Considered one of the most oppressed groups in Brazil, victims of both sexism and racism, black women have long been underrepresented on the country’s cinema screens. Although they make up 51.7 percent of the country’s female population, black women only appeared in two out of every 10 Brazilian movies released between 2002 and 2012, according to research by the Group of Multidisciplinary Studies of Affirmative Action. When they did appear in films, black and brown actresses only accounted for 4.4 percent of the main characters. Not one of the 218 highest grossing movies during that decade employed a black woman director or screenwriter.
But a new generation of filmmakers is demanding of be heard. They are determined to bring the experiences of black women to the big screen, and are earning attention from the media and audiences for taking on issues of race and gender. Race “is so complicated in Brazil, sometimes you don’t want to talk about it, so you end up bypassing it completely,” says Sabrina Fidalgo, an independent filmmaker, screenwriter and producer from Rio de Janeiro. “And when you ignore such an important issue, you’re being false, you’re selling a fake reality. There’s no way you can talk about the Brazilian reality without talking about race.”
“There is a debate going on in the country, in the world. We have Viola Davis, Beyonce, high-profile black women in media, and leading companies, like the president of Xerox [Ursula Burns]. Brazil is another place to bring the subject to light,” says Yasmin Thayna, a screenwriter and director from Rio de Janeiro.
Fidalgo is part of a new wave of filmmakers that includes Thayna, Everlane Moraes and Viviane Ferreira, to name a few, who are using their cameras to show what it means to be black in Brazil. Thayna released her first work, the short film “Kbela,” in 2015. It strings together poetic images of the daily lives of black women, like a young girl having her hair straightened and a woman using her hair to wash dishes, in reference to the frequent comparison of black hair to steel wool.
Black bloggers and alternative media hailed Thayna’s work, comparing it to the 1974 film “Alma no Olho” by Zozimo Bulbul, arguably Brazil’s most important black director. “Once, after one of my screenings, a black girl commented she never thought she would hear the sound of coily hair being combed in a movie,” says Thayna.
Realizing she had tapped into a cultural void that needed filling, Thayna launched Afroflix in May. The site streams films and other audiovisual content, all made with at least one black person in an artistic or technical role. In Brazilian film, Thayna says, “narratives are usually white. But directors are realizing that cinema is strategic to the discussion of racism. There are other ways of seeing yourself in other spaces.”
After completing “Batalhas” this year, a documentary about the first baile funk group to perform the Miami bass-inspired music at the municipal theater in Rio de Janeiro, Thayna is working on her debut feature film, which tells the story of two black girls in love.
Fidalgo says that she and other women are able to tell their stories on film partly due to Brazil’s left-wing parties, such as the Workers’ Party, which over the past decade have made education more accessible through subsidies and political policies. She also credits the development of technology that lets anyone with a cellphone shoot a film. “That enabled people to make cheaper films, helped this process to happen,” she says. “Making movies went from a place of absolute privilege to a more diverse place.”
Even with a solid education and cheap tech, making good movies isn’t easy. But Brazil’s black female directors find they also have to fight prejudices held against women in power positions. According to a 2015 report by professional services firm Grant Thornton, Brazil ranked third in a list of countries with the least number of female employees in higher positions, with only 5 percent holding CEO or CFO positions.
“The director is the one who gives the final word on set, everything has to be done the way they want,” says Fidalgo. But as a female director “you have to keep repeating yourself, the male actors do not do as you say, at first. They want to argue and show you that they are right and you, wrong.” Fidalgo made her most recent (and seventh) film, “Rainha,” meaning “queen,” with a mostly female crew. The film depicts a woman who dreams of becoming the lead of her samba school drumming section. “It was the most peaceful and happiest set I’ve ever had,” she says. “So I decided to work with the same people for all my films, including the actors. I created a group called Iansamble,” combining the name of Afro-Brazilian goddess Iansa and the word “ensemble.”
Fidalgo’s hope is for Brazil’s film industry to get to the point where race is secondary to the storyline, with filmmakers and audiences so used to seeing black women on screen that they don’t even notice. “I want to be free to speak on any issue. I want to talk about anything, without necessarily being political,” she says.
Fidalgo points out that her 2012 film,”Cinema Mudo,” about a girl addicted to the internet, stars a white actor. “I don’t make ‘black cinema,’ there is no such a thing. This expression is racist. I think it’s surreal not to cast black actors in a place where the majority of the population is black. And I want to write good roles for black actors, to break the stereotype – naturalize the presence of black actors in film.”
Thayna also dreams of a time when she no longer feels obliged to make movies about racial issues. “I want to make films about, I don’t know, real estate speculation, for example. But it always involves the issue of racism,” she says with a sigh.
Still, she sees signs of progress in the fact that more and more white faces are appearing in the audiences for her films. She credits a growing community of black female filmmakers with helping each other get their stories out to people who might not normally be exposed to them. “We were already making these films, each one doing her stuff in isolation. Now we have festivals for women, for example,” she says.
Her short film “Kbela” wasn’t accepted by any of the major film festivals and it didn’t make its way into cinemas. Instead, it screened to audiences through an alternative circuit of independent festivals, schools, parks and cultural venues. “I think the audiences in those places are more mixed than in the big festivals,” she says. “I may be a dreamer, but I think we’re creating a new way of film distribution here.”