One hour's drive from Rio de Janeiro, in this small rural town, Brazilian movie director Carlos Diegues is re-creating a lost world. It was, he believes,''the first democratic society we know of in the Western Hemisphere.'' To bring this over-300-year-old society back to life, though, the determined Mr. Diegues has had to bridge the Brazilian film industry's lack of technical and artistic expertise. He has enlisted a group of inexperienced but highly dedicated young actors and technicians to film Quilombo, a movie epic about the l7th-century free black Republic of Palmares. The noted director (who also made the hit movie ''Bye-Bye Brasil'') has even recruited painters and architects from Rio who have taken time off from successful careers to work on the film.
The Palmares Republic was ultimately destroyed by white settlers. But for many Brazilians it remains a vision of what Brazil could have been, and a model of what it might yet become. To them, Palmares symbolizes resistance to slavery and social injustice. It also exemplifies the deep African slave roots of much of Brazilian culture.
According to Diegues, Palmares, with a system of communal land ownership and direct popular election of leaders, was socially far more advanced than anything Brazil has seen since.
Runaway slaves founded the quilombo (haven state) of Palmares in northeastern Brazil toward the end of the l6th century. They and their descendants held out against attacks by white settlers for over a century. Although originally founded by blacks, the republic attracted Indian tribes and poor whites, thus becoming multiracial as well as democratic.
The image of a democratic, self-sufficient, and egalitarian society at the roots of Brazilian history is the lodestar in the production of ''Quilombo.'' On the set at Xerem, the enthusiastic young artists and actors feel they are not just making another movie. Rather, they see themselves as participants in the re-creation of a world that has much to teach modern-day Brazil.
For the movie, Diegues has created a miniature l7th-century city, with houses 1/25th the size of normal buildings. This model town replicates, as exactly as possible, parts of Palmares's capital, Recife, a coastal city in northeast Brazil.
Diegues and his art director, Carlos Ripper, want this re-creation to be exact, from the houses and ritual dances of old Recife down to the buttons and clasps on the inhabitants' clothes. Lacking many of the human resources to accomplish this, Diegues brought in young artists and workers - who have never worked on a film before.
Mauricio Bentes is a sculptor who supervises the reproduction of l7th-century swords and muskets.
''I am a sculptor who has worked with metals,'' he said, ''but here I had to start from scratch. I never had anything to do with arms in my life. But just because I know the materials, on this set I've become a specialist in antique arms. The most interesting part of the work are the arms of the African slaves, which we don't know anything about. So we combine what we know of African culture, Portuguese arms, and Indian arms, and use our imagination in creating likely weapons,'' says Mr. Bentes.
''We all learn from each other,'' he adds, ''The artist from the worker, and vice versa.'' On this set, for almost the first time in Brazil's history, says Bentes, the ordinary worker is contributing to artistic creation.
''One of the aims of the film production (is) to turn unskilled manual laborers into specialized workers and artisans for the Brazilian film industry, which still lacks this vital resource.''
Bentes also spoke about the inner motivation for his part in the production: ''The work I do here I feel is really Brazilian, and really mine. Here, in Xerem , I am entering in contact with Indian and African culture, which are the two root cultures of the Brazilian people. This search for basic roots is where much of the best Brazilian art is now.''
Mr. Bentes's commitment and enthusiasm are shared by other artists on the set. Paulo Flaxsman, the son of East European immigrants to Brazil, is a young architect who, for the last six years, has worked as a theatrical set designer in Rio. For him, working on this film ''is like making a voyage back through time to the l7th century, the whole film crew is making it together, living intensely. . . .''
''The most important aspect of this production,'' he says, ''is that Diegues and Ripper (the art director) are conscious of the need to give artistic liberty , of the importance of group work, and of building an atmosphere of group creativity.''
The reconstruction of the 17th-century state takes place in the studio ''factory.'' The factory itself represents a milestone in Brazilian moviemaking, for it is the first time that the entire creative process behind a film production has been brought together in one place.
For artistic director Carlos Ripper, this arrangement represents much more than a gain in efficiency. ''If,'' he said, ''you think that we are inside a factory, you should look again and will see that we are inside a school, a school with few teachers, where the teachers learn more than the students. I want to open up and democratize the process of production. All those working on the set participate as creators of the project.''
Another important innovation at Xerem is the exclusive use of natural materials found in Brazil and the avoidance of imported synthetics. When moviegoers finally see ''Quilombo,'' they will see swords made out of real iron, not wood-fiber, and roofs thatched with palm-fronds instead of plastic. Diegues and Ripper decided to use primary materials, not just because they wanted to give the film an authentic l7th-century ''look,'' but because primary domestic materials like leather and iron cost substantially less than imported oil-based synthetics.
For both Diegues and Ripper, the return to primary materials represents a ''Brazilian alternative,'' a direction in which not just the Brazilian film industry, but Brazil as a whole should move. At a time when Brazil is undergoing one of the greatest economic crises in its history they, like many other Brazilian intellectuals, believe that Brazilians must move away from a life style based on expensive foreign imports, and shift toward simpler, domestically based consumption patterns.
Ripper emphasizes that the creation of an authentic new Brazilian culture requires the personal transformation of those creating it. This belief and his emphasis on group work, democracy, and national roots reflect the concerns of many Brazilian artists and intellectuals.
For both Diegues and Ripper, this film about a republic of freed slaves transcends questions of moviemaking to deal with their own visions of Brazil. As Diegues says, ''Quilombo is a little like science fiction, a voyage into the past, but also into the future, a future which I believe can some day become a reality.''