?
Well, I finally got my hands on a few bucks. There's a story here but basically what happened is that I got hit by a truck while riding my bike. It was hit and run but in New York State there's a pool where you can get up to $25,000---I got $20,000. My head was cracked, it was a $100,000 injury but I took what I could get.

You've got the money and the time and you bought a camera and some film equipment---what happens next?
I had some time off and I started researching Quilombos. There's a lot of information online, much of it in Portuguese which I couldn't always read. I went through the information and at some point I started corresponding with a professor in Niteroi which is a college town right next to Rio and arranged to meet her. So I flew down there and she recommended that I meet with this activist group in the city of San Luis, which is an old colonial city on the coast of northern Brazil with a population of about 700,000 people.

So I flew up there and one of the activists guys I met I particularly got along with. His name was Ivo Fonseca da Silva and he showed me on a map all these different quilombos. Some of them already had books about them. Then he showed me a place where no one had really visited too much and I said "Great, I'll start there."

Were the quilombo people receptive to this guy from New York coming into their villages with his camera?
For the most part everyone was really nice. But in the Amazon region I went to a quilombo that had had a lot of outside contact by activists, church people, journalists---they were a bit more jaded than the other communities. I was shooting a bunch of people watching TV and this one guy just pushed the camera away. But I want to stress that the vast majority of these folks were very cool people with great parties: drinking, dancing, singing, reggae music, saxophones—and friendly.

Any customs or rituals that these groups practice that might at least seem alien or exotic to New Yorkers?
Well let me tell you about the Macumba ceremonies I filmed. To some people Macumba is a dirty word like voodoo or juju or whatever. However, where I was the local people called it Macumba. I wanted to capture the wonder and exoticness of these ceremonies but I was careful as well because I didn't want to exploit these people in a David Lynch sort of way. As far as the rituals themselves, they seemed no more strange to me than walking into a Catholic church…which I personally find kind of creepy.

The ceremonies consist of dancing and drumming and singing and drinking---all undertaken to enter a state of trance. There are candles. There is a Pae de Santo (Saintly Father) or a Mae de Santo (Saintly Mother) and these people are in charge---they assist the subjects during the trance. The subjects thrash around, they pass out and let the spirit take over. You can call it the subconscious but to the followers of Macumba they're letting some spirits out and some others in to do the necessary work.

Let's go back to the whole slavery angle for a second. Any interesting parallels to draw between America's experience with slavery with what went on in Brazil?
According to the Cambridge University Press, during the history of colonial Brazil approximately ten million Africans were enslaved. Half a million Africans came to The United States. In Brazil, you have perhaps 100 million people with some African blood; here in America you have maybe twenty or thirty million people of African heritage. So the numbers are much greater in Brazil but you have all these racial categories: you have whites, you have near whites, mulattos, amarelos, pretos----all these names for racial mixes that tend to obscure identity and so now people want to put an end to that.

Yeah, how can a people seek agency if they can't mobilize under a common thread like race?
Exactly, all these categories just serve to fragment these groups. But if everyone with African blood stood together in one group it would total about 100 million people. That would mean that for every African uprooted and taken to Brazil there would be ten descendents. Now in the United States for every African that came you have like 60 descendents. In other words, there was six times the survival rate for slaves in America as compared to Brazil. It was just brutal down there. That's why I call it a concentration camp in my film. They just killed people like flies, worked them to death and then got another slave. It was actually cheaper for the plantation owners to do this then feed them proper rations over a long period of time.

So we should think of Brazil as a place that had a more menacing and heartless system of slavery.
Absolutely. But in America you had the one drop rule. This essentially said that one drop of African blood made you black and you were therefore subject to all sorts of racial discrimination. Why? Because America didn't have enough slaves to do all the work. In Brazil it was different. There they had a surfeit of bodies.

Also, in Brazil there weren't enough white women around so if you needed a wife and couldn't find one you just went ahead and married a black woman. She became your wife. She was then no longer a slave and your children were mixed but they had much more social mobility than the equivalent coupling in America. In fact, we're just getting to that stage now in America where that kind of inter-racial intimacy has become acceptable. Thirty years ago that wasn't the case. It doesn't mean everyone wants to do it but they're starting to approve of it. But in Brazil, despite the brutality, you had this kind of intermingling going on for hundreds of years.

