Brazil and Philly: a common story of an education marked by segregation
The consequences of slavery to education both in Brazil and in the USA is the scenery for Baobab Flowers, a film directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Gabriela Watson.
Slavery is a stain in the history shared by Brazil and United States. Brazil was not just the country that received the most number of Africans it was also the last country in the Americas to end its slavery, doing so in 1888. The US ended slavery in 1865, but segregation kept Afro-descendants from merging into society. More than a century has passed, a lot has been improved in Civil Rights, but Afro-descendants still struggle living, mostly in low income neighborhoods where they don’t have access to good education. This scenery is the plot for Balba Flowers, a documentary directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Gabriela Watson Aurazo, which received the Audience Award for Favorite Documentary Short at 2017 Blackstar Film Festival.
Baobab Flowers portrays the toughness and tenderness of two educators, one from Philadelphia and the other from São Paulo - Brazil, showing that, in essence, the issues faced by public schools in the USA and in countries in development like Brazil are very much the same.
With a multicultural staff and the support of Dr. Doris Derby, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie gained the admiration of the public, but according to Dr. Derby a lot has to be done yet. The work towards equality has to continue.
“I could see from the public's reaction that they were very touched by the stories portrayed by the teachers.” Says Watson. “The idea was to make a very personal film with which the audience could feel connected to the characters, and I believe it worked. We showed moments of intimacy but from a poetic point of view and I think the public identified itself with the difficulties our characters face.”
Watson, who was born and raised in Brazil, moved to Philadelphia to pursue graduate school and recently finished her Masters of Fine Arts in Film and Media Arts at Temple University. Baobab Flowers was her theses film and the decision on the subject came from the observation that even in the US, Afro-descendants go through similar struggles to the ones they face in Brazil.
With this film, Watson invites people to reflect on the unequal access to good education faced by people of African descent, and if the formal education most students have access to is representative of Afro-descendants.
The film was named after the iconic African tree, the Baobab, whose flowers blossom just once a year. According to the myth, Africans, after being captured, walked around the Baobab in order to leave behind their culture and identity. The characters portrayed in the film try to do the exact opposite in their communities: rescue the African identity that the Afro-descendants were forced to leave behind.
The characters, Nyanza Bandele in Philadelphia and Priscila Dias in São Paulo give the tone to the movie. Both black women who are politically active, divorced mothers and educators with strong ties to their communities.
In Philadelphia, the educator Nyanza Bandele tells us about the difficulties she faces while teaching at Overbrook High School where she had to deal with a hostile school district, lack of teaching material and uninterested students. Students sleeping in class and with difficulty of concentration were frequent moments captured by Baobab Flowers.
In Sao Paulo, Jardim Horizonte Azul at State School Amelia Kerr, in an underprivileged neighborhood, among broken chairs and desks in a poorly kept facility, the educator Priscila Dias uses her time in class not only to teach, but to help her students to connect with their roots and better understand their importance in society. Priscila, an Afro-Brazilian woman whose parents are illiterate, was in the first generation that was able to attend college in her family. With her Masters in History in hands, she decided that it is in the underprivileged areas that she is needed.
They teach at schools in low-income areas, deal with the lack of resources and infrastructure, students that often come from broken homes and face a curriculum that does not portray their history, but above all they use education to promote change in the life of their students.
To Watson, the main contribution of Baobab Flowers is to bring side by side the experience of these two women and show how they are similar or different. Watson wants to show the public how Black women play an important role in their community, importance that requires women to stay strong as a pillar for the community.
Although we had a lot of progress in civil rights, there are still a lot of issues that combine poverty and race. “When you look at statistics, equality is not there. And for me, as a black woman and a filmmaker I want to give voice to people that have a unique perspective on these issues”.
Watson’s attention towards equality and diversity started before filming Baobab Flowers. In 2012 she directed Nosotros, Afroperuanos” -Brasil/Peru 45 min - that brings a reflection over racial issues in Peru. For Baobab Flowers’ production, she managed two different crews, one in Philadelphia and another in Sao Paulo, and both crews were formed by people of diverse backgrounds and identified with the theme in some way.
For the Creative Producer Melissa B. Skolnick, having a crew of both women and people of color made the crew representative of some of the content of the film.
“It’s important to create coalitions and connections across our community”. Says Skolnick. “And I feel Baobab Flowers is doing exactly that”.
She believes that especially now, when we see so much injustice happening around the world, it’s important to build on these connections so a bigger impact on these communities can be made.
Watson also counted with Dr. Doris Derby as Executive Producer for Baobab Flowers. Dr. Derby is a renowned Civil Rights activist, anthropologist and documentary photographer who has been a long-time supporter of Watson’s project. They met in 2014 when Dr. Derby funded a scholarship to the Temple alumni through the Black Women Film Network, an Atlanta-based organization. Dr. Derby then became Watson’s mentor.
According to Dr. Derby, what these teachers go through today is very similar to what she faced in the 60s while part of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Although a lot has changed, the Black communities still need to improve, and the best way to reach this improvement is through education. For Dr. Derby the film is just the start, the effort must continue. After telling Nyanza and Priscila's story, it’s time to raise funds and help them to help their communities.