Monday, March 24, 2008

Favela Snapshots 2: The Tale of Two Hills

After O Cativeiro, it is a pleasure to write about Patrícia Melo's Inferno, published in 2000, a book that could be crudely described as the film The Godfather II set in favela. Inferno succeeds in almost everyway: it is an exciting, touching, sharp and insightful description of a young man's odysseia through the criminal life. And at the same time an image of a whole society captured in an impossible situation.

The author Patrícia Melo is a novelist, dramaturgist and scriptwriter. Her other works include Acqua toffana (1994), O matador (1995), Elogio da mentira (1998) and Valsa Negra (2003). She's won a number of awards, including Prêmio Jabuti for Inferno in 2003. Fine Brazilian film O Homem do Ano, directed by José Henrique Fonseca, is based on the book O Matador. In 1999, Time Magazine included Melo on the list of 50 "Latin-American Leaders for the New Millenium."

King of the Hill

Inferno is a story of a young boy called Reizinho. Reizinho dreams about becoming a king. He grows without a father in the favela called Berimbau. He becomes addicted to drugs at the age of 11, drinks, sniffs glue and runs away from home. He promises to his mother to stop doing drugs if he gets to work for the local drug gang. Her mother has no other options. Eventually Reizinho becomes the leader of not just Berimbau but also the neighbouring hill and one of the most powerful drug trafficers in Rio. And then it all comes down, as it always does.

Inferno is a story the family. Reizinho's father has abandoned his family, fallen into alcoholism and left his wife Alzira to take care of both Reizinho and Reizinho's sister Carolina. Alzira is under constant strain. She is working as a house maid for a middle-class lady called Juliana, and at home, both Reizinha and Caroline give her more than enough trouble: Reizinho with his career choice in drugs and Caroline by getting constantly pregnant with all the wrong men. Reizinho's desperate search for his father is what largely drives the drama for the first part of the story. Often, the only support for Reizinho is Suzana, an older girl who is something of a foster mother to Reizinho when his real mother fails to understand the boy. Family is where the story starts and family is what finally breaks everything apart.

Inferno is a story about every one in the favela. There are drug-dealers, the ones who drive the drama forward. Reizinho's tutor Miltaõ, who slowly descends into madness. Fake, Reizinho's best friend, aspiring rap artist who in the end is pretty much what his name implies. Leitor, "reader", Reizinho's right hand, who claims to read at least 200 pages every day and is a treasure house of colourful theories.¹ Zezinho, powerful ruler of the neighbouring favela, Reizinho's mentor, husband of Suzana, father of Reizinho's great love Marta - and eventually Reizinho's deadliest enemy. And then there are the normal people, a mixed bunch who might not so much push the story forward but provide it with an infinite depth and humanity.

And Inferno is a story about violence. Violence that is a river.

The stream starts with Dona Juliana, abusing Alzira. Juliana is a useless middle-class housewife, spending her time with forbidden romances, losing weight and amusing her friends by telling everyone how stupid Alzira is. The stream flows downwards: Alzira returns home and beats Reizinho up when the boy constantly fails her tight expectations. The stream becomes a river: Reizinho joins drug gangs and makes his way upwards in the hierarchy through violence. His first kill is something of an initiation rite. His most painful kills are few of his closest friends.

Hectic, sharp and humane

Inferno is written in a fluid, hectic, economical style. Story moves fast, sometimes even two fast: despite spanning nearly 400 pages, some strings are left untied. For an example the father, in the beginning so important, disappears into the background when Reizinho thinks he has been saved. Melo writes highly rhythmic language: onomatopoetic words, sounds, names, lists and swearwords structure the beat of the paragraphs.

Melo is always sharp and amusing. Inferno is full of clever viewpoints and opinions but these are never pushed on the reader. Instead, Melo let's the characters of the story speak out their mind. Churchmen, drug dealers, housewives, sport teachers, hookers and barkeepers, all get their turn to speak. There's even an American film director, "specialized in exotic locations", who comes to favela to film a commercial, since it's such a visually fascinating place (and there's some really good, pure white coca available). As I said, Melo is always funny and critical. And actually, something like that has happened, except it was a music video for Michael Jackson

But Melo is also able to build deep, touching characters. Even the less important ones are complex, credible and fully drawn. Despite their shortcomings and blood-stained hands, all the characters are humane and evoke empathy in the reader. There are many genuinely moving moments in the book: the few happy days of love between Marta and Reizinho, when they even go to the toilet together. Reizinho taking care of Leitor, after Leitor is bound to wheelchair and unable to move or speak, Reizinho lovingly calling him the most clever vegetable in Rio. Zezinho's limiteless love for his family, even though he is one of the most ruthless drug trafficers of the story.

