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In 1983, almost 30 years before Brazil inaugurated a truth commission to investigate the crimes of a brutal military dictatorship, seven college students put their lives on stage. The dictatorship was on the verge of collapse, but military rule was all this group had ever known.
Júlio Conte and his friends were studying theater in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. They had learned to be careful about what they said aloud. In their lifetime, nearly 500 Brazilians had been killed and 20,000 tortured by the government. Conte was tired of waiting for democracy. “Being censored makes you fight to speak,” his friend Flávio Bicca Rocha said in a recent interview.
The students captured the uncertainty and hope in Brazil at that moment by telling their own stories in a play, Bailei na Curva. The title, which means “I danced in the curve,” is slang for someone who has gotten hurt or lost his way. One of Bailei’s main characters, whose father is abducted by the military police, meets the same fate later in the play. Other characters try to make sense of their parents’ collaboration with the military, and all of them struggle with the gap between what they hear on the radio and the reality they see.
The inspiration was clear: Conte’s father, a political dissident, was always armed. Rocha’s father was in the military. The family of another student, Claudia Accurso, went into exile after the military coup.
Members of the original cast will again take the stage this October against a vastly different political backdrop. The massive protests of the past few weeks, spearheaded by those who remain vulnerable despite the country’s booming economy, have demonstrated how deeply Brazilians feel the right to speak out against their government.
President Dilma Rousseff’s gestures of conciliation show some recognition of the government’s obligation to listen to its people. “Brazil fought a lot to become a democratic country,” she said in a televised speech last Friday, “and it is fighting a lot to become a country that is more just.” Three days later, she met with leaders of the protests and then discussed their demands with governors and mayors across the country.
Despite the strength of its democracy, however, Brazil has lagged behind many other Latin American countries in confronting its history of dictatorship. Until Rousseff inaugurated a truth commission in 2012, Brazil was one of the only post-dictatorship countries in Latin America that had not launched a truth commission or prosecuted former regime officials for their crimes. It is telling that Bailei has been a feature in Brazilian theaters and high schools for 30 years. Educators have used the play to teach students a history that schools rarely touched.
Bailei takes on a different meaning now that the country, once controlled by military generals, is led by a president who was tortured when she protested their rule. Current Brazilian college students have known only democracy. But the questions at Bailei’s core -- when to speak, and how, and why, and to whom -- resonate just as strongly today.
“WE JUST WANTED TO KNOW”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Southern Brazil was a hotbed of nonviolent resistance against the dictatorship that touched many of the young playwrights’ lives. Hermes Mancilha, one of the original cast members, had his first introduction to theater when he was eight years old. He went to see a neighbor perform, only to see her dragged off the stage by military police. But when he studied Brazilian history and politics in school, he found no mention of the violence he had witnessed firsthand.
“[In college,] we were reading history books, reading names and things that didn’t tell us anything,” remembers Márcia do Canto, who was married to Conte at the time. Together with their classmates Rocha, Accurso, Mancilha, Lúcia Serpa, and Regina Goulart, they fused improvisational theater with their own experiences and the politics that governed their lives. Bailei’s six main characters are kids when the dictatorship begins in 1964, teenagers as the repression intensifies, and adults when the play ends.
“We were living a period in which things were said quietly,” do Canto says -- quietly or not at all. Bailei was written in the last years of the dictatorship, during what the historian James Green calls “the slow-motion return to democracy.” At the time, though, there was no certainty that the dictatorship would end. It was safer to put on a politically sensitive play in 1983 than it would have been ten years earlier, when the repression was more brutal and artists were frequently arrested. But it was still a risky moment to be telling such stories, in part because the military was still in power and in part because those stories were so raw.
When Bailei opened, the pages of Folha de São Paulo, a prominent Brazilian newspaper, were still littered with recipes that editors used to mark the spaces where government censors cut articles. Plays had to be performed for the censors before opening night, and casts that worked with controversial material usually abbreviated their shows for the occasion. That was Conte’s plan, too, until the censor showed up. He realized how much the cast needed an extra dress rehearsal and told them, “Let’s make this a real show.”
The reason Bailei slipped past the censors is perhaps the same reason it was such a big success at the time and endures today: It’s not gut-wrenching. The story behind the stories (apparent if you’re looking for it) is the way the dictatorship shaped lives and tore families apart. But on a surface level, the characters’ hardships are typical adolescent fumbles. The play managed to reveal the fault lines of the dictatorship without attacking it head-on.
