A mostly woman team of filmmakers, led by Austin-based director Janell Shirtcliff, tell the story of the Valley of the Dawn.


By Cy White

When the sun rises, the soft swell of a woman’s voice matches its slow ascent to the heavens. The morning begins anew. There’s the smell of burning wood, the air lightly spiced with an undiscernible, though not unpleasant, aroma. Morning opens with prayer, reverence and gratitude for nature, family and Mother Neiva.

The opening scene of director and photographer Janell Shirtcliff’s Mother of the Dawn begins much like the average day of members of this quiet religious community. There’s something uniquely pure about Valley of the Dawn. Founded by Neiva Chavez Zelaya, known more commonly as Tia Neiva, Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn) was created as a haven for those who felt lost. Namely, this was a safe space for women who needed something more in their lives than the whims of the patriarchal society they were born into.

For Shirtcliff, this journey began with an image. “I actually saw a picture if Tia Neiva,” she recounts. “It was like magic. I was like, ‘I have to know who this woman is and what her story is.’ I was finding all this stuff about her, and it was so fascinating and so inspiring. I’m also a single mom,” she reveals. “That female empowerment component of her story, I found I related to that as well. I always had kind of in my back pocket that I have to make this film.”

With longtime writing partner Angie Simms, Shirtcliff set out to discover that magic that entranced her from the moment she saw Tia Neiva’s likeness. It was an experience that forever imprinted on her mind. The small and mighty mostly woman crew of Shirtcliff, Simms, story producer Daisy O’dell and writer Tommy Savas made their way to this remote valley in Brazil. Each woman speaks of the experience with genuine affection. There’s an aura of love surrounding this project. More than a documentary, Mother of the Dawn is an open-armed invitation. A warm embrace from a group of people who many would readily misunderstand.

Janelle Shirtcliff, director

However, there’s something truly remarkable about Valley of the Dawn. Beyond their welcoming nature, this is a group of people who allow love to lead them in all things. The lessons of Tia Neiva permeate everyone Shirtcliff, Simms and O’dell interact with. “I didn’t really know how much access we’d have until we got there,” Shirtcliff says. “They were very welcoming. It was such a beautiful, energetic experience for me. I had many emotional breakthroughs as a woman. There’s just so many beautiful people within that doctrine.”

“Janell’s enthusiasm is infectious,” O’dell muses. “She brought me this story and said, ‘I don’t know very much about this woman, but I saw this picture and it resonated so deeply with me.’ There really was an incredible coalescing of concepts. The most interesting thing for us was that there was virtually no information,” she reveals. “There’s so little information about Tia Neiva, and her story’s so interesting, for all the reasons Janell articulated.”

The muse in question was a remarkable woman in her own right. Before founding Vale do Amanhecer, Tia Neiva was Neiva Chavez Zelaya, one of the only female truck drivers in Brazil in the 1950s. That aspect of her life was wrought with misogyny and a pervasive cultural understanding that she was stepping out of line with society. The narrowmindedness of “traditional” societal norms never stopped her from fighting for her right to support and protect her family at all costs. This dedication to family and freedom, and her natural talent as a clairvoyant led her to form Vale do Amanhecer. Now the religious faction has over 800,000 members worldwide.

Watch Without Prejudice

When tackling a touchy subject like “alternative religions,” one has to take a certain amount of care. There’s a level of condescension and even derision when it comes to belief systems outside of what’s considered the norm. It’s easy for many to disregard a group of people who excavate aspects from several concepts (Christianity, Umbanda, Spiritism) and combine that with a spiritual belief in UFOs. However, you’d be missing the bigger picture.

Angie Simms, writer

“Every religion, to people who aren’t participants, might seem, at a superficial glance, unusual or sort of hard to sort of comprehend,” O’dell says. “Catholicism and some of the ritualistic stuff in there, if you’re not a Catholic and you don’t subscribe to that ideology, it can seem very perplexing. Because, of course, cultural tourism is a big problem, it becomes essential, without any kind of bias or preconceived ideas, to really open yourself up to learning about these people.

“Tia Neiva was clairvoyant. But what is the distinction between somebody standing on a street corner and yelling about spirits and aliens, and people following them and believing them and coalescing or moving to the valley and building their entire spiritual, and to many people their actual lives, around this person? What was this thing? What authenticated her power? We wanted to explore that. With Angie doing such a beautiful job telling the story, we wanted people to take away from it their own understanding.”

“We wanted to leave it up to interpretation,” Shirtcliff says. “Most documentaries you see out there are really just tearing down the person who started [the religion]. I didn’t want to tell that story. Seeing how these people just want to help each other. They don’t charge you anything; Tia Neiva just wanted to help people. That is the beating heart of the story. We wanted to set the audience up to judge and be like, ‘Isn’t this strange? Isn’t this weird? But look, they’re helping all these people.’

“So the the audience really becomes the hero of the story,” she continues. “They’re going on a journey and they’re learning.”

It’s an aspect of many documentaries of this ilk that’s sorely missing. The viewer as the protagonist. Ultimately, the women involved in this project removed themselves from it completely. Mother of the Dawn is an unbiased, unskewed glance into the human experience. Shirtcliff, O’dell, Simms and Savas set out to humanize these people. Give them agency, a voice to tell their story in their own words. It all comes back to love.

The sun sets on the documentary. The music, from the mind of Shirtcliff and immense talent of music director Ali Helnwein, hits a crescendo. We’re briefly introduced to Tia Neiva’s son, who took over Vale do Amanhecer when she passed away. The women do not dwell on his story. Instead, they want to leave the audience with the true beauty of the people involved. As the music’s reflective refrain fades out with the credits, one leaves the documentary much like the creators. Enlightened, intrigued and perhaps even changed for the better.

“I have one of her necklaces that she wore every day that her granddaughter gave me by my bed,” Shirtcliff reveals, a tear misting her gaze. “So I look at her every night when I go to turn out my light. I have [her necklace]and the rosary from my grandma. To me, I am always extending gratitude for the experience. I feel very blessed to get to be welcome into that world.”

Mother of the Dawn was showcased as part of SXSW’s film festival. Check out more of our SXSW coverage.


Leave A Reply

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial