Brazil “for the English to see”

BBC’s latest endeavour to introduce colourful and exotic Brazil to Brits in now over. After four episodes on BBC1, Brazil with Michael Palin has come to an end, but you can still see it on BBC iPlayer. There are also books on Amazon.

Sadly Palin takes a highly superficial, inaccurate, foreign and barmy look at the fifth largest country and the sixth economy in the world. There is a widely-used expression in Brazilian Portuguese: “pra inglês ver”, which literally translates as “for the English to see”. It means “superficial, not to be heeded”. Michael Palin’s BBC documentary series has just lent extra weight to the expression. The show is glib, inaccurate and flooded with clichés. It is also too fragmented and anachronic, and the historical narrative is almost impossible to follow.

The invariably smiling and avuncular 69-year old is hardly the “globe-trotter” that he purports to be these days. He comfortably flies on airplanes, helicopters, or even takes a luxury-train in a country where passenger rail is virtually inexistent. He nods and agrees with everyone he meets, he giggles like teenager when confronted with anything vaguely un-British. He hardly utters a word in Portuguese, and does a catastrophic job at pronouncing the names of key places and people, such as “Dom João” and “Xingu”. He greets people with the Spanish “Hola” at least twice, in a country where people do not speak such language.

Palin does not engage with locals, it seems. Instead he interviews carefully-picked pundits who were likely selected at the pre-production stage. The conversations are often shallow and full of errors. I couldn’t help cringing when a tour guide in Maranhão described to Palin the different types of women in Brazil, each one named after a fruit or veggie according the shape of their buttocks. Such idiocy is not representative of Brazilian women, and yet this has now been broadcast to the entire planet. Once again, Palin simply chuckles and agrees. I think that Jordan or Emma Bunton could have done a better job at engaging with locals, confronting them or at least and making a couple of intelligent remarks.

While offering insights into some peculiar aspects of Brazilian life, such as the indigenous people of the Amazon, the Pomeranian community in the south and the Embraer factory in São Paulo state, Palin fails to show the very basic. We only see São Paulo – the largest city in South America – from above (except for a short take in the Liberdade district). All the rustle and bustle of a truly vibrant, cosmopolitan and yet chaotic metropolis are simply disregarded. The same applies to Rio: the celebrity and fashionistas stretches are largely ignored, the bohemian life is almost unseen.

There are also many errors. The Candomblé religion of Bahia is not a fusion of Catholicism and African religions – while created in Brazil, it does not have any Christian roots. Dique do Tororó in Salvador is not a lake; it is a dyke instead, just like the Portuguese name suggests. Gaby Amarantos did not christen the tecnobrega of Pará. The rhythm has existed for well over a decade, while the young singer has only released her first album this year. These are just a few of the various mistakes that I spotted.

Perhaps more worryingly, Palin does not delve into the most pressing woes of Brazil. He fails to explain that economic growth has not translated into better education, health and violence control. He visits the recently pacified favelas of Rio, giving the impression that violence is now a thing of the past. This reeks of sponsored-documentary making, as Rio urgently needs to improve its image for the World Cup and Olympics. Brazil has the highest number of murders in the world (nearly 40,000 homicides a year), far above any country in war. Sadly our reality is not very rosy.

The most deplorable moments are in the third episode, in Rio, when Palin disseminates the most repulsive Brazilian clichés. He repeatedly claims that Brazil is a highly sexually liberated country, and even visits a motel (the Brazilian sex hotels which he euphemistically calls “love hotels”). He browses through a menu of dildos and engages in highly suggestive talks with the motel “hostess” – wow, Brazilian women are so easy and available! He then attends the gay pride in Rio and ascertains that Brazil is very accepting of sexual minorities. If only!!! Compared to the UK, Brazil is a highly moralistic and sexually repressive country. Motels are in every corner not because people feel free to express their sexuality, but because they are too embarrassed to do it at home. Motels are representative of the country’s hypocritical stance towards sex. And it is very degrading for women to binge drink or to have a candid attitude towards sex – they will be quickly labelled a “puta”.

