Carnegie Mellon University professor Paul Goodman's documentary Escola de Samba follows the creation of the annual Brazilian Carnival, and a samba school group called Camisa Verde e Branco, an organization of nearly 4,000 Brazilians that puts together a costume, song and dance presentation at the festival. Most unfathomable is that these thousands have worked in sync, with regular success, but without the aid of technology. Like Goodman's earlier documentary, The Dabwallas, about Indian organizations that deliver hundreds of thousands of lunches daily in Bombay without hi-tech devices, Escola de Samba captures the spirit of a communal work ethic in nations usually thought to be less developed than the U.S. Escola De Samba recently aired on WQED and will be shown on various PBS stations throughout the country into 2006.
Why did you pick the Camisa Verde e Branco group to document?
The Camisa Verde e Branco, which means green and white shirts, is one of the oldest schools in Sao Paulo and it's also one of the more traditional schools. As the Carnival moves ahead there's a lot of commercialization now, which means that some people pay their way in so they're not involved in the work. So I wanted to go to a traditional samba school where it really is a community of people who work together.
These groups organize thousands without the help of any technological communication devices, whereas my friends couldn't organize a birthday party without a fleet of cell phones and laptops. How do they do it?
I want the viewers to look at that and think about it. The underlying issue has to do with human and social ingenuity. They do things through strong family ties and through being a highly cooperative group, because there's a strong level of motivation within the group to be the best. If you go to their fieldhouse where they work and practice, you see they build mechanisms within their group that don't rely on technology but are based on relationships between people. There are a lot [of members] who've been doing it for 20 or 30 years. The president [of Camisa] is a woman. Her husband had done it before her and you can see the family ties -- the president's daughter is vice president.
So do these organizations run democratically?
There's a president, a vice president, someone responsible for selecting music, someone responsible for finances, but the important thing is they are more tied together through family and relationships than just as job descriptions. The president makes a lot of decisions and the person who's called the artistic director makes a lot of decisions, so in that sense it's not like a town meeting where people come together and vote, but they wouldn't work unless the people were highly motivated and committed to the group. And remember, this is all just someone's theory. They don't explicitly think about any of this stuff, they just do it. And it's all voluntary.
So what fascinates you most about these social work systems?
What I find fascinating is there are contrasts to how organizations work in the 21st century in developed countries, where there's a huge premium on technology and formal business practices. If you look at these organizations, these are very large-scale systems that work extremely well. In many ways, they are the antithesis of what we do, but they're very successful. Instead of saying, "What can more developed places teach less developed places?" we should switch it around and ask what can people from more developed countries learn from these other settings.
What could perhaps the large displaced groups in New Orleans learn from Camisa?
Camisa, in our terms, is an NGO [non-governmental organization], but I don't think they're a formal kind. They're a large organization that is relatively powerful in the sense of helping people in their lives. If you brought all the sambas together in Sao Paulo, that would be a nontrivial set of people. If there were similar organizations in Louisiana -- and there is a similar kind of Carnival in New Orleans -- organizations like this not only exist to produce for the Carnival but also to contribute to the community. So if there were large-scale organizations in New Orleans they could help these people. Camisa Verde is a great social organization for help and they do help the community in a very powerful way -- not just for the Carnival. What would happen if all large-scale organizations [in the U.S.] worked together? What role could they play?