I have a theory about the world, albeit a simplistic one: that overall it’s governed 49% by the powers of evil and 51% by the forces of good. Which is not to say that any one person, organisation or society is all bad or all good, but rather that, in the greater schemes, in the grand battle played out over and over on a daily basis, the better part of humanity wins out (if only just).
Documentary, as an artform, reflects this daily war. The fare of the Sydney Film Festival alone portrayed the wager between the most shocking atrocities humans can enact upon each other (and their planet), and their capacity for reconciliation, forgiveness and, above all, love – be the backdrop Baghdad (My Country, My Country), the Israeli/Palestinian border (Diameter of the Bomb), the outreaches of East Timor (A Hero’s Journey) or inside a French courtroom (Beyond Hatred). Often the format is the domain is the video journalist (VJ) – one-man/woman band armed with Handicam and a fistful of courage – with style and narrative structure sacrificed for that odd angry (and timely) shot. However, the tale that emerges from the most volatile of Rio de Janeiro’s 500 slums in Favela Rising , hits the mark on both counts.
Favela Rising (2005) infiltrates a world of civil oppression and military corruption. The greatest aspiration of its children is to become part of the drug mafia – an occupation with a frighteningly fast turnover and little long-term prospects – and in such a place the chances of my 51% might seem pretty slim. Yet from this labyrinth of darkness emerges the cultural movement AfroReggae – a fusion of Afro-Brazilian hip hop, capoeira and drumming – and so begins a passive, though anything but quiet, revolution.
Favela’s premise is, in itself, not unique: that boredom, hopelessness and disenfranchisement – particularly the young, testosterone-fuelled kind – breeds violence. Nor is its resolution – that art can change the world – necessarily new. What is refreshing – and, ultimately, empowering – about this doco is the arresting technique it employs to captivate its audience; entertainment as an instrument of change.
Stylistically, this film does for doco what Meirelles’ City of God (Cidade De Deus, ) did for drama: highly saturated handheld imagery, graphics, freeze frames and an amped-up soundtrack keep the politically-driven narrative pulsing. With a populist style, it captures not only the darkest aspects of human motivation but the undiminished spark of hope. As VJ meets DJ, it’s MTV without the bad bits cut out – including graphic detail of the 1993 massacre of 21 favela residents, allegedly a revenge attack by off-duty police officers.
Every good documentary needs a compelling subject and AfroReggae leader Anderson Sá shines with the strength of a Gandhi or Malcolm X, motivating favela residents to put down their AK-47s and pick up makeshift drums. As both a Vigário Geral resident and former drug trafficker, Sá personally embodies the city’s struggle. In a further sign of the film’s pro-active social stance, favela youth were involved throughout its production and editing processes. (Since release of the film, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in the US have come to the party and Universal Records has struck a deal to sell AfroReggae music, but at its core the movement is self-perpetuating.)
Directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary dictate their own rules of engagement and the dramatic tension innate to the situation is carefully paced. In perhaps the greatest reminder of all, however, the fate metered out to Sá in the cruel serendipity captured in this film comes not from the streets but a force far greater than human nature.
Favela Rising shared the International Documentary Association Award (2005) as well as the Audience Award at Leeds, and newcomers Zimbalist and Mochary won Best New Documentary Filmmakers at Tribeca 2005. The FIPRESCI Award for Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival was a unanimous decision based on the film’s combination of innate political drama and commanding audio-visual style.
If love makes the world go round, Favela Rising represents the beat to which it keeps spinning. It starts with the heartbeat of a solitary man and builds through the drums of the community he’s inspired. After all, 51% is ultimately made up of ones – of individuals like Sá who put themselves on the line, and the filmmakers who bring such stories to light.