Some of you might remember the 1984 “Quilombo”, a Brazilian film that dramatized the struggles of slaves who successfully resisted their slave-masters in the 18th century and created free settlements (quilombo in Portuguese) in the north of the country. The opening paragraphs of Vincent Canby’s review of that film would serve as a good introduction to the brand-new documentary titled “Quilombo Country” now showing at the Pioneer Theater in New York:
Toward the end of the 17th century, a sizable number of slaves from Brazil’s great sugar plantations escaped to the northeast where, in Pernambuco, they formed a legendary community (or quilombo), the Republic of Palmares.
For a brief time, Palmares became the haven not only for runaway slaves but also for Brazil’s Jews, poor white farmers and all others for whom life elsewhere was hopeless. Until it was finally crushed by the armies of the Portuguese king, Palmares was, according to the Brazilian film director Carlos Diegues, ”the first democratic society we know of in the Western hemisphere.”
First time director Leonard Abrams began working on a project to document the daily lives of the contemporary descendants of these rebels in 2001 and the film is clearly a labor of love. He basically allows Afro-Brazilians from a number of quilombos to tell their story, which revolves around a number of overlapping themes:
- the desire of the people to retain their African identity, which includes religious observances that are a syncretic mixture of Catholicism and African pantheism that the believers have no trouble reconciling.
- a willingness to confront racism in Brazil, which in the words of one interviewee manifested itself as a refusal to call the quilombolos by their proper name. He was frequently addressed as “moreno”, the word for “darkie,” even though people knew his name. He bitterly observes that even the barnyard animals are given names.
- the persistence of a communal mode of production using the kinds of food production technologies that their ancestors used, including fishing and hunting with very rudimentary devices. A typical meal might consist of armadillo roasted over an open fire. While this life does offer a certain sense of freedom being outside the cash economy, it comes at great costs. One quilombolo who moved to the city said that she would never go back because of the hardships, including the need to walk great distances every day for the basics of life. Only recently has electricity and fresh water been introduced into the quilombo village, thus attenuating these hardships to some extent.
- the conflict between the quilombos and large land-owners who have used their economic power and their privileged relationship to the courts and legislatures to encroach on traditional communal land-holdings of the descendants of slaves. (Including one landlord who had the audacity to use the stolen land for an eco-tourism park.) As frequently occurs with American Indians, a quilombolo is suckered into selling his or her land at a pittance.
Although the movie is focused on the social struggles of the people, there are joyous moments of singing and dance that reveal the African roots of much of popular Brazilian music today.
Finally, I would recommend (in addition to seeing the movie itself) downloading the very scholarly article on quilombo life written by the director from the movie’s website. It includes the following observation that strikes me as eminently reasonable and one that I drew myself after several trips to Sandinista Nicaragua in the late 1980s and early 90s:
The absence of financial means and human misery are firmly paired in the First World mind, to such an extent that even among those most open to other social systems, to suggest otherwise can constitute a taboo. The people discussed in this study are, in terms of monetary income, remarkably poor. Yet this society of quilombos appears to be quite functional, in some ways more so than certain subsets of people in the First World who are materially far richer.