Híbridos, the Spirits of Brazil
A Poetic and Cinematic Research on Spirituality and its Music
Eight years ago, in 2013, I received an unexpected email from French filmmaker Vincent Moon, who was looking for a Brazilian partner to undertake an ambitious project: a poetic and cinematographic research on spirituality and its musicality in Brazil.
At that point, Vincent had spent 10 years of his life researching the relationship between music and the sacred across several countries, resulting in films that could be streamed on his website for free. When I got his email, I already knew his work and admired his way of making movies. His images, charged with rhythm and saturated with humanity, were very attractive and bold. Vincent would tell me, as a foreign filmmaker, what I would experience as a Brazilian filmmaker: “The South American giant has the most diverse spiritual culture in the world.”
There’s no other place on the planet where Indigenous, African, and European cultures live so intrinsically together—and the friction caused by this tightly woven fabric can have both destructive and inspiring results. Then maybe this could inspire this collapsing world to create other forms of living together. It was with this promise that Vincent presented me with his proposal.
I immediately accepted it. And as we moved forward with developing the idea, the project imposed itself upon us like an entity, an enigmatic and riveting path that demanded following. And that’s how, at 30 years of age, I started to truly understand the many Brazils imprinted on me. And that, as a giant, Brazil has diverse, very complex meanings. And moreover, we have highly sophisticated technologies when it comes to the connection between ordinary and extraordinary.
Vincent, his partner and Híbridos co-director Priscilla Telmon, and I had an intense virtual exchange for months as we mapped the spiritual manifestations that could make it into the project. This is when we started weaving a network of places, people, entities, saints, encantados, orixás, old and new manifestations that would later become a collection of stunning content available to anyone navigating the unknown waters of the internet.
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We turned to shamans, mães de santo and pais de santo, healers and believers in search of inspiration. It was quickly clear that this was not about researching and solving mysteries—it was about listening, a mysterious experiment. An active type of listening that would cause the project to trace its own trajectory.
In talks with the audience and specialists about Híbridos, we always get asked about the challenges of intimately accessing closed rituals—many of which are secret and had been filmed for the very first time. We documented around 120 rituals across 17 states of Brazil, involving dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. Looking back, I see that we achieved this fairly easily because of our method.
We went from the popular Festa de Iemanjá in Salvador, Bahia to an Almas e Angola ritual in Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, an urban ayahuasca ritual at Fraternidade Kayman in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, and a traditional Xambá ceremony in Recife—we crossed the country in search of the encounters.
The project relied solely on private funding: some from our own pockets (feever filmes and Petites Planètes, the production companies), from the co-producers (Samba Filmes), from associate producers and from the Rumos Itaú Cultural Prize—which allowed us to create the website. In filmmaking, limited resources must join forces with resilience, freedom, improvisation, and strong personal motivation—and this is what we had in our favor.
Eduardo Coutinho, a renowned Brazilian documentary filmmaker, used to say: “A movie is a negotiation between the desires of those who do the filming and the desires of those who are filmed.” The main investors in Híbridos are those who consented to be filmed in moments of intimacy, who opened their doors and the paths needed for this project to exist. Our approach was based on simplicity and sincerity: “We have a grandiose idea, we are a small and under-resourced team, we are working on this project because we believe, and we would like to count on you.” We had mostly positive responses. We dealt, above all, in good faith.
Our first shoot was in August 2014, in the city of Codó, Maranhão state. During our research, a local friend told me this was the “Capital of Enchantments,” the land of Terecô. One of the main practitioners of this Afro-Brazilian religion was a man whose age was a mystery and whose knowledge was infinite. The powers of Terecô are linked to the occult knowledge of the Indigenous, the Africans and partly to Catholicism.
The story goes that, in 1985, Mestre Bita do Barão caused the drums in the city to roll incessantly for seven days until the then-president, Tancredo Neves—who was hospitalized at the time—passed away and the vice-president, José Sarney, a Maranhão native, took office as the President of Brazil. There are a handful of stories about politicians who sought the help of Mestre Bita do Barão’s powers, earning him the title of Commander of the Republic. He never confirmed his deeds, but never dismissed them either.
In 2014, the almost mythical Mestre Bita must have been between 90 and 100 years old. Our first experience was intense: we spent seven days shooting the uninterrupted celebrations that attract dozens of the people coming from all the corners of the country to greet caboclos, princesses, saints, encantados, and orixás at the Festejo dos Santos e Orixás. The intersection of so many beliefs and traditions, the honorary commendation, the sumptuousness of the rites…it was all so whimsical and utterly Brazilian. This was our starting point because we feared Bita might take a long nap before we had a chance to finalize the project, but he would live to see his movies.
We left Codó knowing that we had to come back to São Luis, Maranhão the following May to film the traditional Festa do Divino. We returned in 2015 to film with another personality, as important as Mestre Bita: Pai Euclides, founder of Casa Fanti Ashanti. We had the opportunity to capture his last tribute to the divine—the great tambor de mina master passed away a few months following our meeting.
I share these experiences to illustrate some of the decision-making process when it comes to what and when to film. Our planning involved making the most of the possibilities offered by each location while staying attuned to “callings” that would arise, when they did.
