Mother of the Dawn | A Conversation About the Untold Story of Vale do Amanhecer

How one woman's supernatural visions built a contemporary religious movement

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In a rural area of Brazil In the early 1950’s, a truck driver named Tia Neiva was met with supernatural visions of extraterrestrial spirits. Soon after she started having these visions, she began to build a following of people that would eventually make up Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn), a religion in which Neiva was the founder. Vale do Amanhecer was unique in the way that it practiced elements of Christianity, Umbanda, Spiritism, and religious faith in UFO’s. 

Director Janell Shirtcliff, writer Angie Simms, and writer and producer Tommy Savas  have composed Mother of the Dawn, a documentary telling the story of Tia Neiva and Vale do Amanhecer–a religion once consisting of  800,000 followers, yet goes unbeknownst to most of the world today. In a statement from the director, Janell Shirtcliff says, “Too often are stories of female triumphs buried or turned to fodder. Tia Neiva created a religious doctrine that reached and helped thousands of people, in a time when the world was against her, not only in gender, but in economic status and race.”

The documentary Mother of the Dawn will screen at South by Southwest in the Rollins Theatre on Mar 12 in the Documentary Shorts Competition, with an additional screening on Mar 16 at Alamo Lamar D.

Producers Tommy Savas and Mike Savas expand on their experience in the making of the film and their plans to expand on the story of Vale do Amanhecer. 

How did you come across the religion, Vale de Amanhecer or Valley of the Dawn? Did either of you know anyone personally who was involved with the religion?

Janell, our director and talented photographer, was struck by a captivating image of Tia Neiva, the founder of the Vale de Amanhecer religion, while browsing the internet for inspiration. Janell was captivated by Tia Neiva's striking appearance and felt a deep desire to capture her essence through her own lens. This initial spark of inspiration ignited a journey of discovery, leading Janell down a fascinating rabbit hole of research, which eventually led her to the enigmatic Valley of the Dawn.

When the team arrived at the temple, how did you feel? Were there different feelings and emotions when visiting the location/interacting with the followers? 

We don’t want to say we drank the Kool-Aid, but, we sort of drank the Kool-Aid. Upon arriving at the Valley, we were initially apprehensive about what we might find. However, as soon as we stepped inside, we were struck by the palpable energy and profound sense of peace that enveloped us. The trippy architecture that resembled an intergalactic mini golf course, intricate decor, and serene atmosphere left us in awe. Our interactions with the followers of the religion only deepened our appreciation for the experience. Despite our initial misgivings, we found that they were warm, welcoming, and eager to share their beliefs and practices with us. Their passion for the religion was evident in every conversation, and we felt privileged to have the opportunity to learn from them. Overall, our visit to the temple was a transformative experience that challenged our preconceptions and left us with a newfound respect for the religion and its followers. 

As collaborators, did you face any difficulties or challenges when it came to your artistic differences? If so, how did you solve/agree with one another? 

As collaborators, we recognized that our individual strengths and differences were key to creating a compelling and authentic Doc. While we did encounter some artistic differences along the way, we approached these challenges with a shared commitment to being truthful and fair to the subject. To resolve any differences, we engaged in open and honest dialogue, with each of us contributing our unique perspectives and insights. By focusing on our common goal of creating a respectful and engaging portrayal of the Vale de Amanhecer religion, we were able to find creative solutions that leveraged our individual strengths and produced a final product that exceeded our expectations. Ultimately, we believe that our collaborative approach allowed us to create a film that was both richly diverse and powerfully cohesive, highlighting the unique perspectives and contributions of each team member.

Did you collectively come up with the idea for the documentary or did one of you pitch the idea to the team? 

