By Hailey Stiehl
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern
In the 1990s, a movement inspired by activists, educators, and the Catholic Church sparked change that would help put Brazil on the path to more diverse universities. In his directorial debut, Travis Knoll helped to share the story of that movement in the documentary The Book Revolution.
Knoll, a Ph.D. candidate in history who examines racial justice policy and religious civil society organizations, thought of the idea for the documentary after his involvement with another documentary about students living in the Baixada Fluminense.
“The original idea for the documentary emerged from my participation in the Bass Connections Cost of Opportunity project,” said Knoll. “That project had filmed and launched a documentary on the costs and struggles of poor (mostly Black and mixed-race) students living in the Baixada Fluminense, an area in Rio’s urban periphery, while attending university.”
Up until the early 1990s, the education system wasn’t as accessible as it is today for many of Brazil’s marginalized population who were looking to attend university. Traditionally, those more privileged were more likely to be given access to higher education, and those individuals were typically white. Before the movement really began, less than 2% of Black or minority youths in Brazil attended university.
To combat this inequality within the country’s public universities, educators and activists set out to bridge the gap of higher education for Brazil's minorities with the help of the Catholic Church. The movement helped about 50 students from the Baixada Fluminense attend Pontifical Catholic University, said Alexandre do Nascimento, a professor and college prep founder who was interviewed in the documentary. Before the movement’s efforts, around 5 students were attending.
After receiving a Social Science Research Council Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship, Knoll combined his previous research experience with his area of study to create the documentary’s plan, with the help of his advisor John French. He then set out to tell the broader story of how demands for the type of education access covered in the Bass Connections project came to the national stage.
While working on the Bass Connections project, Knoll met one of Brazil’s most notable Black movement journalists, Luciana Barreto. Barreto went to university largely due to the efforts of the education movement. When Knoll began his own documentary, he and Barreto combined forces again, alongside Rio community rap activist Dudu do Morro Agudo, to set out to share the story of the so-called ‘book revolution.’
The three went out to interview six activists and educators from the community as a part of the film’s focus on the region’s role in forming the education accessibility movement, but the experience did have its challenges.
“I overestimated the amount of persuasion needed to convince even a willing activist who had sat down with me previously for a couple of hours at their choosing for a recorded interview to appear at a firm time block for a full-blown filming session given their busy schedules,” said Knoll. “Obviously, we figured it out, a credit to the networking and influence Luciana has.”
After wrapping up filming of the documentary, Knoll and his team encountered yet another challenge that most filmmakers struggle with: the naming of the film itself. Barreto and Knoll struggled to find a title that would truly “capture the stakes, the sheer size of the mountain this movement ended up climbing.”
The answer, however, presented itself in a memorable line from Friar David Santos, a leader of the movement from the Catholic Church.
“As David Santos said the movement had hoped to launch ‘not an armed revolution, but a revolution of the book’ of a ‘struggle for space,’ we looked at each other and nodded,” Knoll said. “The Book Revolution would be our title. That moment where it all snapped into place will be hard to forget.”