Readers who might like to get a sense of the settlement over the water featured in this really remarkable film can do so by watching the trailer for the film, by clicking here.
Last night I saw the most extraordinary documentary film I have ever seen. It was screened in CInema Politica Concordia’s estimable programme of films that runs through the academic year, and deal with an impoverished community of 200 black families who live in the most dire of circumstances on pathetic, crumbling shelters erected on stilts over the Bay of All Saints, in the city of Salvador, Brazil, a bay from which the film takes its name.
What is remarkable about this film is that the American director, Annie Eastman, manages to ignore all the informational imperatives that customarily dominate this kind of film, by concentrating on the character of the people who are her central subject.
In this way she has produced from this community living beyond poverty, beyond outside recognition, beyond hope for a better life, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that is not only inspiring, but full of humour, fragrant with the amazing variety of the human species and that somehow --- don’t ask me how she has done it --- transmits to those of us who live in better circumstances some sense of the beauty of human beings and their unquenchable will to live.
Of course, it is possible to take a different message from such a revelation of the desperate conditions in which some people are forced to live. One friend of ours kept muttering as we left the theatre, “I had no idea people had to live in such conditions --- talk about man’s inhumanity to man, how terrible.”
Of course, that is a viable message to take from this film, and perhaps one that Eastman intended to convey.
But the method she has eschews the customary methods of investigative documentary-making for a more personal and wrenching approach, that of showing the inhabitants, or some of them, in their full, contradictory totality.
Ms. Eastman has the advantage of more or less falling into this subject. In 1999 she went to Brazil as part of a small arts organization to work among the people there. She lived and worked in the community of the so-called palafitas, the stilt homes teetering over the waters of the bay, travelling back and forth to her
home in the United States, and dabbling in filmmaking, which she approached by helping friends make some documentaries.
When she heard that the Brazilian government was proposing to displace the residents of the palafitas, to demolish the homes they had so laboriously built, and to move the people elsewhere, she decided she would make this film. Since her whole approach to her work had centred on women and children, she began filming some of the people she already knew. Her central figure is a middle-aged widow Donna Maria, who has 19 children and appears to be looking after several small children who otherwise would have been abandoned by their mothers. Young girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are always giving birth, and one of the girls that Donna Maria is looking after, Rafaela, became pregnant at the age of 15. One of
Donna Maria’s grandchildren, Rebecca, is an enchanting, quick-witted youngster, born of a 15-year-old girl who asked her mother if she would take her. And Donna Maria, who herself had been given away as a child, after which she worked for 12 years in the home of a wealthy couple who mistreated her, kept a worried eye on Rebecca but nevertheless did not succeed in keeping her under control. Rebecca is asked whether she would like to go live with her mother, but she said she would never leave her grandmother, would rather stay on the palafitas so long as she was there. But eventually, as various inhabitants drift off from time to time in efforts to find shelter in a stable on-shore home, Rebecca, still a preteenager, disappears into the city, and no one can find her. She reappears some years later.
The movie begins in 2005, and the passing of each year is marked by a date written on the screen. In 2006 the Bahia state governor, Jacques Wagner, visits the community, promising they would be moved to stable on-land houses. But nothing happens. They were given to understand then that a provincial agency called CONDOR would be the instrument of their salvation, as it were, but money which the province were given to spend on the plight of the homeless never arrived to help them.
In 2007 they record that three houses fell into the water, and “this whole thing is nothing,” said one of the residents of the promised provincial help.
The settlement had been created over the years by the residents, having established their shelters on stilts, dropping bags of garbage into the sea, to be used as landfill. When mixed with sand, it did build up a piece of land that gave some of them a less than stable foundation for their houses, but it also provides a home for
rats that are easily able to chew their way into the rude shelters.
An attractive woman, called Geni, describes herself as beyond the pale of civilization: “I am an energy-stealer in invasion,” she said, of her status. Urged to become their spokesperson, she says she
could not, she lacked he confidence, but when, in fact, she is elected, she finds something that can only be called remarkable eloquence.
