A woman with curly black hair stares intently at the viewer as fast jazz music plays in the background.
The scene quickly switches to a woman dressed in turquoise putting soap into another woman’s hair, with only her head visible to the viewer. As the music intensifies, the scene goes black; the only visible features are two pairs of lips, mouthing words such as “Afro hair” and “dark skin” in Portuguese.
On Saturday, Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies held the event New Voices in Brazilian Film in 511 Dodge Hall, a screening of two contemporary Brazilian films: “Kbela,” directed by Yasmin Thayná, and “Is the city the only one?” directed by Adirley Queirós. Tinker Visiting Professors Carlos Augusto Calil and Esther Hamburger introduced the films and led a Q&A panel following the screening.
“Both films are from people who are the first in their families to come to university and to become filmmakers,” Hamburger said in an interview with Spectator. “They represent this transformed Brazil … more inclusive, although still very unequal, but much more inclusive than it was 30 years ago.”
Hamburger and Calil, both professors at the University of São Paulo, currently teach a course at Columbia called Film TV and Internet in Brazilian Re-democratization: 1984-2014. According to them, Brazil has had its most democratic period in Brazilian history over the last 35 years due to the adoption of a new Brazilian Constitution. Hamburger, who researched Brazilian telenovelas for her book “O Brazil Antenado,” noted that the Brazilian film industry has become increasingly diverse and representative of different social classes and different races.
“For the first time, there are filmmakers who come from popular hoods,” Hamburger said. “Some of these filmmakers mobilize powerful disruptive aesthetic forms to frame memories of traumatic experiences in ways that reposition the present and open venues to imagine the future.”
In order to depict this diversification, Hamburger and Calil chose the 20-minute experimental film “Kbela,” which tells a story of overcoming black discrimination in modern Brazil. According to Calil, “Kbela” is a “manifesto against skin color prejudice” that stresses the idea that “black is beautiful.”
“Kbela” focuses mainly on the hair of Afro-Brazilian women and their resistance to artificial beauty standards in Brazil. Through depictions of Afro-Brazilian women with all sorts of hairstyles, including some women wearing traditional turbans, Thayná reveals how Afro-Brazilian women should be empowered to rebel against Brazil’s erasure of black cultural traces and to appreciate their heritage.
“Kbela” portrays this resistance through scenes that allude to the works of impactful authors and artists. In one scene, an Afro-Brazilian woman covers her face and upper body with a white pigment but then removes it entirely to reveal her black skin, an allusion to author Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book “Black Skin, White Masks.” In another scene, a woman cleans a metal cooking pot with her hair, an allusion to performance artist Priscila Rezende’s piece “Bombril.”
The other film presented at the screening, “Is the city the only one?”, centers on the division between Brazil’s capital, Brasília, and the surrounding Ceilândia region. Ceilândia, whose name comes from the Portuguese word for “Invasions Eradication Campaign,” was created in the 1970s to house poorer Brasília residents who were forcibly relocated by the Brazilian government because, according to the film, they made the city “uglier.”
The docufiction film contrasts archival footage from the construction of Brasília by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa with newer footage taken of Ceilândia. The film also combines the real-life story of Nancy, a singer who grew up during the development of Ceilândia, with the fictional life of Dildu, a man running for political office.
Nancy speaks about how she was recruited by the government when she was a little girl to sing in a choir that recorded the official jingle of Brazil’s initiative to expel the poor from Brasilia—a jingle that enforced the false idea that this relocation would not divide society. Years later, Nancy tries to record the jingle for an album to preserve its history.
Dildu, an audacious man, tries to run for district representative, creating a campaign that would reimburse many families who were displaced to Ceilândia and establish a better education and health care system. The last shot of the film shows Dildu walking off into the distance, an ending that, according to Hamburger, reveals the “tragic” failure of the campaign.
Hamburger notes that “Is the city the only one?” is one of the first films depicting poorer areas in Brazil that focuses more on the exterior than the interior, with the film showing many outdoor spaces and landscapes. These shots of Ceilândia’s scenery reveal stories of trauma and collective struggle rarely seen in film.
“Performance and documentary combine to produce documentation about a place that before was not in the screens,” Hamburger said. “When archival images are not available, the film readily produces them, giving form to memory and turning itself into a vivid archive.”
To Hamburger and Calil, both films reveal common political and social elements of society both in Brazil and the United States, with these films potentially leading to greater unity and greater understanding between both countries.
“Sometimes we tend to get close in our small world. … Once we are here, we are hearing a lot about impeachment and things like that, but we don’t hear much about what’s going on in other places of the world,” Hamburger said. “So I think it’s very important for people in America to realize what was going on there, as it is for people there to realize what’s going on here.”