“I don’t know if I’m more afraid of walking on an empty street and seeing no one, or if I’m afraid of encountering someone along the way,” says a woman’s voice as the camera moves through a poorly illuminated tunnel. From the first moments of the trailer for the forthcoming Brazilian documentary Chega de Fiu Fiu, expected to be released this November, we are instantly thrust into the skin-crawling sense of fear that many women feel walking through the streets alone at night.
The documentary’s title, which roughly translates to “Enough With the Catcalling,” embodies the film’s central demand to expose and end the verbal and physical harassment that women regularly experience in public spaces. The filmmakers hope to show the pervasiveness of street harassment in Brazil—a country that juxtaposes public sexuality with high rates of gender-based violence. But the film also reveals an intimate portrait of three Brazilian women, whose diverse backgrounds and identities shape their individual experiences and relationship to the city.
Street harassment “represents the objectification of women, the hyper-sexualization of women, the lack of autonomy that women have over our own bodies, and the idea that a woman is not a public being,” said Juliana de Faria, founder of the feminist non-profit organization Think Olga, which is behind Chega de Fiu Fiu.
The documentary raises important questions at the intersection of urban planning, public safety, and male violence, building on global movements that are reframing street harassment in terms of women’s right to access the city—via well-illuminated streets and parks, quality public transportation, safe routes to work and school—without fear of assault.
“The city must be for women,” says Raquel Carvalho, one of the documentary’s profile subjects, in the trailer’s closing sequence. “We only want to occupy the space that is ours.”
The filmmakers accompany three women in their daily routines as they criss-cross the streets in their respective cities, and each woman experiences different patterns of harassment as she moves through public space. Raquel Carvalho is a black nursing student and manicurist who lives in Salvador, Bahia, a coastal city that was the first slave port in the Americas. Teresa Chaves is a white woman and history teacher in São Paulo, the country’s financial capital, who rides her bicycle through the mega-city. Rosa Luz is a black trans woman artist who lives in the periphery of Brasilia, the national capital known for its modernist architecture. She is filmed traveling to and from university for her night class—three buses for over two hours in each direction.
“To other people, it may seem like nothing is happening,” she says while on the bus. “But we feel it, you know? These looks that inhibit you, that make you feel uncomfortable deep down inside.”
“It’s very intimate and visceral,” Fernanda Frazão, one of the film’s directors, told Jezebel by phone in Portuguese. “We are entering into the universe of these characters” and asking them to share their fears, struggles and reflections about harassment and their bodies in public space. “They are sharing stories that are painful and have often been swept under the rug.”
The documentary grew out of Think Olga’s “Chega de Fiu Fiu” campaign, launched in 2013. The project—which has surveyed thousands of women, collected individual testimonials, and disseminated information—is considered the pioneering effort to bring visibility to street harassment in Brazil.
But when the campaign was first launched, Brazilians were talking about other issues—lavish spending on sporting mega-events, corruption at the highest levels of government—and street harassment wasn’t high on the public agenda. Widespread denial (“it’s a compliment!”) and a culture of victim-blaming made their work difficult.
“People told us that [catcalling] was just part of being a man or a woman, or said that we were exaggerating or that we were whining,” de Faria explained by phone in Portuguese. The early goal of the campaign was to show that street harassment “exists, it is painful, and it is violent.”
As women move through the city, they are constantly “drawing mental maps” to evaluate their safety, said Amanda Kamanchek, the film’s other director. Negotiating these “invisible turnstiles”—the time of day, the emptiness of the street, avoiding exclusively male spaces—determines women’s freedom and mobility.
“Harassment is one way that men say to women, ‘this space is not yours, this city is not yours, you don’t have the same rights to circulate,’” added Kamanchek by phone.
The documentary itself emerged from the “Chega de Fiu Fiu” mapping platform, which uses Google Maps in order for women to report the location, date, time, and account of a street harassment incident that they either personally experienced or witnessed. The idea, de Faria says, is not to further restrict women’s movements, but to “understand and really get to know the places we live and move through.”
