Entries by Lance Belville

From the Birds to Fair Trade Certified Producers’ Brew, Brazil’s Best Coffee Gains Acclaim

By Lance Belville
November 27, 2009

Yes, Brazil produces coffee. A lot of it. About four out of every ten cups that go down the throats of the world’s coffee drinkers came from Brazilian beans. Most of that was commercial grade, a polite way of saying mediocre. It’s the stuff that sits on your favorite American supermarket’s shelf in the big tin cans. In Brazil, it’s the brew you drink at your favorite pe sujo for a few cents. A really good cup of coffee comes from specialty coffees,” which is a polite way of saying, the good stuff.

Not surprisingly, the good stuff, specialty coffees, cost more.

The economics of the coffee trade can be summed up in seven little words: “The best beans bring the best prices.”

For decades Brazil has been content to dominate the lower price end of the world coffee market – if not content, then at least resigned. But in recent years a lot of people in and out of Brazil have been working to change that.

Part of the problem – some say a big part of it – is simply perception. Brazilian coffee is thought to trade on the economics of quantity over quality. Changing that has been an uphill, but not impossible, battle.

At the very high end of the quality crusade is Brazil’s Caf Jacu, some of the best and certainly most expensive coffee that lands in your cup in an unusual way. It is among the most “special” of all specialty coffees and at 220 Reais a pound, retail in Brazil, it ranks among the world’s most expensive. Only the ripest, brightest red, juiciest coffee “berries” – the fruity cover of the bean within, somewhat resembling a cherry – are first carefully selected by a tough judge, Brazil’s Jacu bird. It spies and eats only the largest, best berries. It takes the fruit but 20 minutes to pass through the bird’s digestive tract and is left as odorless deposits at the base of the coffee tree, often from the very plant from which the berry came. The droppings are collected, dried, cleaned and stored in their parchment for up to three months.

Obviously, the supply of Jacu brew is necessarily limited but the world’s thirst for specialty coffees is not. Enter TransFair USA and its 5,000 Brazilian Fair Trade Certified coffee farmers. Their farms are smallholding family operations, seldom more than seven hectares. TransFair USA has connected them through their co-ops and producer organizations with a program called The Responsible Sourcing Partnership that joins Brazilian and international forces, public and private. It is a collaboration among TransFairUSA, USAID, Walmart Stores, Brazil’s Sebrae – Minas Gerais and farmers in the three major coffee-producing states of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, and São Paulo. (Pictured left: the Jacu bird eating a coffee bean)

Fair Trade certification puts hardworking small farmers into the high-stakes universe of producing top quality world-class coffee. It helps farmers organize into democratic organizations. It introduces improved growing and processing techniques and helps build wider market access. Part of the bigger profits can go toward improving production and meeting community needs like building schools and health care and dental clinics. The Responsible Sourcing Partnership Project invests in helping Brazilian Fair Trade Certified farmers and their organizations produce and market more coffee every year.

Last year 4.3 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified Brazilian coffee was sold to the US. This year it will be more than 5 million pounds and exports to the rest of the world could end up being double that figure.

And equally important, the Partnership’s collaborative marketing helps bring Brazilian Fair Trade Certified Coffee into the consciousness as well as the cups of the world.

To be certified, farmers and their organizations are helped by TransFair USA to meet high international quality standards while growing coffee in the most environmentally friendly way. That means organic or well on the way there. In return these smallholding farmers bypass the local, national and international middlemen and get direct entre into the US market. They are also guaranteed a fair minimum price regardless of fluctuations in the world price. Buyers pay a small per pound premium that goes directly back to the producing organizations of origin which apply it to member-determined projects like better schools, health care and even interest-free home loans.

In this, the second year of the Partnership, it sponsored its Second Annual International Fair Trade Certified Cupping Contest in Machado, Minas Gerais, earlier this month. Coffee from 139 of the best farmers among the twelve certified Fair Trade coffee producer organizations were pared down to 41 semi-finalists to face the international jury. 18 finalists, eight in the natural coffee category (no water used in processing) and ten in the processed category went on to an award ceremony in Belo Horizonte. The top three winners in each category took away $R1,500, $R1,000 and $R500, respectively, contributed by Banco Bradesco and handed out by an award committee headed by US Embassy Charg d’Affairs, Lisa Kubiske which included Paulo Mindlin, Walmart Brazil’s Director of Social Responsibility and Gilman Rodrigues, Minas Gerais Secretary of Agriculture. The top winner in the processed coffee category also received a coffee depulper contributed by Brazilian manufacturer, Pinhalense. (Pictured right: the judges decide a winner. Taken by Juliano D’Angelo)

An Internet auction of the top-judged brews will take place early next year. If last year’s contest is any predictor, prices are expected to climb well above the best international level. And with this contest for coffee excellence, it is hoped Brazil’s reputation for quality, not just quantity, will also take another step forward in the international coffee world. And that won’t be just for the birds.

(Header image: the judge is sniffing in Machado, MG. Taken by Juliano D’Angelo)

Previous articles by Lance:

They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee In Brazil – And It’s Going Fair Trade!
Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

San Francisco International Film Festival – Part 2

By Lance Belville
May 10, 2010

The San Francisco International Film Festival’s Founder’s Directing Award, annually awarded to a master of world cinema, went to Brazil’s Walter Salles this year (pictured left and below). It places him in the company of the world’s greatest film directors including previous winners Akira Kurasawa, Robert Bresson and Satyajit Ray.

While the body of Salles’ internationally recognized work hardly puts him into such elite company, at least quantity-wise, it would be hard to imagine a man of the cinema with more erudition and warm humanity in his work on screen and off than the well-spoken Salles.

He appeared and accepted his award before an enthusiastic house at the San Francisco award ceremony with unassuming grace. He delivered a few off-the-cuff remarks and, later, fielded questions from the audience with an easy command of a wide range of cultural references that bespoke his deep philosophical commitment to the life of the mind. It was a revealing look into the cinematic credos of an exciting and often challenging filmmaker. The ceremony also included a short montage of his work, a 7-minute short film and the showing of a work-in-progress.

At the heart of his artistic vision, as he described it to this audience, is his view of life as a journey that all must make toward self-awareness and a place, spiritual and geographic. Politically, he believes that Brazil in the 1990’s, when he began his directing career, can be seen as a collective journey from the chaotic days of 25 years of military dictatorship. He sees Brazil as a country that is itself on a journey toward social and economic justice for all its citizens.

According to Salles, “Human beings are nomads, leaving a record behind. Look at the cave painting at Lascaux. And the Odyssey, it is a road story.”

His preoccupation with people on the move was on display in the rough cut of a work-in-progress documentary about the people and places behind Jack Kerouac’s road novel, On The Road. Salles had been mulling over the idea for more than a decade with offers to make a feature film version of the novel itself appearing and disappearing over the years. Then, in 2008, he took a film crew and went on the Kerouac road, traveling to the places in the book and along the way interviewing people who knew Kerouac at the time and a few who didn’t but know and love the book.

Salles speculated that this travel theme that illuminates his life and his films comes from his childhood and adolescence when he, himself was “on the road.” His father was a diplomat and he lived in many countries including spending his early adolescence in Paris. “Drifting from latitude to latitude gives me a kind of Rashomon point of view.”

Salles relates that at first he hated Paris, but he came to love it, all the while yearning for his return to a permanent place and home in Brazil. It was a search and a yearning that he feels has never left him. And indeed, his best-known films, Central Station and Motorcycle Diaries, were both in a sense “road pictures,” about people finding themselves through travel.

The Salles’ Paris apartment was above a kind of art house cinema and the 12-year-old Walter soon took to sneaking down as often as possible to catch the flicks. So often, in fact, that the manager often let him in without paying. It was probably what turned his imagination and his considerable drive toward the making of films.