Tommy was initially approached by Janell with the idea for the documentary, but it quickly became a collaborative effort as each member of the team brought their unique skills and perspective to the project. Janell, with her keen aesthetic eye, Tommy with his producing and filmmaking prowess, and Angie with her background in narrative writing. However, when we arrived in the Valley, it became apparent that the original narrative they had worked out before had to be revised. Our experience on the ground in Brazil exposed complexities and nuances that we had not anticipated. Despite the challenges, we remained steadfast in our commitment to creating a documentary that was both engaging and authentic. We had to think on our feet, adapt, and revise our approach as we went. By embracing the unexpected and working collaboratively, we were able to find a new narrative thread that better captured the essence of the Vale de Amanhecer religion. The end result is a documentary that is far richer and more nuanced than we had originally imagined. This was due, in large part, to our willingness to be flexible and adaptive, follow the story where it led us, and work together as a team to overcome any obstacles we encountered along the way.

The documentary did a good job of being aware of the cultural differences within religion.  Was it a challenge as a team to make this documentary culturally sensitive?

As a team, we were aware of the cultural differences within the Vale de Amanhecer religion and the importance of approaching the documentary with sensitivity and respect. We wanted to avoid any inadvertent reinforcement of xenophobia or negative stereotypes. Our focus was on sharing the story of Tia Neiva and the positive impact she had on her followers, while also providing a nuanced look at their beliefs and practices. We made a conscious effort to listen and learn from our subjects, and to avoid imposing our own preconceived notions onto the narrative. Ultimately, we believe that our commitment to cultural sensitivity and authenticity allowed us to create a documentary that is respectful, engaging, and informative.

On set, were there instances where there was something you didn't agree with as a team? (I.E. interviewing someone who wasn’t a fit, shooting locations, etc.) If so, how did you collaborate and collectively agree with each other?

As with any creative team, there were moments on set when we didn't see eye-to-eye. However, we recognized that each team member had unique expertise and responsibilities, and we deferred to the individual in charge of that particular area. Ultimately, our shared goal of creating a truthful and engaging documentary kept us all focused and committed to working collaboratively. We recognized that differences of opinion were a natural part of the creative process, and we were open to hearing each other's perspectives to make the best possible decisions for the project.

How did you determine which followers to include in the documentary? How did you come across the followers and who introduced you to them? 

During the pre-production stage, our story producer Daisy O’Dell reached out to some members of the Vale de Amanhecer religion and we were fortunate enough to establish a relationship with them before we even arrived in Brazil. Our wonderful translator and Field Producer, Nicholas Col, played a crucial role in connecting us with these individuals. Once we arrived in Brazil, however, we faced the challenge of gaining access to the actual Valley. This could only be granted to us by the religion head, Raul, who proved to be a tough negotiator. It took Tommy smoking thru an entire carton of Dunhill cigarettes and proving to Raul that we weren't there to do an expose for him to finally grant us access. In terms of selecting which followers to include in the documentary, we made a concerted effort to represent a diverse cross-section of the community. We wanted to showcase the different perspectives and experiences of the followers, and to capture the essence of the religion as a whole. This involved conducting numerous interviews and spending time with individuals from different backgrounds and walks of life within the community. Ultimately, we were able to find some incredible people who were willing to share their stories with us.

In the documentary, it’s mentioned that there are 589 temples worldwide. Did you plan on visiting any other locations when making the film? 

During the production of the short documentary, our main focus was on the center of the religion for the story we wanted to tell. However, with the feature version of the film, we plan on expanding our scope and exploring all the facets of the Vale de Amanhecer religion, including visiting a number of their satellite churches around the world. We believe that this will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the religion and its followers.

Towards the end of the documentary, it is mentioned that Tia Neiva’s son, Raul, is the leader of the doctrine. Were you able to interview him about the cult? Or was he reluctant to talk about it? 

He was initially reluctant to be interviewed on camera, but he allowed us to take a video portrait of him which you see at the end of the film. Raul felt that the story would be better told by his followers than by him, so he preferred not to speak in the documentary. 

Is the team thinking of making the short documentary into a feature? 

Absolutely, we are planning on expanding the short documentary into a feature film. We strongly believe that there is a much larger story to be told beyond what was covered in the short film. This includes exploring the power struggle between Tia Neiva's sons after her death, a brutal court case, and Tia Neiva's struggles as a woman in the 1960s to become the leader of a religion. And, of course, to delve deeper into the mysterious and intriguing topic of the aliens.

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Mother of the Dawn, South by Southwest, Vale do Amanhecer, Tia Neiva