“Black people need to construct their own narratives”: Nicho 54 institute seeks to increase participation of black professionals in Brazil’s film industry
Nicho 54 is an initiative of producers concerned with black representation in the film market
In a recent discussion I was reading in one of my social networks, one of our members mentioned how the 2007 Brazilian film Ó Paí Ó reminded him somewhat of the classic 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. I had never thought of the film in that way and looking back, I could remember elements of that film that did remind me of the aforementioned Spike Lee joint. Both films depicted featured a primarily black cast, instances of racial conflict and everyday black life. But one difference in presenting these depictions of black life is that ‘Right Thing’ had a black director calling the shots, while Paí had a white director, I would assume Jewish based on the last name. Considering Brazil’s film industry as a whole, this should come as a no suprise.
According to criteria of social movements, fifty-four percent of the Brazilian population is made up of black people. This based on IBGE figures that combine the preta/black and parda/brown populations. But when the issue is production in the realm of cinema these figures drop dramatically. For example, considering Brazilian made films of the year 2016 for example, only slightly more than 2% of these films had black directors or screenwriters.
Taking only black women into consideration, the numbers drop even more: there were no black women directors or writers in 2016 Brazilians films. These figures are taken from a research project entitled ‘’Diversity of gender and race in Brazilian films released in 2016’’, by the National Cinema Agency (Ancine) of last year.
With the goal of altering this reality and diversifying the audiovisual market, executive producer Fernanda Lomba, critic and curator Heitor Augusto and screenwriter and communication executive Raul Perez founded the Nicho 54 institute. The objective of the project is to promote actions that bring more participation of black professionals in the Brazilian film industry, for both those who work in front of and behind the cameras.
The project was created considering international experiences that deal with historical reparations against exclusion based on race and gender in the film industry. Some examples of programs dealing with these issues are Diversity at Berlinale and Diversity in Cannes.
With such a lack of representation in their own country, black Brazilians often turn to their ”cousins” in the United States for examples, to get a a sense of representation and inspiration. Recent releases such as Get Out (released as Corra in Brazil) Pantera Negra (Black Panther), Moonlight and other films featuring black actors as main characters, the discussion of black people playing leading roles in film productions has only increased in Brazil, but the call for more opportunities has yet to fully materialize.
“Protagonism is a strong word. You have to understand what protagonism means, if it’s the protagonism only on the screens, then you will have more black actors in these roles, but not necessarily roles that offer a possibility for this actor to play a role of complexity, more developed characters. We are basically talking about many stereotypes that are being offered to black actors where they can’t explore what creative work they have in the position of actor. If it is this protagonism, one can say that it exists, but not yet in the power that the person can come to show of their work. Now, if we talk about the protagonism behind the screen, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the volume that the protagonism would give”, said Fernanda Lomba, in an interview.
The initiative of the Nicho 54 Institute is focused on professional qualification and the insertion of black professionals in Brazil’s film industry. The project seeks more representation and diversity in the national film industry through actions that consider gender, class and sexual orientation. “Talking about diversity and understanding what that term is is fundamental for everyone to be talking about the same thing and seeing it the same context. Digging into this term and digging into space for this discussion to exist is active work that needs to be done,” says Fernanda.
The institution focuses on three foundations: training for the qualification of professionals in various sectors of audiovisual production; curatorship, for the creation of a black cinematographic repertoire; and market, to place these professionals in the market and bring them closer to the film industry. “These are processes, and we are better today than 10 years ago. The time is ripe for input from various sides, from work like Nicho 54 to other projects that also make affirmative action plans. These works start with a ‘little leg’ of what may become the black protagonist in audiovisual,” she says.
Even with American blockbusters with black protagonists being featured in world cinema, this type of narrative is considerably weaker in Brazil, this even with the obvious talent pool of black filmmakers. However, a network of people is organizing and taking actions to change this reality.
“The racial chasm in the Brazilian audiovisual industry is not due to the absence of black professionals. What is missing is market opportunity and accessible training initiatives.” – Fernanda Lomba
“These first steps are due to a whole movement of black people from various areas, not only cinema, but black people who are activists in various fields. In the moment in which we live, it has to do with social media communication, the information circulates more, even though we work in bubbles. It has to do with people reporting, explaining and not accepting some treatments. There is a whole network that is busy together, which actually has a whole transformation needing to be done at this moment,” says Fernanda.
“Brazil is a country that has never discussed slavery, never discussed the impact of slavery on the current configuration. So not everyone understands that they need to do an active job when it comes to the reparation of black people in the cinema”, she concludes.
Having worked in film for six years, the film producer Fernanda Lomba, 30, knows first hand the challenges of working in this industry as a black woman. “I’ve felt a lot of things, I’ve been through very aggressive processes, but at the same time I’ve been experiencing the power of being a film professional. I am linked to a project that works with the power of diversity in the market, it’s a box that fits me well. These are perspectives that I really know and that I am interested in changing. As it makes sense, people have respected me a lot and for the first time the thing of being a woman and black is positive. It’s not easy, there are several between the lines we always need to deal with, such as harassment. In short, it’s a state of alert all the time,” reports the producer.
Although Brazilian cinema is in a moment of celebration in terms of productions and awards but in and outside of Brazil, there are many obstacles to move forward in this context, especially when considering public investment. The current government’s disregard for cultural production and attacks on the National Film Agency (Ancine) are present in the current perspective and hundreds of productions have been brought to a halt. The whole fiasco with the film about Communist revolutionary Carlos Marighella is but one example. Even not directly affecting the production of black narratives, since blacks have never had major participation in the market, this moment is particularly troublesome.
