This Documentary Celebrates the Women Who Lead Bahia’s Once-Secret Afro-Brazilian Religion

Photo: Lianne Milton for the Washington Post

Perhaps no New World religion has been as misunderstood as the syncretic spiritualities brought across the Atlantic by West African slaves and preserved by their descendants into the present day. Vehemently condemned as witchcraft and satanism by mainstream faiths, religions like Santería, Palo Monte, Voodoo, and Candomblé continue to be shrouded in mystery, misunderstanding, and prejudice throughout Latin America and beyond. But when U.S. filmmaker Donna Roberts began familiarizing herself with the culture and religious practices of Bahia, Brazil, she was stunned to find a vibrant, ancestral spiritual community where women and elders are held up as leaders, and the natural world is revered and protected.

With a dual formation as an environmental advocate and a television film producer, Roberts eventually decided to turn 10-plus years of engagement with spiritual communities in Bahia into a one-hour documentary. The result, entitled Yemanjá in reference to the female Orixa associated with the sea, is an exploration of Candomblé practice in Brazil from its origins as a secret slave religion to its present as both a strong faith community and a receptacle of ancient wisdom. Along the way, Roberts gives special attention to Candomblé’s reverence for the environment, its use of often neglected medicinal plants, and its harmonious integration of the spiritual and natural worlds.

In light of the film’s recent premiere at New York’s City College Center for the Arts, as part of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute’s “Trade/itions: Transatlantic Orisha Sacred Traditions,” we chatted with Roberts about spirituality, saudade, and always bringing an open heart.

On Beginning Her Journey into Candomblé

“There is just this energy in Bahia, it is so hard to explain… once you go, you know you’ll go back.”

So my first trip to Bahia was in 1997, in March, and the culture there blew me away. I remember seeing this poster at a new friend’s apartment of the Sisterhood of the Boa Morte, the Sisterhood of the Good Death. And it was this black and white photo of these four or five women, and they were elder women and they looked so powerful and so dignified, and clearly they were leaders, formal leaders, and I had to know more. And so that started my journey into the world of the Candomblé culture and really being drawn in to this notion of elder women of color as the strong leaders in the community, not just in the household.

On Mystical Occurrences

In 2006 when I was doing my research I went to [Candomblé elder] Mae Felinha, and I never though I would be able to meet her because people say “She’s so busy, and she’s the elder, and she’s the most important, and she’ll never have time to talk to you.” Well she opened her home, and was so welcoming and humble and gracious.

And I said “I want to learn about the role of women and nature in Candomblé.” And she said, “My daughter you have to come back when the drums are beating.” And I really wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I thought “Well, this is never going to happen.” But ironically, as life tends to do, I would go on to meet her in 2009, 2010, 2011, and finally our last shoot of the film was during her Festa of Yamanjá, which would be her last Festa of Yemanjá because she passed the following year before february 2nd, when Yemanya is celebrated in Bahia. And so her advice to me to come back when the drums are beating, exactly culminated in the final three days of production on our film.

On Filming a Candomblé Ceremony

I never anticipated filming any sort of ritual ceremony, because I’ve come to understand that that’s very closed. I had been an observer in various terreiros [Candomblé spiritual centers], but I was not even going to ask for permission because I wanted to approach the topic as sincerely and respectfully as possible. And I know a lot of journalists, or so-called “journalists” over the years have misrepresented the traditional African religions so badly that it’s created all sort of problems and misunderstanding and persecutions, and that’s the last thing I wanted to risk.

When I was at Mãe Felinha’s terreiro in 2011 for an interview with her, she said “well we’re having a Festa de Omulu tonight, so will you please come in and be our guest.” And I said, “That would be wonderful”. And the gentleman who was our escort, I said to him “I’m sure we shouldn’t bring our camera tonight right?” And he said “Well let me ask, let me see what she says.” And we had just interviewed her, and I had been interacting with her now for many years, so we had a relationship. And she said, “No, you can bring your camera. If you’re in the way we’ll let you know.” So something I never imagined happening, and I was not going to ask, it was the easiest thing imaginable.

On the Greatest Gift You Can Bring

The first time I met Mãe Felinha, when I said, “When I come back what can I bring?”– because I had a very strong notion of the importance of reciprocity — she said, “The most important thing for you to bring is an open heart.” That’s what we always must remember to do, is bring ourselves with an open heart. So to this day whenever I remember that advice, it brings tears to me eyes. Because here’s this woman in her fairly humble dwelling, which was also her religious community space, and here I’m coming from North America thinking, “Well, should I bring clothes? Should I bring money? Should I bring gifts?” And she’s telling me to bring an open heart, right? But knowing that she’s a daughter of Yemanyá, I did always bring her jewelry. And in fact in the film she’s wearing jewelry that I gave her on several occasions.

On Learning From the Ancient Ways

My greatest objective, at least going in to it, has been to show a culture that is still in tact, where this ancient wisdom culture is thriving, and it never lost that deep understanding, respect, reverence, for elders, ancestors, and the natural world, and this strong sense of community based in spirituality.

So for me that’s really important, for this example that’s still alive. It’s not in some remote jungle or village that you have to travel to on dirt roads for hours to find these people who are still maintaining the elder ways. No, this is a major city center. And Africans travel to Bahia to relearn the ways of their ancestors because it’s so preserved there. So for me at this time that we have global climate change… we have extreme social inequities, where most Western cultures are obsessed with looking young and basically discarding the importance that the elders of our communities hold — I just think this is an amazing example of a paradigm, that if we could integrate one small part of what this culture practices on a daily basis, then I think we as Westerners would find our lives and ourselves transformed.

On Bahia’s Special Energy

There is just this energy in Bahia, it is so hard to explain. But as everyone I’ve ever known who’s been there, once you go you know you’ll go back. There’s this expression that I think is pretty uniquely Brazilian: saudade. I remember the first time I left Bahia I started crying on the morning I had to leave and I thought, “This is crazy, what’s going on here?” And of course that was in 1997, so I guess some part of my DNA knew that I was leaving a place that was going to be a very important part of my journey. But there’s this very strong, palpable energy. And I think it’s because of the African heritage. I really do… There’s something very familiar, very soothing, and very energizing.