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Camila Freitas, land and the Brazilian robber barons

Bolsonaro’s policies have added a new urgency to the need for land reform in Brazil. Obtaining a right guaranteed by the Constitution is mired in endless legal arguments, while the press labels the landless as bandits. “Chao” shows the reality of the struggle for decent conditions.


Graham Douglas


The issue of land ownership in Brazil goes back to colonial times, and although everyone has a right to land under the Brazilian Constitution, corruption and bureaucracy always favour the big landowners.

Rapid growth of favelas around big cities since 1950, led to lawlessnes meeting a violent response by the authorities. But the poor are literally law-less, because they have been abandoned by the State. Violence is endemic in Brazil, and groups such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) are always portrayed as criminals, by the mainstream media, ignoring their constitutional rights.

“Chao” (land) is Camila Freitas’s first feature film on this issue following a documentary, Birdie (Passarim), about “a community of thousands of peasants in Goias  being expelled by a large landowner, who was buying up the whole region”. The MST contacted her many years later, because it was an important document for them, and her new film documents the current situation.

Freitas is concerned to offer an honest respectful treatment, highlighting the new movement from favelas back to the land by people seeking a safe and healthy way of life, and showing how the legal system is set up to obstruct justice.

Since Temer’s coup in 2016, and now Bolsonaro, the government is moving harder and faster to maintain control of land by a rich minority, and to facilitate their use of heavy weapons. In parallel, funding for independent cinema is being drastically cut.

Camila spoke to The Prisma after the film was shown at Docisboa.

Vincent Carelli’s film “Martiro”, showed brutal opposition by “Ruralistas” to land occupations, but that didn’t happen in your film.

“Martiro” is a long didactic film which maps out both sides of the struggle in Mato Grosso. I chose to show the perspective of the landless workers and also the perspective of the land itself, the transformations it has gone through. In Goiás, the struggle takes place more as a legal battle, and people don’t usually see the way the law is manipulated by those with power. I wanted to show that although many people in the MST have little education, they are very emancipated and not afraid to struggle with the justice system.

Very often, the courts just leave these situations to continue, because the land was not being productive, as in the bankruptcy case. Recently they got an eviction order in a lower court, but a federal court blocked it because of the debt by the company. It’s a deadlock, the factory doesn’t pay their debts, they stay there, and so do the occupiers.

Are your films campaigns for the MST?

In a way, yes, we have been together for 5 years now, and it was very important for me and for the MST to portray them in a fair and respectful way.

The mainstream media always label them as bandits or opportunists trying to get land that doesn’t belong to  them. The Brazilian Constitution says that everyone should have access to land and housing, but that has always been secondary to the Right to Property.

In 1850, the Lei da Terra stated that land could no longer be owned by occupying it:  it had to be bought from the government. So, when slavery ended in 1888, ex-slaves were evicted from land they worked on.

From the 1950s the Legas Camponesas organized strong opposition to the situation, and it was one of the reasons for the military coup of 1964, because Joao Goulart, the president, was planning to implement land reform.

Where do the people occupying the land come from?

The MST started in 1984, mostly with people who worked the land but had no rights to own it. Agri-business has also expanded into land that was occupied by small landowners and indigenous people, who were simply murdered or expelled.

Now, there is a big movement back to the land by these people, and their children and grand-children, and the MST is working with people who want some land to make a better healthier life than in a favela. About 80% of them now come from urban areas.

What happened in Goiás?

The bankruptcy case against this sugar cane factory has been going on for years, everyone knows that they owe huge debts to the State and they were ordered to pay this by handing over some of their land to the government. The law says that this land then has to be made available under land reform laws.

But the landowners exert a lot of influence on the judges, by constantly postponing settlements. So, the MST doesn’t just sit around waiting for the state to give them land, they find sympathetic lawyers, and are also fighting cases directly themselves.

They never occupy a piece of land if it is productive, and they always research its history first. The film started in 2014 on a cattle farm in Goiás owned by a senator.

It was a huge occupation, with 3,500 families, and a very exuberant moment because we still had a leftist government, which was not doing enough to implement land reform, but the MST was very strong.

The political landscape changed after the Coup, and a lot of people left the MST out of fear. After a long court case, they were expelled, but some people joined the occupation of the sugar cane factory in the same State. So, we continued the film there using some of the footage from the first occupation.

The film is really about showing the overall movement. The action in Mato Grosso was more political, protesting against the owner of the land who is Minister of Agriculture, and against the use of pesticides. He represents what Brazil is.

Do they farm collectively?

Each family has a small plot but there are areas of collective production, and everything works in a collective way. They produce enough food for themselves and a small amount to sell. MST policy is that each family has an area for themselves, but it shouldn’t be sold, it remains state property. There are cases where an occupation begins without proper planning and sometimes land is sold, which leads to a lot of criticism.

But when Temer arrived the government decided to change the way the Institute for Land Reform works, so that private titles to land could be granted, which could then be sold if the owner moved away. And under Bolsonaro, they are trying to speed up the allocation of titles, because the titles can then be sold to big farming companies and the concentration of ownership will start again. This is a priority for him. And since he arrived, the ILF has not bought any land, so it doesn’t have any to re-distribute.

Have you shown the film in Brazil?

It premiered at Olhar do Brasil, the international film festival in Curitiba, and won two prizes. And we did many screenings in MST encampments and at the National School in Sao Paulo.

It has been shown more outside Brazil, because of so many cuts to sponsorships for film festivals. Even ANCINE has had its budget cut by 43% by Bolsonaro. He has also been talking about censorship, using ‘cultural filters’. A film about MST would never pass, because they represent everything he is against, along with Indigenous and Queer people. It is a very serious attack.

The International Cinema Festival in Rio is delayed by a month and will be smaller because it depends on crowdfunding this year.

Petrobras and many other film sponsors are being pressured behind the scenes.

And it’s a very stupid policy, because the audio-visual sector is a big contributor to the Brazilian economy.

Recent years under Lula were a utopia, because their policy was to stimulate cultural production away from Rio and Sao Paulo, and films were being made in every state, maybe 200 a year altogether.

Ancine sponsored film-makers to go to international festivals and to make co-productions, which were very important for us, and to show that Brazil is an important country for making high quality films.

(Photos by Camila Freitas, supplied by the interviewee)




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