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Precarious Ground


July 16, 2012

Documentarian Annie Eastman tells the stories of families in Salvador’s palafitas—water slums built on piles of garbage—and confronts her outsider status.

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Photo courtesy of Annie Eastman

To most tourists, Salvador is synonymous with its rich Afro-Brazilian culture: spicy food, a livelier street carnival than the one in Rio, candomblé (the Brazilian voodoo), and capoeira (a mix of martial arts and dance, dating back to slavery). But when American filmmaker Annie Eastman first visited, she encountered a far less festive scene. The windows of a school where she was volunteering looked directly out onto the water slums in Salvador’s bay.

Eastman spent over six years visiting the slums, where garbage was more than a byproduct of poor sanitary conditions. Dumped into the water under wooden shacks, and mixed with rubble and sand, it served as manmade, precarious, land. In this setting, a project by the urban development company CONDER, administered by the local government and funded by the World Bank, seemed like a welcome solution: It proposed moving the slum dwellers to dry land and cleaning up the bay. But problems ensued. The slum’s community liaison was excluded from the relocation meetings, leaving the residents anxious about their future. And when the project stalled, they took to the streets.

Eastman was on the scene to document the protests of those at the lowest rung of Brazil’s society, to whom even the slums on land were unattainable. The resulting documentary, Bay of All Saints, shows how environmental efforts can unwittingly victimize local populations. It also captures a missed opportunity to treat the problem as not merely an environmental issue but also a socioeconomic one, acknowledging the extent to which the slum dwellers’ livelihoods depend on affordable housing, public transportation, education, and jobs.

Eastman’s film, which won the SXSW (South by Southwest) festival Audience Award, is not for the faint of heart. Another relatively recent documentary focusing on garbage, Lixo Extraordinário (Waste Land) by the Brazilian visual artist Vik Muniz, shows Rio de Janeiro’s garbage collectors participating in a social art project, turning waste into eye-candy in Muniz’s gorgeous reconstructions of classical paintings (some sold at a London auction house). By comparison, Bay of All Saints offers no positive message. Its female protagonists suffer not only because of the extremely poor living conditions or the local government’s inefficiency but also due to the lack of sex education and the burdens of single-motherhood, closely tied to the vicious cycle of poverty and marginalization. It is one of the film’s great achievements that what emerges from this nightmarish scenario is a powerfully human and lyrical portrait of women fighting to secure a roof, and a future, for themselves and their families.

I met with Eastman in São Paulo after seeing Bay of All Saints in the É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) International Documentary Film Festival. Upon her return to her hometown of Denver, we continued our conversation via email.

—Ela Bittencourt for Guernica

“Even the people in the regular slums don’t walk onto the bridges. The area seems so off-limits.”

Guernica: How did you pick the three women who feature most prominently in the film—Dona Maria, Geni, and Jesus?

Annie Eastman: Norato, the local refrigerator repairman, talked to the traficantes, the drug traffickers, and brought me to a dozen families. The three families I picked stood out right away. Each of them represents a different reality of life in the palafitas. Geni is an assistant manager at a fancy pizza parlor, but earns a minimum wage, which is not enough to get a place and provide for her son. Dona Maria is a trash collector; she collects aluminum cans and supports an extremely impoverished family, with many mouths to feed. Jesus and Rafaela have so much drama unfolding in their lives.

Guernica: The fifteen-year-old Rafaela is pregnant. During your time in Salvador, did you see concentrated efforts to educate young girls about sex?

Annie Eastman: There are a lot of NGOs and there’s free condom distribution. But a lot of the social programs aren’t aggressive enough in reaching these populations. If you offer a course on women’s health on the Internet, they’re not going to know about it.

Even the people in the regular slums don’t walk onto the bridges. The area seems so off-limits. On a rare occasion, an NGO will bring foreigners to show them the shacks. It’s pure voyeurism, although I will say that there is a fine line between intellectual curiosity and voyeurism. I do think it’s good for foreigners to walk around those bridges, even though it is somewhat offensive.

