Bay of All Saints: SXSW Review

SXSW Bay of All Saints - H 2012

SXSW Bay of All Saints - H 2012

Grim doc sees little change for Brazilian squatters whose slum is targeted by World Bank assistance program.

The winner of SXSW's Audience Award for best documentary presents personality-rich case studies from a Brazilian slum.

AUSTIN - The winner of SXSW's Audience Award for best documentary, Annie Eastman's Bay of All Saints paints a dispiriting picture of life in a Brazilian slum and offers no cheap expression of hope beyond the fighting spirit found, however intermittently, in the community itself. The doc will play well on small screens and at fests, where viewers will clamor to learn more about political failures that occur outside the film's domestic frame.

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Instead of following the money in the years following a $49 million World Bank slum-eradication grant, Eastman chooses to show how little life changes for a few of the intended beneficiaries. Three women -- single mothers and heads of unstable households -- serve as personality-rich case studies in a story stretching years beyond the project's intended end.

Clinging to a putrid stretch of Salvador's waterfront, the shanties known as palafitas sit precariously above water, balanced on stilts and reachable via ramshackle walkways. Made of the cheapest scraps of plywood, they're so flimsy that nighttime visits from rats can wear holes straight through a floor. The water below is literally a sewer and trash dump -- wheelbarrows full of garbage are unloaded there, in hopes that accumulating rubble will slowly turn to solid ground.

We see the doc's three households mainly through the eyes of Norato, a refrigerator repairman who offers low-cost repair and free advice to mothers of pregnant teens and aged matriarchs. Norato brings a native's perspective to the palafitas, where some residents have arrived after family tragedy and others are constantly dreaming of escape to a hypothetical husband's inland house. Funny but always empathetic, Norato watches as neighbors come and go.

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Sadly, they go all too infrequently. Despite official plans to build new housing and tear down these illegal dwellings, not a single unit is completed during the half-dozen years in which Eastman visits Salvador. We watch as residents finally gather to protest the inaction, but interim rent-assistance measures are failures and viewers can only guess at the corruption and political bickering that keep progress at bay, seemingly forever.