Racism Erases History: One Black Brazilian Filmmaker We Must Remember

Professor, who are the most famous black Brazilian filmmakers?
...Silence...

It is really sad to be a black university student and after four years, not be able to name a black artist, musician or intellectual with a significant body of work. The real loss is that we are no longer the writers and protagonists of our own stories. As a result, the antagonists and secondary characters steal the show.

Adélia Sampaio, considered the first black filmmaker to direct a feature film, was erased from history. She has been overlooked by teachers, film critics, film buffs, artists of that time, researchers, and by many film students.

After all, since cinema is a field dominated by white, middle class men, what could a poor black woman, who directed four short films and one feature film between the 1970s and '90s, teach us? Who could she inspire?


Cinema is no doubt an elitist form of art -- and then you get this black woman, daughter of a housemaid, saying she wants to become a director. It was definitely difficult.

The racism that exists in many segments of our society, and which extends back to the 1500s, has erased the contributions of black women to Brazilian cinema.

But we must constantly rewrite the history that has been erased by racism and buried under layers of white privilege.

It is thrilling to discover the work of Adélia Sampaio, even if such a discovery is overdue. This month, a category at the Festival Palmares de Cinema (FepalCine), which takes place in east region of São Paulo, was named after Sampaio.

The "Adélia Sampaio" category was established in an effort to shed light on the rich work of young black women filmmakers.

We talked to the 72 year-old Adélia Sampaio about her journey with the film industry.

How did you break into the filmmaking industry?
I started in 1969 at a film distribution company called DIFILM, which was created by the Cinema Novo (New Cinema) organizers.

After an online search, I couldn't find much information about your short films. How many did you make?
A total of four. The first one, "Denúncia Vazia," was based on a true story about an old couple that makes a suicide pact because they couldn't afford to pay their rent. This short film wasn't screened in any festivals; the times were different and to protest with images was a complex matter. The second short was titled "Agora um Deus dança em mim!" And it tells the story of a young woman who studied classical ballet for 10 years only to realize that there is no dance scene in Brazil. This one took part in a festival, and won a prize. The third film, "Adulto não brinca," shows an adult's impatience with a child. I made the three films with the same crew, and Eduardo Leon, a teacher at USP helped me with the editing. These were all shot in Duque de Caxias, in the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. Lastly, I made "Na poeira das ruas," a film about the people that live in the streets in downtown Rio -- their clothes, their joy, their food and their furniture.

You were one of the first women to direct a feature film before the return of national film production in 1995. Moreover, you had the chance to take on many roles, including screenwriting, production, assistant-directing and makeup. Was the transition to directing natural or did you encounter much resistance? What were your biggest challenges?
According to a researcher and historian, I am the first African-Brazilian woman to direct a feature film. I learned everything I know by watching films. I was the production manager on several feature films made by many other directors, and that was my education. I learned about editing from my friend and teacher Leone, photography from my friend José Medeiros, and scriptwriting from my friend and late director Marcos Farias.

Cinema is no doubt an elitist form of art -- and then you get this black woman, daughter of a housemaid, saying she wants to become a director. It was definitely difficult. And I also had to split my time between working in the film industry and raising my two kids.

Who were and still are your main influences?
Jaques Tati, Chaplin, Bergman, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Leon Hirszman, Nelson Pereira dos Santos. And the films with Anquito and Oscarito.

In your 1984 feature film, Amor Maldito, you deal with the issue of homosexuality. How was the film received considering we were working in the '80s?
It was tough! First of all, Embrafilme [the Brazilian Film Agency] vehemntly said that the film's subject was absurd and that they would not fund it. The film was made collaboratively; all anyone received was a per diem, and actors such as Emiliano Queiroz, Nildo Parente and Neusa Amaral gave up their salaries. That is, they chose to fight by my side. Throughout my career, I have made great friends and allies. We had financial help from Edy Santos, an engineer at Furnas who believed in the project. We completed the film and no cinema wanted to show it. Then, the owner of Cine Paulista proposed to promote it as a pornographic film. I thought it over, talked to the crew and we agreed to do it. And it worked.

There is a growing demand for increased representation in the film sector. In cinema history, it's not easy to find your name as one of the first black filmmakers to direct a feature-length film. How do you feel about this?
It's like that when you're black and poor! Think about the negatives of my short films, which had been stored at MAM (Museum of Modern Art) and then disappeared. I don't agonize over it, life goes on. Maybe they will eventually be found. Who knows?

Is race a theme in your work?
No, I focused on human relations in my work. The short "Na poeira das ruas" addresses a contemporary theme: A population of marginalized black and white people. I produced a feature film called "Parceiros da Aventura," and the cast consisted mostly (80 percent) of black actors.

Are you following the current film scene? Could you say a few words about it?
Yes, I am an old lady of 72, who constantly observes the country and the film scene. I see young people who are eager to explore and talk about things that had been hidden, and they do so artfully, without holding grudges. With an idea in your head and a cellphone in your hand, you already have a film.

What is the role of women in the film industry, then and now?
We are constantly struggling to establish ourselves -- examples include Lucy Barreto, Nazaré Conceição Sena, Tizuca and many others. You will notice that women were responsible for the new boost in film production in the '90s: Carla Camurati with Carlota Joaquina, and Norma Bengel with Pagú and Pequeno Dicionário Amoroso.

Who was Adélia Sampaio? Who is Adélia Sampaio today?
Adélia is someone concerned with affection, kindness and fondness. She is someone who rejects prejudice and any kind of violence. With my children and grandchildren all grown up, I realize that I shouldn't waste my life and that I should always hold on to my restless spirit. I have new projects and I am looking for new partners, because the old ones are either dead or lack stamina.

Juliana Gonçalves co-authored this piece.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Brazil. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

This post was originally published on Blogueiras Negras.