The map of Rio de Janeiro shows a sea of turquoise locator symbols, each linked to an account of harassment. A woman in a bikini on Copacabana beach describes being photographed by a tourist. “I regret not throwing his phone in the ocean,” she writes. “But in the moment I felt so invaded that I just wanted to get out of there.” Another woman describes being surrounded by a group of men who groped her butt and breasts: “After that, I never dressed in an ‘audacious’ way at Carnival, thinking it was my fault for having provoked them.”
“There are some days of pessimism,” said de Faria, of her own relationship to the mapping platform. “Thinking that this society is sick, that it will never improve. And other days are more optimistic, believing that through education we will achieve certain changes.” The mapping platform reveals patterns in certain locations, and De Faria told Jezebel that they have received stories of women confronting the proprietors of businesses where repeated incidents were reported.
The conversation around harassment has changed dramatically in recent years. The Brazilian government website now has a page dedicated to the subject, citing Think Olga’s research finding that 99.6 percent of Brazilian women have experienced street harassment. Another documentary, which collected over 100 women’s testimonies of harassment, was released last year. And in April, a famous male soap opera star was suspended after allegations of workplace sexual harassment.
The debate is more “mature and responsible” than when the campaign launched, de Faria said, due to the fact that women have become “increasingly empowered to tell their stories in courageous ways.”
But despite increasing attention to both harassment and gender-based violence, there is still a particular urgency in Brazil. A poll taken last year found that one in three Brazilians believe that a woman is responsible if she is raped, including an astonishing 30 percent of respondents who agreed with the statement, “A woman who wears provocative clothes cannot complain if she is raped.”
In 2014, Think Olga launched a crowd-funding effort to produce a short film on street harassment. But once the campaign took off—they reached their original fundraising goal in 24 hours—they decided to produce a feature-length documentary. Today, Chega de Fiu Fiu has raised over $20,000 from more than 1,200 individual donations.
The team hopes that the documentary will reach men and women of all ages, especially outside of the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Documentary film provides a tool through which you can “translate big concepts, ideas of high complexity or that are often in the academy,” de Faria explained, adding that they interviewed experts to provide historical and psychological context.
The filmmakers say they are deliberately confronting questions of racism, transphobia, fat-phobia, and classism, attempting to show Brazilian women in their broadest diversity and explore how overlapping identities shape their interactions with the street.
One of the film’s strongest features is its unique method of visually documenting harassment. The team developed a special set of glasses that contain a hidden camera; at key moments in the film, the women turn to their harassers to engage them in conversation.
Before filming began, Frazão tested out the glasses every day for a month, which she says completely changed her relationship to the city. Walking around with the intention to observe and capture the incidents of harassment—rather than walking defensively or with her head down, “I could see how it transformed my body in public space.” She began to perceive “how people relate to my body, the exercises of power exerted on my body, how it is vulnerable.”
Rosa Luz, a multi-media artist who raps about transphobia and racism, recently used the glasses in a performance piece. She went to a bus station in Brasília and took off her shirt. Striking a model pose for 30 minutes, Rosa’s friends filmed the reactions of passersby from a distance. One man threw paper balls at her before approaching Rosa and trying to grab her breast. Another woman started yelling, “Jesus can transform this life,” referring to her as a “man with tits” who was “encouraging other kids to turn gay.”
“What gave me hope on this day, was that other women—who were witnessing this process of violence that was happening to my body—began walking up the stairs and hugging me,” Rosa Luz told Jezebel by phone in Portuguese.
Think Olga founder Juliana de Faria hopes that the film becomes a tool of dialogue and education about “a subject that for a long time was ignored or treated with less importance.” The film’s directors were clear that the documentary must “go where it will most be seen—the internet, schools, the grassroots level” to generate conversation.
Recalling her own experiences with street harassment that began regularly at age 11, de Faria said “the worst part—more than the trauma, the embarrassment, the pain—is the feeling of being alone.” It is this feeling of isolation that Chega de Fiu Fiu hopes to change, as women continue to share their stories and occupy public space.
The documentary is expected to be released in November, 2017. After screenings at festivals and a series of educational workshops, the film will be distributed online with English-language subtitles via Think Olga’s YouTube channel.
Kate Steiker-Ginzberg is a freelance journalist and producer who divides her time between Rio de Janeiro and Philadelphia.