"Bay of All Saints," the winner of the audience award for documentary at SXSW, was shot and directed by Annie Eastman, who worked with disenfranchised populations in the Bahia state of Brazil for a year and a half in 1999. She went back over a dozen times from 2004 to 2010, to document the impact, or lack thereof, of CONDOR, a major housing project funded by the World Bank. The project was supposed to move thousands of people — largely single mothers and their children — from the shacks they’ve constructed on stilts in a bay-cum-landfill to a freshly constructed apartment complex on land.
These water slums, known as the palafitas, are wreaking environmental havoc on the bay, and the government considers the families who occupy them squatters. The women built their homes in the sea because they don’t own any land. They illegally tap into municipal water and electric grids. They dispense raw sewage directly into the bay. Their shacks are linked through a series of half-rotted plank bridges, and the whole community is plagued by rats, mosquitoes and a horrifying stench. When the World Bank gives the federal government of Brazil a $49 million loan to tear down the palafitas and relocate the residents, many are eager to go. But six years later, no one is sure what happened to the money. Many residents do move, under the premise that, should they find an apartment on the mainland, CONDOR will pay their rent. Others distrust CONDOR and vow to stay put, because, for all of its challenges, there is also grace, dignity and resiliency in the palafitas.
We meet a handful of characters, including Geni, the fiery minimum-wage manager of a pizza cafe and the unofficial “mayor” of the palafitas. She straddles two Bahias — the newly booming state of high rise hotels and franchises, and a short distance away, the no-man’s land of the palafitas, where she and her young son moved after her husband left. Geni is an activist and realistic optimist. She tries to be a community liaison for CONDOR. Her shack seems almost inviting. She keeps things tidy, she’s covered the walls with cheerful pink paint, she hangs baubles hung from nails. There’s also strong-willed Dona Maria who supports her grandkids through trash-picking, and Rebecca, her bright, beautiful granddaughter, with an easy grin, and comments that betray both innocence and worldliness. Rebecca is particularly poignant, because she’s young and charismatic enough to illustrate pure possibility. But even on dry land (she eventually leaves Dona Maria to live with her own mother), it’s obvious that without intervention, she’ll continue the pattern — high birthrates, stunted education, endless poverty.
Norato, a middle-aged man who lends an willing ear, and a hand with repairs and manual labor, guides us through the palafitas, where he was raised by, we can only assume, a single mother. He’s the closest the film gets to a narrator, and he’s an odd, omniscient presence. We learn nearly nothing about his personal life, but he’s always telling us about the personal lives of others. He seems to be Eastman’s all-access pass. He holds the confidence of these women, so the camera can come in, fly-on-the-wall style. And really, that’s what “Bay of All Saints” is about. It doesn’t explore the corruption of CONDOR or attempt to provide any answers. It’s an anthropological document, capturing a unique community that is dispersing, and a way of living that is disappearing, albeit more slowly than expected. But most of all, it’s simply an intimate portrait of people surviving in conditions that are, unfortunately, not so unique, and that most Americans will never witness, much less experience.
The film feels honest. The screen is full of vivid images — bobbing refuse juxtaposed against women dancing and laughing, lingering sunsets and bright colors. But Eastman avoids stereotypes and refuses to romanticize the poverty. The women we meet are not prostitutes and drug addicts, and we don’t see guns and crime in the palafitas. These things may exist there, but we know the Hollywood version of this story. Instead, “Bay of All Saints” gives us something quieter and more human — these are proud, hard-working women who have, like all of us, made good choices and bad ones and are trying to get by. The film offers breathing room, in which to realize what the screen can’t contain — the tiny, repetitive sufferings, such as smells, the (despite best efforts) filth, the scabbed bug-bites and maternal anxiety. But this isn’t just a film about the patient, “noble” poor. While there’s no happy ending, there’s more depth and hope here than that. These women are determined, and they’re actively struggling for change. In capturing that, “Bay of All Saints” distinguishes itself from poverty porn documentaries. 8 p.m. Sat., Riverdale. Annie Eastman in attendance.