" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

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Every fall I watch dozens of movies at various film festivals. Few of them are excellent, and many are forgettable. But come the holidays I’ll find myself at a table discussing some fact or situation I learned about in some documentary that I originally dismissed. Bay of All Saints has already fit this pattern of mine. I saw it; I dismissed it; and then I found myself talking about it with friends.

The bay is an example of economics 101
The bay is an example of economics 101

Bay of All Saints is a documentary about as slum in Brazil. This particular type of slum is called a “palafita.” It is built over the water on stilts. The stilts are poked into rafts of garbage. The garbage was carefully, deliberately, wheelbarrowed in to fill in the bay to support stilt houses.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, but it arose naturally from Brazil’s entrepreneurial poor. Garbage is free; stilts are cheap; and building materials are easily salvaged from elsewhere. The people who live here can at least say that they have a roof over their heads and some walls to provide a little privacy. They only have to open a hole in the floorboards and they have a toilet. Plus, they can say that they built their homes themselves.

The situation is not sustainable. The government gets wind and the bureaucracy in charge, CONDER, comes in. They intend to demolish the palafitas. (Playing to what seems like a script, they admit there are plans to build high-end properties on the potentially desirable bay.) CONDER says they intend to help the residents of the palafitas relocate. People worry (rightly so) that they will be relocated far from work (they are currently within walking distance), and that bus service will not be part of the deal.

The filmmakers return a few years later. People expected CONDER to proceed, but it hasn’t. When people thought they were on their own, they took care of their palafitas. But because they believed that the government was becoming involved, it fell out of fashion to repair the stilts. Demand fell, stilt production fell, and prices rose. Now, stilts are practically unavailable, even if you have the money for them. Additionally, some residents started getting CONDER stipends for rent elsewhere in the city as part of the relocation effort. But CONDER has been unpredictable in exchanging stipends for cash, so property owners almost universally refuse to rent to CONDER recipients.

What’s amazing about Bay of All Saints how perfectly the failure could have been predicted. It reads like an economist’s introductory textbook, complete with the obvious mistakes that the government should have avoided but didn’t.

But that doesn’t make Bay of All Saints an amazing movie. So as I said, I dismissed the movie soon after I saw it, and with good reason. The production quality is pretty low. There is not much of a story arc — the editing is driven by chronology, and you’re never sure where it’s going. The film is unbalanced; the filmmakers never spoke directly to CONDER; so denizens get to make accusations about CONDER that never go unquestioned.

But I’m glad I saw this movie, if only to learn what else is happening on my planet. It’s movies like this that make me not regret the overwhelming glut of mediocre films I consume during festival time. Most of the films I see are not excellent, but some of them are unforgettable.