The search for place as a key to self-discovery finds an extension Salles’ conviction that film is collaborative creation, another Salles theme in his award ceremony remarks. Linha de Passe, his 2008 film, which was also shown at the festival, illustrates this strand in the fabric of Salles’ work. He co-directed it with theatre director Daniela Thomas with whom he has co-directed before. All but one of the crew behind the camera were cinema newcomers, a strategy he has also employed before. And the actors in front of the camera were likewise newcomers, with the exception of Vincius de Oliveira. He was a newcomer himself twelve years earlier playing Josu, the lost little boy in Central Station.

Salles has often used newcomers. He has a record of being vividly interested in helping to develop the coming generation of cinema artists. But on a more personal note he feels that, “The enthusiasm and daring of newcomers is almost as good as experience.” He is willing to gamble his own vast experience and resources on the drive and enthusiasm of his newcomers. On a more personal note, he said that he and co-director Thomas filming Linha de Passe in 2008 wanted to recapture the excitement of their first film together, the 1995 Foreign Land, when they themselves were excited newcomers. The gamble paid off for Salles and his youthful collaborators at the Cannes Film Festival. Although an experienced stage actress, film first timer Sandra Corvelon, playing the mother of the four struggling brothers in Linha de Passe, won Best Actress honors and Salles and Thomas were nominated for the Palme d’Or.

Linha de Passe is also playing in this film festival, although it is a two-year-old film and the festival usually features more recent output. Salles described this picture, too, as a kind of road film. It is the story of a family of four half brothers and their hard-working mother, Cleuza. All are struggling together to find themselves and their place in the São Paulo megalopolis.

Although the story takes place within the confines of the family’s tiny favela home and the streets and apartments of São Paulo, it is very much the road picture that Salles describes it as being. All move forward toward a destiny for which they dream, sweat and steal. One of the brothers is a motorcycle delivery boy, a dangerous job that is wheels on pavement, literally as well as symbolically as fast and dangerous as the lives being lived around him.

Another brother works in a gas station and literally services the cars that are passing along the streets of the city. This brother’s own traveling is spiritual as he struggles to find and hold his fundamentalist Christian faith.

The Vincius de Oliveira character is that of a talented young soccer player desperately trying to run, kick and bribe his way into the professional ranks. His journey is across the turf of soccer fields until frustration sends him out into the streets and into the apartment of drug-taking middle class Paulistas.

The youngest of the four brothers, a dark-skinned twelve-year-old, searches for his father whom he never saw but knows was dark skinned and drove a bus. The kid rides buses through the city at all hours of the day and night, studying the darkest drivers hoping to discover his long-lost daddy. He ends by taking an empty bus himself and driving it toward his own future.

The picture ends with the now-jobless filling station attendant brother, bereft of faith and employment, nevertheless striding his way toward his uncertain future and the future of his siblings proclaiming, “Walk! Walk! Walk!”

The traveling theme is darker and more intense in Linha de Passe than in either Central Station or Diaries. Its strongest moments are as moving and often more disturbing than anything in Salles’ two previous films.

Salles’ willingness to share his time and resources extends to producing emerging Latin American directing talent. He produced Karim Ainouz’s first feature, Madam Sat, about Rio’s Lapa celebrated transvestite prostitute and was one of the producers on Fernando Meirelles’ international blockbuster, City of God, both in the same year, 2002!

The award ceremony opened with a 7-minute Salles short celebrating an interest in film, seen through the eyes of Salles (approximately!) 8-month old baby.

In recent years Brazil has regained its respected place in world cinema. Walter Salles is one of the important talents that helped bring this about.

Previous articles by Lance:

San Francisco Film Festival Features Six Brazilian films – Part 1
From the Birds to Fair Trade Certified Producers’ Brew, Brazil’s Best Coffee Gains Acclaim
They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee In Brazil – And It’s Going Fair Trade!
Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

San Francisco Film Festival Features Six Brazilian Films – Part 1

By Lance Belville
May 4, 2010

Here at America’s longest-running film festival film buffs can watch 176 films from 52 participating countries. Six Latin American countries contributed 16 films with six of them, the region’s largest contribution, from Brazil.

Brazil weighed in the second day with the fascinating political documentary, SIMONAL, NO ONE KNOWS HOW TOUGH IT WAS, about the now-eclipsed, one-time king of Brazilian popular music, Wilson Simonal. In the 1960’s and early 70’s this full-throated showman banked more Cruzeiros – the money of the time – than the evergreen Roberto Carlos as Brazil’s top showbiz earner.

Those who were in Brazil during the 1960’s and 70’s, the anos de chumbo,” (lead years) of the nightmare military dictatorship, could hardly avoid Simonal’s beguiling voice crooning or jiving on TV, radio, records or in concert venues. He had his own television show, the only black entertainer to achieve that. At the Rio International Music Festival in Maracanzinho, he brought 30,000 screaming fans to their feet in a time when stadium mega concerts were hardly known. Yet those who were not there at the time may never have heard of him.

The opening portion of the film traces Simonal’s rise in frolicking musical segments taken from film and kinescopes. The pacing and visual imagery using the exploding drug-propelled images reminiscent of the time period shoots the viewer back into the rocking 60’s. I could swear I was having a few wacky tobaky flashbacks of my own as Simonal soars and swoops across stages of all sort like a musical Muhammad Ali.

Tripartite directors Claudio Manoel, Micael Langer and Calvito Leal (pictured at the bottom of the article), have a tragic drama to show us at a whirlwind pace and they make entertaining use of their television and commercial experience.

Simonal’s life has been called an “Icarus tale” and it is played out against a background of political corruption and intrigue, artistic hubris and professional jealousy. In short, it is an engrossing story of a black artist’s struggle to the very pinnacle of success in the racist Brazil of his time and what it cost him personally and professionally.

As Simonal’s exploding career bursts through the 1960’s and into the 70’s he is spending lavishly and living large. Several houses, three Mercedes, a beautiful blonde often on his arm, his well-publicized lifestyle is far beyond what anyone had ever seen from a black man in Brazil.

The music critics, who snipe at him, and his fellow artists, largely ignore him. The film explores several reasons for this. First of all he was riding a wave of world pop musical entertainment that many dismissed as mere American mass-media pabulum. He was a showman and considered himself as that, nothing more or less. He was not after achieving art; he was after building audiences. His easy lifestyle, though reflecting what was going on at the time in swinging San Francisco and elsewhere, raised eyebrows, especially coming from a black man. Although playing to adoring white audiences, he was surrounded by racism and he knew it. And many of his fellow artists, the film alleges, eyed his wealth and fame with envy gradually morphing into outright distrust.

But worst of all the film points out, in the eyes of his very political fellow artists he was apolitical. Simonal was a showman, the film proposes, nothing more or less. The film portrays him as thoroughly apolitical. Except for some strong – for the time – black protest material in his TV shows, he had no discernable interest in the tumultuous political events going on around him in military-run Brazil. For anyone in the artistic community at the time, this was the kiss of death. Simonal’s music praised Brazil and in an interview the Brazilian humorist Ziraldo points out that, “If you praised Brazil at that time you were a right-wing lunatic.” And he adds, “We threw them all in the trash can.” It is a tough time for artistic outsiders. The left-leaning “in” group has but one point of view in this regard, either you are as politically involved and protesting the regime as loudly as the precarious times permit or you are a supporter of the dictatorship. It is as simple as that. Artists including Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil who do publicly protest are thrown out of the country while Simonal continues to entertain millions and, in the artistic community’s eyes, staggers to the bank with his ill-gotten gains.

