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July 29th, 2007
Brazil in Black and White
Filmmaker Notes

By Adam Stepan


Photo of Adam Stepan
Photo credit: Billa Franzoni

One of the things that strikes any foreigner who arrives in Brazil is its amazing racial mixture. Growing up in the U.S., with its often polarized racial landscape, it’s a welcome relief to arrive in a place where people of all colors seem to easily interact.

Yet after spending a little time in the country, one begins to realize that another dynamic is also at play. Blacks and darker-skinned Brazilians — so present on the beaches and streets — begin to disappear when one enters the world of universities, corporate boardrooms, and banks. Opening the pages of VEJA magazine — the Brazilian equivalent of TIME — one might think that it was published in Switzerland, not in a country that is about 50% Afro-Brazilian.

I lived in Brazil as a young child, and returned to work there as a cameraman and documentary film producer in the 1990s. At that time, the issue of race and of affirmative action was not debated. Brazil was, most people felt, a “racial democracy.” The fact that blacks were much poorer and represented less than 4% of the college student population, was, to most people, just the way things were.

It was exciting for me to have a chance to watch this finally begin to change in the last few years, as the issue of race began to be debated on a national level in Brazil.

Having a chance to make this film and to capture this moment in Brazilian history has been a most rewarding experience. As the father of two young girls who are half Irish-American and half Afro-Brazilian, the question also has a personal relevance for me beyond the film itself. What kind of world will they find as they grow up? How will Brazil’s changing view of race affect their lives as they get older?

It has also been a challenging film to make on several levels.

Race is far from being a simple issue in Brazil. Slavery was only abolished in Brazil in 1888, and without a violent civil war. Brazil never had the sort of legal segregation that we had in the U.S. or that existed in South Africa. It also never had a civil rights movement. Until now.

For many years, Brazilian intellectuals and the government have repeated the mantra that in Brazil, race doesn’t matter, that in Brazil, racial mixture is a source of great strength, not a problem.

This is a wonderful idea, and one that Brazil has exported to countries around the world. But the great paradox of race in Brazil is that this positive idea has gone hand in hand with a system that in fact does discriminate against darker people. Until recently, it was common for people to say that someone was a “preto de alma branca”, a “black with a white soul,” and for this be a compliment!

How to make a film that would capture some of these subtleties without becoming confusing to a U.S. audience was one of our greatest challenges. Time and time again we had to remind ourselves not to view things through the prism of U.S. race relations.

As we mapped out our story, it soon became clear that it would be impossible to completely explain or explore all the issues involved. We set our sights on capturing what the new debate on race meant to the lives of a few Brazilian students.

I was most fortunate to have the help of Renato Barbieri and Andrea Fenzl of Videografia, excellent documentary filmmakers based in Brasilia. Together we came up with a plan to find a cross section of Brazilian students — both lighter and darker — who could share with us what it feels like to be young and in the middle of this new debate. Andrea visited scores of schools in Brasilia, and interviewed close to one-hundred students.

The process was full of surprises. Many times we arrived at the house of someone who — based on their photo — we assumed classified themselves as “Afro-Brazilian,” only to find that their family, when it came to history, wealth and status, saw themselves as 100% white.

The opposite was also true. With the quota system, identifying one’s self as “black” has, for the first time, brought benefits. So on the day of the university’s photo session for Afro-Brazilians, an amazing number of very European looking students arrived to try their luck as “blacks” in the quota system.

These sort of surprises would follow us throughout the process of shooting. As we got to know our students and their families, time and time again Brazilians refused to “fit” into the preconceived categories we have come to accept here in the States.

We had other sorts of surprises as well, some of them much less pleasant. A dramatic and terrifying event about half way through our shoot brought home the importance of these issues, and the challenges faced by so many poorer Brazilians.

It was a Friday night in the Ceilandia shantytown, outside the capital, Brasilia, and we had just concluded an interview with one of our students, when our van and crew were assaulted by armed gang members. The dangers of shooting in Brazil are something I have lived with off and on for more than ten years, and thankfully I had never, until this project, been in such a situation. Two men armed with sawed off shotguns held up our soundman and camera assistant as they were loading gear into our van, beating the driver with a gun butt. They stole our tripod, cases and other gear.

These were a terrifying few moments of horror and confusion. Our relief later that night on realizing that — amazingly — no one had been seriously injured was balanced by the grim knowledge of how close we had been to real tragedy, and the fact that these dangers are a constant in the lives of many of our students.

So there it is — Brazil! Much good humor and creative thinking, and also many very real problems to be solved.

If we succeeded in capturing a bit of this, it is in large part due to the help and guidance of my Executive Producer Robert Stone and the WIDE ANGLE team, who worked with me throughout the editing process to keep the stories of our students in focus.

We hope it is a film that raises questions and inspires debate, especially at a time when affirmative action is under increased fire here in the U.S. More than fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate public schools, the U.S. has a population of educated and economically-empowered blacks who inspire people the world over. It also has continuing areas of entrenched poverty and exclusion, much of it race-based.

At a time where racial lines here in the U.S. are also (thankfully!) blurring, perhaps Brazil — for all its problems — can help us find new ways to think about color, and new ways to work towards the elusive goal that drives all affirmative action plans — equality not only of rights, but also of opportunities and results.

Adam Stepan
24th of August, 2007

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