A flood of laughter

Published: Wednesday 31 March 2004

Elaine Caffe Narradores de Jav Elaine Caffe, Brazil

Storytellers of Jav has won best film at the recently held Punta del Este International Film Festival, Uruguay. It portrays many aspects of little-known rural Brazil: populations expelled from their homes by megaproject hydroelectric dams, the oral histories maintained by storytellers, rampant illiteracy and the naive malice of rural culture. Director Eliane Caff calls it a "tragicomedy" that combines true-to-life reality with situational mix-ups and funny characters.

Jav is a small fictional town in impoverished northeast Brazil. It is to be flooded by an upcoming dam. A local leader, Zaqueu, comes up with an idea: a book about Jav's glorious past could lead to its designation as a historic site and therefore save the town from inundation.

Who is to be the writer? Antonio Bi. But Bi is persona non grata in the village. To justify his job at the post office -- useless in a town of illiterate people -- he has been writing letters to people, reporting the idiosyncrasies of Jav residents.

Nevertheless, he is reinstated. The task of recording the community's oral memory begins, but proves impossible: neighbours have contradictory versions about the same event. Each one tells the story about the founding of the town that is in his or her best interest. The clashing histories exhaust Bia's motivation. He thinks of using the stories he has heard in a more "literary" way, for his own ends. Meantime, the reservoir floods the town.

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