Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Essay


“I Want the Whole World”



The Rise of Queer Black Storytelling in Brazilian Film
by Heitor Augusto







À beira do planeta mainha soprou a gente (To the Planet's Edge Mama's Breath Sent Us) (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmakers Bruna Barros and Bruna Castro.




It is 2010. Black Brazilians are navigating the film industry in their so-called motherland, yet they remain their own islands. There is an unspoken apartheid. For the most part we are lone bodies in white-dominated settings, despite the fact that people who look like us constitute most of the population. Film festivals, which have the potential to be a space for sponsoring an array of representations of the lives that make up society, remain largely pale: our experiences are either rendered invisible or morphed into violent representations. We are thirsty.

When you look at a film screen, it’s deserted—or rather filled with blinding whiteness. You look past the screen and find only white hands holding cameras, white voices screaming “action” and “cut,” white fingers placed on mousepads that cut and paste images and sounds, white silhouettes determining what will remain as history and what will be forgotten. And yet you feel you have a history and a past that has been hidden from you. You know there are others like you, people who want to reclaim film as a legitimate space to inhabit. But whiteness rewards only those whose Blackness is perceived as nonthreatening, isolating them within white walls and discouraging mutual identification with the scarce bodies like theirs.

Now cut to ten years later. We’re not alone, and survival strategies have been developed, deployed, and shared. We have interlocutors and people who serve as our mirrors. The films we were looking for have begun to be made. Now we can talk about them and develop a circuit where they are at the center, as we continue to discover new things to crave.

This is the shift in the landscape of Brazilian cinema that I and other researchers, scholars, programmers, producers, artists, and other professionals have been witnessing. A central part of this advancement are queer stories told by Black filmmakers. In my previous essay for volume one of Seen, “Traviarcado! Queer Intersections in Contemporary Black Brazilian Cinema,” I delved into unapologetic representations of LGBTQ+ lives, particularly in two films: Perifericu (2019) and Bonde (2019). Queerness was historically seen as an exclusively white identity in Brazilian cinema, and its public embrace has allowed Black filmmakers to express the entirety of their multiple identities, relieving the pressure of having to compartmentalize representations.




You know there are others like you, people who want to reclaim film as a legitimate space to inhabit. 



In this second installment, I shine a light on two films featuring affectionate relationships between Black women, A felicidade delas (Their Happiness; 2019) and À beira do planeta mainha soprou a gente (To the Planet’s Edge Mama’s Breath Sent Us; 2020). Each offers a response to the guiding question of my research: how did we get here?

Many of the reasons behind the metamorphosis of cinema in the country include a combination of political, economic, and cultural factors throughout the last two decades. Arguably the most substantial event was the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president in 2002. An embodiment of contradictions, his tenure as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010 combined fairly conservative financial arrangements that benefited banks and big corporations with progressive policies aimed at fighting structural inequalities. His policies included the expansion of the network of free federal universities, a tuition-free program called ProUni1, and affirmative action systems for Black Brazilians and Indigenous descendants in public universities.

Affirmative action, which in Brazil we refer to as cotas raciais or “racial quotas,” has a storyline of its own that predates Lula’s presidency by decades.2 As the racial and cultural backgrounds of university students slowly changed, a deeper transformational process was unfolding. The significant increase in people of color in college pushed universities to rethink their own existences, as new cohorts of students have continued to challenge what is taught, how it’s taught, and who teaches it.3





À beira do planeta mainha soprou a gente (To the Planet's Edge Mama's Breath Sent Us) (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmakers Bruna Barros and Bruna Castro.
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A second marker crucial to understanding the transformation of Brazilian cinema is the emergence of national grants benefitting Black artists. Now discontinued, the Curta Afirmativo and Longa Afirmativo grants subsidized the production of short and feature films by Black filmmakers, and held three editions, or calls, between 2012 and 2016.4 Since 2016 there has also been a steady growth in the number of grants that sponsor some form of affirmative action for marginalized groups including women, those with disabilities, and Black, Indigenous, and trans people. Complementing this intricate net of production funds are the grants targeting other portions of society disenfranchised by this financial complex.5

Short-term classes and workshops held at NGOs, cultural institutions, and festivals have also had a sizeable impact in expanding access to resources. Complementing this intricate net is the arrival of cheaper technological devices such as smartphones, microphones, and free editing software, as well as the expansion of access to broadband internet and 4G technology. Internet culture has allowed for huge increases in independent production outside of established venues like film festivals. Starting with YouTube in the late 2000s, moving images have become more accessible than ever with Instagram, Vine, and most recently, TikTok.6






A felicidade delas (Their Happiness) (2019). Film stills courtesy of filmmaker Carol Rodrigues.