To many artists and leftist intellectuals, Simonal was but a convenient, happy black face that the military dictatorship could hide behind while cobbling together some false edifice of institutional legitimacy. There were others who were accused of being similarly useful to the military rulers. Caetano Veloso, at the time, hinted that Chico Buarque de Hollanda fell into that category and I recall that it was whispered about the great soccer star, Pel – a close Simonal pal then and likewise apolitical – although few but the most courageous and outspoken would voice it.

The beginning of the end comes for Simonal in 1971 when he accuses Senhor Viviani, his accountant, of stealing large sums from him. The accountant appears on screen to claim that Simonal’s black activism cost him lucrative sponsors, among them Shell. The showman was simply outspending his sagging income. Simonal thinks otherwise. He makes the mistake of enlisting the aid of contacts in DOPS, the secret police, to bring Viviani into a police station for a little questioning. The accountant is held for a few hours and, of course, severely beaten. Viviani claims it was Simonal with the help of the political police who did it. Simonal claims his innocence but the damage is done.

The humor magazine PASQUIM and Ziraldo, one of its stars, gets on Simonal’s case. The mainstream press joins the feeding frenzy. In the midst of the brouhaha Simonal is called in for questioning and is charged with aggravated assault. No one in the artistic community comes to Simonal’s defense. Old friends find it inconvenient to be seen on stage with him. He is eventually convicted and draws a five-year sentence of which he only serves thirty days. Television sponsors and his network, GLOBO, drop him. The rumor spreads that Simonal has been a police informer all along. A ranking official claims that the singer is, indeed, an informer for the secret police and Simonal’s fate is sealed. The showman’s has no more shows to do.

But his story is far from finished. From the early 1970’s until his early death in 2000 at the age of 62, Simonal fights to prove his innocence. He requests and obtains thousands of pages of files from the security agencies that make no mention of him as an informer. He appears on television waving documents. He writes endless pages of letters and spends hours on the phone. He finally obtains a document from the office of the President of the Republic substantiating the fact that there is no record of him ever being in the employ of state security.

The viewer is left to make up his or her own mind. There are many fascinating and colorful interviews from both sides of the Simonal argument. His sons, both musicians themselves, are spearheading a revival of his music.

For Simonal himself there was to be no reprieve from the artistic wasteland into which he was cast. “I am but the ghost of myself,” his sad face tells us from the screen, “And worse I am but the ghost of my own country.” And perhaps this is Simonal’s final place in Brazilian cultural history, as a testament of the wreckage in the artistic life of Brazil that the military dictatorship of the 60’s and 70’s left in its wake.

The film grossed 200,000 dollars last year in Brazil after its release, a hefty sum for a documentary in a country not particularly enamored of documentaries. And it is Brazil’s largest earning documentary film for the last three years. It is now readily rentable in most video shops in Brazil and available over the Internet. For anyone wishing to know more about the sad “anos de chumbo” in Brazil, this is a good place to find it. On screen are many of the major players in the cultural life of Brazil at the time.

Previous articles by Lance:

From the Birds to Fair Trade Certified Producers’ Brew, Brazil’s Best Coffee Gains Acclaim
They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee In Brazil – And It’s Going Fair Trade!
Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

They’ve Got An Awful Lot of Coffee In Brazil – And It’s Going Fair Trade!

By Lance Belville
November 3, 2008

Way down among the Brazilians,
Coffee beans grow by the millions,
So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill,
They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil. “
— Frank Sinatra

(Header photo: Author Belville tries his hand at the arcane ritual of coffee cupping. Photo by L. Lohr)

A few days ago, a unique combination of hard work and hard cash made Brazil’s First International Fair Trade Certified Coffee Cupping Competition in Minas Gerais what Hollywood would call a boffo success. It brought to the small coffee-growing town of Machado an international panel of roasters, importers, exporters and coffee-judging (called cupping) superstars from the USA and South America to meet hard-working Brazilian Fair Trade Certified coffee producers to sniff, slurp and spit the black brew.

By all accounts, it was a taster’s paradise. And the dash for the title of best of Brazil’s Fair Trade Certified brews was decided by the 11 International judges who savored their way through 69 samples from seven Brazilian production regions on their way to picking six winners and 14 runners up.

The competition was a co-production (to continue the Hollywood metaphors) between TransFair USA, an American NGO which certifies and promotes Fair Trade (FT) products in the American market; Brazilian Fair Trade Certified coffee producer groups; Brazilian coffee roaster, marketer and exporter Bom Dia; American marketing giants Wal-Mart and its Sam’s Club subsidiary; Brazil’s Sebrae Minas Gerais(a government agency which helps develop small businesses) and USAID.

The cupping competition came about as part of a project pulling together a US$1.9 million budget to improve Brazilian Fair Trade Certified (FTC) coffee production and project it deeper into the US and world markets.

Coffee is the world’s second most widely traded commodity, behind only petroleum, and Brazil produces from a quarter to a third of it. Three million 60-pound-sacks of world coffee are Fair Trade Certified (FTC), about 10% of that Brazilian grown.

Brazil has a long and lumpy love affair with the beautiful bean whose fragrant origins stretch back through the mists of myth and memory to an Ethiopian goat herder.

The French had a strangle hold on its production and export from South America in the 18th Century. Along about 1727, in need of better sources of income than taxing the grumbling locals, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro I had the bright idea of sending Francisco de Mello Palheta to French Guinea to beg, borrow or bargain away a few coffee seeds to propel Brazil into the profitable trade. Palheta was able to do none of the three. Instead, employing an early example of Brazilian jeito, he “charmed,” the French governor’s wife into sending him seeds and shoots, thereby starting the Brazilian coffee trade. With favorable coffee land and climate and a reasonably efficient slave labor system, Brazil rapidly developed a near-monopoly on the bodacious berry that lasted well into the 20th Century.

However, as the 20th Century progressed Brazil’s policy of production and marketing snuggly bundled in government red tape pushed up prices and opened the way for competition, especially from Colombia, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Although a major part of Brazil’s production is in the high quality Arabica coffee, in recent years Vietnam has grown and washed its way into second place among world coffee exporters – some sources put Vietnam in first place – producing the less valuable, rougher-tasting robusta coffee.

Brazil now produces about twice as much Arabica as Robusta. U.S. Government statistics for Marketing Year 2008/09 forecast Brazilian coffee production at 51.1 million 60-kg bags. Like Frank Sinatra used to croon, “They got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”

Meanwhile, coffee taste – and the willingness to pay for it – has gone on an upward quality rampage along with consumption in the major world markets. The concept of gourmet coffee poured into America in the 1960’s and 70’s, a European transplant, propelled by newly popular beat generation coffeehouses and the guitar strumming and poetry reciting – among other things – that went on inside them.

In the mid 1990’s FTC arose in the United States and Europe to meet the exploding demand for higher quality coffee and alerted consumers to the wisdom of drinking coffee produced under humane working conditions and by ecologically friendly techniques.

In a nutshell, FTC is a two-way street of rights and responsibilities between producers and certifier. Certification assures farmers and farm workers of better working conditions, a fair price, more direct access to credit and foreign markets, resources for community development and support for ecologically friendly coffee growing – organically if possible, all for production that meets the highest international quality standards. FTC fetches the producer a 10% to 15% higher price and a ten-cents-a-pound added social premium paid to the participating cooperatives for use in their communities.

The cupping competition judges spent three days executing the intricate ritual of coffee tasting in the southern Minas coffee-producing town of Machado under the watchful eye of Silvio Leite of AgriCafe, BRAZIL, a respected coffee judge with an international reputation.

Coffee “cupping,” as the java judging is called, is a multiple-step process that makes wine tasting look like fun and games in comparison.

World-class cupping is around an eleven-step process (aficionados disagree slightly on details) involving the grinding of exactly 12 grams of coffee and carefully sniffing the grind while heating 6.5 ounces of water (fresh filtered please!) to the boiling point. After waiting 25 seconds to get as close to 202 degrees Fahrenheit as patience and equipment permit, the water is judiciously spilled over the grind.

