Interview with “Boy 23” Director, Belisario Franca
1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how long you have been in documentaries?
I am a cinematographer by profession. For over 20 years, I’ve been investigating and revealing stories of the different faces of the Brazilian people. The paths of real life characters have turned into award-winning series and movies both in Brazil and abroad. Some of my work includes, "Overseas", International Documentary Association best TV series, “Xavante Strategy", United Nations Festival best art and media creation, "Eternal Amazon”, presented on 27 festivals around the world, and currently on Netflix’s line-up, and of course, “Boy 23 – The truth behind the bricks”.
2. Can you give us a brief description about the documentary and how you came to produce it?
The documentary recounts, starting with the discovery of bricks stamped with Nazi swastikas in a farm in the State of São Paulo, the research of historian Sidney Aguilar and the discovery of a scary fact. During the 1930s, 50 black kids were taken from an orphanage in Rio de Janeiro down to the farm where the bricks were found. There, they were identified by numbers and were subjected to slavery by a family which was part of the country’s political and economic elite, and that did not in any way hide their sympathy for the Nazi ideology. Two survivors of this Brazilian tragedy, Aloizio Silva (the “Boy #23") and Argemiro Santos, as well as the family of José Alves de Almeida (the "Two"), reveal their stories for the first time.
Here at the production company, we have a project for the History Channel called ‘History Detectives’. Searching for good subject matters for the series, one of our researchers and writers, Juliana Oliveira, showed up with an article about the bricks stamped with swastikas that appeared on a farm in the countryside of São Paulo. When I read the material, I knew it was potent and complex, and it would not fit in a series episode. I suggested that we look for Professor Sidney Aguilar Filho. We managed to bring Sidney to Rio and had a long conversation. He told us about the research pathway from the moment he had first contacted the brick, and through all his discoveries. Following our discussion I suggested for a movie on the subject and he agreed. He just asked that we waited for him to move on with his thesis, and we respected it. My only immediate concern was filming Mr. Aloizio, the sole known survivor at the time. When we had that first meeting, Mr. Aloizio was already over 80 years old. Sidney agreed with this first interview, but then, we waited for him and his thesis in order to proceed with the movie.
3. What were you trying to achieve with the film, and how much did the documentary affect you personally?
The story reveals a forgotten period in the History of Brazil, bringing up facts related to the most racist time in the country’s History, where the practice of eugenics was part of a national project in the Brazilian 1934 Constitution. It aims to promote the salvage of a historical memory. Leave it exposed. The big hassle in all this for me is to find out that this bad inheritance is still reproduced, even though thinly veiled. We have evolved very little as a society in terms of ensuring rights for minorities, especially in relation to racial equality.
4. How widely is the documentary distributed? Any Awards?
The distribution plan for ‘Boy 23’ was devised in a different way. Our main goal was to establish an emotional connection with the people and make them commit to causes raised by the film, the negation of structural racism in Brazil and the exploitation of unassisted children. To ensure that the film could be a tool for citizenship, that it could be thought-provoking, as well as generate debates, we put together an impacting campaign for ‘Boy 23’. It is a communication strategy with social commitment, where we use the digital channels (website, Facebook. and Twitter), as well as movie sessions followed by debates with strategic groups as a tool for building a network and fostering discussion.
The impact strategy has focused on dissemination and access to the film for several layers of society (NGOS, communities, activists, opinion formers, social movements, universities, among others), and in building relationships with this public before, during, and after the film’s commercial release.
Our idea with the impact campaign was to increase its reach beyond commercial movie theaters, increasing its exposure period and diversifying the movie’s display windows.
We have already carried out more than 80 screenings followed by discussion sessions throughout Brazil, and selected cities of United States of America, and European countries. With this specific action, we have reached more than 12,000 people, in addition to the involvement of users of the film’s digital channels, where we have a continuing dialogue with the audience.
‘Boy 23’ has been awarded best screenplay and editing at the 26th Iberoamerican Festival Cine CE and best screenplay and image editing on the 2nd Cartaz - International File Film Festival in 2016.
‘Boy 23’ was also selected for the 2017 Academy Award list for best documentary.
5. What challenges did you face in the course of producing the documentary?
The process took us three and a half years. The challenges are vast, from finding Mr. Aloizio and his family members in Monte Alegre, Campina, to identifying those people, to feel the unsaid which was still present there... We were groping for a way to tell this story. It has always been a concern not to stick only to interviews, to "talking heads". At the same time, the historical context is very rich. Sidney’s thesis is 75% historical context and 25% the boys’ story. The film is the opposite. From what we'd been discovering, we made a few storytelling decisions.
It was a sewing process. We did regressive exercises and continuous shooting before final editing in order to recreate an impressionist memory. For each material we were able to shoot, we'd build something, to understand how it was working. When the first money came in, we did some more shooting. And we finally had the last shooting and got to the final result.
6. What would you like to do next?
I am now working on another feature-length documentary movie that addresses the theme of women in the Brazilian prison system. It further strengthens my position to produce audiovisual contents that is relevant to society, leading to the debate of important causes.