Taking Brazil’s new Black cinema as its point of departure, Frequências: Contemporary Afro-Brazilian Cinema & the Black Diaspora will feature the emerging wave of young Afro-Brazilian filmmakers, curators, programmers, and scholars whose art and scholarship have already had an impact on international cinema.
Organized by Christopher Harris, Janaína Oliveira, and Cristiane Lira, this 2022-23 Obermann Humanities Symposium and International Programs Major Projects Award takes place March 30 – April 1, 2023, in Iowa City.
Below is a discussion with Harris, Oliveira, and Lira:
Chris, you stated in your application for the International Programs Major Projects Award you were inspired to propose the symposium after trips to Brazil in September 2018 and 2019. What about those experiences led to this symposium?
Harris - Up until that point, I had not done a lot of international travel to the global south, in fact, very little. And certainly not presenting my work in the context where there were people gathered from throughout the African diaspora. When Janaína brought me to Brazil in 2018, that was eye opening to meet artists, filmmakers, and curators from the African continent, from Europe, from other parts of Latin America, and of course from Brazil.
It was a new context for me as a filmmaker; it really opened my eyes to future possibilities. It was Brazil that brought me to the true African diaspora.
When I went back in fall 2019, I had a lot of conversations with Black Brazilians. The more I talked to them, the more I realized the parallels and similarities between Black people in Brazil and Black people in the U.S. I started thinking more about myself and African Americans in general for the first time in a more global context. Seeing the historical sweep of colonialism in a shared context and any real differences there are in the Black experience in the U.S. vs. Haiti vs. Brazil, I don’t diminish those differences, but they do have something fundamental in common: the historical sweep of colonialism and the place of Black subjects in colonialism. And it was talking to artists in Brazil where I had that realization. Now thinking about Frequências, it was important to center Brazil in a conversation of diaspora, in relation to the film making and in art in general.
My experiences at both festivals in 2018 and 2019, opened my eyes to the richness and vitality of contemporary Afro‐Brazilian cinema and its position relative to the contemporary cinema of Africa and the wider African diaspora in the Caribbean and in particular, the United States.
Janaína and Cris, how did you get involved in this project?
Lira – Prior to my current position at the University of Georgia, I was a faculty member at the University of Iowa in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese within the Division of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Kathleen Newman, associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, told me about Chris Harris and how he was thinking about proposing this symposium. We thought it would be interesting to form a connection between our departments since I’m a scholar of literature.
As things went on, there were a lot of connections being uncovered between Chris Harris, the symposium, and what I was doing at the time in my own research and work. When Chris and I met, we talked about the story of Brazilians in the U.S. regarding those enslaved and brought to the Americas and we talked about the diaspora. Our exchange made me really excited about helping this event to happen.
Oliveira - I’ve been a film creator and scholar for a while and had been thinking about the diaspora experience I’ve been developing in many ways. In 2018, I was working on a festival in Brazil and invited Chris to Brazil to be a part of it; at the time, it was the most important African film festival there. It was really a kind of Pan-African perspective in a way to build bridges between a lot of different parts, and my work connected to the festival was connecting all those bridges.
Frequências now provides us a sort of way back to that moment some five years ago, bringing the vibrancy of the festival to the U.S. and creating dialogues that help us think cinematically about the diaspora experience. Because we think about the diaspora in waves, when it comes to films, we talk about the points where we meet and where we’re not connected at all. We want to provide a way to create new opportunities for people to engage in the conversation. In my aim and vision to think about the diaspora, I want to bring a cinematic contribution to the discussion. We have the Brazilian core of artists and critics participating in the symposium, but it’s also about building the connection with U.S. scholars too.
Harris - Often in the U.S., whenever the subject of diaspora comes up, it seems as if it’s very U.S. centric; It’s about Black Americans. In a way, it often erases the rest of the global south in this hemisphere. It often is reduced to a bilateral discussion between Black people in the U.S. and the continent of Africa. I really wanted to center Brazil and put the U.S. somewhat to the side, not necessarily to the periphery, but to bring forward another part of the diaspora that wasn’t confined to a bilateral discussion of the U.S. and the continent of Africa, but to move that aside and think about diaspora through the prism of Brazil.
Oliveira - We have many conversations with U.S. filmmakers and scholars, and in the U.S., historically, this is a place where a lot of thoughts and conceptions about the Black experience is historically rooted, in intellectual terms, and I’m not only talking about scholarly terms either, but in films and the arts too. This also implies that, when you are in the U.S. context, that that is what blackness is. When Chris was in Brazil, among all those Black folks coming from many different places with plenty of ideas and experiences around blackness, Chris was impressed by that.
Frequências is about pulling things together in a way that, at the end, there isn’t a definition of blackness and a new concept of diaspora, but it’s about the experience of putting those vibrances together to see what the experience is between multiple ideas. It’s better than one singular point or definition of what it is. Filmmakers from all over the world have their own cinematic experiences in their own practices. This encounter will be something that’s really unique and amazing.
What can people expect when they attend the symposium?
Harris - They should expect the unexpected because we don’t necessarily know everything that will come out of this. For example, I’ve asked some of the participants to present with the idea of “intervention” where the interventionist (presenter) presents something of their choosing. They’ll be given the floor for a certain amount of time and then they do what they want. When this presentation style happens, it’s often very loosely structured and improvisational. Sometimes people improvise a conversation around a set of film clips and/or audio clips and two to three people may present during the allotted time.
