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“Your foot or your hand?” The bare-chested drug lord waves his gun at two young boys, one only a little older than a toddler, and repeats the question. Pinned against a wall, the sobbing children hold out their shaking palms. “In your little hand huh?” continues the gang leader, before driving a bullet into each of the boys’ feet — the gunshots drowned out by the hysterical cackles of onlookers.
The scene from Cidade de Deus (City of God), Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 thriller set in a favela of Rio de Janeiro, is perhaps the most harrowing in contemporary Brazilian cinema. It is also one of the most formative.
Rio’s favelas, and their tales of violence and drug trafficking, have become a popular trope in the industry over the last decade and a half, affording the country’s filmmakers recognition both at home and abroad. But “favela films” have also been blamed for their commodification of the country’s slums, for glamorising poverty and making social regeneration of poor areas more difficult.
“The first films about favelas in Brazilian cinema were [made] in the 1930s . . . but favela films really took off after City of God,” says André Gatti, a professor of cinema at Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) university in São Paulo. “As a physical space, the Rio favela is popular because of the views and the visual surroundings — it gives the production added value and you don’t have to spend anything,” he says.
But such simplistic portrayals of favelas also serve to reinforce class divides. Cinema-goers in Brazil — where a ticket can cost as much as R$30, roughly as much as a worker on a minimum wage earns in a whole day — are often drawn from the upper or middle-classes. Many have never set foot in a favela and would be surprised to learn that they are largely peaceful neighbourhoods, home to banks, supermarkets, pizza restaurants, electronics stores and hair salons — and millions of law-abiding workers.
Over the past few years, Brazilian filmmakers — as well as the producers of the country’s popular television soap operas — have begun to explore more complex relationships between Brazilians of different social backgrounds. Anna Muylaert’s 2015 film Que Horas Ela Volta? (titled The Second Mother in English) tells the story of the live-in maid of a wealthy family in São Paulo and the tensions that arise when her daughter comes to stay while applying for a place at university.
“The novelty of these types of films is that they point to a critical view of reality and, at the same time, show certain peculiarities of our so-called national consciousness, our way of dealing with different social classes,” says Humberto Pereira da Silva, a cinema critic and professor of philosophy at FAAP.
The worldwide popularity of City of God, which was nominated for four Oscars and won more than 60 international awards, may have been to blame for the insistent focus on gang violence and poverty that became commonplace in a series of Brazilian films made in the 2000s.
Also aired in 2002 was José Padilha’s Ônibus 174 (Bus 174), a documentary about a former street child who took a whole bus hostage on live television. Then, five years later, Mr Padilha released Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), a fictional account of the grim realities of Rio’s favelas and the murky relationship between gang lords and the police. Its sequel, released in 2010, Tropa de Elite 2 — O Inimigo Agora é Outro (Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within) would become one of the most-watched films in the history of Brazilian cinema.
According to a 2009-2014 study by the Brazilian National Film Agency (Ancine), Elite Squad 2 was the most popular film shown in Brazil during that five-year period, closely followed by two Hollywood blockbusters.
Padilha’s success was unusual, because it was as popular with Brazilian viewers as it was with critics. This was unusual: Brazilians have tended to shun homegrown films in favour of Hollywood offerings.
According to Ancine’s data from 2014, domestic films accounted for just 12.3 per cent of total tickets sold that year. Popular Brazilian films are usually light-hearted comedies that garner little recognition internationally. But critics attributed the domestic popularity of Elite Squad and its sequel to their similarity to US action movies. They were slick thrillers that could have been set anywhere.
The widespread popularity of the Elite Squad films helped to internationalise the favela genre. Part of the 2008 US superhero film, The Incredible Hulk, was set in Brazil’s largest favela, Rocinha in Rio, while the 2011 US action hit Fast Five also apparently depicted the capital city’s slums — although the scenes were largely shot in Puerto Rico.
But recent efforts by Brazilian filmmakers to expand into in different genres are broadening the appeal of the country’s cinema abroad. In 2014, Daniel Ribeiro released Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks), a tale of a blind teenager who falls in love with another boy in his class. The film won two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. Alê Abreu’s 2013 animated film, O Menino e o Mundo (Boy and the World), was also nominated for best animated feature at this year’s Academy awards.
“Brazilian production over the past few years has diversified a lot,” says Mr Ribeiro, who is working on his next film about a transgender couple. “A new generation is producing films from various different regions, showing that this country is not just the Brazil of Cidade de Deus or Tropa de Elite.”