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Issue 002 Spring 2021 Essays

The Politics of the Gaze

by Janaína Oliveira

Politics of the Gaze, 2020. Screenshot courtesy of Janaína Oliveira.

In debates about film curatorship, it is common to return to the Latin origin of the word, curare, to reaffirm the purpose of the curator’s work: curating as caring or looking after; curating as zeal. The role of this profession in cinema is relatively contemporary, as are the debates and formulations by film scholars or programmers on the subject. These conversations are not born out of traditional film culture, which sees curatorship as a practice legitimized by traditional cinephilia (that is to say, the European film culture that arose during the second half of the twentieth century, developed around the centrality of the idea of authorship), but instead out of conversations among those who historically were marginalized by hegemonic cinema.1 Only in recent years has the field attempted to demystify the erudition required to be a film curator and produce reflections that openly consider curatorial activities as indisputable exercises of power.

Yet even when considering curatorial activity as a gesture of care, and thus combatting these dynamics, it is necessary to ask whom this work benefits. In the history of film festivals, curatorial choices often represent trauma much more than care, particularly for nonhegemonic filmmakers and audiences who are mainly not of European descent or male. This sentiment rings especially true regarding cinema in Brazil—the place where I was born, and where I live and work today.

Until recently, mainstream Brazilian cinema and its big festivals had long maintained the racism and discrimination that unfortunately mark Brazilian society. My activities as a curator stem from a deep dissatisfaction with the negative, or absent, repertoire of images featuring Black populations on screens. These sentiments are echoed by most of my Black curatorial colleagues with whom I have spoken through Politics of the Gaze, a series of conversations held over the last two years, dedicated to exploring curatorial practices among Black curators from different parts of Brazil and around the world. The series happens during the annual Encontro de Cinema Negro Zózimo Bulbul: Brasil, África, e Caribe (Zózimo Bulbul Black Film Festival: Brazil, Africa, and the Caribbean).

Created in 2007 by Zózimo Bulbul, then already considered the pioneer of Black cinema in Brazil, the festival became the most important exhibition for Black films in Latin America.2 The Encontro was born in Bulbul’s late seventies as a platform for African and African-descended films. It was also founded to ensure that Black Brazilian films had a place to be seen, reflected upon, and embraced by local audiences. After Bulbul died in 2013, the festival was curated by filmmaker Joelzito Araújo. In 2017, Araújo invited me to share this role with him, a position I have held since then.3 The continuing of Bulbul’s legacy of curatorship is defined by gestures of embracing.4 He carved a path for curatorial processes in Brazil, particularly for them to stop being synonymous with invisibility or misrepresentation, which Black people in the country had come to expect.

My career trajectory was born out of my desire to contribute to ending this invisibility in the field through collaboration, undeniably inspired by Bulbul’s initiatives. Thus, curating is a twofold activity for me. Firstly, it is a form of intervention, as I join Bulbul in his aspiration to make exhibition spaces less exclusive so that films from different places, perspectives, and positionalities can be seen, appreciated, and discussed. Simultaneously, it is an attempt to move beyond the trauma and healing lexicon and think of curating as a gesture of offering.5 This is literal in the sense that everyone can take what they want from the experience being proposed by the curatorial project, because its main gesture is to create opportunities for access and fruition. This is presented in each film session, in each debate, and each training activity that may be part of the program, emphasizing the relational possibilities and the dialogues presented on each occasion.

My activities as a curator stem from a deep dissatisfaction with the negative, or absent, repertoire of images featuring Black populations on screens. 

An example of these dynamics are the editions of the Encontro that I have programmed since 2018. Following the approach proposed by Bulbul, the festival remains the main national platform for Black films; in the most recent edition, seventy Afro-Brazilian films were shown (sixty-three shorts and seven feature films) in just ten days.6 It is always a challenge to organize the festival in a way that sufficiently probes the panorama of contemporary Black film production, always bearing in mind the country’s continental extension as well as the multiplicity of cinematic genres that are now being explored by the filmmakers. This ensures that the films can be experienced as art objects, rather than presumptuous reflections of what is assumed to be Black life or of what traditionally is expected of “a Black film.” My intention as a curator has increasingly been to progress the field of programming through discussions that foster reflection and expand aesthetic paths beyond the axes of representation and representativeness.7

A square graphic in the colors green, red and yellow announces and event titled "Encontro de cinema negro: Zózimo BulBul" (Translation: "Black Cinema Meeting: Zózimo Bulbul."
Politics of the Gaze 2020 social media promo. Image courtesy of Janaína Oliveira.

