MARCH 6, 2017

“Boy 23 – The Forgotten Boys of Brazil” (2016)

When I saw “Boy 23: The Forgotten Boys of Brazil” four months ago, tears rolled down my cheeks. There is a moment in the film when an 86-year old black man recounts how shortly before World War II he ran away from a farm, where lived and worked as if he was a slave. Then still a teenager, he escaped through the forest and caught a train to São Paulo. When he arrived he shined shoes on Avenida Paulista and slept on the streets. When the War started, he joined the navy.

Argemiro Dos Santos escaped from slavery more than 40 years after slavery had been abolished in Brazil.

Boy 23 (Menino 23 in Portuguese) tells the story of a historian, Sydney Aguilar Filho, and his discovery: in the 1930s a Brazilian family enamored with Nazi ideology “adopted” 50 young black boys, transferred them to their farm in the countryside of São Paulo and put them to work. Aguilar and the producers of the documentary eventually tracked down some of the young black boys who lived 10 years of their lives as slaves. Giros Productions produced Boy 23 and the result is a documentary that takes a deep look at racism in Brazil (and the perceived lack of it) and shows how it was possible for this act of “slavery” to happen in pre-World War II Brazil. Belisario Franca and Bianca Lenti, the director and screenwriter, stumbled upon an unfortunate story and did it justice. Boy 23 spent more than 20 weeks in Brazilian theaters last summer and fall, a record for a documentary in Brazil. I hope that American audiences will soon be able to see this film, hopefully through a popular streaming service.

It’s a shame that the documentary wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. The documentary category of the Oscars has never been effective (in my opinion) in honoring timeless documentaries. Films like “Hoop Dreams,” “Paris is Burning,” “Onibus 172” were never nominated in the Best Documentary Category of the Oscars even though they have achieved “classic” status. This year’s documentary category included three films with black themes (“OJ: Made in America,” “13th,” and “I Am Not Your Negro”). These documentaries were produced by well-known directors and production companies, so they don’t reflect the typical journey of a documentary filmmaker: the gamble taken on producing a film on an obscure subject; the relentless search for money; the fight for widespread distribution of the film when it’s complete. “Boy 23” traveled that journey.

I recently visited the Giros production company in Rio to talk with Belisario Franca and Bianca Lenti. My conversation with them helped me to process many of the thoughts about Brazil that had been swirling in my head since I saw the film last year. It also helped me to understand how they were able to make such a high-quality documentary.

The only thing one has to know before they watch the film is that Brazil is the “denial nation.”

“We deny all the problems and all the bad relationships we had in the past,” Franca said.

Denial in Brazil includes denying racism, slavery (at least how bad it was) and even the fact that eugenics was once promoted in its constitution.

As a journalist who covers Brazil, I’m familiar with many of the historical concepts around race that the film covers. But even I wasn’t aware that many Brazilians embraced Nazi ideology before World War II. In the early 1930s Aloísio Silva, whose name on the farm was Boy 23, was adopted by a Brazilian family along with 49 young boys from Rio de Janeiro and taken to a farm in the interior of São Paulo.

“My childhood was stolen, I don’t even know what childhood is,” Silva said. Silva died shortly before the release of the movie at the end of 2015. Before his death, he had suffered from more than 20 years of alcoholism.

This Brazilian family was so influenced by Nazi ideology at the time that the family built their farm with bricks emblazoned with the Nazi swastika symbol, and had their slaves sing marching songs in support of them. The information about Brazil’s Nazi past (and swift eradication once Brazil allied with the U.S.) provides a foundation on how to understand racism in Brazil.

“The film is more about the roots of racism than Nazism,” Lenti said.

The rampant racism in 1930s Brazil and the worshiping of Nazi ideology created a social situation in which 50 young black boys could be enslaved and no one says anything.

Boy 23 isn’t the only person that the documentary tracked down. Dois (Boy Two) was the closest to what Black-Americans would call a “house negro.” Although he was one of the fifty boys brought from Rio de Janeiro, he worked in the big house, wore nice clothes and enjoyed a privileged relationship with one of the family’s sons. Dois married and established his own family, but the film hints strongly to a long-term sexual relationship with him and the son. Dois never left the Rocha Miranda family.

“When you think about it, the one who stayed with the family suffered more,” Franca said.

Despite working his entire life for the family, he never received a salary. Dois died from a stroke in his 50s after suffering from alcoholism for years. The Rocha Miranda family left him and his family nothing. Dois’ situation is not unusual in Brazil. Even today, domestic servants will work for families for decades, only receiving minimum wage the entire time.

“Dois was important for [the film] because he really portrays how our [Brazilian] rich people deal with poor people,” Lenti said. “They try to save people from poverty by enslaving them.”

Given the documentary’s historical nature, the film could have easily become the type of bland documentaries that you find on the history channel land (and the production company actually makes films for the history channel). But Bianca Lenti structured a script that creates suspense and makes the viewer want to watch it from the beginning until the end. The combination of archival footage, reenactments, and expansive interviews made it feel like a documentary about a current theme.

“We were afraid to have a film that had too much history and historical data,” Lenti said. “We decided to bring the historian in front of the camera, so there would be more empathy and personal connection.”

Personally, this film made me think about the national and personal ramifications of slavery. This film helped me to understand why sometimes I feel like Afro-Brazilians tend to be timid and forgiving when faced with the realities of racism. Two of the three men featured in the documentary suffered from alcoholism. The one who escaped, Argemiro Dos Santos, never told his wife about his experiences as a young boy. None of these men ever fully admitted to their families exactly what they experienced. Denial ran strong throughout their personal lives and their families.

When I asked Giros productions what theme runs strong in all of their productions, Bianca Lenti responded with the word relevance. Giros has produced a historical documentary that is relevant to Brazilian society. It will remain relevant until Brazil truly faces its horrible slave past in a way that allows those most affected –Afro-Brazilians—to stop denying it themselves and to stop suffering.

Watch a trailer for “Boy 23 – The Forgotten Boys of Brazil” below: