For an American who was lured to Brazil by her interest in capoeira dancing, there were times when Annie Eastman had trouble finding her footing while filming her directorial debut.
“More than once when I almost fell off the bridge,” said Eastman, who spent six years traversing a creaky walkway get to the country’s palafitas (or water slums). “When you’re holding a camera, your reality is very small.”
It’s ironic then that “Bay of All Saints,” the remarkable documentary which resulted from Eastman’s commitment, gives such a firm-handed, panoramic view of a place unknown to most. The film, which premiered at SXSW this week, tracks three women and their extended families in the poverty-plagued shoreline of Bahia where shabby shacks are erected on giant stilts and supported by the garbage that is collected underneath them. As Norato, the affable refrigerator repairman who serves as the film’s guide explains, “Anyone with money lives up in the sky” when referencing the city’s great skyscrapers that house the rich before looking around to say, “But we have our peace of the sea.”
That sense of pride even in the toughest of circumstances extends to the three strong women Eastman profiles — Geni, a minimum-wage assistant manager at a pizza parlor who created a home for herself after her boyfriend deserted her, Dona Maria, who supports her 16 children and grandchildren with plastic bottles she collects for cash, and a launderer named Jesus, whose granddaughter Rafaela gets pregnant at 15. As a result, it comes as a potentially mixed blessing when CONDER, the country’s urban developers announce plans to take back the bay and relocate the residents inland with government support.
Unfortunately, waste isn’t restricted to what’s underneath the makeshift homes and as Eastman’s film unfolds between 2005 to 2011, the families struggle with their uncertain living arrangements as a $49 million loan from the World Bank that was allocated to eliminate the slums is seemingly neglected. Although the inefficiency of local politicians given to grand statements, but little action to rectify the situation may be dispiriting, the opposite is true of Eastman’s portrait of the resolve of the families who do all they can to make ends meet. Shortly before the film’s premiere, Eastman spoke about her own extraordinary journey in making the doc.
How did you get interested in the water slums?
I actually left college and got a volunteer internship in the slum and spent 18 months helping out a grassroots organization that did arts and education projects for kids. I taught English and learned the language and got to know the community. That was actually how I got interested in Brazil. A few years later, when I learned that the government was planning to reclaim the bay and remove the houses that were on stilts in the water, I thought, “That sounds like a great film. I’m going to pick up a camera and start following this to see how it all ends up.”
How did you decide on the three families you decided to track?
Narato, the refrigerator repairman, was an old friend of mine from Capoeira and he has this remarkable talent at gaining confidence and ingratiating himself into the lives of just everyone he meets. He’s friends with the evangelicals, he’s friends with the prostitutes, he’s friends with the crack dealers. So I asked him how feasible do you think it is for us to take an expensive looking camera into this area and he said, “We can do it."
He went around in advance of my first visit and just told everyone, “We’re going to be around here with the camera. Just leave us alone.” They agreed and he has so many good friends that live in the palafitas, in the water slums and he brought me into about ten or 12 different households. I spent some time with them and very quickly realized that most of those people living there are single-mother families, so I decided to focus specifically on that. Of the dozen or so families that I met, the three that I chose just immediately stood out and also because each family has such a diverse reality. There’s different classes even in the palafitas.
Did you realize at first what kind of commitment this film would entail?
I did not. When I first started, the government was claiming that this urban development project was going to take place within 18 months. I thought I’d be filming the final chapter of my story within that period. Then there were just so many delays, as you’ll see when you watch the film —it was so bureaucratic and so delayed that that’s why it ended up taking so long. But that said, I feel like the longitudinal nature of the film actually is one of its strengths. Certainly I enjoyed every minute of working on it, so I was never in a hurry to wrap it up and get it to a festival. The fact that it took six years just meant that I got to enjoy it that much more.
Since you were traveling back and forth between here and Brazil, I assume most of your visits were planned, but there had to be others that weren’t.
It was funny how often that happened. I was constantly in contact with not only Norato through his cell phone and e-mail. A couple of the families [also] have cell phones. But also I was in touch with the urban development officials, always saying “You guys contact me if this, this, or this is going to happen.” So often there was delayed communication and I would stumble across knowledge that something big was happening. A handful of times I went to Brazil with less than 72 hours notice, which is tough to put whatever else I was working on on hold, but I made it work.
Speaking of which, you worked on a lot of other documentaries during this period of time as a producer. Did that help shape what you ultimately wanted to do with this film?
Certainly. I worked with Daniel Junge [director of SXSW 2008 favorite “They Killed Sister Dorothy”] for many years and he absolutely shaped my idea of how to go about these things. I actually wasn’t a filmmaker when I started this film. This was just something I stumbled into and said hey, that’d be a good idea for a documentary. and I’m so fortunate that right around that time, he came into my life and several other colleagues came into my life, especially my husband Davis Coombe [a producer of this film and editor of another SXSW doc “Chasing Ice”] and they gave me a basis for this stuff, even just simple things like the need to have a lavalier [microphone]. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve been impacted by that.
In the film, you use title cards to explain the ongoing situation with the stalled development of the water slums, and while it’s obvious you did a great detail of research on that front, the politics or the bureaucracy that’s to blame for the hold-up isn’t dwelled upon on camera. Was that a conscious choice?
That was probably my biggest decision with this film. I did spend a lot of time with the people at CONDER, the urban development officials, and for a long time during the project, I imagined they would be in the film as actually characters. They were all very open to me and very helpful and let me film their activities. I ultimately just realized it was a stronger piece if it could be through the eyes of Norato and more about the people and how they live rather than about the project itself.
What it really boils down to is they’re battling with bureaucracy and possibly corruption and I think it’s really interesting to ask the question, what really is bureaucracy? What causes it? I spent a lot of time focusing with them on that and realized that’s a question that’s actually better answered by perhaps by a book. But a film should be cinematic and emotional and I wanted it to be about these people, rather than to try and take on these really complex, nuanced technical matters that ultimately don’t really answer the questions they set out to answer.
It’s quite likely a more powerful story as a result. The moment it hit me the hardest was seeing Rebeca, Dona Maria’s granddaughter, who is quite young when we meet her grow into a young woman by the time you finish filming. Was there a similar moment during filming for you where you realized the scale of the story you were telling?
It’s strange to say this, but really in every moment even early on. When I was on the ground with those people, I was just so excited by the footage we were getting on every trip. That’s what compelled me to continue the project.
What’s it like to be back with this film at SXSW?
I was here in 2008 with “They Killed Sister Dorothy.” It feels great. Since that time, I’ve been dreaming of being able to come back to SXSW, so what better occasion? That was really the first job I had in this industry and I learned so much on it. It was such an exciting project to be a part of – one minute, we were in the depths of the Amazon jungle and the next minute we were in a federal prison talking to murderers – and so much about that process informed this process. But I’m thrilled with the whole trajectory with my whole learning of Brazil. I hope that I get another project after this that brings me back down there so I can continue to learn even more.
Since you seem to be a multi-tasker, is there anything else you’ve been working on?
Literally, the past couple months I’ve put in 12-hour, 16-hour days on this, but I’m really interested in continuing to work with this medium, especially observational character-driven films. I have a half-dozen ideas on cocktail napkins that I’m trying to develop right now. Most of them relate to family issues or issues of women and children. I want to do a project on identical twins and childhood obesity is something I’m really interested in as well.
"Bay of All Saints" currently does not have U.S. distribution. It will play SXSW twice more on March 14th at the Alamo Ritz 2 at 8:30 p.m. and the Documentary: Audience Award screening on March 17th at 6:30 p.m. at the Vimeo Theater.