Seen/unseen


Within this changing landscape, queer Black cinema has flourished and reenergized Brazilian cinema, particularly in the short film format. Here, my predilection toward two shorts by and about Black lesbians stems from an interest in countering invisibility. Even within the realm of LGBTQ+ representation, we tend to focus on the experiences of cisgender gay men while rendering lesbian cinema invisible.7 I spoke to three filmmakers at the epicenter of this cultural shift in cinematic representation: Carol Rodrigues, the writer and director of three films including Their Happiness, and Bruna Barros and Bruna Castro, who have collaborated on Amor de Orí (Orí’s Love; 2017) and To the Planet’s Edge Mama’s Breath Sent Us.

These changes have allowed professionals from Rodrigues’s generation to explore territories previously unavailable to Black creators, while creating an environment where the voices from younger generations like Barros’s and Castro’s are appreciated and seen as worthy.

Their Happiness, which centers a passionate chance encounter at a feminist demonstration, leads to an unloading of pleasure that quite literally takes over the city. As Rodrigues explains, “I grew up watching stories in which I was told that if you have amor sapatão8, it’s going to end badly. One couldn’t experience peacefulness. So the title of my film is an open celebration of a lesbian Black story with a happy ending.”





À beira do planeta mainha soprou a gente (To the Planet's Edge Mama's Breath Sent Us) (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmakers Bruna Barros and Bruna Castro.




The characters’ encounter leads to a big bang of sorts: dams break, streets flood. “Water is both life and death. Lust is life and death. I had this image of an orgasm that transmutes into water, the characters’ bodies taking the shape of water that tears walls down, hauling people, dust, dreams, and cravings,” Rodrigues says. As the protagonists take shelter from the police after the demonstration is dispersed, we feel as if they’re sharing a secret under the public’s eyes as runaways.

Rodrigues had quite clear intentions in this storytelling: “[Black lesbians] are pushed to existing only in the margins. But in my film, I wanted to state that we don’t need to be behind closed doors or in the dark. We aren’t obliged to [accept] the imposition of norms. We can recreate them within our own rules and dynamics, reinventing gestures and relationships.”




I grew up watching stories in which I was told that if you have amor sapatão, it’s going to end badly. One couldn’t experience peacefulness.



Meanwhile, To the Planet’s Edge Mama’s Breath Sent Us is a slice-of-life documentary about the relationship between the two directors and their mothers. Similar to Rodrigues, the directors of To the Planet’s Edge Mama’s Breath Sent Us share a craving for nontoxic Black lesbian representation, a desire for viewers to be left with a feeling of love. “It comes from our wish to ground love for people like us, even in spaces where it has yet to flourish. We believe that the violence lurking [in] our imagination limits the way we can envision our own narratives,” Barros explains. Barros and Castro’s film is also a story between daughters and mothers and the specific challenges presented in these relationships for queer women. “Mama” in the film’s title refers to Yemoja, the Yoruba deity that oversees the waters. As the directors note, this works as a metaphor for how we negotiate our identities with the people we love, such as our parents. As water flows, one is engaged in a game of give-and-take. “We as characters and as people want to be loved. It requires us letting ourselves love, unconditionally, even when things aren’t going the way we want [them] to, for ourselves and for them, our moms,” Barros says.

Both of these films share an atmosphere of tenderness and intimacy. The boundaries between private and public are blurred as the couples in both films take over the streets and various places, reclaiming them as their own. Such feeling is represented by a defining line spoken by one of the characters in Barros and Castro’s film: “I want the whole world.”

I shared with Barros and Castro how their use of a first-person narration made me feel as if such a personal story was in fact everyone’s story. “I find it interesting to think of it as [a] film about everyone because our stories are frequently seen as ‘specific’ or ‘particular’ but never as universal. The role of the universal being seems to always be reserved for a different type of person,” Barros says, echoing what scholar Grada Kilomba theorizes in her groundbreaking book Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism. “One of the driving forces to me was to create a film grounded in sharing an intimacy,” Castro observes
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À beira do planeta mainha soprou a gente (To the Planet's Edge Mama's Breath Sent Us) (2020). Film still courtesy of filmmakers Bruna Barros and Bruna Castro.



