The film’s original title in Portuguese is ”A pessoa é pra o que nasce”, which literally means, ”A person is what he is born to be,” a proverb used by the sisters to reflect their acceptance of the hardships life has dealt them.
The three sisters, Maroca, Poroca and Indaiá were all born blind, between the years 1943 and 1950, into a large, poverty-stricken family in the northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba. Their father was a landless peasant farmer and alcoholic who abandoned them when they were still little girls.
In order to survive, they sang in the streets, markets and churches of Campina Grande, a large city in Paraíba, for spare change. At one point, they supported themselves and 14 relatives with their singing, a situation that eldest sister Maroca sums up by commenting, ”The ugly ones work so the pretty ones can eat.”
But she and her sisters refuse to feel sorry for themselves. They repeatedly attribute their fate to the will of God, and the fact that they are simply what they were born to be.
Maroca, Poroca and Indaiá, who sing a style of popular northeastern Brazilian music known as ”cocos”, were just three more anonymous street musicians until they happened to be filmed by a public television network in 1997, when the oldest was 54.
Their brief TV appearance caught the eye of filmmaker Roberto Berliner, who went to Campina Grande to seek them out. He initially made a short film about the sisters that won a number of awards in 1998, and then returned to shoot more footage on numerous occasions over the subsequent years.
The end result was Berliner’s first feature-length documentary, Born to Be Blind. The film was completed in 2003, and shown at a number of festivals in the United States in 2004, but is just beginning to achieve public acclaim back home in Brazil.
It took the top prize at the film festival in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza this past June, when it also went into commercial release in theatres in Rio de Janeiro.
Born to Be Blind captures the lives of the three sisters at five different points from 1998 onwards, as well as including black and white archival footage of them singing in the 1960s, when they were very young.
When the film begins, they are leading a precarious existence, living in a small, dilapidated house and surviving on a government pension of 300 reals (120 dollars) – more than half of which goes to buying food that is prepared for them by a neighbour – and the spare change they manage to earn on the streets.
But after they are ”discovered”, largely thanks to Berliner’s short film, their lives take a sudden turn. The documentary follows them as they are invited in 2000 to sing at an international music festival in Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahía, and a massive concert in Sao Paulo, where they share the stage with some of Brazil’s most renowned musicians and are applauded by thousands of spectators.
In 2004, they are presented with an award by President Luiz Inácio ”Lula” da Silva in recognition of their contribution to Brazilian music.
While capturing their public triumphs, filmmaker Berliner also delves into their personal lives in what are sometimes almost painfully intimate sequences. In the final scene, they are literally laid bare before the camera for a dip in the ocean, a long-treasured dream.
The women share the tragedies they have faced in life with almost matter-of-fact openness. Maroca, the only one to have ever married, gave birth to a daughter who was taken away from her by the father’s family, and was only able to get her back when the girl was nine years old. Poroca was a victim of rape, while Indaiá was abandoned by a fiancé.
Yet the film is saved from slipping into pathos by the remarkable good humour maintained by the sisters. Maroca, the most talkative of the three, recounts that she was married to her first husband for 11 years. She remarried but was widowed after only two years, when her second husband was killed in a brutal stabbing. ”If I manage to find another husband, I’ll only have him for a month,” she jokes.
At one point in the documentary, Maroca, who is 60 at the time, proclaims that she has fallen in love with Berliner. The director himself then makes an appearance to gently explain that he feels a great deal of fondness for the three sisters, but nothing more.
Documentaries are enjoying a creative and popular boom in Brazil. Over the last decade, they have gained new acceptance and broken into the realm of commercial release, which was previously closed to them.
Berliner has chosen to explore a particularly fertile source of inspiration for his works – the extraordinary wealth and diversity of Brazilian popular music, exposing local musicians and regional genres to a whole new national and international audience.
Thanks to the director, Maroca, Poroca and Indaiá became celebrities in Brazil when they were well into their 50s. Numerous other anonymous regional musicians have also been ”discovered” in recent years largely as a result of similar documentaries.
The film also led to the release of a double CD of the three sisters singing their traditional ”cocos” tunes, along with interpretations of these songs by well-known Brazilian singers and musicians.
Yet despite what would appear to be a real-life ”rags to riches” tale, two of the three sisters are still singing in the streets of Campina Grande for spare change today. Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service