“It’s very delicate, because on one hand a band of black creators who work with cinema, the Ancine crisis doesn’t touch, because we didn’t have a chance to enter this structure, to enter the edicts, to be evaluated. We can work with other resources, other sources or effectively with no money. It doesn’t stop us because many of us have always worked without these incentives. On the other hand, a country like Brazil, which doesn’t invest in culture, making a cut in cinema, activating the censorship process, is worrying for everyone,” she emphasizes.
Construction of our own narrative
On November 20 (Black Consciousness Day), Nicho 54 launched Nicho Novembro, an initiative that brings together film screenings, workshops and a masterclass with Maria Angela de Jesus, a Brazilian director of Netflix original productions in Brazil. All the activities were free.
The activy was run by Spcine, supported by Projeto Paradiso, an initiative of the Olga Rabinovich Institute, which goes down at Jardin do Centro, a location that offers coffee, a movie theater and coworking in downtown São Paulo.
The opening chat happened in the Seed Room, coworking in the Jardin Do Centro
For Nicho Novembro’s opening event, the collective held a chat with professionals and students studying and working in the area of cinema. Also on the agenda, with the intent of exploring the possibility of telling new narratives and emphasizing the theme of potência negra (black power or potency), the popular 1970s blaxploitation classic Cleopatra Jones, directed by Jack Starrett, was shown.
The 1971 film centers on the title character Cleopatra “Cleo” Jones, played by actress Tamara Dobson, an undercover agent for the US government who uses her overseas modeling career as a cover. Along the way, she exposes racist cops and remains loyal to her community that was, by that time in American history, was being flooded with illicit drugs.
Although the film falls under the genre of blaxploitation (black exploitation) it was also important for the image of black Americans during the “Black Is Beautiful” phase of African-American history, featuring Dobson who an actual model that worked on various campaigns for internationally recognized products such as Revlon, Fabergé and Chanel.
Although there are various problems with the images in the blaxploitation film era, it was an era in which numerous films were being made in which black actors and directors made a name for themselves targeting a black American audience starving for representation on the big screen. Cleopatra was clearly one of the blaxploitation films that influenced director Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, starring another icon of the genre, Pam Grier.
For Nicho 54, featuring Cleopatra Jones was important because as it is necessary for Brazilians to see images of black people in film which can be seen in a positive manner. Although the classic was released in 1973, over 46 years ago, it has something in common with 2018 blockbuster Black Panther and still needs to be discussed now in 2020: black representation.
Whether speaking of the black experience in Brazil or the United States, the subordinate roles, stereotypes and lack of representation are the same when the topic is film. Black film and television critics such as Donald Bogle and Joel Zito Araújo have both pointed out the problems with black representation in Brazilian and American media.
Another thing these films often have in common is white directors, as is the case with both Cleopatra Jones and the aofrementioned Ó Paí, Ó, which had and still has the affect of, even when presenting black images, helping to cement certain social roles, functions and images of black populations. But in the case of the US, a small but influential group of black filmakers emerged out of this demand for black representation. The same has yet to happen in Brazil, even as the talent is clearly there.
Event was its own ‘’quilombo’’ for black professionals of filmmaking
The members of Nicho 54 understand the necessity of having black people telling their own stories, both in front of as well as in behind of the camera. Speaking on the question of white directors telling black stories, historian Carlos Machado said, “It’s very complex the situation of a white telling the story of a black, without being in his place. It’s basically talking about a culture that is not yours.”
Nicho 54’s Heitor Augusto echoed this sentiment saying, “black people need to construct their own narratives so that, increasingly, we can also see ourselves as heroes on canvas.”
When the event came to a close, spectators and participants all joined in celebration at the Quintal do Centro, another space with the Jardin network, where an Afrojam went down, a project that celebrates the musical creations of indy black artists. The Afrojam was the perfect closing as even in the party atmosphere, there was a common feeling that, for the hours that the event took place, from the film aspect to the music, the Nicho Novembro had succeeded in making an aquilombamento* of its event.
Two questions for Fernanda Lomba
How is Nicho 54 Working?
Now with Nicho the talk is very straight, basically the meme ‘no time brother’. Being black people at the head of an institution like Nicho, it makes no sense to fictionalize the facts. We need to establish a very direct dialogue and in this key of establishing this direct dialogue, this has hit people very well, because they have found a project option that is purposeful, that has an agenda, that wants to do work in practice. We want to deal with numbers that are absurd today and transform those numbers in a few years.
What type of feedback are you getting from this project?
I am feeling a very sincere welcome, people want to insert themselves and teach for free, for example. The white allies, they exist and are very important for us to remember that there is this space for the person who works with cinema to offer support and be an ally of a project of reparation. This is not just a discussion of black people, it is a discussion of all people who care what kind of image we convey.
*At the root of the word aquilombamento is the term quilombo, referring to the communities established by fugitive slaves in Brazil. The creation of quilombos is considered an act of resistance in the sense that it was the rejection of the slave regime with inhabitants creating their own highly developed settlements maintaining their own ways of life of existence. In today’s context, whenever Afro-Brazilians begin to organize themselves to address situations of exclusion in Brazilian society and begin to create their own can be said to be creating aquilombamentos of whatever genre they choose to partake in.
With information from Emerge Mag and Correio Braziliense