Fighting back

Favela Rising is a life-affirming documentary about how brave young people counter the endemic violence of Rio’s favelas – with music


Favela Rising
Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary
2005 (Portuguese, English subtitles), ThinkFilm/HBO/Sidetrack/Lumina/Voy/ICA
79 minutes

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

LATAMROB rating: ****

AN URGENT bulletin by Amnesty International in October 2006 drawing attention to threats by police and drug traffickers against mothers of “disappeared” young men from the favela of Vigario Geral in Rio de Janeiro throws into dramatic relief the sheer scale of violence that pervades life in Brazil’s shanty towns.

The mothers claim they have been directly threatened by police officers for seeking justice after their sons were taken from the notorious favela by drug traffickers and allegedly executed in neighbouring Parada de Lucas. According to Amnesty, there have been many allegations of police involvement in the disappearances, which the police have vehemently denied. Reports from the area suggest that the young men – aged between 13 and 27- were tortured and dismembered, although their remains have not been found.

Staggering death toll

Amnesty has repeatedly drawn attention to the staggering death toll resulting from urban violence – not least state violence against poor people – in Brazil. A major report in 2005 – a year in which there were a mere 50,000 homicides in the country – concluded that the authorities have simply abandoned the poor to their bloody fate. Official statistics themselves show that between 1999 and 2004, police themselves in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo killed 9,889 people in situations registered officially as “resistance followed by death”.

The plight of the women is all the more tragic because Vigario Geral in Rio de Janeiro’s north zone has become emblematic both of the devastating scale of urban violence in Rio and Brazil more generally – violence perpetrated by the powerful against the weak – but also of revolutionary community empowerment to confront it.

Vigario Geral is where Favela Rising, an inspiring documentary by Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary, was filmed – a real-life City of God where murder is, literally, a way of life and drug cartels and bent cops rule.

This life-affirming film tells the remarkable story of Anderson Sà and his courageous colleagues in the pioneering AfroReggae initiative, a voluntary community programme seeking to use music and dance to lure young people away from the endemic violence of their favela by channeling their energy and desire to belong into cultural activities. Sà wants to use the constructive power of music and rhythm to defeat the destructive power of guns and drugs.

This is a harrowing, yet hopeful, story and despite the popularity of the initiative and the amazing leadership of the courageous men and women behind it – who not only reject violence, but also the hatred and revenge it inevitably breeds – recent bloodshed in Vigario Geral would suggest that its impact has been limited and such positive moves are always subject to setbacks.

Filmed over a two-year period and told through the words of the protagonists themselves, Favela Rising explains the origins and evolution of the AfroReggae movement. Its roots lie in a pride regained in Afro-Brazilian culture and a highly positive effort to reconstruct a contemporary interpretation of this. For, inevitably, a disproportionate number of the residents of Rio’s 600 favelas, and hence victims of violence, belong to Brazil’s black underclass. According to Amnesty, murders are concentrated in areas of greater socio-economic exclusion.

And, as in so much of Latin America, it is the police who are partly to blame. The absurdly excessive use of force and rampant police corruption – in many cases through involvement with drug- and arms-trafficking – has fatally weakened the state’s ability to combat criminality in Rio, and few of the thousands of cases of police and criminal killings in the favelas each year are ever properly investigated.

This is the squalid backdrop to Favela Rising which tells a very modern tale of hope amid adversity. Anderson Sà is, quite simply, a revelation – combining intuitive grassroots leadership with a sharp intellect and understanding of the issues faced by his people. Such is his weight in the AfroReggae movement that a near fatal surfing accident nearly halts the initiative, until the “spirit of the sea” apparently, and fortuitously, intervenes to bring this man back from the dead.

It is no surprise Favela Rising has accrued international film awards like the streets of the favelas accrue corpses – no less than 24. Zimbalist and Mochary cannot be praised enough for making this film, and for the simple, accessible narrative that they weave through it.

The message is clear: Brazil’s poor can have hope, but need help finding it. Give them that help, and they will solve their own problems.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books