A Voice for the Most Vulnerable Populations of Brazil: The Quilombola Ethnic Groups and Traditional Populations
In 2006 Maria Cristina Fernandes moved to Newton from California because she was about to start studying science at Wellesley College. Originally from Brazil, she was looking for a sense of community for herself and her daughter. After discovering a passion for film in a class at school, a friend suggested she look up the local community media center where she could take additional classes and volunteer on productions. Ten years after arriving in Massachusetts, Maria Cristina found a new community when she joined NewTV in 2016. She recalls, “When I started at NewTV, I thought it would be a further exploration of the media studies classes I took at Wellesley. From the minute I came to NewTV I knew I’d be able to learn a lot and help others as well.”
What changed for Maria Cristina from 2006 when she was intent on pursuing science, to the present where she is a passionate documentarian and dedicated NewTV member? In some ways, filmmaking was always a part of her. She says, “Since I was very young…when my mom would ask me what I was going to study I’d tell her there was no name for what I wanted. It had to do with print; it had to do with visuals. I didn’t know what it was because I had never done it before.” Maria Cristina enjoyed reading, photography and narration, but did not know how to translate that into a course of study. After being discouraged early on in college by a photography professor, she chose to major in environmental science. A few years later, she took a video production class with Salem Mekuria as an elective and fell in love with filmmaking. She was encouraged by a number of faculty members in the department to pursue this passion by minoring in cinema and media studies. “Your passions lead you to a path. To me, filmmaking is an intersection of all arts.”
In 2012, Maria Cristina took a documentary filmmaking class as part of her minor at school. She decided to travel back to Brazil and showcase the lives of some of the country’s poorest people. Growing up, she spent four years in Northeastern Brazil: “When I had to go to school, I…met kids who lived in the region including very poor children. There were no chairs and no tables, just rugs…I think this has influenced my work quite a bit. When I think about giving voice and visibility to someone, it’s always a vulnerable group.” With the support of the Cinema and Media Studies Department, she took the school’s equipment and spent two weeks of the semester shooting on location. The result was a short documentary called Waters of Boipeba.
The following summer, Maria Cristina returned to Brazil for her next project, which would become Art. 68 ADCT Quilombolas: a documentary on the Quilombolas, descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves. Wellesley supported the project and she returned summer after summer to continue working on this politically sensitive project. She and her small team faced racial tensions, bureaucratic red tape and other challenges. Yet, she persisted, eventually gaining permission to film the Quilombolas and traditional communities inside Chapada Diamantina National Park. The film shows the conflict between Quilombola traditions and environmental legislation and works to convey a variety of perspectives on this complex issue. Maria Cristina uses an ethnographic approach and activist tone in her work: “Through my filmmaking, I hope to influence thinking about the interaction between members of ethnic minorities and global communities.” She presented a cut of the film at the Ruhlman Conference in 2014, but is still waiting for the right time to release it.
By 2016, Maria Cristina had graduated from Wellesley and was excited to learn about the opportunities available at NewTV. She was especially eager to improve her technical skills, since her mentor Salem Mekuria suggested she develop those abilities. “To me, NewTV means education, collaboration and continued growth and exploration beyond my years of academic training in film and documentaries.” Television in general was also new to Maria Cristina: “It’s different to produce a piece in the field and to direct a show or produce a show in the studio – it’s related but it’s totally different.” Then, a street photographer from Brazil reached out to her saying there was a Quilombola community whose religious leader wanted a video produced to bring visibility to the difficulty its children were facing in their unsafe journey to school. After some research she left Massachusetts again and returned to Brazil to collaborate with others on this project.
When they arrived, they found that the problem was much more complex than a difficult trail: if children ages 4-10 took the hour and a half long trek to school, they would only find it open about twice a month. But, if the children missed school, their parents would be in danger of losing government aid. A guide took Maria Cristina and her crew through the rough environment to see where the children went and they had candid discussions with the families. While in Brazil, she corresponded with NewTV’s Director of Member Services, Katie Geiger and shared photos with the NewTV community. About this project, called Salamina Putumuju, she says, “Because I was born in Brazil and because I was raised a bit closer to these very poor children, not the Quilombolas but others, and I knew I was a child with privilege, I feel I have to be responsible because their stories are my stories. That is my home.”
Upon returning to NewTV at the beginning of 2017, Maria Cristina jumped right back in to classes and volunteering on studio productions. She has become a valuable studio director, working on about two shows a week.Primarily she works with Jay Sugarman on his shows Museum Open House and Innovation Showcase. “I love working with Jay because he is very organized and he thinks of everything. I can relate to pretty much every single show somehow.” Though she is directing, she continues to take more classes and even re-take classes in pursuit of full expertise. “I have so much more to learn before I feel I can work on my own show because it would be really broadcasting realities.” She is grateful for all of the support she has received from NewTV, especially from Katie Geiger.
Maria Cristina is excited to continue taking advantage of her membership as she learns and evolves. Already, she is not only volunteering, but also mentoring. Maria Cristina has been helping Layon, a young intern and fellow Brazilian, on a project. To her, having access to NewTV means having access to young filmmakers and that is exciting. She also sees NewTV as an important voice for the community. “We all understand the role of media in the world today…this is about democracy and allowing people to share their voice. At NewTV, we have the privilege of engaging and working together to produce and distribute important materials for members and local people and to build a strong community…A community is better when it is filled with vibrant media of all sorts, and it is better when it is connected to the world. NewTV is a platform where everyone is welcome to come and learn and contribute and share. It’s an amazing enterprise that we cannot take for granted.”