“Many small businesses are doing well. Over a million tourists visit a year. But there is a strong distinction between the haves and the have-nots.”

Guernica: Did you note any generational differences in how the women relate to the environment in which they live?

Annie Eastman: I think the younger ones feel more desperation, especially if they are ridiculed by their peers, who also live in a slum, but on the ground. It’s a class-difference thing.

Guernica: How about opportunities? Have they changed in the years that you’ve been going there?

Annie Eastman: I’d like to see more change. I do sense more prosperity for the city overall. There have been quite a few urban development projects, a new soccer stadium has been built. The middle-class is growing. Many small businesses are doing well. Over a million tourists visit a year. But there is a strong distinction between the haves and the have-nots. In the case of people like Geni, the employers don’t have to pay her more, because there are so many people vying for jobs.

Guernica: What about your guide, Norato?

Annie Eastman: Norato was born and raised in the palafitas. His family worked very hard to fill in under their shack with trash, so they could be legitimate landowners. Today, he has a house that was built by his family on land. It’s a whole other reality. He can get mail. He is officially plugged into the water grid and the electricity grid. He has to pay bills, but as Geni often brought to my attention, when her electricity or water doesn’t work, she can’t call anyone for help.

As a freelance refrigerator repairman, Norato sometimes has contracts with large companies. In the palafitas, when he can charge someone, he does. But if he can’t, he just finds a way to do the work. He is friends with the prostitutes, with the drug traffickers, and with the extremely religious people. I was able to do the film because I had him by my side.

Guernica: Filmmakers like Coutinho put themselves in their films. Can you talk about your decision to make a film that’s observational, rather than participatory?

Annie Eastman: By making the choice to have Norato serve as the story’s guide, I, in a sense, barred my own participation in my film. Since he was born and raised in the water slums, but today lives on land, he has a very intriguing insider-outsider status. I made this decision early on–in part because although I speak the language and have worked as a professional translator, there’s no comparison between Norato’s dynamic with these women and my own. Their exchanges were more intriguing; in part because he likes to give his friends such a hard time—he teases them and probes them, and yet he’s so disarming and charming and so clearly in their corner. Ultimately, Norato’s presence allowed me to capture a more authentic, intimate portrait.

Guernica: Was there any resistance in the community to your project?

Annie Eastman: A lot of the times people would assume I was with CONDER. Norato got good at explaining that this was an independent documentary. We were very straightforward about what we were doing and didn’t encounter any resistance. I think the people in the community want others to know that they exist. For them, the presence of the camera is a welcome thing.

“I could go into a poor neighborhood in Denver and be at risk of misinterpreting a social issue because I’m not aware of all its various facets and nuances.”

Guernica: I only ask because documentary filmmakers shooting in foreign countries are vulnerable to criticism, such as not understanding the full scope of the problem or oversimplifying it. The Invisible Children film might be one recent example. What role did these criticisms play, as concerns or reactions, in your own work?

Annie Eastman: These concerns are at play any time you shoot a story that’s not about yourself or your family. I could go into a poor neighborhood in Denver and be at risk of misinterpreting a social issue because I’m not aware of all its various facets and nuances. Of course, admittedly, it’s even easier to make those mistakes in a foreign country, especially when there are different languages to consider.

Bay Of All Saints was a film that grew out of my relationship with a community that I’d lived in for almost 2 years, and been a part of—on and off—since 1999. That’s not to say I’m not a foreigner there—I always will be foreign. But at a certain point we have to give ourselves permission to trust our own perspective. Each person draws his own line in the sand of when that should be; I draw mine. I recognize that much of my view on the situation—or of any situation—is heavily influenced by the viewpoints of people around me who I trust. In the case of Bay Of All Saints those key people were the people in the film: Norato, Geni, Dona Maria and Jesus.

Guernica: Did you get any attention from the local media?

Annie Eastman: No. There was no mention of the water slums. CONDER is overseeing over two hundred development projects in Salvador. The one that gets most attention is the metro, which has been a huge debacle. Presidents of CONDER have come and left. At this point, the people in the water slums have very cynical attitudes. Partly because there have been so many corruption scandals in Bahia. The people have lost faith in their political leaders.