Regarding acceptance of sexual minorities, Brazil has the highest number of gay murders in the world. Two men are very likely to experience violence if they display public affection anywhere in Brazil, even in the few supposed gay areas in the large cities.

Brazil is not a safe, tropical paradise full of unreserved and sexually liberated people who speak Spanish and name women after fruit and veggie. The Brazil that Palin showed on the telly hardly challenges the shallow preconceptions that Brits have of Brazil – it perpetuates them instead.

I’m sorry Mr Palin, while I’m happy to see my homeland on BBC1, your take is just too foreign and partial for me. But that’s just me. Maybe I’m not Brazilian enough for Britain!!!

30 Comments

  1. Alex Robinson

    Victor. I have been writing books on Brazil for 15 years and lived in Sao Paulo for four. My wife and son are Paulistanos. I agree with what you say. It is not so much that he misunderstood Brazil as that he didn’t bother trying to get beyond the tired old cliches to see the richness of the country of Guimaraes Rosa, Hermeto Paschoal, Siron Franco and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. The ideas about Brazilian sexuality were also painful and tired. And Palin completely failed to look at the contradictions in Brazil (unique conviviality – a history of violence, immense wealth – great poverty, bureacracy – jeitinho etc..) which make the country so complex, enchanting and frustrating a place.

  2. Bruna

    You definitely have a point and it is very well presented here, but, while watching the show, despite all the inaccuracies, I felt proud of my country due to its diversity and people’s spirit.

  3. Duncan

    Point taken!

    all the best

    Duncan

  4. Victor Fraga

    Dear Duncan,

    My article isn’t built around the misusage of “hola”. This is just one of the many points I make and certainly not the most important one, as you noted yourself. It must be seen in context, and not in isolation – otherwise it does indeed look quite pernickety.

    But several readers decided to pick up on that, arguing that I had committed a mistake..

    I only delved into linguistics because I felt that it was my duty to respond to these people and clarify that I had not made an error .

    Language is indeed a strange and colourful beast, which would fit in very well in a Monty Python episode (I’m a big fan, by the way).

    Best regards,

    Victor

  5. Duncan

    Victor, I am sure you must be right about “olá” and “oi” as you are Brazilian, and I must remember to be equally rigorous in criticising the accents of Brazilians that I may hear speaking English on UK TV.

    Seriously though, I rather think your attitude here is almost becoming worthy of a “Python” sketch, and you undermine the possible validity of your other arguments by such ungenerous nit-picking!

  6. Victor Fraga

    Dear readers,

    The Portuguese “olá” is very different from the Spanish “hola” in terms of usage, stress and phonology.

    While the Spanish “hola” is widely used in conversation, the Portuguese “olá” is sparingly utilised. Most Brazilians say a simple “oi” instead.

    More remarkably, the tonic syllable in “olá” is the last one (as indicated by the Portuguese acute accent), while in “hola” the first one is stressed.

    Finally, “olá” normally has an open “o” sound, while in “hola” has what Brazilians call a closed one (equivalent to the circumflex accent) – although this may vary regionally.

    These details are not complicated and the words are clearly distinct. In my view, someone who purportedly spent months researching Brazil should have picked up on this. “Hello” is probably the most basic conversational word in any language – it is not a pedantic an intellectual requirement. But again, perhaps that’s just me, and having worked with language for many years I probably pay more attention to pronunciation than most people.

    I think that if Palin was concerned with the negative connotations of “oi” to the British, then he could have picked a “bom dia” ou “boa tarde”.These phrases can hardly be mistaken for their Spanish counterparts.

    This may be a small error, but becomes more conspicuous when combined with the various cliches and inaccuracies in the TV show.

    Thank you to all readers for opening such an interesting debate.

  7. Duncan

    Just a cross-cultural thought: maybe Palin used Olá instead of Oi because in England the same word, “oi” ,is probably the rudest and most ill-educated word you could use to attract someone’s attention, (watch “Eastenders” sometime) and he didn’t want to confuse the British audience.

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