The whole symposium won’t be like that, of course. There will be screenings, artist performances, some scholarly presentations too. Additionally, there will be screenings at Film Scene, Q&A sessions with filmmakers, artist performances and installations at the Stanley Museum of Art. Then there will also be these “intervention” sessions that I’m most excited about because they are often unpredictable, and that’s exciting. I’ve asked every participant at some point to present something in relationship to this quote by Tina Campt:
“Attending to frequency is, at its core, a practice of attunement—an attunement to waves, rhythms, and cycles of return that create new formations and new points of departure.”
Oliveira - I agree – I think that from my experience programming African films and organizing these kinds of events, we always have beautiful moments of joy, discovering peoples’ work, reflections, and connecting with the audience. There’s a lot of surprise too in the way people get surprised by how they discover new thoughts or ideas. At first, they may not be aware of those words, those possibilities, and they’re amused how they’re connected to everything at the same time. So, the dialogue between what you know and what is so close but also so distant, it’s something really beautiful that happens.
The diaspora, it’s a traumatic experience. These gatherings are kind of a healing process in a positive way, in a way that people realize this is possible and the unpredictability of everything can help build new thoughts and new connections, so I think the audience can experience this together.
Harris - The audience can expect healing.
What is the importance of this symposium at this moment in time?
Lira - I think this symposium will be a huge opportunity to access the works being developed by Afro-Brazilian women scholars and filmmakers in connection to what is being done in other places regarding the reimagining of the diasporic experience.
In addition, I’m excited for the opportunity that the students will have to gain knowledge surrounding these subjects. This symposium will allow for students and the community to have access to works of art they wouldn’t normally have access to. I’m expecting to see a lot of new things and it’ll be an opportunity to have this collective conversation around Brazilian, specifically Afro-Brazilian women artists, many of whom were producing art during the government of Jair Bolsonaro who was making so many cuts to the arts. It’s so special to have this symposium happening now when we have a new government in Brazil, a new wave of hope. I’m expecting so much from this new government. Brazil was broken by the previous government, and we want it to be fixed and it’s a beautiful moment for us to see this happening.
Oliveira – Thank you for bringing up the funding cuts, Cris, because it’s really nice that we’re making this happen in this new moment for Brazil. It brings us a certain kind of hope and energy because it’s not an easy time right now in Brazil and this gives us hope.
Harris – There are parallels here, of course. That goes back to the original impetus of the proposal. This is an important moment in the history of the U.S. as well, maybe not quite as fraught as the very present in Brazil, but we’re still in the wake, so to speak, of the previous president’s administration. So the place of people of color in this country, and Black people in particular, and the way that gets shaped in filmmaking and in the responses of filmmakers, it’s evolving in the U.S. too. There are relationships and parallels between where the U.S. is today and where Brazil is today, all the way down to how both former presidents of Brazil and the United States had some sort of political, international, geo-political alliance.
Oliveira - There are many crossroads in the world, global politics, migration, etc., that speak to this Frequências symposium.
Going back to what Cris said about the participation of women earlier. I’ve been making programs with Black women filmmakers for a while. In 2018, I did a program on the film landscape in Brazil; Black people are the vanguards, the people who are presenting the most interesting, new, aesthetic narratives. In particular, Black women, when it comes to the films they are making about their diasporic experiences, they’re really framing new cinematic ways of talking about the diaspora.
At the same time in this moment in history, we have these bizarre political forces arising and creating all these events while we also have people that are creating new ways of expressing themselves in films, visual arts, and arts in general. This is why if you look at our program, it’s mainly made by women. This is not an accident.
What impact do you hope the symposium has on the UI campus, the Iowa City community, and the broader Afro-Brazilian Cinema scene?
Harris - Thinking about the work we’ve done so far to organize the symposium, the impact the symposium will have in the moment, and the ripple effect this will send out into the future and across the globe, this has the potential of being a landmark event for future thinking; this is a historical gathering for Brazilian filmmakers.
In all candor, the work that Janaína has been doing has already set the stage for what we’re doing today. I would not have proposed this symposium if Janaína hadn’t invited me to Brazil. I witnessed how she was working and this whole symposium owes a great debt to her ongoing practice and vision as a thinker around the arts and the cinema.
UI students, the Iowa City community, and everyone beyond, if they want to attend they’ll be witness to something special; it’s an opportunity to witness the ongoing reverberations of putting ideas, people, and works of art together in new, productive, and somewhat explosive, in a good sense, combinations with new potentials.
If you’re excited about new ideas, aesthetics, and the contemporary moments, Iowa City is the place to be in March/April.
Lira - Based on everything we discussed today, and what the schedule of the symposium looks like, I think we should highlight the idea of expecting the unexpected. One of the questions earlier was related to what to say to someone if they’re on the fence about attending the symposium. The word symposium sometimes feels too academic for some. Frequências is so much more than an academic event, though. It’s an artistic event, a community event, and it’s a moment to have a dialogue, the back and forth of experiencing something new. I would like to convey to people that, though it has the academic side, Frequências is a way to come together as a community, to reimagine the diasporic experience, and is for anyone interested in welcoming something unexpected.
Oliveira - We’re also challenging the scholarly way of thinking about things. When talking about diaspora, the south, and the global south, Frequências is about presenting these ideas in new and different ways. It’s an experience.
Harris - Every time I participate in festivals or symposia, I want people to enjoy their time, laugh, and have fun. If you’re laughing, having fun, and thinking at Frequências – that’s the point.
International Programs (IP) at the University of Iowa (UI) is committed to enriching the global experience of UI students, faculty, staff, and the general public by leading efforts to promote internationally oriented teaching, research, creative work, and community engagement. IP provides support for international students and scholars, administers scholarships and assistance for students who study, intern, or do research abroad, and provides funding opportunities and grant-writing assistance for faculty engaged in international research. IP shares their stories through various media, and by hosting multiple public engagement activities each year.