Following another 3 to 4 minutes (pros demand 4 minutes on the nose) a thick crust will have formed in the cup. Now the judge will get down and dirty. Sticking his nose as close to the crust as dignity and myopia allow, the judge punctures the crust with a tiny tasting spoon and deeply inhales the aromatic fumes that will be wafting up. After that, the tasting goes on with tiny slurped spoonfuls. There is some swallowing going on, but not a whole lot.

Judges are checking aromas, flavor, body and acidity. Grading is done on a 100-point system. Scores in the upper 80’s, which the winners achieved, indicate world-class quality.

Coffee cupping is a pretty serious business. Judge wrangler Silvio Leite is an affable gentleman but a no-nonsense coffee maven. The panel of esteemed internationals sat down each morning to a breakfast of bread and water, lest too much taste over breakfast confuse the internationally-esteemed taste buds. Rumor has it, however, that the bread and water edict was honored more in the breech than on the plate.

Another culinary prohibition for the judges was scrupulously observed. No strong condiments were used in the preparation of judge’s meals, no onion, garlic, hot peppers and no alcohol, the enemy of finely tuned taste buds for the duration of the cupping competition.

The judging was done at the Centro de Excellencia do Caf, a pleasant, new building located 15 minutes outside Machado, on a small plateau overlooking the lush farmland of southern Minas from which the red coffee berries pour forth. During the year, it serves as an educational and technical training center, constructed last year through federal and municipal funding to support quality in this major Brazilian coffee-producing area.

After the 3 days of judging, the succulent shindig moved on to Belo Horizonte for the awards ceremony and the auction that climaxed the event. And what a climax it was. Producers, their family and friends attended, rolling up in packed buses bulging with coffee compatriots from Nova Rezende, Boa Esperana, Poo Fundo, and as far away as Espirito Santo state. The atmosphere was electric and cheers went up as each winner was announced.

There were two categories, Naturally Processed and Semi-Washed coffees. The best grade coffee, when handled well – and the coffees in this competition were processed well – is Naturally Processed coffee, produced only in Brazil and Africa. In this process, the red coffee “berry” is allowed to dry and then is de-hulled to remove parchment-like skin. The bean carries a unique, “fruity,” taste. Organic Natural Processed coffee fetched the highest auction prices and took first place in the judging. High quality natural coffee is much sought after and, as the auction demonstrated, can command prices far above going international levels. (Photo: Francisco Braga is carried on stage by fellow coffee farmers on winning 1st place in the Semi-washed coffee category at Brazil’s First Fair Trade Coffee Cupping Competition. Photo by Clay Enos)

Semi-Washed coffee is processed in a de-pulping machine to get most of the fruit off and then washed to remove the residue.

Ten finalists in each category were chosen with prizes in each: R$500 for 3rd Place, R$750 for 2nd Place and R$1,000 for first place. Winners were cheered like football stars. Francisco Braga, winner of the Semi Washed category was paraded around the auction auditorium on the shoulders of fellow men of coffee.

The auction part of the proceedings provided human drama and commercial excitement. Bids were a combination of both open and closed bidding.

International and domestic buyers bid on all of the top ten lots in each category. When Brazilian Roaster Bom Dia bid Naturals Category winner Luiz Adalto’s beans up to the auction’s top price, a dazzling US$7.20 per pound, farmer and roaster received a standing ovation. (Photo right: Luiz Adalto de Oliveira of COOPFAM receives his R$1,000 check for taking 1st place in the Naturals category at the First International Fair Trade Coffee Cupping Competition award ceremony in Belo Horizonte. Photo by Clay Enos)

Semi-washed winner Francisco Braga’s lot went for US$3.00 at the auction, a strong price for that category of joe.

While Caf Bom Dia was a sponsor of the event and a leading purchaser at the auction, other purchasers for lots included Tony’s Coffee & Teas of Bellingham, WA; Caf Imports of Minneapolis and The Roasterie of Kansas City, MO, all of whom were represented on the panel of judges and so very familiar with the coffees at auction.

One of the human highlights of the competition came when Wendy de Jong of Tony’s Coffee announced that she was so stoked by the Naturals category 8th-placer winner, Andre Luiz Reis’ beans, that Tony’s would buy them and bring out a special reserve with Reis’ choice of a picture on package along with the story of his co-op, the Associaão Costas. The amazed Reis could only mumble, “Eighth place? Come on, we won! This is all we could ever want!” His choice of the picture will likely be that of a local bird sitting on a coffee plant to show his association’s dedication to coffee and nature.

In some measure, Reis’ feelings were shared by all the Brazilian coffee farmers involved in the groundbreaking competition. There is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil and with FTC it is getting better and better!

This article was prepared with the assistance of international coffee specialists, Demian Luper and Julia Delafield.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia
Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

Brazil: Then And Now Rondonia

By Lance Belville
October 13, 2008

A review of the documentary, CHILDREN OF THE AMAZON
Opening weekend at the Mill Valley, California, Film Festival swept viewers to the farther reaches of the Brazilian rain forest with the world premiere of CHILDREN OF THE AMAZON by Brazilian/American filmmaker, Denise Zmekhol.

The documentary simultaneously updates viewers on the battle of Brazil’s native peoples and their rubber tapper allies to save the Amazon rain forest while the forces of modernity saw, dig and pump its riches into the ever- gaping pockets of world trade. It is a struggle that began in earnest at the end of the 19th Century with the first rubber boom and continues to this very hour with economic and often literal ferocity.

While viewers in Brazil and concerned filmgoers worldwide will be familiar with the broad outlines of the problem, filmmaker Zmekhol, brings it all into tight focus, personal, emotional and unique through a lucky turn of fate.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Zmekhol worked on film crews shooting television documentaries in the Amazon among the Surui and Negarote tribes, largely in Rondonia. It was a time when the martyred Chico Mendes was forging alliances between his National Council of Rubber Tappers, whose work does not destroy the forest, and area tribes battling to stop the incursions that Brazilian government road building and the resulting heightened deforestation. Great swaths of the jungle were and are being cut and burned for cattle-raising and agriculture.

Zmekhol took hundreds of portraits of the Indians, especially the children, as well as Chico Mendes, and his family: What caught my eye were the children. Born to parents who had relied on the rainforest for their survival, these children were growing up surrounded by new ways-ways that were destroying the forest.”

She was also drawn to the children of the rubber tappers. “The people who harvest the wild rubber trees. The trees they relied on were also being cut down.”

By then Mendes had become world renowned for his nonviolent resistance to deforestation. So close did Zmekhol become to Mendes and his family that in 1988, as the struggle between the National Council and the land-grabbing cattlemen intensified, Mendes sensed tragedy. He called Zmekhol, asking her to photograph his funeral. She assured him that he would be around for many years to do his important work. Two weeks later the son of a cattle rancher gunned down Chico Mendes.

Fifteen years passed while her hundreds of slides and their moving story lay in her files, unprinted, and never shared. One day Zmekhol returned to the photos and a wave of memories swept over her. “Stirred by faces of the children in my photographs and haunted by Chico’s untimely death,” she recalls, “I was inspired to travel to the Amazon again-this time, to make a movie.”

And what a movie she made! She returned to the Surui and Negarote to film and photograph the children and their parents whom she had known and photographed 15 years earlier.

Her film relies heavily on the Indians themselves explaining and commenting on the incredible journey they have made in the less than half century since first white contact.

The film operates simultaneously in the past and the present. There is footage of Chico Meireles (not to be confused with Chico Mendes) the leader of the first expeditions of the long gone, Brazilian Indian Protection Service, making first contact with the Surui and Negarote. The film takes us backward and forward from photos and footage taken years ago to present-day images.

