Rio de Janeiro — home of Sugar Loaf Mountain, white sandy beaches, beautiful half-naked people, a magnificent statue of Jesus Christ that looms over the city, and some of the most violent slums in the world. In the favela (Portuguese for squatter or slums) that cling to the sides of the hills overlooking the city, thousands of people desperately eke out an existence in conditions that no North American can come close to understanding, while the hotels on the beach pretend they don't exist.
Rule of the favela is split between the drug lords and the police, with the other 90% of the population stuck in between and trying not to get squeezed out of existence. Between 1987 and 2005, when 467 minors were killed in both Israel and Palestine, 3957 people under the age of 16 died violently on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The distance from the white sandy beaches to the favela is measured in more then inches and feet; they might share the same territory, but they are worlds apart.
When the police are even more dangerous to the citizens than the drug runners, when the police are the ones making the money from the drugs, not the kids who kill each other on the streets for the dime bags of coke, where can a people go to save themselves? Who can they turn to when the police exact vengeance on drug lords by coming into the favela and killing people at random as happened in 1993?
Twenty-one innocent people were killed by a division of police in retaliation for the death of four officers on the previous day. They had been executed by the drug lord of one favela, and the police exacted their own revenge with machine guns and hand grenades. Among the dead was the brother of Anderson Sá, a young member of the drug gangs.
Anderson was born and bred in Vigario Geral favela, affectionately referred to as the Bosnia of Rio because of the extreme violence and its similarity to an armed camp. Growing up in Vigario, a young person had the option of making $650 US a week working for the drug lords and probably dying by the age of twenty-five, or earning the average wage of a Brazilian adult, $13.00 US a week. There were no other alternatives.
When his brother died, Anderson's godmother feared that he would drift further into the drug culture; she was enough of a realist to know that not much else awaited a young man, especially a young man who would most likely want revenge on the police for the murder of his brother. But what she hadn't counted on, nor had anyone else, was that his brother's death would serve to change Anderson's life, and and the lives of hundreds and thousands of others through him.
The documentary film Favela Rising, now available on DVD, tells how Anderson and a group of friends took it upon themselves to try and change their corner of the world and have had more success than they might ever have hoped. Afro Reggae started as the name of a newsletter about Afro-Brazilian culture and, like a cell splitting, multiplied into so much more.
Music performances spoke to the people about what they could have, and that demonstrated aspects of their culture by incorporating, dance, singing, martial arts, drumming and acrobatics. Classes to teach young people how to play the drums, and dance, and sing all in the manner of their people, African Brazilians, were a natural extension of the performances, and a means to their end of showing there was another life aside from that of being a drug dealer.
It's a simple theory, but one that takes perseverance and dedication to put into practice. Give people back their identity and it gives them a sense of self and belonging; they are more than just another favela resident, they are Afro-Brazilians with a heritage and a history. They are a people.
Native Americans of various nations throughout North America have been doing this in an effort to save their newest generation from death at the hands of pretty much the same things as the residents of Vigario Geral. But Anderson and his people have had no help from the governments; in fact they know they can't count on the government at all, so they do it on their own, one person, one block, and one neighbourhood at a time.
Naturally Favela Rising focuses on Anderson Sá and his associates and their Afro-Reggae programming but the filmmakers, Mat Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist, have done a remarkable job of conveying exactly what the streets of Vigario Geral are like. Shooting from overhead and using long shots give you the sense of how stacked on top of each other everybody is, with houses crammed into every available space
The camera peeks into dark and dingy shelters in which the blue light of a TV might shine, as the inhabitant sits in the doorway staring with eyes that have been drained of hope. It's these incidental shots that are the ones that speak most powerfully about life here. The scenes of violence might be more viscerally thrilling but the weight of the look in people's eyes that is resigned to their reality lives with you long after the cameras have left their presence.
The directors lived and filmed in the favela on and off for two years. When they weren't there they left cameras behind with the Afro Reggae people to distribute among those students who had become proficient in their use. According to the filmmakers, some of the most dynamic footage of the documentary comes from the work of these camera men and women who, because of their situations, were able to take cameras into places they wouldn't normally.
In order to tell the story properly the directors have interspersed file footage in amongst their own, and in it is where we are given the background on all the history of the favela. They have also made wise use of talking head interviews with the principles involved in the Afro Reggae program to help tell the story of how they went from a small magazine to a cultural event that draws tens of thousands.
In a bonus feature on the DVD, a brief film about making the documentary, neither one of the filmmakers makes any bones about the fact that they are both friends with Anderson Sá. So if you are looking for something that might pass for objective filmmaking on this subject, this is not for you.
But if you are looking for a passionately told story of one community's attempt to throw off the shackles of poverty and violence, not only do they succeed in helping themselves beyond their wildest hopes and dreams, they have now been approached to help start similar programs in Haiti and other areas in the Caribbean and South American.
I'm always wary of any movie that labels itself inspiring. If there is a more overused word in today's movie public relations game I've yet to see it in use. But if they want to ever show a movie that deserves to be described in those terms, then Favela Rising is one movie I wouldn't ever argue about giving that honorific. On one final note, the investors in this film have agreed to donate 100% of net proceeds to favela educational programming.
Just one more really good reason for buying this DVD.