More complex in its observation of impoverished folk artists than the usual pitying or celebratory view, Roberto Berliner’s “Born to be Blind” charts five tumultuous years in the lives of three sightless Brazilian singers as they negotiate fickle relationships with fame, each other and the filmmaker himself. Too prickly to emerge a standard feel-good ode to traditional music, pic instead rewards with psychological insights both surprising and teasingly incomplete. It’s a strong fest item that will appeal to select broadcast and educational programmers.
Now in their 50s and 60s, the Barbosa sisters live in northeastern Brazilian burg Campina Grande, making a thin living on the streets by singing ganza songs, played with cylindrical maraca-type instruments. By the time Berliner arrives to shoot a short documentary about them in 1998, they’ve already enjoyed moments of wider notice, evidenced by footage of them performing in 1971 and 1981. But it’s still a less-than-privileged existence, one dependent on housekeeping by a cousin’s wife (later suspected of overcharging them) and by only-child Maria aka Dalvinha, sighted daughter to Maria (who’s by far the most outspoken of the sisters, as well as the only one to have been married).
The women don’t exactly have the voices of angels, nor are their somewhat complaining, demanding temperaments particularly appealing. But Berliner is fascinated by them, and decides to expand his short to feature length by filming them on and off over the years. This period brings both household changes — notably the arrival of Dalvinha’s rebellious adolescence, which leaves her no longer content to play full-time domestic servant — and something of a career explosion.
First the sisters, smitten with being in the documentarian’s spotlight, take seriously the notion they’re now “movie stars.” Then they’re paid an astounding (to them) amount of money to perform before 4,000 people at a Bahia music festival, where they are taken under wing by the famed Gilberto Gil. Television and concert appearances follow, as trio are fawned over by interviewers and celebrities. When Berliner next checks in, though, it seems the sisters have been little more than a media flavor of the month. The triumphs are just a fond memory, while the sisters are back sleeping in one bed (Dalvinha has commandeered the other one, along with her boyfriend).
Helmer makes his close, sometimes discomfiting relationship with the Barbosas part of the narrative, even including the awkward moment when one sister proclaims her secret love for him. Result is a three-dimensional portrait that (unlike the TV coverage their act gets) is uncondescendingly warts-and-all. Some visual and audio gimmickry that irritates at first later makes sense as an attempt to convey the subjects’ acute but limited viewpoint.