The soul of black film in Brazil can be found in a three-story house in Rio de Janeiro’s bohemian neighborhood—Lapa. Afro Carioca de Cinema, a national organization that unites Brazil’s black filmmakers, calls this house home. During the year, the organization hosts screenings and classes. But the highlight of the every year is Encontro de Cinema Negro, Brasil, África e Caribe – the country’s largest black film festival.
The eight-day festival, usually held in April or May, invites filmmakers from all over the world for 10 days of entertainment, education and fellowship. But the festival isn’t just an excuse to showcase foreign talent. It is an accessible and affordable (entry to films is $R4 or $1.35) festival that features budding Afro-Brazilian talent. Its international focus stems from the history of black film in Brazil—a history that doesn’t go back farther than 30 years. Afro-Brazilians have long appeared in films going back to early days of Brazilian film. Films like "Orfeu Negro" (1959) and "Cidade de Deus" (2003) featured a cast Afro-Brazilian characters, but they were not directed or produced by Afro-Brazilians.
The international representation of the Encontro de Cinema Negro, Brasil, África stems from the international journey of one of the first Brazilian films to be distributed and recognized internationally – “Abolição." This film, directed and produced by Zózimo Bulbul in 1988, explores the history of Afro-Brazilians in the 100 years after the abolition of slavery. It is widely considered a “classic.” But the documentary didn’t find a footing on the international film scene until 1995, when Bulbul was invited to a film festival in Cuba. Then the New York Africa Diaspora Film festival called. By 1997 Bulbul and his film were invited to Burkina Faso for the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) film festival. Bulbul was inspired to create Afro Carioca de Cinema and its film festival in 2007, when he attended a gathering of Latin American filmmakers in France.
Since Bulbul’s death in 2013, Joel Zito Araújo has stepped into his shoes as the leader of black film in Brazil, literally and figuratively. His film, "As Filhas do Vento" (Daughters of the Wind, 2004) won eight prizes at the 32nd Gramado Film Festival (http://www.festivaldegramado.net/novo/premiados.php), the most important film festival in Brazil. Black Brazilian film is so nascent that Araújo is the only black filmmaker with enough power and pull to produce feature-length films. Despite this heavy burden, Araújo works to promote young filmmakers across Brazil and the world. And as the curator of this year’s film festival, Araújo put together a diverse slate of feature length and short films that represented the diversity of the African Diaspora.
The festival also had strong diversity in gender. A simple look at the program, which features a photo of every filmmaker, proves this. The themes of the films were also diverse. Many films addressed LGBT issues, female empowerment and traditional Brazilian culture.
The festival’s anchor films included "Morbayassa" (2015) by Senegalese filmmaker Cheick Fantamady Camara, "The New Black" (2014) by Yoruba Richen, "The Price of Love" (2015) by Hermon Hailey, "Mother of George" (2013) by Andrew Dosunmu and "Favela Gay" (2015) by Rodrigo Felha.
It was apparent that that Araújo chose films that would connect with a Brazilian audience. For example, in Brazil, the evangelical church movement is heartedly against gay marriage and rights, so "The New Black" (Yoruba Richen) was a natural choice for this film festival. "Oya: Rise of the Orishas" (Nosa Igbinedion) and "Sweet Honey Chile" (Talibah Newman) centered on Gods of Yoruba origin. But their approaches to the subject were entirely different.
The film festival held most of the screenings at Rio de Janeiro’s oldest public theatre, o Cine Odeon in downtown Rio. Famous Brazilian actors like Milton Goncalves ("Orfeu," 1999) and Léa Garcia ("Orfeu Negro, "1959) attended the opening night, where Cheick Fantamady Camara’s "Morbayassa" premiered.
Although "Favela Gay" (Review) attracted the most attendees with a sold-out viewing, many attendees agreed that one of the most impressive Brazilian films was "Alô, Rainha da Bateria" ("Queen of the Drum Corps") by Jorge Coutinho. Coutinho’s documentary examines the status of a role usually held by a black woman from a favela. But as carnival has become gentrified, white Brazilian women are willing to pay top dollar to become the Rainha.
Most of the Brazilian films at the festival were short films. This is due to the difficulty of making feature length films in the country and relative inexperience of black filmmakers. Even the most famous black Brazilian actor, Lázaro Ramos, has only been able to produce a 40-minute film and his film, "Do Outro Lado de Lá," showed at the festival. In some of the short films, the passion for the material superseded the technical filmmaking skills. One of the short films that is getting a lot of buzz right now is "Kbela" by Yasmin Thayná, who is also a natural hair blogger. The experimental short film examines the transformation that Afro-Brazilians go through when they embrace their natural hair beauty.
With Rio de Janeiro hosting the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, next year’s film festival will probably be the biggest. Filmmakers outside of Brazil with an interest in showing their work, should reach out to the regional curators and collaborators: Mansour Sora Wade for Africa, Rigoberto Lopez for the Caribbean and Joseph Jordan for the United States.
Kiratiana Freelon is an author and travel expert living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Follow on twitter: @kiratiana