Happy end of the year and holidays to all. I am pleased to say that as promised, the essay for Arch + in Germany on Representation of the Favela is out. As it is only in German, I am reproducing it here for those who would like to read it.
I am also making it available via .pdf.
However, I must do so without most of the images used. So pick up a copy and practice your Deutsch.
O MORRO (THE HILL): Problems in Representation of the Favela in Brazilian Cinema
by Daniel Perlin
In recent years, the favela has come to the fore as a central force in the discourses of film, architecture and urbanism. The purpose of this essay is to look critically at the plane of representation of the favela within Brazilian cinema to help unpack local specificities and to situate them within larger national and international media and social contexts. The question posed is: “Who is benefitting from the new export economy of the contemporary image of the favela.”
For films such as City of God (Katia Lund and Fernando Mierelles co-directors (2001)), for theorists such as Mike Davis and architects like Rem Koolhaas, the distance between the favela and shantytown, from Lagos to Rio de Janeiro, collapses. This gaze from afar, at times specular, often times exoticizing, appears designed for the international media-spheres. Slums represent both the harsh realities of everyday life reproduced by capitalism’s combined and uneven development in the era of expanding multinational and transnational industries, and as a symbol of the future of the global city. One byproduct of this export economy is the reduction of the spectacle of the favela to the fungible, its products flattening difference between forms and locations. In these cases, the specificities of social and economic conditions of individual Brazilian favelas are glossed in favor of statistics, dramatic headlines, and generalizations.Â This tendency towards generality is a pitfall that can only lead to misunderstanding, both between borders and intra-nationally.
Within the tradition of Brazilian cinema, there has been a long and fruitful struggle to find the most effective strategies and tactics in representation of the favela. In Cinco Vezes Favela (Favela Five Times (1962)), produced by the Centers for Popular Culture of the National Students’ Union, we see the narrative perspectives of five of the greatest Cinema Novo filmmakers working collectively to produce at once a populist, and yet simultaneously radical, approach towards the relationships between filmic practice and Brazilian life. Split into five short films, each episode blurs the formal divisions between narrative and documentary film, utilizing hand held camera-work and non-professional actors. All five portray the favela as a central narrative character, suggesting diverse, at times didactic, strategies of representation of the social conditions that create and are created by the favela.
The formal and narrative debate spurred by Cinema Novo and Five Times Favela acted as a catalyst for the director Glauber Rocha’s 1965 manifesto Estetica de Fome (Aesthetic of Hunger). In his seminal text, Rocha called for a radical anti-imperialist Latin American style, as only a culture of hunger, looking at its own structure, can rise above itself, qualitatively speaking: it’s the noblest manifestation of cultural hunger and violence.â€ His films such as Antonio das Mortes, Terra em Transe and Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol formed an aggressive, violent, yet challenging filmic strategy, one that remained pervasive from the 1960s and through the mid 1970′s in avant-garde Brazilian cinema. Rocha, as well as directors such as Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (Macunaíma (1969)), Ruy Guerra (Os Fuzis (1964)) and others carved out complex spaces for a national discourse focused on poverty, migration, Brazilian messianism and the audio-visual language of struggle.
These films were exemplified by 16mm hand-held camerawork, challenging national subject-matter, Eisensteinian montage, complex dialogue, and a call to fight the “the paternalism of the European against the Third World. Like Godard and the French New Wave, these directors were at once challenging and refiguring cinematic tropes, turning their gaze inwards towards self-reflexive critique. However, critically, their work was for the creation of a Latin cinema, specifically, serving to question the constitutive features of the nation-state and Brazilian citizen.
From the mid 1970′s to the mid 1990′s Brazil’s film and cultural production was stifled, though by no means destroyed, by 25 years of military dictatorship and 10 years of hyperinflation. In the first half of the 1990′s, feature film production had dropped into the teens. However, between 1995 and 2000, 155 features were produced, partly due to the audiovisual law (lei do audiovisual), a government tax incentive created to stimulate national cultural production. Since the mid 1990′s, Brazilian film has seen a large increase in both production and audience attendance. Many filmmakers and critics have taken advantage of this explosion of attention and have focused works and critiques on the complex social problems of radical inequality of race, class, gender, and geographies within Brazil.
Following this drive towards social transformation, Brazilian documentary has become a powerful force within the national media-sphere. When watching Noticias de Uma Guerra Particular (News From a Personal War) (1999), directed by João Salles and Katia Lund, the resounding themes of corruption, abject poverty and violence overshadow much of the film, and the sensation one is left with is a combination of hopeful hopelessness and shock. This devastating examination of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, specifically the narco-traffic economy and the hidden war fought by heavily armed youth with often corrupt police, set off a flurry of debate and nearly landed the directors in jail. Often considered the inspiration for City of God, this documentary pries at the large gaps and fissures between narrative film and documentary within Brazilian cinema. After experiencing the stark and frank nature of this film, one wonders if the pressures and influences of contemporary narrative film budgets beg a certain type of spectacle that documentary can avoid. Noticias represents a watershed in documentary film within Brazil; brazen and sensitive, its 54 minutes helped bring the word out from the hills and into popular debate.