When Bulbul created the Encontro, there were a minimal number of Black Brazilian films. Since then, as a result of decades of struggle by Movimento Negro (the Brazilian Black movements), and educational global policies between 2003 and 2016—when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff served as presidents—a generation of young filmmakers has emerged. And with them, an interested public seeking out the growing repertoire concerning cinema of the African continent and its diaspora has developed. Thus, my practice is traversed by the desire to interact with these two expanding spheres: filmmakers and the public.

To develop this relationship, the curator introduces academic and educational means in an attempt to strengthen and expand the Black cinema movement throughout the nation.8 My understanding of this movement is constructed by its potentialities and weaknesses. I also navigate the curatorial process in relation to the experiences that I have developed working on exhibitions and festivals abroad. Likewise, I’m convinced that any real change toward a more equitable film industry (from production to reception) can only be made by mobilizing new cinematic references and by the presence of people with noncanonical approaches to talking about them. The Zózimo Bulbul Black Film Festival has been imbued with this spirit through sessions that gradually become permanent parts of the regular program, such as a space dedicated to film criticism;9 experimental cinema sessions and master classes;10 and panels about archives and Black audiovisual memory in Africa and the diaspora. The most recent example is the aforementioned talk series, Politics of the Gaze: Dialogues about Curation and Decolonization.

The sessions were conceived to be formative immersions, to exchange experiences about practices and trajectories. As I always say in my presentation of the series, decolonizing curatorship involves demystifying the practice, if that is possible at all. That’s why the first thing I ask the guests is to explain how and why they started programming films. As simple as it appears to be, this gesture is always mentioned as fundamental when we receive feedback from the audience. As there is practically no training for film curation in Brazil, the series offers a rare space for exchanges and for the audience to get closer to the craft.

The first edition of Politics of the Gaze happened in 2019 at the Rio Art Museum, with the participation of Alia Ayman, Carmen Luz, Cornelius Moore, Greg de Cuir Jr., Heitor Augusto, Jon-Sesrie Goff, Kênia Freitas, Liliana Angulo, Mansour Sora Wade, Rhea Combs, and Séverine Catelion. For three consecutive mornings, the invited curators discussed the central questions in their practices and their perceptions about the challenges of choosing and programming films. This was a collective exercise on the politics of the gaze, of thinking about the possibilities of decolonizing these processes.

A group of 12 people stand in front of a series of benches. The group, arranged in a row, is smiling with several embracing others or placing hands on their shoulders.
Politics of the Gaze, 2019. Left to right: Liliana Angulo (Colombia), Carmenn Luz (Brazil), Jon Goff (USA), Greg de Cuir Jr (USA), Raquel Souza (Brazil, translator), Rhea Combs (USA), Kênia Freitas (Brazil), Heitor Augusto (Brazil), Janaína Oliveira (Brazil), Viviane Ferreira (Brazil, Encontro's Artistic Director), Kevin Jerome Everson (USA), Cornelius Moore (USA). In Rio Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Janaína Oliveira.

In 2020, with the Encontro taking place exclusively online, I and the other festival administrators found that the best option to have more productive interactions was to host discussions with each programmer instead of panels or roundtables. The choice was due to the challenge of creating nonexhaustive engagement strategies in the online format while simultaneously conducting deeper conversations, each of which are difficult to achieve in more collective formats. Amir George, Ashley Clark, Chioma Onyenwe, Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, Maori Karmael Holmes, Tatiana Carvalho da Costa, and Tessa Boerman participated in that edition.

