Quilombo Country opens with Brazilian women dancing. “How did this dance start?” an old man asks rhetorically, then says of slaves, “They had the right to work, to be stepped on, to be tortured, but they didn’t have the right to do anything else. So they did this.” This potent idea of exhilaration as resistance lies at the heart of the film, which fails mainly because it’s not exhilarating enough. Quilombo, the film’s narrator Chuck D tells us, is an Angolan word for “encampment,” and refers to the over 1,000 small communities throughout Brazil founded by former slaves (the nation was once the world’s largest slave colony, and the most prominent rebels are still national heroes). He then tells us that the film will travel through different quilombos to look at daily life. Fine, well and good, a viewer may think as he or she watches the computer-generated map; at least the film will look nice, even if it lacks focus. The dance is quickly abandoned in favor of a brief tutorial on slave uprisings, followed by scenes of quilombo residents pounding rice with poles and bending babassu fronds to make roofs for homes.
Quilombo‘s main tension emerges between a traditional style of community living and the urban lifestyle threatening it. An old woman makes reference to cars scaring animals away, which makes hunting more difficult, and farming gets harder as ranchers try to seize quilombo land. Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Leonard Abrams peppers the film with scenes of festivals and religious rituals, occasionally filming them in slow motion as if to give a sense of a culture hovering indelibly in time. With the outer world threatening, it may soon disappear. The theme is poignant, but would be much more so if the film gave a stronger sense of the culture in question. Quilombo’s focus is educational rather than experiential, as Abrams repeatedly offers quick shots of activities accompanied by quilombo residents summarizing the action. While useful for teaching vocabulary—at the very least, viewers may learn the word “caruano”—this strategy also robs the many dance and costume-based rituals of their splendor. A key example comes about a third of the way through, as Abrams pairs a shot of a man in a colorful bull costume with a brief sentence describing his purpose: He helps enact a story about a master’s prize bull who is killed by a slave and then brought back to life by a medicine man before the master finds out. To watch this ceremony in full could have been fascinating, but instead the film cuts to a lecture about the importance quilombos place on respecting bulls.
Abrams essentially goes for a survey view of quilombo culture, when his film would have been stronger focusing on specific people and rituals. He deserves credit, however, for exploring the racial dimension of their anguish. The film depicts quilombos as predominantly—if not entirely—populated by blacks. Living in them is a way for residents to feel connected to their past, while leaving them entails dealing with racism outside. Yet a former quilombo resident also talks about watching her grandmother almost die from walking in the sun, and about how she can no longer live without TV or hot showers. For many quilombo residents, technology is appealing, even when they must leave their communities for it. The film ends with a slow-motion shot of quilombo dwellers dancing, the tension between old and new worlds unresolved.