I asked the pair, both in their mid-twenties, about their experience with the country’s transformation as they came of age, and how it might have changed their trajectories. “I wouldn’t say it’s less poisoning,” Barros says of the current climate. “But [it’s] certainly less at ease with attacking us in public, because we are prepared to strike back and don’t feel ashamed of being who we are. I feel there’s no way we’re giving up our pride—we’re not turning back. But unfortunately, it doesn’t mean safety and fulfillment to us, because hate, violence, and their institutional arms remain in effect.”

I was also interested in hearing their perspectives on the interactions between different generations of queer Black Brazilians and what we, who are a bit older, could learn from the younger generation. “We must practice listening while engaging in mutual dialogue. In our conversations we must be aware that we grew up in different contexts, and such understanding can help us expand our perspectives about our own history,” Barros reflects.

As for Carol Rodrigues, I asked how she felt witnessing the rise in queer Black Brazilian film compared to its previously desolate role. She lit up in her reply, explaining: “I’m so happy to be a contemporary to my young peers. . . . We’ve expanded how we envision what it is to be human and have taken it to a different level. We nurture our dreams and nourish from them, harvesting energy from the future. The accomplishments of the younger generations nourish me.”

Water has been found in the desert. It tastes good.


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Based in São Paulo, Brazil, Heitor Augusto works as a film programmer, researcher, writer, and lecturer whose practice shows a predilection toward connecting the African diaspora. His most recent curatorial research focuses on queer and experimental Black cinema. He is the head programmer and cofounder of Nicho 54, an institute working for racial equity in Brazilian film industry, as well as reshaping the collective imaginary. You can reach him at heitoraugustod@gmail.com.


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FOOTNOTES

1.  Due to its setup based on tax exemptions to private colleges, Programa Universidade para Todos (University for All Program) has always been at the center of heated debates. However, it isn’t unusual to be in a room where you’ll find multiple Black professionals who benefited from this policy—myself included. This is also the case for writer and researcher Marcell Carrasco, who reflected on the program’s effects on his academic trajectory in an essay, “Excavations and Recollections around Zózimo Bulbul’s Abolition,” for Cinelimite (https://www.cinelimite.com/post/excavations-and-recollections-around-zozimo-bulbuls-abolition).

2.  Verena Alberti and Amilcar Araujo Pereira, “A Defesa Das Cotas Como Estratégia Política Do Movimento Negro Contemporâneo,” Estudos Históricos 6, no. 37 (2006): 143-166, http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/ojs/index.php/reh/article/view/2249/1388. A thorough investigation in Portuguese of the role played by Black activism in influencing the national discourse.

3.  This has occurred particularly at public universities, which are free for all students and tend to be the best regarded in Brazil.

4.   Even though these funds didn’t pay special attention to queer creators, filmmakers from that community were awarded, including Carol Rodrigues, who is later referred to in this essay. Rodrigues’s first film, A boneca e o silêncio (The Doll and the Silence), was among the twenty-nine projects awarded by the Edital Curta Afirmativo in 2012.

5.   Perifericu (2019) and Bonde (2019), two films analyzed in my previous piece in volume one of Seen, have received financial support from São Paulo’s VAI, or Valorização das Iniciativas Culturais (Appreciation of Cultural Initiatives), a fund exclusively for artists based in remote areas of the city.

6.   One shining example is RebuA egolombra de uma sapatão quase arrependida (Rebu, an Egotrip of a Barely Repented Dyke) (2019). Director Mayara Santana debuted the work as a microdocumentary series on Instagram (@rebu.doc). Only later was it picked up as a short film by festivals.

7.   In recent years, such invisibility has been firmly combated by programmers, researchers, and graduate students. I’m particularly fond of the work of Mariana Souza, who has made lesbian lives in cinema her primary object of investigation as a lecturer, researcher, and curator, devoting her attention to what she calls “practices of visibility.” I also admire film programmer and scholar Carol Almeida, a white woman whose investigations encompass queer women of color.

8.   Lesbians have been reclaiming sapatão and sapatona, Brazilian Portuguese variations of “dyke,” as a term carrying new meanings and a way to assert their identity as political beings that defy the voyeuristic male gaze.