We agreed that the shooting phase would span more than a year, covering a full cycle of the official Brazilian calendar and the Catholic events upon which it is based, but also encompassing everything else that could take place within this period. We started in August 2014 and wrapped up in September 2015 with a last trip to Mato Grosso state, specifically to Xingu National Park, to film the Kuarup—an Indigenous ritual to honor the dead that attracts people from different villages in the region.
Over their stay in Utawana village with the Mehinako people, Vincent and Priscilla garnered their hosts’ trust, so much so that they were invited to film a healing ritual with the shaman Pajé Tukuyari—which turned out to be the dazzling scene that closes the feature film.
Once the shooting phase was concluded, our next challenge would meet us back in Rio de Janeiro. Not only did we have to edit a movie for each ritual (a process we had kicked off during the shooting phase), but we also had to put together the website to house all our research plus a feature film that documented the full extent of the journey. At the core of this challenge was creating a new, cinematographic ritual out of all the vibrant and unique rituals we had captured.
We gathered hours of interviews on rites, traditional knowledge, possessions, trance and healing technologies. We asked every possible question to understand that, in this hybrid universe of Brazilian spirituality, words cannot account for what music, dance and people in congregation can do.
The first decision while editing the feature film was not including words in the form of interviews or narration in the movie. We would only have ambient audio—forest sounds, chanted hymns, ritual music and conversations with the divine.
We were interested in capturing the moment in which we, inhabitants of this plane, interact with the realm of the extraordinary. People of the forest excel at this, but city people, immersed in the confusion of urban reality, are not too far behind.
The story opens with native people, in a Yawanawá ceremony, followed by the largest Catholic pilgrimage in the world, Círio de Nazaré—a reference to the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil, and then Afro-Brazilian, Spiritist, Evangelical, Kardecist Spiritist, Amazonian, and urban rituals, circling back to the originating people in the Xingu region. This spiraling edit aims to convey the circular perception of time that is particular to nature-based beliefs.
The website is complementary to the feature film experience and contains more information on each ritual, each place. By organizing the project like this, there was also an intention to question our relationship with screens. What we see and how we perceive it through each medium: computer, mobile phone, movie screen, outdoor screenings, and art galleries. Each interface offers a different possibility of immersion.
Even before we began filming, mass protests in 2013 resulting in violent police repression were causing Brazil to change. At that time, the evangelical caucus was gaining more political leverage, and a pastor who freely incited homophobia and religious prejudice became chair at the Human Rights Commission.
We wrapped up the project in 2017. President Dilma Rousseff had already been impeached and the rise of the evangelical caucus we had observed as we kicked off our project was the result of one of the country’s demographic realities: the rapid growth of Evangelical religions, mainly Pentecostal, allowing the consolidation of protestant pastors in power had become a concrete reality.
We were deep into the editing phase when we found a way to include the second-largest religious group in the country, often connected to hate and totalitarian speech, in the film. The evangelical concept, currently used by non-evangelical people and the media to refer to a vast group of non-Catholic Christians in Brazil, causes tremendous confusion. From conservative Protestantism to several new theologies, being evangelical in Brazil goes far beyond the image proposed by powerful pastors who become politicians and by the media.
At Monte Escadas de Jacó, an outdoor prayer spot in Rio de Janeiro, we found people from different beliefs searching for a connection with Christ through chants and prayer. The images in the feature film show a woman speaking in tongues and holding her hand over another woman who, lying on her back and wearing a Brazilian soccer team jersey, receives loving and healing vibrations. That was our last day of filming.
Ultimately, these are all displays of faith and spirituality involving magic and religious rituals in order to establish a line of communication between the ordinary and extraordinary planes—and this is the idea behind religare, which gives sense to religion and means to bind, to tie.
Once the arduous editing was over and we were still making sense of what the material was telling us, a new and more radical form of Híbridos came along: live cinema. As an investigation of what could be a cinematographic ritual, we did a series of live shows in which Vincent would edit a new movie on the spot with the contribution of musicians who improvised their sounds in a live dialogue with the projected images. With each presentation, a different movie, experience, ritual.
For the Brazilian premiere, we did one of these live shows on a large patio at MASP (São Paulo Art Museum). Seeing the images of a shaman in the Xingu region, a Xambá ceremony in Recife, an ayahuasca ritual in Acre projected in its largest format along Paulista Avenue, the spinal cord of cosmopolitan São Paulo, for an audience of 400 moved people was a beautiful reflection of the crossing we have come to understand as Brazil throughout our four years of work.
I write this today, halfway into January 2021, after the conclusion of the coup d’état that took place in Brazil, starting at around the same time we started our project. Since colonial times, there has been a sophisticated process in place to annihilate differences, one that is now openly revealed by the leadership elected in 2018 under the slogan: Brazil above everything, God above everyone.
What political leaders insist on erasing is precisely this fascinating dimension of the crossing, the merging. There is no Brazil that can override Brazil, there is no God that can override another deity.
Híbridos is, above all, an ode to Brazil and Brazilians, to our ancestors and our ancestries. To the country-crossing hybrid that blurs, with faith and music, the borders between sacred and profane, ordinary and extraordinary, real and supernatural, and points the way—guided by the dimension of the unpredictable, the unfinished—of possibility.
Winter 2021, Volume XX, Number 2
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