18 Jun 2014

No miracles, but plenty of conflicts, in the City of God

The 2002 film City of God became the defining portrait of favela life in Brazil – from the wretched and wanton violence – to the parties.

A decade on, Fernando Meirelles, the award winning director, born and bred in São Paulo, says he has no regrets about his uncompromising interpretation of how poor people live in Brazil.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, Mr Meirelles, said: “[In the film] I show the violent part [of the favelas] but there’s also a very happy part.

“But maybe if I could shoot the film again, I would use more of this vibrant warmth of the favela.”

But the warmth of the favelas isn’t always visible in the streets of Brazil. As a patron of a British based charity Action for Brazil’s Children (ABC Trust), Mr Meirelles encourages children to choose dance and drama as an alternative to drugs. And it works.

In the film itself, Mr Meirelles used untrained actors and taught them camera and TV production skills – which became a model for much charity work across Brazil’s favelas.

Read more: inside Rio’s drug gangs as they prepare drugs for World Cup

“The ones that became documentary makers – they would never have imagined that one day people would go to a cinema to watch their work.”

City of God’s lead character is a boy called Rocket. He’s an aspiring photographer who navigates between a chaotic past with his childhood gangster friends, and a future of possibilities.  Real life Rockets exist in their millions, Mr Meirelles told Channel 4 News.

City of God can be read as a kind of reverse parable for the high rise Brazil of today.  A Brazil that’s been convulsed for the last year over spending for the World Cup.

18_favela_r_w“Everybody knows that footy is a religion here”, says Mr Meirelles. “Yet the atmosphere here has been markedly subdued.

“I think that’s because, in some ways, we’re all a bit ashamed. Not because of football, we love football, but because of the money spent.”

Brazilian riot police were deployed in São Paulo ahead of the opening World Cup game last week amid clashes with protesters.

Read more: Brazil’s darker side – drug addiction and child exploitation

Before the protests turned violent – Mr Meirelles says he too was on the streets.  They were, he says, “beautiful”. And honest and “legitimate.”

Alongside his charity work, Mr Meirelles has also directed an advert for Adidas, who have been criticised for paying very low wages to workers in Asia.

“Of course I don’t support this”, he says. “But you know I have this conflict in life – I’m an environmentalist – I plant trees a lot – participate in movements to improve the environment – at the same time I own a company that produces  commercials that stimulate consumption – so I live with this conflict – but that’s life in this century.”

And in the favelas, conflict can mean something very different.

One of the charities he supports works in the community of Diadema.  It used to be São Paolo’s city of God.  It had the highest murder rate in Brazil. It can still be violent and unpredictable. But gang intervention projects mean it’s calmer, safer.  And its children now have choices they never had before.

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