Skip to main content

Diasporic Connections Black Documentary Filmmakers from New York Meet Their Counterparts in Brazil

By Nicole R. Fleetwood

From Joel Zito Araújo's 'A Negação do Brasil,' a documentary that looks at racial stereotyping in Brazilian television

The Black Documentary Collective (BDC) was founded in 2000 by veteran documentary filmmaker St. Clair Bourne after he organized a series of screenings and discussions in New York. To his surprise, over 100 people showed up at the first event. Through the series, established and emerging black filmmakers expressed a need to have a forum for sharing creative ideas, receiving professional support and networking. Bourne had been concerned about the lack of structure and collaboration among black cultural producers and activists, elements that had been so crucial to the Black Arts and Black Power movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In conceiving the Black Documentary Collective, Bourne aimed to form a group that was based on the collectivism of the 1960s but would accommodate contemporary needs in the independent African-American documentary community in New York City.  The collective is truly diasporic, with members from Canada, the Caribbean, and many regions of Africa, the United States and Europe.

Currently, the BDC meets monthly and organizes regular screenings, workshops and other events. Recently, BDC screened a series of members' films at the Anthology Film Archive in New York. The group has also participated in the IFP Film Market and has held events with the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) and the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The collective is in the process of acquiring its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and hopes eventually to develop a distribution component.

Last September, 11 BDC members participated in Festival do Rio, the international film festival held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In addition to screening 14 BDC members' documentaries as part of the festival's programming, the BDC representatives met with Afro-Brazilian filmmakers and activists, and participated on panels about race and media.

Founded in 1999 and held each year in late September through early October, Festival do Rio is the sixth largest film festival in the world. At this year's festival, more than 300 productions screened at over 30 venues throughout Rio de Janeiro, with some screenings taking place in an open-air cinema on Copacabana Beach. 

BDC filmmaker Nicole Franklin initiated the collaboration to bring BDC filmmakers and films to the festival. In 2002, Festival do Rio Executive Director Ilda Santiago and the US Consulate in Brazil invited Franklin to Rio de Janeiro, along with Morgan Freeman and other black filmmakers and actors, to inaugurate AfroFest, a festival intended to showcase Afro-Brazilian arts. During AfroFest, Franklin and Santiago began discussions about potential collaborations between the BDC and the arts community in Brazil. Santiago was excited to learn about the emerging film collective.

"We are excited to be taking a message of solidarity to the African diaspora filmmakers in Brazil," Franklin said prior to the festival. "We hope to strengthen our relations across the waters by sharing resources and encouraging filmmakers of African descent to finance and support each other's productions." 

Through the efforts of Franklin and BDC member Eric Tait, the group was able to attain partial travel support from the Ford Foundation. Franklin worked closely with Festival do Rio's Special Programs Coordinator Vik Birbeck, a native of England who has lived in Brazil for several years, to arrange the trip. Birbeck, along with other festival organizers, acknowledged their hopes that the BDC's presence at the festival would increase Afro-Brazilian attendance.

The BDC films selected for the festival included two Stanley Nelson documentaries, The Murder of Emmit Till and Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind; Madison Lacy's PBS series Free to Dance; St. Clair Bourne's two-hour biography Paul Robeson: Here I Stand!; Pearl Bowser's tribute to African-American pioneering director Oscar Micheaux, Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies; Terry Carter's A Duke Named Ellington;  Franklin's The Double Dutch Divas!; Tait's examination of the African burial ground in Lower Manhattan, Then I'll Be Free to Travel Home; veteran documentarian William Greaves' biography, Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice; Regge Life's meditation on Richard Wright's novel, Native Son; Michele Stephenson's work-in-progress, Faces of Change; Darralyn Hutson's Hughes Dream Harlem; Nikki Byrd's In My Own Skin; and Laurens Grant's work-in-progress, Rokia: Voice of a New Generation. A Q&A session, hosted by the filmmaker and a translator provided by the festival staff, followed each screening.