But what then, drives this shift, from the self-reflexive, critical gaze of the 1960′s Aesthetic of Hunger to the spectacle-driven style of City of Gods (Cidade de Deus)?
The film critic Ivana Bentes has coined a phrase that may apply to the new condition of the favela within popular discourse: she has stated that City of Gods transformed the Aesthetic of Hunger to a Cosmetic of Hunger. This shift, it seems to me, can be seen in new generation of films, such as City of Gods, Amores Perros, Favela Rising and others, and are typified by hyperviolence, MTV-style edits and colorization, Hollywood sound design, and a paternalist approach towards both race and poverty. Furthermore, City of Gods in particular takes an isolated view of the location of the favela within the socio-geography of the city, cutting off the resident from the asphalt, relegating the action of the film almost exclusively to the favela itself. For Bentes, the formal moves towards high production values and a fetishization of the exotic dweller has shifted the plane of representation of the favela from the national Aesthetic of Hunger towards this glossy, international steady-cam driven Cosmetic of Hunger. The results are films and media produced not only for a specific national debate, but also for an international market. And the product is selling.
The question again arises: Who is benefitting from this new national-cultural product? Is the favela-as-product yet another example of an export economy destined for exploitation by the multinational corporate interests of the media oligopolies?
Partially in response to these questions, and to the spectacular nature of City of God, the Brazlian media giant Globo created the 4 season television program Cidade dos Homens (City of Men)(2002-5). By focusing on the specifics of one favela, the morro do CabuÃ§u in Rio de Janeiro, the popular television series scratched and dug at the superfice of the general. This series, viewed by more than 35 million Brazilians, formally and narratively challenged simplistic readings of favelas as inherently violent, corrupt and the home of the “Other” wielding instead the weapons of the camera and sound recorder to capture pieces of the everyday struggles of individuals within the favelas and on the “asphalt” of Rio and São Paulo. City of Men was directed by numerous directors including Lund, Mierelles, and the writer Paulo Lins from City of Gods, and approaches diverse narratives within Rio’s favelas such as race, crime, poverty, pregnancy, baile funk, drug traffic, sex, corruption, humor and love from curious and at times problematic angles, consistently emphasizing the struggle of the two individual protagonists who often face insurmountable odds.
We see this tendency towards representation of the individual narrative as a trend within the field of documentary as well.Â Ônibus 174 (Bus 174 (2002)) follows and unpacks the life of Sandro do Nascimento, a former street child, as he holds a bus hostage in the wealthy southern zone of Rio. This film’s strength stems from the story of the individual, Sandro, who, out of frustration and desperation, tries to attack head-on the corrupt hegemonies that overdetermine everyday politics in the police, government and media within Rio and Brazil. In a sense, the true power of the film resides in the relentless and responsible investigative force of its directors José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda, who simultaneously articulate the radical specificity of the life of Sandro, while situating his case within the class, race and power struggles in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. Ultimately, it attempts to demystify the media spectacle that surrounds is character, and produces a touching and poignant portrait of the marginalized individual in Rio.
Bus 174 forms part of a new constellation of production that has arisen since 2001. Partly as a response to the spectacular style of City of Gods, recent tactics for such productions have focused on the specific local challenges of the individual in relation to the complex webs of relations that constituted urban cultures in Rio, São Paulo and other Brazilian cities.
One such approach I will call the positive tactic. One example is the work of Hermano Vianna and Regina Casé, whose television program Central de Periferia (Center of the Periphery) was produced by Globo in 2007. This globe trotting program features reports on local, progressive approaches towards the global slum, dedicating each episode to a new city. The show is humorous and warm, traveling from Haiti to Mexico to Brazil and beyond, looking to practical, local solutions to global issues. One episode begins with Mike Davis being interviewed for an overview of the status of the global slum. It then features a community in Niteroi where all the children know the names of the police that patrol and live in the Favela. There, violent crime has been nearly eliminated, and the show claims that the residents are considered â€œnormal citizensâ€ like those who live on the asphalt streets.
This particular and positive approach towards reportage can also be seen in the work of the documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, who’s Santo Forte can be regarded as one of the most significant documents of favela life in Rio produced in the past 20 years. This feature film focuses not on the popular subjects of corruption, violence and drug dealing, but on the religious views of the residents of the favela. We are given a unique, personalized and self-reflexive view of residents’ pride in their homes, in their communities and their beliefs.