Guernica: Some of the slum dwellers were finally moved.

Annie Eastman: They opted into the program of people moving into the public housing on the outskirts. It’s only thirty kilometers from town, but it’s hard without public transportation.

Guernica: Your documentary was well-received by Brazilian audiences, but there was some concern that yours is yet another film that shows what’s wrong with Brazil. What message did you hope to convey?

Annie Eastman: I hope to inspire other Brazilian filmmakers to go after present-tense stories. I also hope that the Brazilian public doesn’t see my film as an attack. Obviously, the United States has plenty of things to be criticized for as well. I hope that people can be moved to ask what they can do to help.

Guernica: Brazil’s legendary documentary filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho, honored at this year’s É Tudo Verdade festival, has focused on many social issues, including the life in the extremely poor rural areas and in the favelas (Santa Marta, Babilônia 2000, O Fim e o Princípio). So have others, including João Moreira Salles and Kátia Lund (Notícias de uma Guerra Particular), Jorge Bodanzky (Iracema – Uma Transa Amazônica, Igreja dos Oprimidos), Rodrigo Siqueira (Terra Deu, Terra Come), Maria Augusta Ramos (Juízo), Cao Guimarães (A Alma do Osso), and Maria Raduan (Vale dos Esquecidos). What’s your take on these filmmakers’ work?

Annie Eastman: This is an impressive list and I haven’t seen all of them. When you consider the astonishing number of people living in slums worldwide (around 2 billion, or 1 out of every 6 humans on the planet according to the UN’s report in 2002) and especially when you consider the large percentage of people living in slums in Brazil, why shouldn’t there be an entire canon of films devoted to exploring the causes and effects of urban poverty? What medium, if not cinema, can better humanize the problem and engage people from diverse social classes to address sustainable urban living and fair access to infrastructure like clean water, safe housing, emergency vehicle access? My film focuses on a topic that has been addressed before, by Brazilian filmmakers themselves, but if we can only name five or ten or twenty films that shed light on this problem, perhaps there aren’t nearly enough.

Guernica: So did you still feel that an outsider’s view was needed?

Annie Eastman: I didn’t feel that an outsider’s view was needed, per se. I felt that somebody—anybody—needed to tell the specific story of what was happening in the water slums, which represent the epitome of slum life. The people living in them would give anything to have a home in the “regular” slums on land, which is considerably safer and where they would suffer less alienation and discrimination, even within the larger slum community.

I think it would be incredibly naïve to say that someone in my position could be a fly on the wall.

I had lived in this neighborhood and was continually astonished to find how few people in Salvador (outside of this neighborhood) even knew that such a place existed. They get no coverage in the local media. People in the city of Salvador don’t know they exist. As an outsider, I made the film not only because I happened to know this place existed and had strong ties to the community, but simply because I loved the people I grew to know and found them more film-worthy than anyone else I’d ever come across. Today I still consider them among my closest friends.

Guernica: Throughout, though, you had some doubts about your impact as a foreigner with a camera. How did you reconcile them with your desire to tell the story?

Annie Eastman: I think it would be incredibly naïve to say that someone in my position could be a fly on the wall. I do affect people with the presence of the camera. I think in this case my presence was a positive thing. The women thought that somebody was finally paying attention to them—they were important enough to record. In a way, though, it’s unfortunate that I’m a foreigner. I tried to contract Brazilian cameramen to film when I couldn’t, but I was told that they couldn’t risk their security, which is valid, but also a pity.

Guernica: What concerns some critics is the underlying assumption that the local governments or people are incapable of dealing with their own problems. How do you respond to this concern?