One of the most important results of the Politics of the Gaze series, besides being a source of inspiration for young generations of Black Brazilian film curators, is its ability to put forward debates about programming at other, often hegemonic film festivals. Through its fourteen years of existence, the Zózimo Bulbul Black Film Festival continues to honor its founder’s vision of being both a place of resistance (a quilombo of cinema, as Bulbul used to say)11 and of vanguard, where we collaborate to change the national cinema landscape. Now there are at least eighteen Black film festivals in Brazil, all with Black curators helming their programs.12 A great part of those initiatives emerged from conversations and meetings that happened during the Bulbul festival’s previous editions. Not only were film festivals generated there, but also broader initiatives related to the film industry in Brazil—for instance, the foundation of the first and only national Association of Black Film Professionals in 2016. By the end of 2020, it had 643 members and ninety associated film companies.13 The Encontro relieves film professionals’ needs to create in the cinema what bell hooks calls “spaces of agency.”14

I like to think of the offerings presented by my own curatorial practices as invitations to engage in epistemological displacements. By this, I mean not only academic formats of knowledge, but also a broader sense of information sharing, including those that Eurocentric schools of thought usually qualify as less relevant. I believe that a shift in the ways we understand the world and the moving images—a shift built with reflections, films, and, above all, the presence of non-white/hegemonic groups at all levels of decision-making spaces—will allow not only Black but Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and other film cultures to exist without the fetters of exoticism or tokenization. This sort of revolution will transform the landscape of film circuits so that the frequent lack of diversity—whether in terms of race, gender, or locality—in most festivals and cinema industries will begin to recede. And then, finally, curating as a craft will be able to reconnect with its etymological origins and become, for us all, a gesture of care.

1. Girish, “For a New Cinephilia,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 3 (2019): 32-34.
2. See the article I wrote for the dossier on New Brazilian Cinema for Film Quarterly magazine to learn more about Bulbul’s pioneering spirit and its relevance to contemporary Black cinema production: Janaína Oliveira, “With the Alma No Olho: Notes on Contemporary Black Cinema,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2020): 32-38.
3. I worked with Joelzito Araújo in 2017 and 2018, and filmmaker Carmen Luz in 2019 and 2020. Anthropologist and curator Ana Paula Alves Ribeiro became my partner in this endeavor.
4. An example of this perspective is the absence of awards or any competition. According to Bulbul, “Black people should not compete with each other.”
5. Formulating my curatorial practice as an offering was an image that came to me after listening to Cauleen Smith in an audio recording for the show Radical Acts of Care, curated by Greg de Cuir Jr. in 2020 for the Media City Film Festival.
6. In total, 120 films were programmed in 2020. Among the international ones, there were eleven feature films and thirty-nine short and medium-length films.
7. Along the lines proposed by Michael Boyce Gillespie and his idea that Black film represents a vast abundance instead of closed hermeneutics, in Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
8. I developed this idea more deeply in Oliveira, “With the Alma No Olho,” 32-38.
9. This discussion on Black and critical cinema was the first to occur in a systematic way in Brazil during a panel with Claire Diao, Heitor Augusto, and Juliano Gomes in 2018. In the subsequent two editions of the Encontro, we started to hold workshops given by Kênia Freitas, a film critic, curator, and one of the greatest Afrofuturism tourism experts in the country.
10. The experimental cinema programs had hosted Christopher Harris, Kevin Jerome Everson, Terence Nance, and Naima-Ramos Chapman as guests. Cauleen Smith also had films shown in the 2018 and 2019 programs.
11. “Quilombo” is a Bantu word used in Brazil to define maroon communities.
12. A map created by one of these festivals, the Negritude Infinita, compiles Black cinematic programs in Brazil: “Mapa Difusão Do Cinema Negro No Brasil,” CASAMATA, See also Kênia Freitas, “How the Machine Works: Brazil’s Black Cinema Series,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 2 (2020): 54-60.
13. “Associação Dos Profissionais Do Audiovisual Negro,” APAN,
14. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2015). “Spaces of agency exists for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see. The ‘gaze’ has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally. Subordinates in relation of power learns experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that ‘looks’ to the document, one that is oppositional. In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating ‘awareness’ politicizes ‘looking’ relations – one learns to look in a certain way in order to resist,” hooks writes.