Eight thousand people saw Bailei in the six weeks after its debut in October 1983. Every show sold out, so the play reopened in another theater, and then another, until three months had passed and the actors toured the country, stunned at how widely their stories seemed to resonate. Lisa Gertum Becker, an actress and translator from Porto Alegre, remembers reading interviews with Brazilians who had been tortured and then watching one of the first performances of Bailei, seeking first-person accounts of what had happened in her country during her lifetime. “We were so hungry to hear [the stories],” she says. “We just wanted to know.”
After the premiere, audience members streamed into the dressing room and started telling stories from their own experiences under the dictatorship. In breaking the silence on stage, Bailei had begun to chip away at a wall of silence offstage as well.
A TERROR THAT DOESN’T GO AWAY
In the third-to-last scene, set in the late 1980s, a journalist named Ana visits the mother of her childhood friend Pedro, who had been abducted and killed by the military regime. Alone on stage, the two women argue:
Ana: “Look. I’m trying to write an article [about what happened to Pedro], and I need you to speak.”
Dona Elvira: “It’s not worth talking about these things, they only hurt.”
Ana: “It’s painful for you and for many people, but it’s important for our national memory.”
Dona Elvira: “Who wants to know about this? We speak, it becomes a headline, and two days later everyone forgets. … With time I have learned to stay silent.”
Brazilians are still divided over whether to speak about the past. Nadejda Marques, who lost her father to the dictatorship and now manages Stanford University’s Program on Human Rights, says that in the decades following the restoration of democracy, “the issue of abuse and the crimes committed during the dictatorship were not being openly discussed or debated.” Human-rights and faith-based organizations hosted meetings and events where people could talk about their experiences, but in schools, offices, and many homes, the topic remained taboo.
The government stayed relatively silent as well. In 1995, ten years into democracy, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso issued a formal apology for the violence committed by the state. He agreed to pay reparations to families of victims who could prove that their loved ones had been killed by the military. But the burden of proof fell on the families to establish that crimes took place, and the military files were still classified, so evidence was difficult to find. Just before leaving office in 2002, Cardoso issued a decree to keep the files classified for up to 100 additional years.
Against that backdrop, and especially in this season of protest, the stories in Bailei continue to resonate with audiences today. Catharina Conte, Conte’s 21-year-old daughter who joined the cast last year, believes that her generation still “feel[s] the violence of the dictatorship.”
“The dictatorship is a terror that as much as you chew on it, chew on it, chew on it, it doesn’t go away,” she says.
Nor has the issue of police violence. Reports and video footage of police targeting citizens during the recent protests with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and arrests have reminded many of the strong arm of the military during the dictatorship.
Many residents of Rio and São Paulo’s favelas, or urban shantytowns, say that one doesn’t have to think quite that far back for a comparison -- that as middle-class Brazilians took to the streets in recent weeks and were met with police violence, they got a taste of how Brazil’s poorer citizens are treated every day. Mariana Cavalcanti, an anthropologist, says that favela residents saw the violence and told her, “This is just what it’s like in the favela.”
Robson Sávio, who was one of the first scholars to interview Rousseff about the torture she endured, argues that until Brazil punishes torturers of the past, it cannot reliably prevent human rights abuses in the present. He believes that the Brazilian government has yet to put forth a clear counter narrative to the one the military sustained in the first years of democracy. “The official story,” he says, “is that the dictatorship in Brazil took place in a moment in which there wasn’t another possibility.”
Most public high schools discuss the period only briefly. “There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know what happened during that period, or only knows the partial story,” says Carlos Pestana, chief of staff to the governor of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, where Bailei premiered.
Changes in recent years suggest that the tide is slowly turning against silence, though resistance is still fierce. In 2009, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) proposed a new human rights program that included the creation of a truth commission. Three days later, the defense minister and three top army generals threatened to resign. In an emergency meeting, Lula agreed to change the wording of the proposal to win them over. Investigating crimes carried out “in a context of political repression” became “in a context of political conflict.” It was still politically impossible to label as repression the death of nearly 500 people and the torture of 20,000 under military rule.
But Rousseff, Lula’s successor, signed a new freedom of information law in November 2011 and finally inaugurated the truth commission the following year. Many question what a truth commission with a two-year time frame and no judicial power can achieve. Others hope it will lead to the repeal of a 1979 amnesty law, or that people found guilty by the commission are tried by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The fact that an elected leader can follow through with a truth commission and respond to massive protests by attempting to negotiate with protesters marks a significant change in Brazil. But Dona Elvira’s question still hangs in the air: Who is going to listen? Who will be pressed to speak?
As Brazilians continue to take to the streets, and the original cast of Bailei prepares to join a new generation of actors for the play’s 30th anniversary performance in October, a broader question takes center stage: Will a democratic Brazil find a way to sustain a conversation about injustices of the present and violence of the past? Fewer lives hang in the balance than in 1983, but the stakes remain high.