Participants20in20 Usina20da20 Imaginacao20project
Nov 18, 2023

The Other Side of the Other: Empathy & Participatory Filmmaking with Kurt Shaw, Rita da Silva & Usina da Imaginação (video)

What happens when groups that would not be likely to encounter each other in “real life” situations are given the opportunity to engage with one another?

By Templeton Staff with Kurt Shaw & Rita da Silva

What happens when groups that would usually not encounter each other are given the opportunity to engage with one another? Video: Inspiração: Arte em tempos de pandemia / Usina da Imaginação;  (The cc button on the bottom right of the video player reveals English subtitles.)

For more than 2 decades, Kurt Shaw, Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva, and Usina da Imaginação have been accompanying children and families from diverse backgrounds across Brazil as they tell their stories through participatory audiovisual documentation. With funding from Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), they've designed a project to explore whether and how participatory filmmaking would cultivate empathy among children across socio-economic divides.

For this Q+A, we asked Shaw and da Silva to share a little about the findings from this endeavor. They also talk about their upcoming work with Usina da Imaginação, including a Dialógica: New Perspectives on Polarization, a project supported by TWCF's Listening and Learning in a Polarized World priority.

Please tell us how your project, titled The Other Side of the Other, began.

Kurt Shaw: In 2016, Usina da Imaginação conducted a small social experiment with groups of children from opposite sides of the Brazilian cultural divide. Children from a favela made a short fictional movie where they showed how they imagined rich kids lived, while a group of children from an upper middle class condominium made a movie about how they imagined life in the favela. We showed each movie to the other group, and then brought the kids together, first in the favela and then in the apartment building, for two days of unstructured play. We filmed the entire experiment and turned it into a 52-minute documentary, scheduled to be shown on Brazilian public television in the coming months.

Rita da Silva: We had expected the project to challenge prejudice and overcome segregation, but we had not expected how it would stimulate under-cultivated virtues: compassion, empathy, hope, solidarity, friendship, and joy. As just one illustration, Letícia — from the middle class — spent much of her time talking with Kauane, a girl from the favela. Later, Letícia told us, “When we were talking, she told me that last night, after we had had such a wonderful time playing with kids in the favela, the police invaded. They humiliated the girls, frisked them, put their hands all over them. The police break down the doors of the houses. You know, they don’t do that in our apartment building,” she continued in amazement, almost tears. “They don’t.” 

The impact of the final documentary on the audience was also much greater than we had expected. Adults and children have left focus groups describing themselves as transformed, while teachers and parents have proposed to replicate the experiment on their own. We had planned a small experiment in living together, but found an important tool to promote the virtues of common purpose and social solidarity.

The trailer for the first series of films and artworks, about music and art as a way to inspire empathy during the pandemic can be viewed above or here. (The cc button on the bottom right of the video player reveals English subtitles.) 

Kurt Shaw: We proposed The Other Side of the Other project to Templeton World Charity Foundation in order to conduct the same process in four diverse contexts where children find it difficult to overcome the social, economic, and racial divisions endemic to contemporary Brazil. The project was set to take place from the latter half of 2019 - 2021. The pandemic changed everything… we had to do it all online!

Image from a video call that gathered groups of children from opposite sides of the Brazilian cultural divide for a small social experiment.

Pictured: Screen capture of a video call with participants in the project during the pandemic.

Can you describe your approach? Why did you choose to use filmmaking as your vehicle?

Rita da Silva: Children are curious about other kids: they want to know what their lives are like, they want to meet and play. We need to find a way to overcome economic and physical borders keep them apart, and film is a powerful tool.

Kurt Shaw: First, we ask kids to imagine the other. That way, they put their expectations and prejudices out there and understand them as imaginary, as possibly wrong.

Then, we ask them to play the role of that imaginary other through fictional film — or in the case of the quarantine, also through visual arts and music. They bring their imagination of the other into their own body — or as indigenous people in Brazil say, they try on the clothes or the skin of the other.  Experiencing the skin of the other — even in the imagination — is a first step toward empathy.

Finally, the kids from different backgrounds come together in a mutual project. They play together, plan together, see where their imagination was right, and where it needs to be changed. We found it fascinating that doing this work online was just as powerful as it was in person.


Across social boundaries, children agreed that human flourishing could only happen in the midst of nature’s flowering and that one person cannot flourish while those around him or her do not have that opportunity.



How do you envision your research translating into practical tools people might use in their everyday lives and community?

Kurt Shaw: First, we have seen it become an educational model. We presented the films and art in many schools, and teachers are replicating the process. The same happens in film festivals, and the state of São Paulo is using the movies in schools all over the state.

Second, the kids insisted that the city itself needs to change in order to promote these kinds of interactions: not just when adults or schools plan them, but spontaneously in parks and on the street. For these children, a good life in the city must take seriously the botanical etymology of flourishing. For them, a kind city full of democratic encounters demands trees and parks, playgrounds with mysterious thickets and dinosaur bones hidden in the sand. They also imagined a city with wild places full of birds, mammals, fish, and flowers. Across social boundaries, children agreed that human flourishing could only happen in the midst of nature’s flowering. See participating kids talk about how imagination and art inspires care for other people and for nature in Portuguese, in this video.