So should we be learning from them what to do or what not to do?
Well, I guess both. What I think people might get from my film is that people are all the same---we are all the same. Not even that. How interesting you are does not depend on where you are in the great society. How worthy, how interesting, how cool you are has nothing to do with your place in the hierarchy of mass society, it just has to do with how you are.

As an aside, we're just kind of curious. How was the food? Any pythons, alligators or other fare beyond what we might find at the local butcher?
They eat a lot of rice. Also there's meat but not a lot of meat. Actually there are not a lot of vegetables either. I guess it wasn't in the culture. But they do take the yucca root and make a kind of flour from it. It's called manioc flour and it's a bit like gravel. You know, good tasting gravel. But you have to be careful when you're chewing or you'll beak your jaw on it.

We hear a rumour they eat armadillos?
Well, it's just another thing they eat. They hunt it, they kill it, they skin it, they clean it, they cook it and make armadillo stew---tastes just like chicken. Well, not really. It's a lot gamier than chicken.

You ate their food, witnessed their culture, experienced their ceremonies, even danced with their women…
Yeah, there was one girl who I danced with a lot who looked particularly untroubled by the troubles of the world. I'm looking at her and finally I ask how old she is. She tells me she's fifteen. I was like "homina homina…"

Guess folks will have to see your film to know, but, anyway, were you daunted by the size and scope of the project you were undertaking as a first-time filmmaker?
One thing I learned a long time ago is that if you're not sure what you're doing, fake it. It's the best thing in the world. Say I am this, I can do that, I take this mantle upon myself. And you just go right ahead.

Was it strictly a Leonard Abrams vision or did you co-author this brainchild with a team of editors?
I started it myself but was heavily dependent upon other people right from the get-go. After three months I was so burned out but when I managed to incorporate more people they were quite enthusiastic to carry the weight. It was then that I realized what a difference one person can make. Maybe someone else would have done it, maybe not, but it was a clear example to me what one person can do.

Interview by David Insley

To find out more, please visit the film's website


Cities should be a solution not a problem for human beings. The city of Curitiba has demonstrated for the past 40 years how to transform problems into cost-effective solutions that can be applied in most cities around the world.

'A Convenient Truth: Urban Solutions from Curitiba', Brazil is an informative, inspirational documentary aimed at sharing ideas to provoke environment-friendly and cost-effective changes in cities worldwide. The documentary focuses on innovations in transportation, recycling, social benefits including affordable housing, seasonal parks, and the processes that transformed Curitiba into one of the most livable cities in the world.

The film includes interviews from world renowned Curitiba's mayors Jaime Lerner and Cassio Tanigushi, as well as other brilliant minds who made Curitiba a world class model.


tv da gente

In November 2005, the UK Guardian's Tom Phillips, published this article about Brazil's first black television channel:

"Is it on air? We're on the air!" With the push of a button and these hesitant words, Brazil's first black television channel came into existence yesterday.

TV da Gente, which means "our TV", has been heralded as giant step forward in the country's fight against discrimination, and to mark the broadcast high-ranking politicians, celebrities and civil rights activists gathered at the Casa Verde studio in north Sao Paulo.

"This will turn out to be the most important development ever in terms of communication for black communities all around the world," a veteran American civil rights activist, 72-year-old James Meredith, told the Guardian. "Unlike the United States and South Africa, Brazil established a system of white supremacy without the obvious signs like segregation or apartheid. Until Brazilians start to face up to this reality the legacy of slavery will continue."

Mr Meredith's ideas are far from universally accepted in Brazil where, despite the social chasm between Afro-Brazilians and their white counterparts, many still insist on the idea of a "racial democracy", first expounded by the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s.

Statistics tell a different story, of a country split along racial lines. Afro-Brazilians form almost half Brazil's 180 million strong population yet account for 63% of the poorest section of society. The 2000 census found that 62.7% of Brazil's white population had access to sanitation compared with just 39.6% of its Afro-Brazilians, while a new UN report found that black men earned on average 50% less than their white counterparts in Brazil. Human rights campaigners underline the racial dimension behind Brazil's staggering murder rates. The majority of victims are young black men aged between 15 and 24.

The sprawling redbrick favelas that engulf large urban centres are predominantly, if not entirely, inhabited by black Brazilians. And barring a few high-profile politicians such as the culture minister, Gilberto Gil, Afro-Brazilian faces remain a rarity in politics.