Annie Eastman: Whatever our relative degree of “foreignness” may be in a particular situation, at some point, we can no longer just shrug our shoulders and say, “I wasn’t born here, so I’m incapable of forming an opinion and/or criticizing anything.” In this specific case of CONDER, I spent quite a bit of time with them, interviewing them for the film and also speaking to them off camera about the project. My sense is that the individuals—from the low-level field workers on up to the highest officials—feel extremely critical of their own organization, their own government. But—and this would have to be a whole other movie—they are in a tight spot: it’s true the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and since the general population in Salvador isn’t aware of the water slums and is instead clamoring for a subway to be built, or various other development projects, the local government actually doesn’t have the popular support necessary to force them to make the poorest neighborhoods a priority.

So in that light, where should the finger be pointed? Is it the local media that isn’t doing enough to raise awareness about this situation? Perhaps, but I didn’t set out to make a film that attempts to untangle this imbroglio of culpability. My intentions are perhaps less ambitious, but more vital: I want the audience to feel something for these people and this place, simply because they are worth feeling for.

Ultimately, I chose not to include the CONDER interviews in the film and rather to create an observational portrait from the eyes of Norato, the refrigerator repairman, so as to focus more on the quotidian lives of these women and how they understand (or don’t understand) their situation with CONDER.

How often does someone who has visited the developing world make the remark: “the people are so poor, but they’re so happy!”

Guernica: Other critics, including the late Susan Sontag, have questioned the ethics of “romanticizing” the poor—showing the extremely impoverished as content, or suggesting that they are “just like us.”

Annie Eastman: This is a very important and sensitive point. How often does someone who has visited the developing world make the remark: “the people are so poor, but they’re so happy!” Of course this feels like a naive observation to me and I hope nobody would walk about of my film saying something similar. In the case of the specific impoverished families I befriended in Brazil, I actually wouldn’t make the claim that most of them are happy but I would describe them as often very extroverted, expressive and gregarious which at first glance could read the same as “happy.”

Bay Of All Saints is comprised mainly of observational footage and through it I allow the people to be people. Sometimes they are burdened by their cynicism and anger, other times they are hopeful; sometimes they are valiant, other times they fumble and are lost. People should never be conveyed as just “one note.” This doesn’t help the poor, nor does it help us to understand the poor. I think it’s important not to romanticize the poor, but it is important that the viewers identify with them. I think the reason we as middle class people let ourselves off the hook so often is that we are able to “other-ize” the poor.

Guernica: The three women in your film and Norato joined you in Rio for a special screening of É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) film festival, which took place in three Brazilian cities. What was their experience like?

Annie Eastman: We shared one large hotel room. We took part in festival activities and visited a few museums and parks, but we also spent time in the hotel doing mini-workshops: we used my laptop to practice using Google and Facebook and talked about how these tools might be of use in their lives (there are many internet cafes in their neighborhood that charge just pennies per minute). I also did a presentation on documentary filmmaking to help them have a clearer understanding of what our film is and how it might be used and distributed.

Guernica: You hope to take Bay of All Saints to human rights festivals. What role can documentary filmmaking play in addressing social issues?

Annie Eastman: We hope to be invited to the film festival in Salvador this fall, called Panorama, which will be extremely significant in terms of raising attention of the local officials. We also hope to work in a more structured way to help the families and to network with other NGOs that work with slum populations worldwide, such as Slum Dwellers International. We’d love to see this film screened in slums around the world.

The audience will never have the chance to know Dona Maria, Geni or Jesus themselves. But through the film, they can feel like they know them, and be more motivated to address some of the problems they’re facing that, in truth, are distant from our own realities. It’s all about bringing the stories into people’s hearts and minds. Simple statistics and information can’t achieve that.

G

Bay of All Saints may be found on Facebook and on the project’s website.

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One comment for Precarious Ground

  1. Comment by anonymous on August 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I often think of a documentary about Buckminster Fuller, and seeing his “silo” house made in the ’50s with all the amenaties, built cheaply from his pre-fab design: — why haven’t these NGOs’, or UNESCO or Slum Dwellers International — commissioned architects to create affordable pre-fab housing to address this immense problem, particularly with the increase affordability of “green” technology.

    Perhaps someone should make a documentary on how inept/corrupt/lame the NGOs really are, as witnessed in Haiti, with the thousands of NGOs clamering over each other, to cash-in on the out-pouring of money given worldwide!

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