After all, in the last two years the Brazilian film industry has experienced a much-needed awakening when it comes to debating gender equality in entertainment, and while the road ahead is long, the feeling is that there is so much going on. There are more women speaking out, more movie fans willing to listen, more online sharing that leads to mainstream media coverage, and more festivals, seminars and other events dedicated to female filmmakers. Perhaps most importantly, women in Brazil are getting organised: they are gathering themselves and finding support in the form of collectives, film societies and even Facebook groups.
As in many parts of the world, this is a growing, yet recent movement that has yet to lead to significant change or even to major conclusions on what the next steps will or should be. But these last two years have left a very clear message: in Brazil, to talk about women in film is to talk about black women in film. Or, in other words, it is to talk about the absence of black women in film.
I have to admit, however, that I was not prepared to realize just how invisible black women were in Brazilian film. Of course I was aware of the historic racism that plagues this country, the last in the Americas to abolish slavery, and of the many social and economical challenges that black populations face. So I knew that black women were poorly represented in film and expected low figures. But I didn’t expect zero. And zero, or close to zero, was what I found.
Because the national film agency (known here as Ancine) has yet to collect data that focuses on race, the main source of research on the topic is Gemmaa, a Portuguese abbreviation for Multidisciplinary Study Group of Affirmative Action, connected to the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). The latest version of their study about the national film industry, released earlier this year, analyses gender and race of directors, screenwriters and lead actors working in all Brazilian films released between 1970 and 2016 that had an audience in theaters of more than 500,000 spectators.
The main conclusion is that, through all the significant changes that Brazil faced in the last half a century in film production, economy and politics, the cinematic industry remains largely male and white.
But just how male and white?
Among directors of all films considered, only 2% were women - zero of these women, black.
Among screenwriters, 8% were women - only one of them was identified as black.
Among the lead actors of these films, white women represent 39%, while black women represent a shocking 2%. And while the proportion of all white and black characters are about 6 to 1, when only female protagonists are considered it changes to 18 to 1.
This coming from a country where blacks make 54% of the population.
Looking for a mirror
Most of these projects aim to help black filmmakers, particularly female ones, to be heard and to be seen. Highlighting their work is a fundamental way to inspire others - much in the idea of “if she can see it, she can be it”, commonly used to defend the importance of female representation in the media.
An example of the power of this idea is Adelia Sampaio, the first black woman to direct a feature film in Brazil. The feature in question, Amor Maldito, was released in 1984, but the filmmaker’s name was brought to light only recently, by historian Edileuza Penha de Souza, a professor at the University of Brasilia (UnB). As many other Brazilians, I only heard of this pioneer in 2016, in an interview published by the website Blogueiras Negras. The article, written by Renata Martins and Juliana Gonçalves, had a poignant title: “Racism erases, we write it again.”
Since that article was published, Ms. Sampaio has been traveling all over the country to speak at festivals and seminars. In two recent events I was able to witness the excitement and reverence of young women in the audience, who were clearly thrilled and emotional to know Ms. Sampaio exists. I asked her how does it feel to be 74 years old and suddenly become a reference. She answered by telling me about a girl who came up to her and said: “All my life I was looking for a mirror, and now I found it.”
There is a lot of excitement, but there are a lot of challenges too. In August, for example, the Brazilian Film Academy announced the members of the commission that would be responsible for choosing the Brazilian candidate for the Oscar for best foreign film ("Bingo - The King of Mornings", by Daniel Rezende, was eventually selected). In spite of a growing pressure for gender and racial parity in juries and commissions, six of the seven members were white men. That means that only one woman, and not a single person of color, had a say in the decision-making process that helps a Brazilian production reach foreign audiences.
If the most urgent issue of my country’s film industry is the invisibility of black women, my collaboration with Her Film Project could not be about anything else. So my next articles will continue to highlight some of the initiatives and talents that are working to change this scenario. Momentum is definitely here. But equality for Brazilian women in film can only happen if it includes all Brazilian women in film.