In the nightly blockbuster soap operas - perhaps the best indicator of how things stand in Brazilian society - black actors are generally restricted to playing the roles of maids and porters who work in the glitzy apartment blocks inhabited by the wealthier, white characters. Indeed, while slavery was abolished more than a century ago in Brazil, many believe its legacy is harder to shake off.

This week a leading economist estimated that for Brazil's black population to have access to the same standard of public services as their white counterparts the government would have to invest 67.2bn real (£17.6bn).

TV da Gente's aims to change at least part of this. Its mission statement, mimicking the former president Juscelino Kubitschek, is to achieve "50 years progress in five" in black Brazil's fight for visibility. The man behind the media revolution that seeks to overturn this divide is Jose de Paula Neto, better known as Netinho de Paula, a media-savvy 35-year-old who rose from the housing estates of Sao Paulo to become a household name, first as a samba popstar then as a television presenter.

In recent years Netinho has become the favela's answer to Jimmy Saville: in his weekly show Dia de Princesa he roams Brazil's deprived periferia (outskirts) in a limousine, bestowing gifts upon impoverished families while dressed in his trademark dinner-jacket.

Netinho says his latest project - which sports a logo of an eye in the yellow and green shades of the Brazilian flag - aims to redress the racial imbalance in Brazilian television and society as a whole. "Our country is marked by racial mixtures. But the actual model of TV does not represent the majority of Brazilians. We are trying to help our own people, given that nobody else seems to want to do it. This is where the real fight starts. Those who say they want an integrated Brazil will really have to start showing their faces now," said Netinho.

Some believe it will be an uphill battle. For Joel Zito Araujo, campaigner and director of the documentary Denying Brazil - the Black Man in the Brazilian Soap Opera, the widespread exclusion of black actors from television reflects deeply ingrained prejudices in society.

"The [Brazilian] soap opera carries as its aesthetic and cultural discourse the ideology of whitening. This denies that which should be our greatest heritage: our cultural and racial diversity," he said. "The inclusion of black actors has improved with each decade. However, Brazilian society, in the main part, remains very prejudiced. Television and society are connected in terms of these racial taboos."

Yet despite the startling racial gulf, many point to recent advances for the black population, notably the partial introduction in 2002 of university quotas for black students. "Securing university quotas was the first real achievement of black society in Brazilian society. For the first time in our history being black brought some kind of advantage," said Araujo. "Only by developing talent within the black population, and them achieving positions of power will we be able to bring about structural change."

Initially the new channel, in which around R$12m has been invested, will be broadcast for six hours a day on terrestrial television in Sao Paulo and the north-eastern city of Fortaleza. People in other areas will be able to tune in via satellite, while viewers in Angola, from where a quarter of the investments have come, will be able to follow daily programmes, which include news, sport and a Brazilian hip-hop slot.

As Brazil marked its annual black pride day yesterday, black activists at the launch of TV da Gente celebrated the new channel. "TV da Gente will reproduce, for the first time, the true image of the people," said Netinho de Paula. "It's a huge victory for us all: for the black movement, for the white movement, for the red movement and for the Brazilian people."


From 1550 to 1888 the Portuguese shipped at least 3 million slaves into Brazil. Most came from the African colonies of Angola and Mozambique. They were put to work in the north-east's sugar plantations, but thousands managed to flee and set up quilombos, autonomous cities lived in and run by former slaves. The most famous of them - the Quilombo dos Palmares - was led by Zumbi. Brazil was the last state to officially abolish slavery - in 1888.



In 1981, Brazilian director Hector Babenco gained critical acclaim with his film 'Pixote', a harrowing account of the life of a boy living on the streets of Sao Paulo. Although a work of fiction, the film is shot in the style of a documentary

The Time Out Film Guide wrote: "Nothing in recent cinema comes close to the devastating account of brutalisation and exploitation offered in Babenco's film about a 10-year-old boy who somehow survives the vicious oppression of the reform school, to escape and find his way into dope-dealing, prostitution and murder in the Brazilian underworld. Originally labelled a 'denunciation' film in Brazil for its critique of a social system that fails to prevent the majority of the country's three million homeless kids from turning to crime, Pixote arrived here laden with art cinema awards for its exposé of a problem which, for all its cultural remoteness, carves into your conscience with the sudden thrust of a flick knife in a street fight."

The film has been posted on YouTube in 13 parts. This is the first:

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