Another tactic, extending as counterpoint from the spectacular style, can be called â€œthe individual tactic.â€ Like Sandro, from Bus 174, narrative films such as Jose Padilha’s Tropa de Elite (Elite Troop (2007)) focus on an individual’s struggle to rise above his current socio-economic condition. Taking cues from the quasi-apocalyptic tone that predominates in the Cosmetic of Hunger, this film offers a close, often intimate, portraits of the unique challenges of the contemporary Brazilian urban resident. Tropa de Elite illuminates and humanizes the special police force in Rio dedicated to the favela, BOPE. Formally, Lula Carvalho’s camerawork refigures many of the hyperstylized techniques found in City of Gods, with frank, handheld work leaning more towards documentary than a color-treated fast MTV edit. Driven by testimonials of an ex-BOPE officer, we can see flickers of hope provided by speaking truth to power.
In a sense, the two tactics, the positive and the individual, attempt to address the statistics that seem to overshadow even remote glimmers of hope. Instead, these tactics emphasize contemporary conditions of possibility to rise above the nearly impossible racial and economic odds that predominate Brazilian society. They unpack these generalizations by maintaining a direct and local approach in tackling the forces that reproduce such combined and uneven development. These tactics may be seen in part as an attempt to humanize and articulate the local complexities in specific favelas, disabling many of the reductive tendencies found in such texts as City of Slums. In this sense, they add greater urgency to the following national census data:
- 80% of Brazil’s 186 million residents live in urban areas. 28.5% of the urban population (41.8 million people nationwide) lacks full access to public water, sewage, and garbage collection.
- The top 10% of the population earns 50 percent of the national income. 34% live below the poverty line. It is estimated that 20% of Brazilians currently live in favelas,
- According to a 2007 United Nations Report on drugs and crime, narco-traffic in Brazil is responsible for employing at least 20,000 people. Most are minors between the ages of 10 and 16 making between US$ 300 and US$ 500 dollars monthly.
- Rio de Janeiro is one of the wealthiest states of Brazil. Its main income from oil represents billions of dollars yearly. Les than 1% of this money is invested in social programs.
With these numbers in mind, the material benefits of the favela-as-product takes on a new light. The global fascination has produced a number of new export products: Favela-as-product has paved the way for a fetishization of its informal architecture, favela-tourism, the international craze of baile funk music, favela filmmaking industries and the creation of countless books, magazines and websites. How, then, can this favela-as-product avoid the pitfalls of multinational exploitation? It seems to me that to avoid the reproduction of a Cosmetic of Hunger, a case-by-case critical examination of each future product is needed, perhaps looking towards the new positive and individual tactics as constitutive features of a new national strategy of representation.
Clearly, as Brazilian cinema continues to grow its narratives continue to directly negotiate the sweeping and generalizing statistics of the UN and the North. Working against the grain of the overwhelming power of this data, some contemporary Brazilian films are focusing their lenses upon the struggles and triumphs of the individual and local communities of the ever-expanding favelas. There is a long road ahead towards transforming the extreme social and economic disparity between the wealthy and poor both within Brazil around the world. However, it seemsÂ clear that we can expect new and fresh approaches of representation of the favela to come from Brazil.
While supporting this trajectory of representation, I wonder, who is actually benefitting from each of these works? While there certainly is no simple answer to this question, it seems that a critical inquiry could help shift production from a Cosmetic of Hunger to a new critical aesthetic of the particular as the favelas expand both their influence and size.
1. The favela is often called o morro, which means hill. One popular claim is that favela is a leaf that grows on a mountainside, and early residents in Rio used it as a geographic marker.
2.Â Planet of Slums, Mike Davis Verso, 2006
3.See Harvard Project on the City in Mutations , Actar, 2001 and Content, Taschen, 2004, both by Koolhaas et. alReport on
4.Cinema Latino-Americano in Geneva, Switzerland, 1965.Â His post-colonial critiques led him to state of his own work that ´The feast of metaphors, allegories and symbols is no carnival of subjectivity; it is the refusal to analyze rationally a reality that has been stifled by European culture and American imperialism. I am making films that resist the classification of colonial anthropology…´ Neue ZÃ¼rcher Zeitung (NZZ) 08/27/1981
5. Intersecões: Revista de Estudos interdisciplinares Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciencias Sociais “UERJ ANO 5 número 1 “ 2003 pg. 217-237. Rio de Janeiro. 2003
6. Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), from agencia brazil report, http://www.brazzilmag.com/content/view/2641/49/
7.Â See ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America: Tourism in the Americas Development Culture and Identity, Winter 2002