One noticeable fact is the absence of supportive men, a feature of slum life around the world. An exception is Norato, an electrician who fixes the fridges and the multiple illegal electrical connections. He was born in the community fifty years before, has always lived there, and became a confidante of the film-maker, who used him as her chief interlocutor. As presented in the film, he is an amazing fellow, full of jokes, sly, teasing, sarcastic by turn, helpful and full of suggestions as to the future that might lie ahead of the community. His choice as the director’s right-arm came naturally to Ms. Eastman, as she described memorably in an interview she gave in April 2012 to a website called documentary.org:
“He's been a good friend of mine the entire time that I've lived in the neighbourhood,” she said. “He was the first person I talked to when I had the idea to make this film. I said, ‘Do you think it's even possible to have a camera back there, in terms of crime?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do it.’ He went ahead and let everybody know that I was coming with a camera and that it wasn’t really something that they should concern themselves with--they should just let me go by. He was by my side every second of the production….You know, sure, I’m fluent in the language….. But there’s still no comparison between my language skills and his…. especially in terms of talking to the people in his own neighbourhood. The dynamic he has with these women and everyone in the neighbourhood, it’s so authentic. What was of more interest to me than anything was seeing the way he reacted to them.
“He's such a natural documentarian in a way. He's the type of person who's friends with everyone. He gets into everybody's business. He talks to the prostitutes, he talks to the drug traffickers, he talks to the extremely religious folks. He speaks to everyone in the neighbourhood. There’s something very disarming about him. He loves to ridicule people but he does it in a disarming way. He may tell you that you don’t know how to dance or that your clothes are ugly, but you also feel that he would never humiliate you. He has such a talent for building rapport. That in and of itself was very interesting for me to document.”
In 2008 Rebecca was eventually picked up by Child Welfare and returned to the palafitas, back to granny. A glimpse of the outside world is provided by a visit from an aspiring politician Ze Beem, a man who, so someone said, was voted for later by the inhabitants, although obviously he is a man lacking in sincerity about what he said of their problems. Geni she soon found she was not being invited to the meetings held by CONDOR. Three more houses fell into the sea, the sticks began to rot and were not replaced, and the
outsiders from whom the residents normally bought wood for their miserable shelters would no longer sell to them any more.
In 2009 Donna Marie surprises everyone by beginning to take literacy classes. In 2010 finally CONDOR puts some of the people from the sticks into rental apartments, but word soon comes through that the agency is one or two months late with the rents, leaving the residents faced with paying, or being evicted.
As a result, others who go looking for apartments are refused because the landlords cannot expect to receive their rents. A sawmill nearby to the parasitas had long been closed and CONDOR had promised
to use the lands to build homes for the water dwellers. But when the residents break a small hole in the surrounding wall, they find plenty of empty land, that unfortunately had been infected by dengue
mosquitoes. A street demonstration brings the people behind such slogans as “the people united will never
be defeated,” but when, eventually they are admitted to the presence of CONDOR officials, there is no explanation offered for the years since 2005 when they had first received money to solve these problems, but nothing has been done. That meeting ends with officials saying they had just received word that the money was being received the next day. In 2011, six months later, still nothing has been done. The homes they had built are still disintegrating, perhaps even more than ever because they had been invaded by
rising seas, because, as one of the residents said, “the sea has been denied its place” by the new landfills.
The film ends on shots of bulldozers clearing land and creating more landfill on which supposedly new housing is to be built for the residents. But a screen trailer records that in seven years nothing has been built, that 137 families have been placed in rental accommodation (none of it in great shape, according to what we
saw), and 56 families have been moved to the outskirts of the city. Some 60 families are still living over the water including Donna Marie, who had memorably said earlier in the film that, having built her own house she had believed it was hers, something she owned, but she had since found it was not so.
It is worth noting, perhaps, that Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva, of the Workers’ Party, a left-wing, anti-capitalist party, was president of Brazil from 2002 to 2011, while all of the events in this film were taking place.
Ms. Eastman said in her interview that the main characters in the film were table to attend screenings of the film in Rio, “which was something I had dreamt about for years—the idea of bringing them to ‘the big city’ outside of Salvador and having them to answer questions at the end and talk to the audience.” They
had been able to raise money for this trip, and “it was truly one of the best weeks of all of our lives. It was their first time not only on an airplane, but also talking to a broader audience about the situation they’d been living in. It was very rewarding.” Only two of the main characters, including Rafaela, were unable to make the
trip… Rebeca spoke and helped answer questions. (She) was just at the right age to get a lot out of it. It was a really exciting moment.”