Bate Bola is at the heart of carnival celebrations in the underprivileged neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Groups of young men wear extravagant costumes and slam colorful balls on the ground. While watching This is Bate Bola, research duo A Parede observed similarities in Bate Bola’s representation of masculinity and the one validated the election of neo-fascist politician Jair Bolsonaro.
In Brazilian Portuguese, a pragmatic translation of «Bate-Bola» would be the imperative form for «bouncing a ball». However, somebody who grew up in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro might associate this expression with a set of cathartic sounds, sights, and smells, which evoke as much fascination as they do fear. For them, «Bate-Bola» is quintessentially carnival: flamboyant costumes and groups of young men playing, pranking, making noise, and being noisy. Screaming, chanting, and slamming the balls on the ground trigger a mixture of curiosity and dread in passers-by, children, and families who celebrate together on the streets of the northern parts of Rio.
Bate Bola as Origin Myth
It is quite curious to notice in Ben Holman and Neirin Jones’ documentary This is Bate Bola, that while these feelings are certainly there, the balls are strangely missing from the movie, both in their visual and sonic forms. The name thus might seem disconnected from the group we see and hear in the film.
As with the majority of lower- and lower-middle class popular cultures – almost always originating from slave cultures – an «origin myth» for the practice and the name is often dubious or absent; how much it is attached to the ball-and-stick play remains a question of who tells the story. The only constant is the aura of catharsis and the contradiction between gender performance and contestation that the Bate Bolas evoke.
Clashing Ideals of Masculinity
This contradiction is convoluted: Bate Bola crews and parades have always been very specific in terms of gender, age, and class. Wearing colorful, extravagant clothing—while in itself an act of pride, care, and meticulous fashion design—exists simultaneously with the aggressiveness and fear Bate Bolas trigger through their performance. These practices of personal care exist at odds with what masculinity implies, particularly when it comes to Brazilian culture.
This aggressiveness associated with hypermasculinity has been increasingly validated by the ascension of extreme right-wing views in Brazil, the culmination of which led to neo-fascist Bolsonaro coming to power. The two poles of masculinity may help one another exist, yet their tendency is to cancel each other out rather violently. The forms of male catharsis and purging supported by Bolsonaro are much different from those of the Bate Bolas: they are linked with the ongoing war against the poor, black, and marginalized populations of Brazil.
Glimpses of these complications are indeed present in the movie. We see and hear stories as told by often faceless and nameless Bate Bolas. In preserving a feeling of anonymity, the movie succeeds at not telling a story of «the other» – that is, to paint a picture of the Bate Bolas as something too exotic or too simplistic instead of as a legitimate cultural practice. Rather, the film allows the movements, gestures, colours, and sounds dominate the narrative, and in so doing represents the world of the Bate Bolas with all the complexity it deserves.