Among the most memorable aspects of the trip were two bilingual panels organized by BDC and the festival committee entitled "African-American and Afro-Brazilian Images on Film: Where We Stand" and "Race & Activism: Documentary as a Tool for Political Action." Held in the ballroom of the Copacabana Palace, both panels consisted of BDC filmmakers and Afro-Brazilian filmmakers like Joel Zito Araújo, director of A Negação do Brasil, a documentary that looks at racial stereotyping in Brazilian television, and Luiz Pilar, director of television novelas and short films.

During the symposium, Pilar and Zito Araújo discussed their attempts to form a network among Afro-Brazilian filmmakers. They meet regularly and have presented the government with a published manifesto, "O Negro No Mercado de Trabalho Audiovisual," demanding that a certain percentage of national film funds be set aside for Afro-Brazilian filmmakers. Franklin commented after the event, "I admire the fact that these Afro-Brazilian filmmakers are forming a network and fighting for their share of government financing, as they so eloquently stated during our panels. The government of Brazil has a film fund. If, indeed, Brazil is 50-70 percent black, based on those with one drop of black blood considered Afro-Brazilian, then how does the government allow for none of the Afro-Brazilian filmmakers to receive funds? It's absurd and has to be called what it is."

Equally as powerful was the audience response to the panels. Several Afro-Brazilians stood up to say that they knew nothing about the panels and very little about the festival. Another spoke of his difficulty entering the exclusive Copacabana Palace. Dandara, a young Afro-Brazilian woman filmmaker in the audience, discussed her difficulty receiving funding through Brazilian institutions for her work, even though her directorial debut film, A Funeral at the Samba School, has received international acclaim and plays in rotation on HBO Zone. More significantly, A Funeral at the Samba School is the first narrative film by an Afro-Brazilian woman.

During the panel, BDC members and Afro-Brazilian filmmakers began discussions about forming a long-term collaboration. One troubling assumption that BDC filmmakers had to face was the fact that Afro-Brazilian filmmakers looked at African-American filmmakers as wealthy, with easy access to funds for productions. While black filmmakers in the United States, relative to those in Brazil, have more opportunities for production, it was difficult, during the panel, to get across the extent to which race relations in the US still determine who has access to resources. At the same time, audience members and other BDC members bristled at comments by black American filmmakers that rang of condescension or insensitivity to Afro-Brazilian struggles. Yet, the two groups committed to continuing the conversation and designing a way to support cross-cultural productions. BDC filmmaker Stephenson, who has worked extensively in Brazil, cautioned, "I believe that we have a lot to learn from our Afro-Brazilian brothers and sisters, and that we need to take the time to get to know each other and not see it simply as a people who need our help.... There is much to exchange and reflect on." To date, the groups have formed a listserv, BDCandBrazil, to continue these discussions.

Given that one of the major goals of the trip was for the BDC delegation to interact with Afro-Brazilian filmmakers and artists, it was ironic that most of these interactions took place outside of the festival. The festival itself seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with Afro-Brazilians, Brazil's majority population. Beyond the festival programming, Birbeck attempted to organize events for BDC members to get a broader experience of Brazilian filmmaking and social issues beyond what was presented at Festival do Rio. But when Birbeck organized a tour to Grupo Cultural Jongo da Serrinha, a samba school in a favela an hour away from Copacabana Beach, festival organizers phoned the driver and told him that the neighborhood was too dangerous for an unsupervised trip. When the driver refused to take the group any farther, BDC members walked the rest of the distance to the samba school, where students warmly greeted and performed for the delegation. 

The lack of Afro-Brazilians was noteworthy not only among the festival's audience and staff, but also among the filmmakers represented at the festival. This issue further fueled the possibility of a long-term, fruitful collaboration between BDC members and Afro-Brazilian filmmakers.

The BDC delegate and films had an almost immediate impact and received a great deal of international press attention. BDC members met with South African Film Commissioner Themba Sibeko, who invited the collective to bring programming to next year's Sithengi Film and TV Market and the Cape Town World Cinema Festival. In addition, Festival Director Junia Torres invited a selection of BDC films to participate in November's Festival de Arte Negra (FAN) in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. As result, the BDC intends to expand its partnership with other international film festivals and conferences.

The BDC can be reached at


Nicole R. Fleetwood is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, where she teaches courses on visual culture, race and gender. She is also a member of the Black Documentary Collective.