Ôrí. Directed by Raquel Gerber. New York: Third World Newsreel, 1989. 90 minutes.

Saya: Dance and Survival in an Afro-Bolivian Village. Directed by Beret E. Strong. Boulder, CO: Landlocked Films, 2013. 21 minutes.

Reviewed by Christen A. Smith

Cultural and political narratives of Latin America often neglect or eclipse the African influence on the region. Millions of enslaved Africans were brought to Latin America to do forced labor during the colonial period and millions of their descendants continue to live across the southern Americas. These Black Latin Americans identify as Black and engage in Black cultural practices. Nevertheless, narratives of Latin American identity routinely erase Blackness from the social and cultural landscape (e.g., Dixon and Johnson 2018; Edwards 2020; Paschel 2018; Perry 2013; Mitchell-Walthour and Hordge-Freeman 2016). Blackness in Latin America—the social, cultural, and political identity and practices of people of African descent—remains strong. This is particularly the case in Brazil and Bolivia, the settings for the two films reviewed here.

Ôrí (1989) and Saya: Dance and Survival in an Afro-Bolivian Village (2013) are documentaries that chronicle Black cultural practices and their relationships to national politics in Brazil and Bolivia.

Ôrí is directed by Raquel Gerber and narrated by renowned intellectual and organizer, Beatriz Nascimento—one of the most influential Black women in Brazilian history (Smith, Davies, and Gomes 2021; Smith 2016). Ori is a Yoruba word used in the Afro-Brazilian religious practices of Candomblé to refer to the head.1 The ori is the spiritual center. It is also each person’s ancestral, spiritual energy and where the Orixás—African deities in the Yoruba religious tradition—connect energies with people living on earth. In homage to this cosmology, Ôrí explores the spiritual and cultural core of Black life in Brazil.

For approximately ten years, Gerber and Nascimento collaborated on the film, traveling across Brazil and to and from western African in order to map the historical relationship between these two regions and Africa’s continued influence on Black Brazilian cultural expressions. The result is one of the richest surviving visual archives of Black life in southern Brazil during the 1970s and 1980s. This is significant. From 1964-85, Brazil experienced a military dictatorship. During this time, Brazilians on the left and the working class weathered an extreme period of violent repression that included state-sponsored torture and disappearances. Typically, narratives about this era have focused on the experiences of leftist movements (especially university students), the majority of whom are classified as white in Brazil. Consequently, they erase the experience of Black people, the military’s devastating impact on Black communities, and the resurging Black movement at this time. However, Ôrí offers footage of the Black experience at the height of the dictatorship. We see Beatriz Nascimento, Eduardo de Oliveira e Oliveira, and Hamilton Cardoso speaking out against racism at marches, Black movement meetings, and at the historic event Quinzena do Negro at the University of São Paulo (one of Brazil’s most renowned universities). In this way, the film provides a rare glimpse into Black organizing in Brazil during the time period leading up to the end of the military dictatorship and the establishment of the new constitution in 1988.

Ôrí’s conceptual road map anchors itself in Nascimento’s theorizations of quilombo, which she developed in her her master’s thesis about Brazilian maroon societies (Smith, Davies, and Gomes 2021). She argues that this practice of fleeing from slavery and establishing autonomous communities during the colonial period continues today: descendants of these communities maintain their cultural practices on their ancestral lands and create spaces of freedom (even if only fleetingly so) within the context of patriarchal white supremacy in Brazil. Contemporary cultural expressions like Afrocentric fashion shows, samba performances during carnival, Black dance parties, and Candomblé religious practices are all contemporary manifestations of quilombo. Ôrí documents these practices in a breathtaking montage of performance footage, interviews, and recordings of everyday moments that demonstrate how and why Black life in contemporary Brazil is punctuated by acts of fugitivity.  

Saya documents Black life in Latin America as well. It focuses on the experiences of Black Bolivians from the town of Tocaña—a former plantation where enslaved Africans were forced to labor through 1952, when the country abolished unpaid labor. A captivating and raw look at this community and the challenges Afro-Bolivians face, Saya features a series of interviews with community leaders and footage of daily life in Tocaña and the city of Coroico.

The term saya refers to a traditional Afro-Bolivian dance that women in the community perform while men drum. Although it did not always involve special clothing, today the women wear white dresses with red ribbon and the signature black bolero (a hat) worn by indigenous people in Bolivia. This clothing reflects the intercultural exchange between Black and Indigenous Bolivians over the centuries. Interestingly, there is resonance between the rhythms and dress of the saya performers and the Candomblé initiates in Ôrí—diasporic connections manifest through the embodied practice of dance and song that Black people in Bolivia and Brazil have preserved through the years. We might also think of Tocaña as a maroon society—a quilombo. Thus, Saya, in its portrayal of Afro-Bolivian life, connects the Black experiences in Bolivia to other African diaspora experiences in the hemisphere, like that of Brazil.

Both of these films present rich, fascinating, and captivating footage of Black people and communities in the southern Americas in ways that can enrich students’ understandings of race, gender, and class around the world. In subtle and often symbolic ways, the films provoke us to question our assumptions about the history and contemporary realities of Blackness in this region and the role that the practice of marronage has played in defining Black life in Bolivia and Brazil.

Works Cited

Dixon, Kwame, and Ollie A. Johnson III, eds. 2018. Comparative Racial Politics in Latin America. New York: Routledge.

Edwards, Erika Denise. 2020. Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mitchell-Walthour, Gladys L., and Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, eds. 2016. Race and the Politics of Knowledge Production: Diaspora and Black Transnational Scholarship in the United States and Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Paschel, Tianna S. 2018. Becoming Black Political Subjects: Movements and Ethno-Racial Rights in Colombia and Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. 2013. Black Women against the Land Grab: The Fight for Racial Justice in Brazil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Christen, Archie Davies, and Bethânia Gomes. 2021. “‘In Front of the World’: Translating Beatriz Nascimento.” Antipode 53, no. 1 (January): 279-316.

Smith, Christen. 2016. “Towards a Black Feminist Model of Black Atlantic Liberation: Remembering Beatriz Nascimento.” Meridians 24, no. 2: 71-87.

1 Candomblé is a set of African-Brazilian religious practices in Brazil that draw from Yoruba, Benin, Bantu, and Congo religious practices.

Christen A. Smith is a Black feminist anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies and Director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Her work focuses on Black women’s experiences with state violence and epistemicide, and Black women’s intellectual contributions to the Americas. She is the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil (2016), co-author of the forthcoming book, The Dialectic is in the Sea: The Black radical thought of Beatriz Nascimento (with Archie Davies and Bethânia Gomes), and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Black Feminist Constellations: Black Women Theorizing the Americas (with Lorraine Leu). Christen’s writings on Beatriz Nascimento also include “‘In Front of the World’: Translating Beatriz Nascimento” (with Archie Davies and Bethânia Gomes, 2021) and “Towards a Black Feminist Model of Black Atlantic Liberation: Remembering Beatriz Nascimento” (2016).