Zózimo Bulbul’s legacy and contemporary black Brazilian Cinema

After Black Rebels in 2017 and Pan-African Cinema Today (PACT) in 2018, Soul in the Eye is the third programme that looks at key movements in pan-African cinema. Here we turn our eyes to Brazil, the biggest African diaspora community in the world, and link the recent upsurge of black Brazilian films to the pioneering work of the actor, producer, director and film activist Zózimo Bulbul (1937-2013).

Soul in the Eye, the English translation for the original title, Alma no olho, is a short film written, directed and performed by Zózimo Bulbul in 1973, and a keystone work in black Brazilian cinema. Inspired by Black Panther Eldrige Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice and dedicated to John Coltrane, this eleven-minute film was Bulbul’s debut as a filmmaker and is one of the most important references for black filmmakers who came after him. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Bulbul started his career in the early 1960s as an actor during the Cinema Novo era. After directing Alma no olho, he made seven more shorts and one feature film, Abolição, an epic documentary in celebration of the centenary of the end of slavery in Brazil.

Building Bridges

Bulbul was a relentless pan-African activist, fighting to denounce the erasure of African and Afro-descent cultures in Brazilian film and television. In 2007 he created the Centro Afro Carioca de Cinema, a quilombo (maroon) community in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, and founded the ‘Encontro de Cinema Negro - Brasil, África e Caribe’, the first black Film Festival in Latin America and largest to date. With this festival, and by establishing a partnership with Fespaco, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Bulbul connected African and diasporic cinemas, building bridges between black filmmakers around the globe.

Besides stemming from Bulbul’s legacy, the emergence of this generation of filmmakers is also related to Brazil’s affirmative actions between 2003 and 2016, resulting in an inclusive educational policy and new film schools outside the main capitals. These developments have mounted to a significant rise of black Brazilian cinema in the past years. Programmers Peter van Hoof and Tessa Boerman wanted to capture this momentum and invited Janaína Oliveira as a guest curator.

Oliveira worked with Bulbul as a researcher at the birth of his Centro Afro Carioca de Cinema, and for the past ten years has been researching and programming African and black diaspora films. She is currently curator of the Encontro de Cinema Negro and has been a key figure in promoting black Brazilian films in Brazil and abroad.

Refreshing Storytelling

The Soul in the Eye film programme shows a selection of Bulbul’s work and new releases by filmmakers from across Brazil. Among the features is André Novais Oliveira’s second long film, Temporada, in which he confirms his talent for capturing the subtleties of daily life. Directors Glenda Nicácio and Ary Rosa return after their award-winning Café com canela (IFFR 2018) with the unsettling and confronting Ilha. Besides feature films, Soul in the Eye sketches a panorama of contemporary black Brazilian short film production, with over twenty shorts created between 2014 and 2019. Among them is Nada, a short film by Gabriel Martins Alves, who has been nominated for this year’s Tiger Award with his feature film, No coração do mundo. Arranged in five thematic compilations of short films preceded by a work by Bulbul, each programme deals with a specific historical complexity of Brazilian blackness, presenting innovative filmmaking that resists, surpasses and recreates this experience.

It is this legacy that has instigated a wide range of refreshing storytelling, from the emphatically humane when filming everyday black Brazilian life (Eu, minha mãe e Wallace; O dia de Jerusa) to decolonising identities (Quantos eram pra tá?, Pattaki) and stories of surviving violence through affection (BR3, Rainha). This is a new generation of filmmakers making history by writing, producing and directing their own films, exploring their authorship and contributing to the variety of cinematic stories on human experiences. Like Zózimo Bulbul said after his first visit to Ouagadougou’s Fespaco festival:

“There, I discovered that the African who preserves oral culture loves cinema because it is a social act of integration, unlike literature, which is more individual. African filmmakers are true Griots, sages who tell stories to the people. And so we do here, respecting our time, our colours and our music.”

Something Bulbul himself never witnessed in Brazil, but envisioned by seeing the soul in the eye.

Photo in header: Still: Alma no olho