The Indians we see in this striking early footage still lived in what they like to call “forest time,” self contained and untouched by the white man’s world of ownership.

Zmekhol’s earlier portraits of happy children and their parents still living in what was left of their “forest time,” become filmed discourse and dialogues with the same children, adults now, living in an increasingly complex world. We see people making the journey from a life of cultural isolation and economic harmony to one of collision with the outside forces of an emerging nation consuming itself while struggling to face the consequences of what it is doing to its people and their environment.

The picture Zmekhol assembles before us is not bleak so much as disturbingly dynamic. Slowly and belatedly, the Brazilian government has started to come to terms with the debts and duties it owes its indigenous peoples. One fifth of the Amazon is now in Indian preserves, meanwhile, it has been estimated that as much as 80% of Brazilian mahogany, a major Amazon export, is harvested illegally, much of it from these same Indian preserves.

CHILDREN OF THE AMAZON illuminates the Surui’s struggle to protect its forest homeland and the way of life it supports. Using the images and the words of people Zmekhol photographed then and now gives the film a pace and dramatic arc that has the narrative power of fiction, made all the more moving for being fact.

Zmekhol follows several Surui, but especially two young, elected Surui chiefs, Almir Surui and Itabira Surui.

Almir is the first of his tribe to go to college. Now he is the international face of the Surui, having worked to get their interests listened to and dealt with by the Brazilian government, the World Bank and international non-governmental organizations. Zmekhol brought him with her for the screening, along with Chico Mendes’ daughter, Elenira, where he answered the bulk of audience questions.

Chief Itabira is on a very different but no less dramatic tightrope walk between the pull of his native culture and the need to face the outside world to defend it. He is old enough to remember the tribe’s first contacts with whites. Itabira saw 500 of his 700 fellow tribesmen die from the diseases of the “civilizeds” in the first days following contact. After 18 years of life in the town of Cacoal, Rondonia, he returned to his homeland where he helps the tribe balance the need to face the challenges from the outside world while reviving and strengthening traditional Surui culture.

Viewers leave this film with a greater appreciation of the great hope and importance of the Surui struggle. Connected as the world is by the bonds of environment and climate, we understand that the Surui fight is our fight. To paraphrase President Kennedy, and more recently candidate McCain, we are all Surui. Like it or not, we are all children of the Amazon.

At the moment, the film soundtrack is in English with English subtitles under the spoken Surui and Portuguese dialogue. A full, Portuguese version is in the works with Brazilian release to follow.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play
Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

Brazil: Nova Jerusalem’s Passion Play

By Lance Belville

A Great Experience If Your Faith And Your Feet Are Up To It
Like just about everybody else in Brazil who reads, or watches TV news, I have been hearing about the Passion Play at Nova Jerusalem, Pernambuco, for years. And like all but about two million Brazilians-give or take a few thousand foreigners-I had never been. This year I went and discovered it’s worth the trek 180 kilometers west of Recife to see this spectacle. In its 40th year, it lives up to its hefty reputation and maybe even exceeds it.

Since this is a lot about spectacle, let me go over the numbers. The Nova Jerusalem Passion play runs from the Saturday before Holy Week to the Saturday before Easter. Each night an audience of between 7,000 and 10,000 pour in. This year President Lula, Pernambuco Governor Eduardo Campos and 2,000 of their most intimate friends and hangers-on, saw a special pre-run performance, basically, a final dress rehearsal. Reportedly, the President was moved to tears, although who is to say whether a politician’s tears are emotional or electoral.

According to Passion Play producer Robinson Pacheco, half of each night’s audience has attended before. For many watching the show, it is likely to be as much about faith as fun.

The play takes place on 9 gigantic stages built within a walled New Jerusalem,” which is 100,000 square meters or 1/3rd the size of the actual Jerusalem of 30 AD when a local troublemaker named Jesus of Nazareth had a minor local potentate named Herod infuriated and a second-rate Roman bureaucrat named Pontius Pilate confused.

It takes a crew of 550 actors and extras in 700 costumes backed by 450 tech staff to tell the Christ story each performance of eight night run.

The play has been directed over the last decade by the team of Carlos Reis, an experienced Recife stage director, and Lcio Lombardi, a visual artist. Together, they have woven a show that moves quickly and smoothly on the nine possibly-bigger-than-life sets but requires a ten to fifteen minute break between scenes to permit the audience of thousands to amble between locations.

This year’s cast included five actors well known for their television and film work in the principal roles, lead by Carmo Dalla Vecchia, known to Brazilian TV fans for his role in “Cobras E Lagartos,” in the Christ role.

The special effects team alone numbers 40. One effect you are unlikely to ever have experienced before comes during the orgy in Herod’s temple scene. Erotic incense wafts over the audience as ladies writhe and men pant on stage. It must be noted, however, that a Judean orgy cannot compare with the goings-on in the Rome of the time.

More predictably, the special effects team springs devils out of the earth, brings lightning down on Judas, levitates people out of scenes without visible support, sends chariots and horses racing in and out of the scenes, rolls back the boulder blocking Christ’s tomb without human hands and culminates by sending the risen Christ gracefully heavenward (pictured left), his flowing white robes billowing gently and with a beautiful moon rising behind – the latter not the work of the special effects team, of course, but nevertheless effective.

The sets, monumental in size, hearken back to the great days of Cecil B. DeMille’s Bible epics. Except that everything is built solidly and is real. The soaring columns of the Pilate’s Roman Forum and Herod’s palace are real, hewn from local granite. The monumental palace doors likewise are as heavy and solid as they appear and the trees in the garden of Gethsemane and atop Calvary are alive and growing. No Styrofoam and plexiglass here. What appears to be a grove of olive trees however, director Reis explains, is a possibly related Brazilian variety that has similar foliage but produces no fruit.

Being both a playwright and a fan of so-called “serious,” theatre, I was prepared to ignore my ears and enjoy with my eyes at this production, i.e. I didn’t think the script would be worth spending the effort understanding the Portuguese. I turned out to be wrong. Journalist-founder, the now-deceased Plinio Pacheco’s first-and-only play turned out to be interesting and at times moving.

As is usual for this sort of religio-hisotrical theatre, Pacheco restricted himself to the words of Jesus as culled from the Biblical accounts. But everybody else was fair game and Pacheco is able to make engaging theatrical exchanges out of all-too-familiar moments from Christ’s final week. The debate between Christ and the elders in the temple provides an insight into how really fast on his feet Christ was in a contest he knew he was being set up to lose. Christ would have had no need for Johnny Cochrane or F. Lee Bailey in his trial before the temple elders.

The scene with Pontius Pilate provided an unusually well rounded Roman Pro Consul. Part of it may have been the fine acting of Hrson Capri in the Pilate role, but it is a nuanced, conflicted Pilate more complex and politically sensitive than you are likely to have seen before. In this scene, Pacheco takes the time to explore the pressures, subtle and ultimately not so subtle, that the Jewish leaders could exert on their Roman conquerors. In the end, it is Herod out maneuvering the conflicted, insecure Roman in a political duel of wits that was as engaging as anything Kissinger could have tried on Middle Eastern bureaucrats in his shuttle diplomacy 2,000 years later.

The script, seen for the first time, produces fresh emotional insights into a story one assumes is completely familiar. The novel view I took away from this production was how sure this troupe of twelve ex-fishermen and their white-robed leader were that they were in the vanguard of history and about to change the world. They reminded one of nothing so much as a band of 1917 Russian Marxists, positive that what they did and thought would alter the course of history. Although the Christians were right and the Marxists mistaken, the similarities are intriguing. Now that is not the kind of insight one expects to come away with from an Eastertide passion play!

