Access to Afro-Brazilian religious rituals allows alumna to turn dissertation into documentary

Kelly Hayes, PhD’04, didn’t have silver screen ambitions when she began filming religious ceremonies for her doctoral research on Afro-Brazilian religions.

“My thought at the time was that filming would be a great methodological tool,” said Hayes, now an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Because the religious communities base their practices on tradition, not texts, “if you want to learn about these religions and you want to teach them, you need to be able to see them,” said Hayes.

But as Hayes reviewed the 60 hours of footage she had accumulated during her time in Brazil, she realized she had the makings of a compelling film. Hayes and her partner, filmmaker Catherine Crouch, spent the next four years putting together an hour-long documentary called Slaves of the Saints, which premiered at the 2010 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.

Hayes spoke with UChicago News Officer Susie Allen about her research on Afro-Brazilian religions and the process of making Slaves of the Saints.

How did you first get interested in Afro-Brazilian religions?

The seeds of my interest go back to my undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin. I spent a year living in West Africa as part of a study abroad program. I had gone to West Africa interested in learning more about traditional African religions. When I started graduate school at the University of Chicago, I turned my attention more toward African religions in the Americas, particularly Brazil.

I went to Brazil to study Portuguese for a couple of summers, and I was introduced to these religions as they are practiced. The film came out of 10 years of filming ceremonies and interviews in two communities in Rio.


Tell us a little about these ceremonies.

In Afro-Brazilian religions, the central deities have two genealogical trees. A lot of them can be traced back to West Africa, and they combined in various ways with Catholic saints. There’s a calendar of public festas, which literally means “parties,” for particular spirits.

The public ceremonies fall right near the Catholic feast days for the saints that are correlated with these particular spirits. For example, the community that I worked with sees Saint George as a manifestation of Ogum, who was originally a West African warrior figure.

In addition to that, there are other kinds of spirit entities that aren’t associated with Catholic saints, and they also have their own feast days. There’s a whole group of spirits called pretos velhos, who are the spirits of elderly black slaves. Their feast day falls on the day that slavery was abolished in Brazil.

In any community, they’ll have their own particular spirits that are important to them, and they’ll have the full calendar of public ceremonies. Those ceremonies typically involve some kind of sacrifice that would not be open to the public. The animals and foods that are sacred to the spirit would be prepared and sacrificed. Then there would be a public ceremony where the food that’s been prepared would be served, and the spirits would be summoned with drumming and dancing to come and inhabit the bodies of their devotees.

In the community I worked with, people went through a process of initiation, where they learned how to receive the spirits. At the public ceremonies, initiates would receive their spirit. The belief is the spirits come down and commune with the living who are there to celebrate them. The spirits dance or talk, and are celebrated, and there are songs sung in their honor. After a while, they are ritually dispatched.

Was it difficult to get access to these ceremonies?

It took time, but it wasn’t difficult. Everyone wants to see themselves on TV, and Brazilians are no different. I started out filming the public ceremonies, and anyone could come to those. I would always give copies of those recordings to the leader of the group. I think that was what enabled me to transform the relationship. I was giving back, albeit in a small way.

Slowly, I became more integrated into the community, and more and more spaces and times were opened to me and my camera. The film shows a lot of things that you normally wouldn’t see unless you were an initiated member of this community. There’s a scene of animal sacrifice, there are scenes in special altar rooms that normally the non-initiated are not allowed into.

The film had its debut at a big international film festival in Rio. They brought me out for the screening, and there was a big panel discussion that one of the organizers put together about the film. It had shocked a lot of people in Brazil, because of the access that I had. That was really the first time, to be quite honest, that I realized the level of access that I was fortunate to have. It was never communicated to me that it was that big of a deal—at the time, it happened very naturally.

How are these religions regarded in Brazilian culture?

Paradoxically, they are extremely widespread and extremely popular, but they are also stigmatized and marginalized. They are the inheritance of slaves and their descendents, and there has always been prejudice, at least in slave societies, against the religious practices of Africans and their descendents. On top of that, Afro-Brazilian religions were outlawed in Brazil until relatively recently. As late as the 1970s, communities had to register with the authorities if they wanted to have the ceremonies.

Even today, there’s a lot of prejudice. There’s still the feeling that this is a form of black magic. In the film, I focused on two kinds of spirit entities called exus and pomba giras, which are seen as particularly suspect. These are spirits that are amoral: They’ll do good or they’ll do evil. You wouldn’t ask the spirits associated with Catholic saints to, say, harm an enemy. You could go to one of [the spirits I focused on in the film, and if you pay them they will do whatever you ask.

There’s another layer of prejudice because these religions are found primarily among poor and working-class people. The exus and pomba giras are particularly popular among poor and working-class Brazilians, so there’s a class element to the stigma.

What was it like for you to witness these ceremonies? Were you able to remain detached, or were there times you felt involved in what you were seeing?

I always felt involved—I don’t know that I ever felt detached. But I was on the other side of a camera, which creates a certain distancing. You become a giant eye, and you’re taking it all in.

I witnessed a lot of sacrifices, but one of the biggest was the sacrifice of a cow. It happened in a very crowded urban area, right on the street. I grew up in an urban area. I had never seen an animal slaughtered. I don’t know that I could have handled it without being behind a camera. It created a wall that allowed me to separate myself. That was probably the most overwhelming experience I had, because in addition to watching it, you’re smelling it, you’re hearing it. It’s a full-bodied experience.