AFRICAN ODYSSEYS Part 1: BOY 23

We took shelter on the South Bank to mark 10 years of AFRICAN ODYSSEYS at BFI (15 JULY 2017, 14:00). Celebrations took the form of brief speeches, a raffle for some chocolates and a double bill of Brazilian brilliance.

Today we focus on documentary BOY 23. We’ll post some thoughts on its curious bedfellow, capoeira action flick BESOURO (aka THE ASSAILANT), tomorrow.

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BOY 23 – THE FORGOTTEN BOYS OF BRAZIL

(2016) d. Belisario Franca

BOY 23 is a calm, moving and haunting documentary about Brazil’s shocking romance with Nazism and its yet darker past of slavery and exploitation.

Based on Sidney Aguilar Filho’s academic research, Belisario Franca’s film focuses on two survivors of the forced slavery of 50 orphans by prominent Nazi sympathisers in the 1930s. Taken from their orphanage in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of an eugenics-inspired education programme, the children — all black boys — were numbered one to fifty and plunged into servitude on a ranch in rural São Paolo.  The testimony of surviving relatives of a third orphan (Number Two) who was lifted out of hard labour to be raised as a faux family member cum domestic servant, raises the haunting spectre of collusion in the lengthy exploitation of the children.

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The documentary is deliberately — and pointedly — devoid of melodrama, focusing instead on grounding the story in historical narrative, scathing social commentary and the ever-present testimony of the two dignified survivors. Handsomely made, perhaps its only significant flaw is an over reliance on black and white slow motion reconstruction, creating an unhelpful air of fiction amongst the all-too disquieting facts.

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It is restraint that drives this one home. Rather than going the full Solomon Northup, Franca and co-writer Bianca Lenti allow the true horror of Brazil’s tolerance of its Nazi elites, and the country’s wider ambivalence to WWII, to slowly sink in. We learn that Brazil once boasted the largest Nazi party outside of Germany and only joined the Allied forces in response to significant coercion and investment from the USA. This changed public opinion and the ranch where the boys lived and worked was finally closed: it had simply become an embarrassment. The gates were thrown open, the boys sent on their way.

“I felt like I was a man without a future.”

Bringing matters up to date, the doc ends with some startling statistics. In a recent survey, half of Brazil’s population identified as black or mixed race. 92% saw racism as a widespread social concern yet only 1.3% actually saw themselves as racist. As these figures scrolled up on screen, someone in the rows behind muttered “Denial!”, reinforcing the film’s idea that freedom from racism is a long journey we have yet to travel.

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IN MOVING PICTURES

  • A brick is dug out from an old farm wall with the blade of a knife, mud scraped from its surface to reveal the baked-in Swastika at its core.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

  • AFRICAN ODYSSEYS continues at BFI – the only continuous strand dedicated to the cinemas of Africa and its diaspora in the UK.
  • COMING SOON: continue the Brazilian connection with BLACK GODDESS (aka A DEUSA NEGRA) (BFI, 5 AUGUST, 16:20) or head to Nigeria for very rare archival treasures OLA BALOGUN DOCUMENTARY PROGRAMME (BFI, 6 AUGUST, 13:00).
  • AFRICAN ODYSSEYS is jointly promoted with Alt-Africa, the “bespoke London arts & culture events magazine”.
  • For more ideas about adventurous moving pictures, read our recent GUIDE.

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Featured images: BOY 23: THE FORGOTTEN BOYS OF BRAZIL (2016).

 

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