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NPR Arts & Life

Young Barbers In Brazil Are Cutting Away From Traditional Barbershops

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we go to Rio de Janeiro, where a new film about friendship in the city's low-income neighborhoods is earning national praise. The movie focuses on barbershops and deals with changing ideas about gender and race. Catherine Osborn has the story.

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: The documentary is called "Deixa Na Requa," Portuguese for straight as a ruler. That's how barbers describe the finishes they give to elaborate haircuts on Rio's poor outskirts. The film records life inside three barbershops. One in the Piedade neighborhood belongs to a 24-year-old Elder Lacerda.

ELDER LACERDA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Lacerda says he prefers to be called a hair artist. He became known for getting a hair called the jaca - short on top and dyed on the sides for dramatic fade. It's named for an iconic funk dance in the favela of Jacare. The movie brought him dozens more clients and nationwide fame.

LACERDA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Lacerda says a new group of young barbers has broken the mold of unexciting neighborhood barber shops. After researching online, he tried to create a similar atmosphere at his business to that of the American film "Barbershop," a place where people not just get their haircut but talk and joke for hours. That got the attention of filmmaker Emilio Domingos.

EMILIO DOMINGOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Domingos says he was attracted to the way the barbershops allow young men to feel comfortable enough to open up about choices in their lives. They come from neighborhoods overshadowed by crime, unemployment and a pressure for men to be tough.

DOMINGOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: But reality, says Domingos, is often different than what stereotype would have us think. In the film, a barber named Deivao talks about why he took a different path from his childhood friends who now work as drug traffickers. This choice is often described as black and white in Rio. Stay away from criminals or you'll become one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DEIXA NA REQUA")

DEIVAO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Deivao talks about how his decision actually came from up-close observation. His sister was killed in a dispute after she got too involved with the drug traffic. Deivao wanted to own his own business and was good at cutting hair, so he became a barber. Other moments in the film question ideas of machismo, which leads to high levels of violence in Brazil. Here's cultural critic Fred Coelho, who reviewed the film.

FRED COELHO: Some guys represent a very strong idea of be a man and not, I mean, like, talking about how they have the girls and how they do that and this. And the guys, like, oh, my God, my eyebrows not so good. Oh, my head, you know, my hair. I slept from the side. It's one of the biggest part of their identity, you know what I mean?

OSBORN: Some figures in the film talk about waxing their eyebrows, painting their nails and dating transgender women.

COELHO: It's a very normal conversation between friends, but you can hear a lot of ideas - new ideas about sexuality, you know?

OSBORN: Another new idea in the barbershops is about black pride. Since 2010, more than half of Brazilians identify as black on the census. As the country discusses its long history of racism, more black Brazilians are wearing their hair natural. Lacerda says his clients used to avoid the Afro haircut because of discrimination.

LACERDA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "But culture rules," he says. "If it's in style, people will do it." What Domingos captured in the film is the way long-held ideas can change in spaces that encourage vulnerable conversations. It's kept viewers across the country entranced. Here's Fred Coelho.

COELHO: For a long time, the important guy in the favela was the guy with a gun. And now they're saying, no, no, you can be a dancer and be the guy that every kid wants to be. You can be a barber and you can be an intellectual.

OSBORN: "From the intellectuals of Rio's barbershops," says Domingos, "you can get a lesson in life, if you listen for it." For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.