Culture, Globe, Screen, United Kingdom

The Congolese salon d’exile in Rio de Janeiro

Using the motif of seven haircuts, a new film gives voice to Afro-Brazilian migrant stories and the similar inequalities in the two continents. The background is neo-colonialist exploitation by multinational companies, and privatizing Petrobras was also on that agenda. Like Europe, Brazil is racist, “but we don’t lock up refugees”.


Graham Douglas


The history of slavery in what became the USA, and the subsequent racism are well-known, but it is estimated that 40% of African slaves were taken to Brazil, and only 5% to the US.

Luciana Bezerra, Gustavo Melo and Pedro Rossi are the directors of “7 Haircuts in Congo”, which was shown recently at the DocLisboa film festival. With producer Isabel Joffily they made this documentary about a Congolese barber shop in Rio de Janeiro where the owner Pablo Mupapa does much more than cut hair.

The film began 12 years ago when Pedro was in Angola and the neighbouring DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) was going through a political crisis. Returning to Rio he met Pablo, and his previous film script gave way to a new take on Afro-Brazilian history.

Brazil is similar to countries like the DRC and Angola, both through the neo-colonial influence of multinational companies based in the North, and huge degrees of inequality, yet little of Brazil’s foreign history is taught in its schools.

Leaked documents have suggested that the huge Operation Car Wash corruption case was used as a tool of US influence in Brazil.

The film won prizes at the Festival Olhar de Cinema and the International Film Festival of Rio de Janeiro. It will be shown during Black Consciousness Week (Semana da Consciência Negra) this month. I spoke to Pedro Rossi by Zoom for The Prisma.

How did you meet Pablo Mupapa?

I went to Angola in 2010 as a teacher, and again in 2012, when I started writing a script for a fiction film, called Rio Luanda, about two brothers who became separated by the wars there that lasted from 1975-2002, and who met up later in Brazil. When I got back to Brazil, I wanted to better understand the Angolan migrant communities and a friend told me about Pablo’s salon in a favela in Rio, where there are a lot of Congolese immigrants. People call them Angolans, because they think all Africans are the same and their culture is similar across the political boundaries in Africa.

We dropped our original script and focused instead on the salon, because Pablo and the people who went there taught us so much about Africa and about our own country.

I was amazed because Brazil is not a major destination for African refugees and migrants, and a favela is a dangerous place because of conflicts between trafficking gangs and with the police. It was as if these guys had left a war in Africa to come to another one in Rio.

Life is already hard for black people, but for a guy without a community and speaking French or Lingala it’s even tougher.

Pablo has been there for 30 years, he thinks a lot about politics, he is charismatic, and people come to see him because he is very tough and can help them deal with the problems they have as migrants. His salon is like an unofficial consulate, where Congolese, Angolans and Nigerians go for a cheap haircut and advice.

The film is about this small salon, not the neighbourhood, and at the beginning we made it so that the viewer starts to wonder if it is in Congo or in Brazil. Because in Brazil both worlds exist, there are the rich areas where everything is like Europe or the US with hotels and restaurants; and there are the favelas which are like the poorest places in Africa, and sometimes they are very near each other. You can feel like you are in Paris but in 5 minutes you can walk to Kinshasa.

Why did the film take 10 years to make?

We shot the last part where Pablo is talking and singing, 12 years ago, during a political crisis in the DRC. Joseph Kabila had rigged the previous elections, and this was the first time that there was a chance to have fair democratic elections in 20 years, and Congolese people were demonstrating in many countries around the world for this.

We couldn’t finish the film then and it remained as a debt that we owed to Pablo. We met at Nós do Morro (We of the favela), a group which started in 1986, and became famous after they partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company and were involved in the film “City of God”. 

Rio Film Festival 2022 – October 13, 2022 – During the Premiére night at Estação Net Gávea. Photo: André Horta. In the Picture: Team from the film “7 Cortes de Cabelo no Congo

They work with people in marginal situations, and this is the only place that could provide funding, but they have suffered since Bolsonaro was elected. The film has three directors and a producer, and works like a cooperative, it is not directed by one person. But with €15,000 it is difficult, we could only afford one location, and we shot the rest of the film in three days. But this limitation really focused us on the salon. And the pandemic stopped everyone’s film-making; at the peak 3,500 people were dying every day in Brazil, and some of the team caught Covid. It was a very tense time in the favelas.

What do you hope to achieve in making the film?

It is art but it is also a political statement about modern imperialism in the southern hemisphere, where asymmetric warfare is going on because of the extractive industries that benefit the developed countries in the North.

Both Brazil and the DRC have been in a chronic political crisis for years. When we are talking about Congo it could be Brazil or many places in the southern hemisphere,

Bolsonaro was brought to power by people who wanted to sell Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which was completely against the policy of the Workers Party (PT) led by Lula. The case against Lula for corruption was an excuse to take him out of the last elections, which Bolsonaro won.

The Supreme Court annulled his conviction after nearly two years because there had been a lot of secret negotiations by the prosecution, and then the judge Sergio Moro, was made Minister of Justice (!) by Bolsonaro.

Now that BR Distribuidora, which was part of Petrobras has been sold, Brazil no longer refines its oil, 80% is now refined outside the country making profits for foreign companies.

And Petrobras, whose logo was often in the credits of Brazilian films, no longer supports film-makers like us or groups like Nós do Morro. When we showed the film in cinemas here half the audience were black, which is very unusual because cinema tickets are expensive, but they were cheering at the end.

There is a big racial divide here, restaurants often have all white customers and all black staff. Africa is deeply connected to Brazil because of slavery, and most of the slaves came from the region of Congo, Angola and Nigeria, so showing the real Africa is important for building Brazilian culture. Very little is taught about Africa in our schools, and it was the policy of the colonizers to systematically suppress it, so our film has an archaeological aspect in bringing this history to public attention.

We also hope to promote the film in alternative spaces, where the audience can discuss it, and we have signed a streaming contract for pay-TV with Canal Brasil.

Why did the Congolese come to Brazil, with the distance and a different language?

Pablo is an exception, but most people came in 2012-2013 when the country was in crisis with war in the east, and Brazil then still had a PT government and there were good policies for immigrants, we had people from Angola, Venezuela and Haiti, and migrants could study in the universities here. All that has been destroyed by Bolsonaro, and since the film was made in 2021 some of the people in it have moved to other countries. Brazil is racist, but it’s less racist than Europe, even now we still have an open border policy, we don’t lock people up for being refugees. If you can enter Europe or the US you have more opportunities than here, but after people have been here for a long time and raised a family, they are settled.

Pablo sings an anti-colonialist rap, is there a tradition of political protest in Congolese music?

With the new Congolese government things may change, but the post-colonial governments have repressed dissent and political activism. And even in ordinary conversations, people will speak about their political opinions more when they are abroad, because you risk arrest in the DRC for expressing anti-government opinions.

(Images supplied by the interviewee and authorised for publication)

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