Taking on the Brazilian hinterland with a visual machete and open ears spares Quilombo Country from being passed off as a senior thesis. This picture demanded someone willing to go native and build trust with indigenous subjects. Instantly. Documentarian Leonard Abrams trained on a sect of Afro-Brazilians whose enslaved ancestry in the country’s rural northern region traces four centuries back. Quilombos, or encampments, were established by uprisings over white oppressors. Today, the spears and knives rest, but the fight for land ownership and tradition continues while thrust in the formidable jaws of modernity. Casting heavy-hitting lyricist Chuck D as the narrator and piecing together some singing elements, the bulk of the work is a bit too congested and dizzying for one sitting. Going be a tough sell for the majority of folks who think Planters magically picks its own Brazil nuts sans a human cost. Those on the fringe demanding something honest will open wide.
Behold the depths of Brazillian jungle, where electricity has yet to spark, where light is by the fire and you grow and kill your meals. In a sort of primeval version of MTV’s Cribs, you’re guided into huts in villages. For festivals and entertainment, the calloused hands rip the bases of Babassu palms and slap raw animal skins on top to build drums. Mortar for houses, along with their leafed roofs, are handcrafted. And to many of the elders who once slept on wooden strips and ate from one shared iron cauldron, this is progress. The dedicated villagers grind plants and create flour and scythe their rice. Nothing goes to waste. The thousands of communities seeded from rebellions are separated by waterways and, as a force, they have dug in to hold their fort against modern might. Many squabbles have demanded the government’s intervention, tamping the frenzy over who owns what. For now, the quilombos are here to stay and, by their offspring getting a better education and returning to the land, they stand ready to win any battle against greedy ranchers whose fence lines keep expanding or hoteliers with tourism ambitions.
Celebration is the mainstay throughout each pit stop. The film covers a good deal of ground and manages to capture each town’s beat. But you move so fast through each one, and people are talking while Chuck D is trying to set you up with some tidbit or other—all this and you have to read subtitles. It’s a hard go if you don’t speak Portugese. The film’s run is at such a gallop that it’s not until an hour in where the pace eases and the film comes into its own. Credit the director’s big menu, but trying to pack a three-part series into 120 minutes is like trying to sell Jack his beans back for the cow. There are some moments where the dancing is steady, the drink is flowing and the mystical is in the air. However, despite the intimacy at the parties, the camerawork is jittery; the sound, poor.
Attempting to go to some of the remotest spots in the enriched soil of Brazil to showcase that there are festivals upon festivals that rival Carnaval is all well and good. And you meet some ebullient characters—young and old—along the journey. But there’s not much of a story here. Yes, the underlying subtext is that this land has a dark history that has turned for the best; the slaves freed themselves and after so many generations are getting the nod from the country that they never had. But everything is so clustered together, trying to showcase as many quilombos as possible without much integration, that everything becomes a lost proposition for the viewer to stitch up.
Without a clear route to take the footage, the film amounts to a few tickling glances between long awkward stares. When the chapter for Jauarí comes along, the film has found its tone and definition. It’s just too bad it took an hour to get there. While in this region you meet locals who are in the grips of racial tension and economic strife. All the while you canoe with them through their enchanting domain and see why this land is worth preserving. There’s a teacher who is so passionate about helping the youths learn yet she only has a grade school education herself. Brilliant stuff. As with natural progressions, the film ends on a high, and for that it deserves recognition. The storytelling is one that cannot be posed or mimicked. Leonard Abrams pushed the process and dealt a decent hand with this film, a piece of work that got access into the holy huddles and shared the prized secrets with all.
Quilombo Films/Two Boots
Director/Writer/Producer: Leonard Abrams
Running time: 114 min.
Release: September 19 NY