No passion play would be complete without its “Last Supper,” scene and this one is no exception. The set, props and costumes produce the painted original in minute detail. But the special effects team comes to the rescue to turn even this all-too-familiar scene into something surprisingly interesting. As Christ raises the hosts, bread and then wine, he levitates and floats for moments as he delivers the familiar blessings. Mere stagecraft, yes, but it delivers an unexpected punch. The blessing moment makes you begin to sense the powerful forces that must have been at play at that moment two thousand plus years ago. I have never felt that in a Last Supper scene neither on stage nor on canvas.

While the Passion play at Nova Jerusalem works as a theatrical event, it functions as a tourism destination with several very unique twists. Nova Jerusalem now has the 42-room Pousada Da Paixão within its high granite walls. The architecture is in keeping with the first-century Jerusalem theme and the staff is all costumed in the style of the times, from barmen to room service maids. The food, which is included, is first-quality regional cooking. While providing a unique kind of time and space travel, the Pousada Da Paixão boasts all the post Pax Romana perks and pleasures. There is a swimming pool with poolside bar, massage salon; the rooms have frigobars , TV, air conditioning and telephones. The sign to the tastefully concealed guest parking area reads, “To the lions’ den.”

A unique tourist experience is offered at the pousada during the eight days of the passion play. Guests may view the play one night and enter the cast as extras the following evening. To the stage struck or merely culturally curious, it is an unusual chance to prance with the players. During the rest of the year a partnership with a Dutch company has developed a year-round northern European clientele for the pousada.

A word of warning, however: While the show is advertised to last a little more than two hours, the performance I saw went slightly beyond three. With no theatre seats and no stools allowed, that’s a long time on your feet. But it must be nice for the actors. Every ovation is a standing one.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre
Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

Brazil: Up a Piece of Mountain to See a Batch of Theatre

By Lance Belville
Guaramiranga, Cear, 109 kilometers up the mountainside from beach-hugging Fortaleza, may seem a strange place to be seeing approximately 200 actors from 43 different productions strutting their few brief moments upon the stage, but here they were.

This mountain village of little more than 5,000 souls swelled by 10,000 theatre lovers for the Thirteenth Northeastern Theatre Festival of Guraramiranga.

Nine plays from five of the nine-state Brazilian Northeast area competed for the best in the Northeast from 15 to 23 September at Festival Nordestino de Teatro de Guaramiranga. The festival also featured productions flying in from Germany, Portugal and France. The other shows, big and small, were here as invited productions.”

Actors Mingle With Crowd In Front of Municipal Theater

The festival also includes workshops and debates as well as daily early morning critiques where bleary actors, directors and technicians along with the morbidly curious meet in the chapter house of a local Franciscan monastery to hear the panel of judges criticize, analyze and sometimes eulogize what happened on stage the night before.

A unique feature at this festival are nightly performances outside the Rachel de Queiroz theatre, the festival’s principal stage, by regional “popular theatre” troupes which feature, among other themes, local variations on the Bumba Meu Boi folk dance/theatre traditions.

The festival’s two principal stages in Guaramiranga proper, a children’s theatre tent, as well as other playing spaces in the neighboring towns of Baturit and Pacoti, host a wide variety of theatre.

On one end of the artistic spectrum was the Natal, Rio Grande do Norte company, Clowns of Shakespeare Theatre with their production of Bertolt Brecht’s “THE MARRIAGE OF THE PETITE BOURGEOISIE.”

The Trupe Metamorfose clowning through a moment of The Marriage of Tabarim.

The Natal company came in with a cast of very talented actors also able to play the musical instruments on stage to accompany themselves singing the music composed for this production – “MARRIAGE” is not one of Brecht’s musical plays. And the company brought along a clever set of slowly collapsing furniture. With this range of talent on state, The Clowns of Shakespeare is the equal of any good company to be seen in any of the theatre capitals of the world.

Meanwhile, hardly 20 kilometers away, in Baturit, Trupe Metamorfose (The Metamorphosis Troupe), consisting of two brothers, a friend and a wife, play, clown, sing, contort, and mime their way through their own pocket play, “O CASAMENTO DE TABARIM,” (“The Marriage Of Tabarim”), a commedia del arte confection that could knock ’em dead in Renaissance Milan or in Renaissance Fair Minneapolis.

A moment from Natal’s Clowns Of Shakespeare Company production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Marriage Of The Petite Bourgeioisie.

On a more somber note is The Harn Pictures company’s dramatization of Plinio Marcus novel, “O ASSASSINATO DEO ANO,” (“The Murder Of The Dwarf”). Marcus has been called Brazil’s most banned and most awarded playwright. In the days of the military dictatorship most of his work could not see the light of the footlights. “ANO,” tells a darkly comic murder story in a circus clown format.

This annual theatre festival came about through the efforts of a local arts training group, the Associaão dos Amigos da Arte de Guaramiranga (Association of Friends of the Arts of Guaramiranga. or AGUA). They were 14 artists who had come to live in Guajaramiranga and had been teaching mostly music to local youth. AGUA wanted to open their students perspectives by bringing in outside theater artists to this isolated part of Cear. AGUA convinced the city fathers and local businesses to get aboard and 13 years later they have a year-long program involving approximately 400 local teenagers in the arts. AGUA and their theatre festival now enjoy have the support of some of the major players in Brazilian arts funding. And the festival has brought Guaramiranga from a dying mountain town to a new life as a refreshing, mountain tourist destination for visitors from all over Brazil.

But it’s no miracle that Guaramiranga was able to turn itself into a theatre mecca for at least one week a year. Theatre is talk and Brazil’s Northeast is a talky place. It’s sort of an Iberian Ireland. The pace of life and the point of view of the locals means everybody has time to talk to everybody. One is tempted to say, time to talk to anybody. And where there’s talk there will often be poetry. And where there is poetry, theatre is not likely to be far behind.

And so, a little like the Irish, the verbal preoccupation of the Northeast spawns a vibrant theatre culture. And from these actors strutting their moments upon the stage, Guaramiranga has found a way to develop and educate their own young people and revitalize the economy of the area. Not bad for a bunch of talk.

But there is plenty here for the visitor whose Portuguese leaves something to be desired. The popular theatre in the streets is enjoyable for its music, color and dancing. And each evening, around midnight, after the last shows come down, theatre square is taken over by music groups of every description invited in from all over the Northeast. There are probably as many music groups here as theatre companies. And a few, like Trupe Metamorfose, perform both as a theatre troupe and band.

The town has developed as a tourist mecca in tandem with Agua’s efforts with youth in the arts. It now hosts a number of festival weeks. Most notable among them is the Guaramiranga Jazz and Blues Festival held every year during carnival. With the town’s clear air and comfortable mountain temperatures, it is proving an ever-more-popular refuge for visitors fleeing the sweat and confusion of Brazil’s warmer sea level carnivals.

Guaramiranga also hosts a culinary week where the local restaurants – some of the best are German and Italian – strut their stuff with the help of visiting chefs.

The mountain area from Baturit up to Guaramiranga is an ecological preserve so there are plenty of trails to wander along and some nice waterfalls to enjoy. Pico Alto, a scant 13 kilomoters away by decent road, is Cear’s highest peak – or so they tell me – and affords a view from sertão to sea.

The trip up the mountain is easy. The road is a decent, well-maintained blacktop. The town of Redenão, about half way between Fortaleza and Guaramiranga, is worth a stop if you are driving it yourself. It has a preserved sugar plantation museum with special emphasis on the slave quarters which will give you a pretty clear picture of how things were in the bad old days of slavery. It also has a beautiful monastery atop a nearby hill featuring a hillside staircase up for the strong of leg and heart.

