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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4 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    Drugs,favelas ,low pay, gangs…..confirmation bias continues unabated in the corporate media.

    1. John Rowlands says:

      Well said Alan! Same old, same old from the British news about Brazil. Yawn!

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    A great piece. Thank you.

    This kind of work is what marks C4 News as different (and often much better) from the rest.

    But Meirelles is wrong to think his wonderful film would have been improved by showing more partying and enjoyment. His work was exactly right and much needed for the time it was made. He can always make a new one in a different vein. All he needs to do is show the truth and eventually reasonably intelligent citizens will make up their own minds about the reality of life in the favelas. For most, Brazilian life is a dreadful trial of poverty, crime and deprivation, football and music or no football and music. A cosy view simply will not do.

    Showing the reality may be painful but if anything is to be done about it it must be witnessed. Any society which then deliberately ignores it deserves all that history inevitably deals out. Would that we had more film makers like Ken Loach for instance; but we don’t.

    I repeat – let’s see what you do with the Commonwealth Games context.

    1. John Rowlands says:

      Dear Philip (and Keme for that matter)!

      My main gripe with this is that it has nothing to do with sport. Do you really think that this is any different from other news organisations Philip in the UK? Not really! Everyone reports the same from Brazil just like Alan says above. Channel 4 have gotten themselves into a habit that they cannot get out of: that is, they only think that there is crime, child prostitution and problems in Brazil.
      My wife, who is from Rio, sighed when Brazil got the World Cup in 2007. Not because of the event or the cost but because of constant stories like these from British journalists like Keme. On and on and on they talk about crime etc. How do you think she feels? I have been going to Rio and Brazil since 2001 and studied Latin American history, politics and culture plus Spanish and Portuguese at university so I have at least some idea about Rio and Brazil and what is going on. Myself and my wife do not ignore that crime exists in Rio, but we feel that Brazil was given a gift, or present, to host the World Cup and that it could pull it off successfully, which it did with no major disasters. The British media concentrated on protests and strikes like there were never any protests and strikes before ever in Brazil. Wasn’t it funny that four years ago in 2010 when the World Cup was in South Africa and the poor there in the Townships paid for it, there were no protests or complaints in Brazil? It’s different when you have to pay for it isn’t it?
      I asked Keme on Twitter (my name is DJ Juanito Brazil on Twitter) while he was in Brazil during the World Cup (and I was there too) what child prostitution and old slaves forgotten graves had to do with the World Cup and football? He asked me: ‘So do you think that these things shouldn’t be shown then?’ and I replied that yes, but that he was the sports correspondent and wondered what it had to do with sport then unfortunately he blocked me! Such a shame because I wanted to meet him in Rio and go to a place where I am involved with drumming and dancing to keep young people out of gangs. Maybe Keme couldn’t face the fact that I was questioning him. I wanted him just to meet ordinary Brazilians and my family etc. People who are not prostitutes, who are not drug addicts, who are not homeless or who are not complaining. Sad he missed the chance. I asked the same questions to Guillermo Galdos. At least he is still talking to me! I wonder sometimes whether journalists come up with these stories or is it their bosses who just want these stories?
      Philip- you make a good comment about the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow! Glasgow has always been, in the British context, of having a high homicide rate and high crime. I don’t think that Channel 4 News will have lots of crime and scare stories from there do you? All about image, money and tourism here isn’t it, but about ‘reality’ in Brazil?

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