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Orixá Ninú Ilê (1978), Juana Elbein dos Santos

Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in May 2020.

Accessibility has long been a major problem in Brazilian cinema, despite the many efforts by programmers, archives, and cinephiles. On May 21, 2020, the Brazilian BBC published a detailed report about the flooding of a Cinemateca Brasileira warehouse the past February, destroying roughly 113.000 DVDs of Brazilian films. These DVDs were supposed to have been made available to film clubs and cultural centers as part of Programadora Brasil, a state-funded program devoted to the promotion, distribution, and exhibition of Brazilian films that ran from 2007 to 2013, releasing 970 titles on DVD. The flooding is just the most recent milestone in a long list of hardships plaguing the main Brazilian film archive, which had just recently lost 731 prints in a fire, in 2016.

In this context, spontaneous initiatives end up playing a decisive role in making films accessible not only to a wider audience, but also to researchers whose work is always limited by material circumstances – such as the current pandemics. It is the case of the superb YouTube Channel Legacies of Brazilian Cinema (now defunct), which has been disseminating a well-organized and fast-growing collection of Brazilian films, video interviews, TV specials, and other audiovisual materials on Brazilian cinema, all with English subtitles.

While the channel has many gems that demand careful and creative exploration, in my last visit I was struck by the presence of a watchable copy of a film I had long been meaning to watch, but had a hard time finding a copy of: Juana Elbein dos Santos’ Orixá Ninú Ilê (1978). A landmark film about Afro-Brazilian religions, Orixá Ninú Ilê is part of Juana Elbein’s ethnographic life-research on Candomblé, which has generated books, films – two of which directed by Elbein herself – and the creation of SECNEB, the Society for Black Culture Studies in Brazil, in Salvador, Bahia, where she still resides.

Born in Argentina, Elbein moved to Salvador during the research for her PhD in Anthropology at the Sorbonne, which was ultimately published as the landmark book Os Nàgô e a Morte: Pàde, Àsèsè e o Culto Égun na Bahia (1976). The book provided an account “from within” of the religion: the author herself was initiated in Candomblé, which led to a groundbreaking analysis of the dynamic systems that constitute the religion and the Nàgô/Yorubá cosmogony.

Clocking in at just under 25 minutes, Orixá Ninú Ilê is a work of audiovisual anthropology about the inner workings of the ilê – the terreiro, the temple of Candomblé – including its hierarchies, its architectural characteristics, and some of the rites that celebrate the Nàgô/Yoruba conception of the cycle of life. Compared to, for example, Jean Rouch’s use of the camera as an active player in trance rituals, Elbein’s directorial approach might seem quite traditional: the explanatory voice-over narration, the detached tableaux compositions, and the attention to processes are common practices in the canon of ethnographic cinema.

But these conventions find a fitting partner in the Nàgô cosmogony, which connects the voice-over narration to its own oral tradition, the tableaux to the performativity of its rites, and the attention to process to the dynamic force (the Exú/Esù/Eshu) that has drawn Elbein to the Nàgô/Yoruba in the first place, making this seemingly removed documentary a testimony of great personal intimacy. 

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