The hotel scene, once you get to Guaramiranga, is more complex, to put it diplomatically. The local hotels and pousadas – and there are a good number of them – are working hard to come up to Brazilian national levels. So far that has mostly meant raising their prices. My best advice is call, fax or email ahead to the local SENAC training hotel. They have wonderful rooms, a staff you will not know are actually students, probably the largest pool in town and a restaurant with good cooking at reasonable prices. They can be emailed at senacguaramiranga@ce.senac.br. If they have no room for you, I would suggest waiting until they do.

If there is no room at SENAC and you are set on going up the mountain for jazz or a great meal, then there are a couple of charming local hotel customs of which the traveler from other parts of Brazil should be aware. First, you get but one sheet on your bed. If are accustomed to two sheets, you must ask for the second – and expect to dress the bed with it yourself. If you want bath soap, you must ask for it. And the local custom, as explained to me one surprising afternoon, holds that rooms are cleaned and sheets changed only if the customer specifically asks for it. None of the applies to the SENAC hotel, which is why my wife and I moved there mid-way in our stay. The above probably does not apply to all the hotels in town, but who has the time to research each one?

And, be advised, while Senac accepts Visa, most of the local restaurants take only MasterCard. There is no multi-purpose ATM in Guraramiranga. So take plenty of cash and do leave home without your Visa – but with your MasterCard!

Lance Belville is a writer, teacher and translator. His most recent project is the translation of a novel from Portuguese to English for a Rio de Janeiro publishing house. Two of his plays are in pre-production in Rio, scheduled to hit the boards in early 2007. He’s in Guaramaringa covering the annual festival of theatre in the Northeast. Prior to that he was in Natal for a meeting of Northeastern playwrights.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil: Mossoró’s Biggest Play on Earth Heads for Guinness Book of World Records
Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films

Brazil: House of Sand Impresses at San Francisco International Film Festival

By Lance Belville
You could tell something special was on tap the moment you walked into the largest San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) house at the Kabuki Cinema. The buzz in the air was so strong you could hear it. One word describes it: anticipation.

The sold-out house was expecting something important and unusual from Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington’s THE HOUSE OF SAND (Brazilian title, CASA DE AREIA) and they got it, in spades. The film riveted the discerning multi-national audience here, which broke into wild applause over the final credits.

THE HOUSE OF SAND is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s WOMAN OF THE DUNES meets Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS. It carries the desperate struggle for survival of the Japanese film and the sweet, sad longing of the Chekhov women.

The film which costars Brazilian diva Fernanda Montenegro and her equally-talented daughter, Fernanda Torres, also stars the venerable Brazilian film director Ruy Guerra in a featured role. Besides being a master behind the camera, this film certainly marks the silver-maned Guerra as one of the great character actors working in films today.

THE HOUSE OF SAND played recently in Brazil. For those who missed it, it traces the lives of two women, Aurea, played by Fernanda Montenegro and her pregnant daughter, Maria, played by Torres. The mother and daughter actress team takes turns playing mother and daughter and finally granddaughter through a story that runs from 1910 to 1969. Montenegro plays Aurea and the older Maria, while Torres plays the younger and middle-aged Maria. In a tour de force turn, in the final scene of the film, Montenegro plays both Maria the daughter, now in her sixties and Maria the mother in her 80’s.

The story takes place in the dune country of Maranhão and the topography of this film is something hard to be believed, even if you know Maranhão.

An expectant, sell-out house crowd awaits the showing of HOUSE OF SAND
(photo by Lance Belville).

It begins in 1910 when we first meet mother and daughter being literally dragged deeper and deeper into the dune country by Maria’s much older husband played with half-crazed messianic intensity by Guerra.

He is hell-bent on establishing a farm in dune country, convinced that because there is sometimes water in the shallow seasonal lakes of the area, that he can make a rich living on a worthless plot of dunes land he has purchased. From the very first moment, Maria and her mother are frightened and revolted by the strange land and instinctively know that nothing good can come of this fool’s errand from hell. The young wife, Maria, fears trying to give birth in this landscape. But the husband is adamant and presses on.

When a band of fugitive slaves steals many of their possessions and the mad husband dies, mother and daughter think they are released to return to civilization. What they are really to embark upon is a lifelong struggle for survival and escape.

Maria finally reconciles to her life in the dunes; she even comes to like it. But Maria’s daughter, also Maria, will never accept such a life and so like her mother and grandmother before her, she struggles to leave the dunes.

Conversations with audience members before the showing indicated that they were drawn in largely because of the reputation of Fernanda Montenegro. Her work in the 1998 film, CENTRAL STATION, still carries a powerful attraction for American audiences. A few also remembered director Andrucha Waddington’s work on ME, YOU AND THEM, (Brazilian title, EU,TU, ELLES ) which saw wide general release in the U.S. in 2000.

In a Q&A following the showing here, Waddington discussed some of the difficulties shooting with a crew of 150 in Maranhão six and a half hours from the nearest town. There were no cell phones working. He brought in a pizzeria and a small internet caf under canvas for cast and crew to retire to after a hard day’s shooting. Working with the ever-blowing sand, the production went through eight cameras during the filming. Asked if he enjoyed working under such tough conditions, he replied, “No cell phones. No distractions. We could really concentrate on our work. I wish I could work always like that.”

The film is heading for an American release under the Sony Pictures Classics banner which means mainstream American audiences will have a chance to see this excellent film.

If you missed it in Brazil on the big screen, you can save a trip to the States by running down and renting HOUSE OF SAND when it is released on video.

It’s a sound piece of Brazilian cinema, and an intriguing evening’s entertainment.

Lance Belville formerly worked for UPI and then the American Broadcasting Company in Brazil. He currently lives on a houseboat and visits Brazil frequently. A play of his, POPE JOAN, is due for production in Rio later this year.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival
Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films”

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Brazil: Lower City Helps Kick Off San Francisco International Film Festival

By Lance Belville
The San Francisco’ International film Festival (SFIFF), America’s oldest, kicked off its two-week run (April 20 to May 4) with a screening of Sergio Machado’s Lower City (Brazilian title, Cidade Baixa) as one of the opener films. Four of the seven Brazilian films scheduled to play the SFIFF enjoy their first screenings in the first three days of the event. Films from Argentina, Chile, Cuba and Mexico will also play the festival.

This film festival, the granddaddy of them all in the USA, will project 227 films – among them 97 features – from 41 countries over its two-week run. The official program guide is a hefty 208 pages.

In previous years, the San Francisco International Film Festival has won distinction for championing films from lesser-known directors from around the world. It showed the films of Abbas Kiarostami from Iran when his work was virtually unknown in the United States and continues its support with a showing of a short from the Iranian master this year. And the SFIFF has been a longtime friend to Brazilian filmmakers showing the work of many over the years.

Lower City showed to a virtually sold out house in one of the Festival’s largest venues in prime time at the festival’s first full night of screenings. And with it the Brazilian industry established a strong presence among the crowded field here.

Although the audience here was heavily weighted with Brazilian expats and Americans with some connection to Brazil, the subject matter of the film proved strong for the American audience. A number of audience members decamped during the showing, something I have never seen before in a hipper-than-mainstream SFIFF house.

Readers in Brazil may be familiar with the film. It concerns itself with a bi-racial love triangle between Karina, a blond prostitute (played in a raw tour de force performance by Alice Braga) and a pair of fighting, boozing, robbing buddies, Naldinho (played to sweating perfection by Wagner Moura) and Deco (a sensitive swine sympathetically portrayed by Lzaro Ramos).

The Lower City refers, of course, to that part of Salvador. Karina meets the two by hitching a carona” on their cargo boat to Salvador for a lot of love from her and a little additional cash from them.

After vowing that nothing like a woman’s female parts will come between their lifelong partnership, the two become deeply and passionately in love with Karina, and she with them. They are, of course, not in a world that will deal kindly with their complicated emotions and lifestyles. The cargo business goes sour and while Karina pursues her profession, Naldinho throws fights for a living while Deco has a go at petty robbery.

