As it stands, school kids in Brazil don’t learn much about the horrors of slavery—the institution that enriched Brazil for 350 years. In fact, in talking to teachers and students, I found out that the economics of slavery is emphasized more than the violence that it forced upon millions of people. Emancipation is also romanticized; Students learn about that day in 1888 when Princess Isabel decided out of the kindness of her heart to free millions of slaves—May 13.
The most visual reminder of slavery in Brazil are renderings by French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret. His drawings, completed between 1816 and 1830, depict the daily life of inner-city slaves in Brazil, including the whippings, hard labor, and the family life. One famous drawing shows a Brazilian family being served dinner by their slaves while a slave child eats from the hands of the master. Despite the realism of his works, they lack any names and personalization. They are great reminders of an institution, but horrible in expressing the personal impact of slavery.
That’s where the short documentary “Of Slaves and Saints” succeeds. Marcio de Abreu has created a documentary film that recounts the details of slave life in Brazil’s sertão—an arid area in Brazil’s interior. He does this by interviewing living black people, 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds, who can still recount the gut-wrenching and sad slave stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. That’s why EVERY student in Brazil should watch this film.
Mario de Abreu is a filmmaker from Salvador, Brazil and “Of Slaves and Saints” is his second documentary about the people in this area 350 kilometers away from Salvador, close to Minas Gerais. Years back, he was commissioned to help with a documentary and book about the people by a mining company. In short, due to some shady practices of the mining company, the government ordered it to do a documentary and book about the community. But that first documentary and book, will probably never be published he says. He maintained ties with the people in the community and two years ago he received a government grant to complete a short documentary that included older people talking about slavery.
I’ve been living in Brazil for the last year and I’ve learned that very few people can or even want to recount the atrocities of slavery in Brazil. Those who can are usually academics (a majority of them white because there are few black PhDs in Brazil) and those who want to are “woke” black people who have sought out this knowledge.
The people in Abreu’s short documentary are neither. But they are just as “woke” and educated about slavery as any Afro-Brazilian or white academic. In fact, most of the black people in the film, all in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, are illiterate.
“They had no formal education whatsoever,” Abreu said. “None of them went to school. I’m not aware if they ever had access to a book about slavery.”
Despite the lack of any formal knowledge, they are able to recall specific details about slavery in their community. Let’s take Isolina Rosa Caires, the first woman featured in the documentary. She was born in 1927, 39 years after the end of slavery. Her grandmother was probably born 8 to 10 years before the end of slavery. Thus, Isolina had real contact with people who had been enslaved. She is one of my favorite people in the documentary because of the details of her stories.
“They used to cut a bunch of sugarcane and put it on top of an oxcart and make two slaves drag it around, just like they do animals today,” Isolina said.
Or let’s take Raimunda Moreira Trinidade, who was born in 1928. According to Abreu, she is one of the few people in the community who can read and write. Her grandparents were enslaved by a man named Manuel Moreira de Trinidade.
“Therefore, I have the last name of their masters,” she admits in the film.
One man, a descendant of slaves, recounts the story of a slave who confronted his master about being worked like an animal. The very next day he was beaten to a “pulp.” I don’t want to give away all the stories, but one of them explains why black Brazilians avoided calling themselves “negro” just until recently.
Abreu even interviews the descendants of the slave owners, who assert that being a slave wasn’t that “bad.”
While the documentary doesn’t take a lot of risks visually, it does follow perfectly, the basic rules of quality documentary film production – good sound, good image composition, and good pacing. I’m not a huge fan of talking head documentaries, but the images of the older black people talking about slavery drew me in. I found myself studying the wrinkles on their faces.
Abreu told me that the elders in this area lived in a community that had no electricity or running water until 2006 when they were evicted by a mining company. This means that they didn’t grow up watching the Globo, Brazil’s white-washed television company. They didn’t grow up reading magazines that only write about white and rich people. All they know is their story, and they haven’t yet forgotten it.
The Saints name of the film comes from the celebration of the Saint Maria Aparecida, who is considered a black Madonna in Brazil. The Afro-Brazilians in this film celebrate her day, October 12, with singing and dancing.
“Well why do we pray to her?,” Raimunda asked. “She’s black like us. She was a slave like us.”
Unfortunately, Abreu has had a difficult time placing the film in general film festivals in Brazil. The film seems to connect better with African-American audiences, who have had at least three chances to see the film. There is a burgeoning young black film movement in Brazil and hopefully he can connect his film with these audiences.
The film continues to travel so follow its progress via its Facebook page to stay up to date on future screenings.