Your Turn, Eliza Capai’s third full-length documentary, weaves the stories of three young student activists to paint a picture of the background to the recent political convulsions in Brazil.
When Marcela Jesus, Nayara Souza, and Lucas ‘Koka’ Penteado first became involved in youth activism five or six years ago, corrupt, incompetent leftwing or social democratic parties at both the regional and national levels largely ran Brazil.
The spark for this mass student activism in 2013 – one that gradually re-emerged in the 30 years since the end of military dictatorship and the adoption of a democratic constitution – was the imposition of an unaffordable increase in public transport fares in Saõ Paulo.
Saõ Paulo is Brazil’s largest city – with an overall metro-regional population of more than 21 million – more than a quarter of which live in poverty. The fare hike represented a massive increase in costs for young people in the area’s poor shanty towns and neighbourhoods – the favelas – that house many of Brazil’s urban poor.
For families that often have to choose, as Marcela says, between «eating and paying the rent», access to entertainment, shops, and social life, is dependent on cheap bus and metro travel. Thus, a mass movement, demanding free transport, sprang up overnight.
The energy, enthusiasm, idealism – and indeed naivety – of the young protagonists the director marshals to tell this story in their own words and through their own experiences, gives hope for the future of a country where, just a couple of months before its international premiere at Berlinale’s Generation 14plus programme, inaugurated its first ever extreme right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Based on detailed interviews with many students and drawing on the dedicated work of other documentary filmmakers, including Caio Castor, Herinque Cataxo (of Jornalistas Livres) and Tiago Tambellis, Your Turn builds a picture of youthful optimism and the student movement’s many themes (LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, anti-sexism, horizontal decision-making) from the inside out.
Capai’s approach – allowing the trio of young activists to represent the many, arguing amongst themselves, telling a story as much about the empowerment of young women and the discovery of pride in their race and colour (many in the movement are black of native South American or slave descent) – makes for a film that may require some prior knowledge or post-viewing research to fully understand, but does represent a fresh and encouraging view on a protest movement that deliberately eschews conventional party backing or institutionalised leadership.
The fare hike represented a massive increase in costs for young people in the area’s poor shanty towns and neighbourhoods
Gradually the story progresses: a hated regional governor (Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist PSDB Social Democracy Party, which the documentary drily notes at its conclusion ran against Bolsonaro, winning just 4.76% of the votes, the worst result in a presidential race in the party’s history; nothing like revenge being a dish served cold….) backs the imposition of another body blow to the poor: a schools rationalisation process that will see 93 institutions closed down and 300,000 students moved.
Fed up with an already failing public education system, where teachers often fail to turn up to teach over-crowded classes, the students take matters into their own hands and begin a series of school occupations in resistance.
The authorities respond with what, in today’s Bolsonaro climate, looks relatively benign: police sent to force students out (sometimes without correct warrants) and aggressive beatings and tear-gas bombings when the kids take to the streets to publicise their fight.
the students take matters into their own hands and begin a series of school occupations in resistance.
The lessons the youngsters learn – about organising protests, living together, sharing chores, challenging sexism, appreciating and loving themselves – are all as important as the outer objective of their task.
«Schools don’t teach us how to organise ourselves politically,» one of the young stars and narrators says.
«Schools don’t teach about social movements. Schools don’t promote debates on how to question, how to transform society. And I don’t think it’s random. The thing is, they teach us that organising ourselves is not the way, that it’s even a crime.», Marcela says, continuing, «How many lessons are devoted to the dozens of revolts and revolutions of Brazil’s history? Just imagine if we were taught pacificst resistance, black blocs, revolutions, freedoms, revolts, and our people’s political fight…»
It is a manifesto of freedom and hope in the future. Hopes that today are up against an even tougher adversary than the corrupt, decayed and outworn old politics of the past 30 years. In Bolsonaro, the student movement – which thought it had won regionally when the schools’ rationalisation programme was ditched and its street demonstrations garnered major media attention (and support, even at times from those inconvenienced by it) – faces a much more determined and even deadly adversary.
«Jair Bolsonaro is the first extreme right-wing president in Brazil’s history. His promise: to classify as terrorist movements that «invade» rural or urban property,» the film states in its closing credits.
As Marcela says, whose personal journey is vividly portrayed by her emerging identity – from a young woman who straightens her naturally curly hair, to a vibrant feminist with dyed purple, tightly curled natural hair cropped short: «Fuck. What will the future be like? What will the struggle be like? Will you have anxiety attacks, just like I had? Will you be free to be yourself? Will girls be respected? Will textbooks mention black people? Will you be oppressed for fighting back?»
A democratic regime of force
She need not look far: in early April , just days after celebrating the anniversary of the military coup that led to Brazil’s last dictatorship, Bolsonaro’s government announced plans to revise the history curriculum for the country’s schools, introducing new textbooks that would give children a «true idea» of the era of dictatorship, describing the government that took over after the coup as a «democratic regime of force.»
Your Turn won the Amnesty International Film Award for human rights and the Independent Peace Film Prize at Berlinale. Brazil’s student movement – and Eliza Capai’s career as a documentary filmmaker – are worth following carefully.