The lifelong pals are doomed to fight it out over Karina, of course, which they do. And the film ends with a transfixing scene, after the big fight, in which we move from close ups of the eyes of the three lovers to close ups of Karina’s hands squeezing the blood mopped from the battlers’ brows into a tin bowl where the blood of the black man and the white mix in the water she using to clean their wounds.

Brazilians I overheard after the film were voicing the all-too-common Brazilian filmgoer lament, that here is yet another Brazilian film up for export languishing in the world of prostitutes, crime and drugs. While this is superficially true, the film presents a serious and deeply beautiful examination of the struggle to love and survive under devastatingly difficult circumstances. It is a deeply realized discussion of the minefield of human emotions involved in racial relations as applicable to the United States as it is to Brazil.

The story is shot with starkly beautiful images of the ugly realities of the Lower City. And here, probably, lie some of the problems for American viewers. The graphic love scenes between Karina and her black and white lovers are seen early and often throughout the film, something American mainstream film audiences have never seen. And there is a brutal cockfight early in the first reel. And the vociferous American animal rights movement which pickets Ringling Brothers Circus for making elephants do trick; who knows their reaction if they got wind of this film?

The attractive and very personable Ms. Braga-niece of Sonia-was in attendance for the showing and did an hour-long Q & A following the film. Most of the audience stayed for the lively back and forth. She spoke at some length about the difficulties of keeping the love scenes evenly divided between Karina’s black lover and white lovers.

Lower City plays again later in the festival. And all three of the stars in the film will be seen in other Brazilian films during the run of the festival.

Note the cover picture is from the SFIFF, with Alice Braga talking to fans (photo taken by Lance Belville).

Lance Belville formerly worked for UPI and then the American Broadcasting Company in Brazil. He currently lives on a houseboat and visits Brazil frequently. A play of his, POPE JOAN, is due for production in Rio later this year.

Previous articles by Lance:

Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS Adds More Fans To Its List of International Devotees
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films”

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Brazil’s Kayapó Tribe

By Lance Belville
The nearly 2,000 environmental scientists and their students meeting here in Brasilia this week invited one smallish Kayapó Indian to address them and his 20-minute talk moved this scientific gathering. At least it seemed that way given the reaction his speech in simple but forceful Kayapó-accented Portuguese sentences provoked around the halls and meeting rooms of Brasilia University where this meeting is taking place.

Megaron Txucarramae is a smallish man in physical stature but a very large man in the life of his tribe. About 6,000 Kayapó live on their 10 million hectare reserve which stretches from south Para into north Mato Grosso. The Kayapó fought their way–sometimes literally as well a figuratively–to recognition of their tribal lands from a reluctant Brazilian government in a twenty-year struggle which started shortly after Brazilian indigenist Francisco Meireles first established regular, peaceful contact with them under the aegis of the old Brazilian Indian Protection Service(SPI), the Brazilian service that preceded the present-day National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI).

Txucarramae’s talk had a particularly strong resonance for this reporter as I had spent almost a year in the Amazon on SPI treks to establish friendly relations among warring tribes in the northern reaches of what is now the Kayapó Reservation.

The Kayapó are a tribe with a long and strong warrior tradition and a deep-rooted battle ethic attributes which have stood them in good stead in the past as they resisted incursions on their lands and which they will likely need as they face their future.

Trekking with them years ago, I had a small taste of that tradition. While bathing in a river after a day’s hike, an expedition member, a young man who had been particularly close to our warrior guides, inadvertently insulted one of the Kayapó by splashing water in his face. The expedition leader explained to the offending white that he could no longer be alone with our Kayapó friends. If you are ever alone with them,” the leader explained, “they will kill you.” Kayapó warriors take personal insults quite seriously.

The challenges the Kayapó face in hanging on to their lands and their way of life are shared to greater or lesser extent by the approximately 200,000 indigenous people inhabiting the Amazon today. Conservation scientists believe that the extent that tribes like the Kayapó are able to cling to their lands and their way of life are crucial to hopes for preserving the biodiversity of the Amazon region.

The Kayapó way of life depends on the forest that surrounds them and now the forest depends on them. In his talk Txucarramae related how many have asked why so few Kayapó need so much land to survive. He explained that the Kayapó hunt, fish and gather most of the necessities of their way of life. “We don’t raise things. Our food is in the streams and the jungle.” He explained that important festivals–critical to their religious and social life”–require weeks of preparation. “We need two months of hunting to get ready for a big festival.”

Denied these resources the Kayapó themselves cease to exist. Scientists believe that if the Indians can maintain their traditional way of life, the forests and their priceless biodiversity can survive as well.

But Kayapó enjoy their own way of life today in large part because of what they are: tough. Their leaders traditionally rose to power in the tribe by leading long treks in search of game for tribal campfires and successful raids against their neighbors–be they fellow Kayapó, other tribes or white settlers.

They have taken the protection of their lands from outsiders as seriously as personal honor. The willingness of the tribe to attack and repel the errant gold prospector, adventuresome logger or hardy colonist played an important part in the Brazilian government’s granting them the legal rights to their land. Now, as then, the protection of their lands falls largely on the tribe itself. The Brazilian government and the FUNAI have scant resources to back up Kayapó land rights with much more than a pile of paper.

And while the threat of violence still plays a part in the Kayapós’ defense, the tribe is working to soften some of its approaches to dealing with encroachers. Txucarramae explained, “We are working with our young men teaching them how to talk to invaders. But we are warriors. It is not good for us to hit and kill people like we used to. But we will continue to fight to stop the invaders.”

In the past the tribe has had more allies. Previously the Body Shop chain of beauty and health products purchased Brazil nut oil from the tribe and provided a plane for surveillance flights around Kayapó borders. But recently the company pulled out of its agreements with the tribe. The search is on to replace this and other sources of support with resources from Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs), foundations and compatible economic activities to help the tribe resist the blandishments of outsiders angling for the riches of the Kayapó jungle home.

The reservation the tribe must defend is something of a mixed blessing. While it provides the tribe their necessities, it has both gold and stands of mahogany, the most valuable wood in the world, as well as Brazil nuts and a host of other forest products sought after by the outside world. The tribe has selectively permitted some logging and gold mining but pressures are constant on them both from increased illegal cutting and inducements to authorize more logging and mining. And without the help of aircraft as well as boats and engines provided sporadically by FUNAI it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the hundreds of kilometers of Kayapó borders.

And the temptation to trade short-term profit from their gold and tropical woods may prove irresistible to tribal chieftains who increasingly find that prestige and influence may come as much from providing civilized trade goods as returning game-laden from hunting expeditions.

As it now stands, the tribe does not have the resources of surveillance and enforcement to repel a new wave of deforestation and invasion that is spreading like a human tsunami from the nearby highway linking Cuiab, south of their lands and Santarem near Kayapó northern borders.

The Kayapó, tough and independent as they are, both as individuals and as a tribe, now need their friends, perhaps more than ever. If both Brazilian and international NGOs come to their aid their lands and a sizeable chunk of Amazon forest biodiversity may be secured. If not, the Kayapó’s next battle with the incursions of the outside world may be their last.
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For more information on the Kayapó and other issues of Amazon biodiversity, see the website www.ConBio.org or send an email to info@conversavacao.org

Lance Belville is a nine-year veteran of reporting from Brazil for UPI and ABC and has since become a playwright and screenwriter living in the San Francisco area.

Previous articles written by Lance Belville for www.gringoes.com:

Brazil: Society for Conservation Biology
San Francisco International Film Festival: ALMOST BROTHERS
San Francisco International Film Festival: Nelson Friere Documentary Enchants Audiences
San Francisco International Film Festival: Three Brazilian Films