Note from BW of Brazil: For five years now, this blog has presented material that breaks down the differences between being white in Brazil and being black. Although millions around the world continue to point to Brazil as an example of how the races can mix and eventually diminish the effects and the very existence of racism, numerous reports (many of which are used on this blog) actually show the exact opposite! Even with various international news sources showing that Brazil is by means a country in which one can go to escape racism, the myth of Brazil’s famed ‘racial democracy’ thesis remains. Putting yet another crack in this armor is Viviane Ferreira, a talented young filmmakers whose 2014 short film O Dia de Jerusa was featured in the Cannes Film Festival even as Brazil’s own media basically ignored it. In this thought-provoking interview, Ferreira speaks in depth about how the black population is treated on a regular basis in Brazil, touching on a number important topics along the way.
“It’s no use equating the experience of being a black woman in Brazil and being white”
Courtesy of Delas
The activist and director Viviane Ferreira came to the Ciclo de Cinema Afro-Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Cinema Cycle) of the Queer Lisboa film festival to present two short films and to discuss the condition of women. To Delas.pt she revealed a Brazil in black and white, where every day black women have to fight for the right to exist. At 31, she makes of racism and feminism her struggle and her art.
You are a filmmaker and activist. Do any of the areas predominate in your life?
I can’t hierarchize these two characteristics because I don’t conceive of art without politics. All artistic expression is an expression of political convictions.
Is cinema a girl’s dream?
I wanted to be many things: airplane pilot, and my mother put me in a school for children who wanted to pursue a career in aeronautics; music, I wanted to learn cavaquinho to play samba, and my mother gave me the instrument; actress, and my mother put me in a theater course; And I wanted to be a filmmaker and my mother put me in an audiovisual course.
What an encouraging mother!
She always said that the important thing is to dream. We could dream of being what we wish, and if it were within her reach, she would help, if it were not for us to try to accomplish them. The conversations at home always revolved around what we dreamed about. Later, when I was in high school, I had a very big doubt: to do film or Law.
Because of the activism in the black women’s movement in Bahia, it seemed very important to me to enter Law at the university.
Where did this interest in activism come from? You were very young.
I was almost 18 years old. I was born in a candomblé terreiro, in Salvador, I participated in groups of young people in the terreiro, in the discussions of social themes. From very early on I visited nursing homes to take clothes and food to the elderly, who no longer had the comfort of their families, or to orphanages, distributed meals to people who didn’t have anything to eat…It was said often that we needed to be supportive with these people because we shared the same racial belonging, that many were in situations different from ours simply because they were black. As a teenager, I joined an association of black women and there the political issues became more alive. I understood that it was important to study Law so that I could help.
Did you study cinema at the same time.
When I finished high school I was not able to make movies because in my city, Salvador, there was only one course and it was very expensive. Then I went to São Paulo and got a scholarship. At the same time, I enrolled in Law because I was afraid of not being able to enter cinema, I had already tried before. I ended up getting in both and doing them at the same time.
It must have been difficult to combine everything.
It was terrible but it was worth it. I had law school in the morning, I would study in an office in the afternoon, take film lessons at night and then study until four or five in the morning. I slept about three hours a day for three years. And I had was the weekends, when I could watch movies, the classics, and exercise.
How do you use Law today?
I work with public law and copyright. The cultural system in Brazil is supported by the public power. Although the private initiative provides resources, they are always encouraged by legislation and the black population, in general, it still doesn’t bring together all the tools to access this bureaucracy. Brazil tends to legislate extensively and with a very complicated language … I try to help.
Then explain to them how they can get to the financing…
Exactly. Another focus is to combat copying: many black artists from different languages are confronted with the fact that white artists, who are already well-known, visit their ateliers and then reproduce what they have seen.
Plagiarize the works?
Yes, it is very frequent and it is a difficult fight because we have a judicial system that is extremely racist. Trying to convince the judicial [agent] that the work was conceived by a black person is difficult because the white mentality of Brazil can’t admit other forms of existence. The judiciary power is mostly white …
…harmonic! This is not real. Gilberto Freyre [considered a pioneer of Sociology in Brazil] told this joke to the world and the world believed it but the reality is extremely dichotomized: whites on one side and blacks on the other.
But most of the population is mestiça (mestizo/mixed), neither branca (white) nor negra (black).
No. There is a black population with a very large epidermal diversity. Pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) in Brazil are negros (black); the whites are completely white – and this, obviously, if we forget the indigenous population that lives in that territory, resisting and being decimated with each passing day. But the reality of Brazil is that there are police prepared to assault and attack black bodies.
There is instruction, training, that is given to Brazilian police to kill black people. And several studies prove it. When they arrive in the barracks the soldiers learn that the suspect element is a black person. In any city, all black bodies are followed by guards still in Brazil today.
And are black women in a more delicate situation…?
Exactly. It is a life of extreme, extreme difficulty. They are invisible. Every day these female bodies travel in Brazil as if they didn’t exist, as if they did not surrender their life force for the existence of that country itself.
A difficulty shared by white women?
