At age 19, Annie Eastman, a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, dropped out to volunteer for an arts and education nonprofit in Salvador, Brazil. A devotee of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art dance, she wanted to be where the art form had originated, in the province of Bahia.
It’s a decision that’s still affecting Eastman, now 36.
Known as “The Capital of Happiness,” Salvador has the wealthiest population in northeastern Brazil. It’s also home to stilt houses, known as palafitas, rickety structures built precariously over the Bay of All Saints.
Rotting and rocking, the abodes are floating slums, surrounded by undulating waves of garbage and sewage. Most of the households are headed by women, who eke out a living in menial jobs or don’t work at all.
Eastman became friends with many of the women. After her internship, she returned for a year and a half to continue her work with GRUCON, the nonprofit, and produced a short documentary about the group.
Then, in 2004, when she heard that the World Bank was loaning the province $49 million to eradicate its slums, including the palafitas, she decided to go back and document the lives of the people affected.
The result is Bay of All Saints, screened at the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley. The documentary, which won the audience award at SXSW in 2012, follows three single women trying to survive in the slum on the precipice of change.
One, Geni, is a fast-talking, confident assistant manager at a pizza parlor. She’s eventually chosen to represent the palafita dwellers in meetings with CONDER, the redevelopment agency.
Another, Dona Maria, is an illiterate grandmother who gave birth to 19 children and collects recyclables to help feed her grandchildren, including a precocious but troubled girl named Rebeca.
The third is an effervescent laundrywoman named Jesus who struggles to support her 15-year old daughter Rafaela and the teen’s baby.
This is a world in which Rafaela has to decide whether she wants to put her baby’s crib in a part of a room that’s frequented by rats, or in another corner where rain would fall on the infant.
The film’s narrator, the only man we see with any regularity, is a middle-aged refrigerator repairmen named Norato whom Eastman met years before. Part handyman, part therapist, Norato is the fly on the wall who’s watched the residents over the years. He skillfully guides participants through conversations about their lives and counsels them about their future.
The women’s dignity, strength and determination rise above the putrid detritus that surrounds them. They’re proud of the houses, which many of them built or renovated.
“I live in a yacht,” says Geni. “It’s my house. I made it.”
But they also want something better, and want to believe in the promises the government made to resettle them in solid homes.
Eastman had been told the redevelopment project would take 18 months. But due to corruption and mismanagement, construction was continually delayed. In the end, she returned 13 times over six years to keep filming. At the end of the film, many of the residents were still waiting to learn their fates. Their location, the Bay of All Saints, takes on new meaning as you witness their patience and perseverance.
Eastman, who lived with Geni and Jesus during the filming, told the audience at the festival that despite the hardships of production, she never wanted to give up.
“I always hated leaving,” she said. "I always loved every moment I spent with them.”
Today, nearly double the age she was when she first visited Salvador, the Denver resident is trying to raise money to help some of the women train for jobs. “I just feel like there’s so much more to be done,” Eastman said.
With Salvador a venue for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, and Rio hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics, Eastman hopes people will pay more attention to the disparity of living conditions in Brazil—and continued corruption.
“If things go really badly…it might be a wake-up call,” she says.