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’Warrior of Light’ at BAM

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Ordinarily, films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s repertory film program are screened for just one day as part of a retrospective or film series - but "Warrior of Light" is no ordinary film.

German director Monika Treut’s 2001 documentary about Brazilian activist Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, pictured, will be screened at BAMcinematek Sept. 12-18.

The film is a deeply affecting, intimate portrait of Bezerra de Mello, a socialite and sculptor, who has become a crusader for the thousands of brutalized, desperate children living on the streets and in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

Treut told GO Brooklyn that convincing Bezerra de Mello to agree to be filmed "was not that easy."

"First, she hadn’t seen my previous films [such as the documentaries ’’Didn’t Do it for Love’ (1997) and ’Genernaus’ (1999)], but we hit it off on a personal level," said Treut. "Then I gave her videos of my previous films, and she wasn’t shocked, but she had some doubts about this woman [me] who had been focusing so far on transsexuals, gay people and lesbians, and all of that. ’How is she able to give my project justice?’

"But she understood, in a way, that her children are outcasts, as well, and are not taken seriously by mainstream society in Brazil. She sensed that I could get into their special situation, that kind of sensibility that you are not a voyeuristic filmmaker."

Treut’s film cuts back and forth between Bezerra de Mello’s lavish residences in the city and country, the spectacular natural beauty of Rio’s blue skies and beaches, and the desperate conditions of the poverty-stricken who are lucky enough to live in the favela, or slum, of Mare.

Treut said that she and her crew attempted to shoot in the outskirts of the favelas once without the help of Bezerra de Mello, and the residents, seeing a van and camera, mistook them for secret police.

"Then someone recognized us, so they saved us," said Treut. "People [from Projeto Uere] scolded us - this was really, really dangerous, so we never did that again."

Bezerra de Mello created Projeto Uere (Children of Light), which feeds children, educates them and even introduces them to music and dance. The organization brought a daycare center to the homeless, erecting it beneath a bridge. She has also created a surprisingly innovative employment program for teens, which incorporates bottle recycling.

Treut’s documentary is careful to point out, however, that Bezerra de Mello’s giving comes at a price. "Warrior of Light" shows her losing her patience and yelling at the kids. The activist says she has a lot of bad energy from being around so much violence and pain and turns to an African shaman for help in a surprising outdoor ceremony.

Bezerra de Mello says she’s trying to give the children a reason to live without drugs and violence.

But does she take her personal commitment too far? Her husband recalls his horror at waking up in the middle of the night to discover she was out in the dangerous slums looking for street kids. Some claim Bezerra de Mello is foolhardy for looking for children to hug in the dead of night.

Treut said that Bezerra de Mello’s eldest daughter, who also lives in Rio, "refused to be on camera."

"She is quite conservative and a lawyer," said Treut. "She thinks her mother is wasting her time. That’s the attitude of the upper classes: ’We pay a lot of taxes, so the government has to deal with it.’"

Treut’s film doesn’t shy away from the dangerous politics of the situation, often pointing the finger at the Brazilian government. The police have been accused of ambushing sleeping families and killing them or shooting into crowds of children to encourage them to disperse. One of Bezerra de Mello’s first crusades was to encourage the government to prosecute police officers who killed eight boys, ages 12 to 16, at the infamous 1993 Candelaria massacre.

Treut says that her film has played in theaters and on TV in Germany, and viewers outside of Brazil have donated 30,000 euros to date to Projeto Uere.

Treut says she only included footage of the children "who really wanted to be in the film." Among them is 13-year-old Tiago, a shoeshine boy, who battles the AIDS virus without proper nutrition or medicine. And he’s just one of the many kids Treut discovered who leave haunting impressions long after the credits roll.



"Warrior of Light" will be screened at BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) Sept. 12-18. Q&As with director Monika Treut and activist Yvonne Bezerra de Mello will be Sept. 12, following the 6:50 pm show, and Sept. 14, following the 4:30 pm show. Tickets are $10, $6 for seniors. For screening times, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.

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