No, it is not possible to equate the experience of being a black woman in Brazil and being white. There is a basic question and we end up having to discuss feminism: while white women were fighting for access to the labor market, we already had a double shift in that market. While white women were fighting for the right to divorce, for example, we were already single mothers. These are different experiences. When white women were doing something else, black women were taking care of their children, being babás (nannies/babysitters), maids…Even among activists this is a very important question because, from the perspective of white feminist activism, they are all women until one white woman needs a nanny to take care of her son. At that moment the black woman stops being a woman, then she is the babá.
Do you think this still holds true today?
The lack of unity of the feminist movements is much criticized.
I think one of the big problems is the fallacy of unity. It doesn’t exist, people are different and therefore the movements are different. There are alliances at timely and specific times when themes are common. When they are not there can be no alliances because I can’t defend your sustenance more than mine. It is not possible to demand a oneness because, in fact, there is no feminist movement, there are several, what is good for black feminists is not for the indigenous because the experience of being indigenous is another…Obviously in the political discussion we find points of consensus and it is possible to negotiate the strengthening of each of these aspects but to demand unity is naïve absurdity.
There is also a queer feminism. Have you been involved in this area?
Within black feminism it is an issue that we also discuss and struggle with. We can’t assume that all black feminists are heterosexual, bisexual or lesbian, we are aware of diversity. But there is one thing that unites us that is racial belonging. Until we can account for the racial issue, we can deal with all other issues but always aligned with the subject of the race. Because the reality is that if I, black woman, will deal with queer feminism without considering race, I am sure that, even within this movement, I will be at the basis of priorities. The race element conditions us to marginality in any movement. That is why I can’t consider any other basis for action other than black feminism.
But there are supporters of other races.
There are people who identify themselves with the form of struggle but to belong to black feminism it is necessary to be that. It can be “together” but it cannot “be”. Being with me does not mean that you can be what I am – and vice versa.
It deals with the solidão da mulher negra (loneliness of the black woman). In fact it speaks much more of presence than of solitude, but the whole plot comes from my reflections, even in the bosom of the black feminist movement, about what we call the solitude of the black woman. It is very common to travel in Brazil and see black women completely lost and alien from their surroundings, even in contact with other people living in a state of extreme solitude, in the impossibility of sharing life, dreams, perspective.
It’s loneliness as a social phenomenon and not a personal problem.
There is one element that accounts for this, which is the alliance between machismo, sexism and racism, so ingrained. This triple violence affects in a very powerful way the female black bodies and there are souls torn in the process. I was disturbed by the fact that the movement vocalized this solitude very much from the possibility of having a male or female companion. I kept thinking that the problem goes beyond having or not having a person in bed because that can even be a choice, not having anyone in the house and having many people or, in a certain period of life, not wanting to be with anyone. And there are also married people who are still lonely because there is no sharing, no exchange.
How did you become interested in this subject?
I have a very close relationship with older people because I am from the candomblé. Children and old people are extremes that, inside the terreiro, we take care of, care for them like pearls, really: the old ones because they keep the knowledge and the children because they keep the expectation of learning to guarantee the continuity. When I arrived in São Paulo at the age of 19, I saw a very different reality from life in Salvador: people barely greeted each other and the older ones moved around in the city as if they didn’t pay much attention. That really frightened me. One day I was at a bus stop and there was a black lady cursing at her children and family because it was her birthday and there was no one (there) to celebrate. It was next to the Municipal Theater, with a fantastic architecture, and a rare sunny day in São Paulo. I had on headphones, listening to (MPB musician) Caetano Veloso, I was happy and she was very angry, it didn’t fit. She tried to talk and I said that the theater was beautiful, it was sunny. Then she gave up trying to talk to me and began to cry in silence, afraid to bother me…It completely disconcerted me. I spent a couple of nights thinking about that image and from there was born the idea of the film, to think about what the impact of loneliness could be on black already aged female bodies.
A little while ago you mentioned machismo. Are black men are very macho/sexist?
Machismo is a plague that is there and attacked all the trees, including the black men. Yes, there is also tension between the female and male black existence. There is tension in the world. We have discussed, for example, the issue of genocide in Brazil. There is a genocide of the black youth that is mainly comprised of black boys. And there is also a femicide that needs to be considered.
Genocide and femicide. Can it materialize?
The Brazilian state has several ways of taking black people’s lives. The guys are more exposed to direct police action. And there is the issue of access to health, for example: it is absurd, black women go to the public system and leave from there because the doctors don’t touch, don’t examine them. The moment of childbirth is violence, women are on the stretcher screaming and doctors say, “Ah, at that moment it didn’t hurt, did it?” Absurd things that black women still go through in the health system and there are deaths because of these atrocities. There are also black lesbians walking through the streets in Brazil and they are beaten because they exchange affection.
Does this not happen to other women?
There are stories of white lesbians who get verbal insults but it’s different. In the minds of the Brazilian population, if one is going to assault a white body one still thinks twice, three times. To attack a black body there is no barrier, there is no limit.
You have, therefore, many reasons to continue your struggle…
Exactly. I will continue existing. I do Law, I make movies, I want to do other things but, deep down, all this is to be sure that I have the right to exist in this way that I am, being a black woman. And I’m going to fight for my whole life!