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UCI Illuminations Holds First of Four Part Event on Black Brazilian Cinema

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UCI Illuminations hosted the first of four hybrid events centered around Black Brazilian Film in the Humanities Gateway Screening Room on April 6. This event featured guest speaker Dr. Kênia Freitas and two film screenings by Black Brazilian directors Zózimo Bulbul and Raquel Gerber. 

The event description for “Black Brazilian Film: Roots of Afro-Brazilian Cinema” highlighted the ever-growing film scene in Brazil, stating that young filmmakers are “changing the absence of Afro-descendants” in cinema and challenging the erasure of representation of Black life in Brazil. According to Time Magazine, Brazil’s Black population is only second to Africa, with 56% of Brazilians identifying as Black.  

The evening opened with guest speaker Freitas, who holds a Ph.D. in communication and culture from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Her opening remarks surrounded the history of Black Brazilian cinema, the new generation of Black filmmakers from 2010-onwards, narrative strategies and epistemologies of Black Brazilian cinema. 

“It’s been a long way to get [representation],” Freitas said. 

Because of this ongoing struggle, Black Brazilian filmmakers have assumed different strategies of storytelling. One of these includes the performative presence of Black bodies as “intense in the ways of showing [the] self,” as Bulbul’s movie demonstrated.

Bulbul’s “Alma no Olho” (Soul in the Eye, 1973), an 11 minute short film in which he stars, depicts Bulbul in a sterile white room as the camera jump-cuts to different parts of his body: first his teeth as he bares his bright while smile, and then, his buttocks while jazz pioneer John Coltrane’s music swells in the background. Bulbul then undergoes multiple physical transformations — from happy, naked dancer to anguished, chained man and from imaginary farmer to preacher in a white suit — all while shackled. It is a narrative reminiscent of the ascent of the Black man from slavery to present day. 

Freitas continued by stating that producing these kinds of movies made for a difficult continuity; Bulbul never directed another movie like “Alma no Olho,” and “Amor Maldito” (1984), directed by female director Adélia Sampaio, has not been recognized as a female-directed film until recently.

A short Q&A was held afterward in which viewers from Vimeo and inside the screening room asked Freitas questions, including whether she thought that the film movement connects to the fight for racial equality and social justice in the United States, referencing the Black Lives Matter and Black Panther movements. Freitas responded by saying that creation and social justice are inextricably linked.

“You have to participate in this world of anti-Blackness without being captured [by it],” Freitas said.

The second feature film of the evening, “Ôrí: A Reconstrução da Identidade Negra no Brasil (The Reconstruction of Black Identity of Black Identity in Brazil, 1989)” directed by Gerber, was the longer of the two films with a run time of one hour and 13 minutes. This film follows Beatriz Nascimento, activist and historian, who “searches for her identity through research into the history of the ‘quilombos’ as warrior establishments and focuses on cultural resistance, from 15th-century Africa to Brazil in the 20th century.” 

Quilombos were communities organized by fugitive slaves in colonial Brazil. Nascimento emphasized the “quilombo” culture surrounding Black Brazil in the film in an effort to return to their roots by uplifting Black radical thought and celebratory movements; emphasizing ancestral dance, music and ritual practices; and shedding light on minority struggles and political imbalances. 

A few audience members were moved by the message and aesthetics of Gerber’s film. UCI history professor Heidi Tinsman was “struck by the joy and creative power and collage of the Black experience.”

Two other people who were in attendance were native Brazilians. Joana Flor Tavares-Reager, a graduate student from UCI’s Earth System Science Department from Salvador, Bahia, decided to attend the event after the email from UCI Illuminations caught her eye.

“The message about oppression and the fight for the right to be a fully realized person [resonated with me], and still after decades, we keep revisiting [this problem],” Tavares-Reager said.

When asked why they created this event, UCI comparative literature associate professor Dr. Adriana Johnson and UCI film and media studies professor Dr. André Keiji Kunigami highlighted the importance of bringing these kinds of works to the fore in academic spaces and beyond. 

“I didn’t have access to Black Brazilian cinema, and given what’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important to me to widen this conversation,” Johnson said. 

“The conversation around Black Brazilian cinema is stuck, it’s just the same names,” Kunigami said. “This event was a good opportunity to create space and acknowledge these works.”

UCI Illuminations will be holding a total of four events this April exploring  Black Brazilian cinema, with registration information available on the UCI CampusGroups website.


Isabella Adderly is a Campus News Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at isabelca@uci.edu