Rita da Silva: The children then participated urban planning workshops and public hearings to develop and promote an amendment to the city constitution to include children’s voices in urban planning decisions. City Council members and cultural leaders from across the political spectrum joined the movement; the mayor himself signed on in a special session of the Children’s Film Festival of Florianópolis.

Our Inspiração project shows that children’s perspectives offer new methods to promote human flourishing; that their utopian thinking can show the need to find structural and even architectural interventions to promote human — and natural — flourishing. Children’s enthusiasm and hope can inspire real social change even in the midst of political polarization.

Artwork from Usina da Imaginacao's project - a watercolor painting of a girl in the rain, and a photographic portrait of a young person's face.

Pictured: Artwork by participating young people. Left to right: Girl in the Rain watercolor by Rosa Maria Pereira Miranda; Self-portrait by Letícia da Silva.

What is an insight or learning you found that might affect future studies in the field of human flourishing?

Kurt Shaw: A truly open project can challenge narrow or western ideas of the good life, virtue, or human flourishing. The children first insist that human flourishing is collective: one person cannot flourish while those around him or her do not have that opportunity.

Rita da Silva: The participants presented several different ways to understand how people share joy, grief, and other emotions that give life meaning, but they all agreed that flourishing happens within the community, not the individual.

Would you like to mention any sources of inspiration in your work?

Kurt Shaw: We are very inspired by Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy of the encounter with the other, especially the way it has been adapted and critiqued by feminist thinkers like Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. Our work is also inspired by the perspectivist philosophy of Amazonian indigenous people, who insist that the categorical imperative of all beings — both ethical and epistemological — is to see through the ideas of the other; this emerges from years of work in the Rio Negro region of the Amazon and our long friendship with Casemiro Sampaio (a Tukano shaman) and Jacinta Sampaio (a Tukano healer and thinker). Finally, the “somatic form of thinking” of Afro-Brazilians shows how important the process of incorporating and interpreting is.

Above: The video that launched the first caucus for early childhood and for the audiovisual arts. (The cc button on the bottom right of the video player reveals English subtitles.) 

What's next for your work and that of Usina da Imaginação?

Rita da Silva: Our work over the last several years has showed that film — both fiction and documentary — both inspires children to reflect on their world and forces society to take their ideas seriously. These ideas in turn inspired us to work with several members of the state parliament to create the first caucus for early childhood and for the audiovisual arts. Play the above video to hear from the kids talking about the public policies they want for a better childhood in the film that launched the caucus.

Kurt Shaw: Rita has been working with politicians across the political spectrum to structure ways for them to hear children’s voices through film and art.

The work funded by TWCF also made our filmmaking even more professional; the result is the feature film Aiurê, which relates the encounter between two girls — one indigenous, one German-Brazilian — and how their struggle to protect a river brings them together. We’re now negotiating with distributors: with luck, you’ll get to see it in theaters next year!

Finally, we’re really excited about how a new grant from TWCF is going to challenge and renovate our academic work. Over centuries of life in one of the most diverse places on earth, the indigenous peoples of lowland South America developed unique practices to understand and relate to difference. Exchanges of song and dance, commensality (eating together), dialogue and narrative, and collective ritual: all of these practices create a space designed to mark, understand, and overcome the linguistic and ideological polarization of radically different cultures. Dialógica is a new research center where indigenous, afro-Brazilian, caboclo (rural mixed-culture), and academic intellectuals will dialogue, develop, and test theories of alterity and polarization in modern societies and suggest how their traditions of dialogue, ritual, and practice may be able to contribute to transcend it. It’s a thrilling opportunity to think intransigent problems through new perspectives and dialogues.


Usina da Imaginação carries out research, training in communication, art and audiovisual cultural production, and community mobilization for processes of cultural appreciation and transformation in different media, especially involving children and young people. Its objectives include promoting race and gender equity, as well as creating space for dialogue and inter-generational bonding. They also work through campaigns and advocacy in favor of early childhood, with the aim of influencing the creation and improvement of public policies. Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva and Kurt Shaw are its co-founding Executive directors, with a supporting team spread across Brazil.

Kurt Shaw has published extensively on topics ranging from political philosophy to Amazonian epidemiology. He has developed the world’s largest network of grass-roots organizations serving street kids, working towards a reduction in the number of children living on the streets of Latin American cities. He studied philosophy at Williams and classics at Harvard, but, as he says, his real education came from two years in Central American refugee camps and Colombian slums, where he found poor and marginalized people more compelling thinkers than many academic philosophers.

Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva was born to a large farming family in southern Brazil, where she learned to appreciate the mysteries of nature: something that continues to animate her work and research with children. Her ethnographic research examines how children are protagonists of narratives and performances. After years teaching in the university, she later moved into activism and film. Her movies include The Princess in the Alleyway (2017), The other side of the other (2019), Wuitina Numiá (2021), and the upcoming Aiurê. Mother of Helena Iara, Rita lives in Florianópolis, Brazil.