And that bittersweet encounter between the father and the son somewhere in the first half of the book: The father is a drunkard, a piece of human garbage thrown somewhere in the Praça Argentina, without a clue about Reizinho. Reizinho has ran away from home, is hopelessly addicted to crack and glue, he's even sold, for a tiny amount of crack, her grandmother's precious trophy from the time she crafted fantasias for the legendary samba school Mangueira. Reizinho sits, tired, hopeless, lost, next to his father. He doesn't say a word, he won't reveal his identity until much later, but somehow the two sad failures feel connected, taking comfort in each other.

Finally, Inferno is a book about the life in a state called cabeça de porco, "head of a pig", a situation without an escape. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, Reizinho seems to destroy everything he seeks to protect. Towards the end of the story Reizinho is given two options: Kill Zezinho, the beloved father of his girlfriend Marta and the husband of his foster mother Suzana, neither of whom will ever forgive him. Or get killed by Zezinho. Two impossible options. No way out of the situation. That is the tragedy, the inferno, of the favela.

- - -

1) Leitor brings to mind William da Silva Lima, O Professor, "The Teacher", one of the founders of Commando Vermelho. Highly intelligent and idealistic, Silva Lima perceived CV as a tool for Leftist Revolution and considered his role to be something of a Brazilian Robin Hood.

2) In february 1996, Commando Vermelho-leader Márcio dos Santos Nepomuceno, or Marcinho VP, made a deal with the producer of a music video for Michael Jackson's song "They don't care about us" to use the Morro Dona Marta in Botafogo as a set for the video.

Favela Snapshots 1: The White Man's Burden

O Cativeiro by Cícero Leitão and Inferno by Patrícia Melo have very little in common. Both have a cover design featuring a picture of favela and a story largely set on a morro, but other than that, they are pretty much opposites of the each other. I'll start with the worse one.

A few notes first. I read the books in portuguese, but Melo's works are widely available as translations. And O Cativeiro, on the other hand, isn't really worth the trouble. Also, contrary to my usual way, I stole the pictures for these posts from the net. I unfortunately left my tools for editing images in Rio. All the credits and honour to the creators of these photos.

White man's burden

I initially grabbed O Cativeiro just because it seemed like an easy and entertaining read, something to practice my portuguese with, and because it was displayed visibly in my favourite book store in Ipanema. Easy to read, yes; entertaining, hardly. And apparently the reason for that spot of honor at the book store was because the book has a scene set in that particular shop.

O Cativeiro is an ordinary police thriller, telling the story of a young, promising TV-reporter William Rossi. He happens to come across a suitcase containing some highly valuable secrets and soon gets hijacked by a bunch of drug trafficers. As the police, including William's cousin Giovana, get on the William's trail, they find out that the one who is pulling the strings is actually a highly powerful politician, with number of corrupt cops on his side...

Unfortunately, the one behind it all is pretty apparent to reader right from the beginning, and the rest of the suspense is based on trying to guess which of the insignificant, one-dimensional cop characters get whacked and what is the deadly secret in the suitcase. Except that reader doesn't really give a damn. The plot is full of holes, the writing is rather amateurish and the reader is always three strides ahead of the characters.

Why then do I bother to write about this book? Because it is also an interesting, though scary visualisation of the mindscape of the succesful, professional middle-class in Rio.

Professional-class heroes

The profile of Williams, a professional class hero: Williams is "handsome and charismatic", "calm, intelligent and polite". He is highly educated and was also succesful in the army: the best shooter in the class, he was begged to pursue a military career but his devotion telejournalism won. Seeing his face in television is his biggest dream. Being so good with firearms, though, proves to be a useful survival skill as Williams manages to single-handedly escape from his torturers. Also, note the pseudo-English name of the hero.

Interestingly, three most significant police characters are women, all of them "trained", "attractive" and "well-formed." All the main characters are described as highly ambitious and devoted to their work. Most of the heroes are also naturally blond. For an example Ana, Williams' ex-girlfriend and also a succesful journalist, still desperately aching for Williams, has "blue, intelligent eyes" and "a sensational body".

Monsters and losers

In O Cativeiro, there are two kinds of people in favela, the bad guys - traficantes, vagabonds, marginals - and the ordinary people.

The bad guys are either black or mulato. They are vulgar, cruel and stupid. They constantly fumble even in their profession of crime, relying solely on firepower and numbers instead of skill or tactics. Most of the young people in favela, too lazy to get an education, are more or less linked to the organized crime: "Unoccupied youngsters were talking banalities in front of the habitation. When they passed by, they shot malicious looks on the direction of hips of Luciane, which she moved gracefully." When not mongering vicious commands and barking at each other, the bad guys always talk "banalities."

Favela is a nightmare landscape of poverty and dangers. Right after Williams espaces he stumbles on a clandestine cemetary, with human skulls and bones. He feels like he's "in the middle of a Stephen King novel." Diabolic funk pulses somewhere on the background.

Later, he meets a few of the normal residents of favela. Old couple hesitantly helps him to escape. White husband Manolo manages to craft a plan to get him out of his house. He masquerades Williams as a part of a carnivalistic crew promoting an electorial candidate, mostly to safe his own covardly ass and partly because he bitterly hates traficers: he lost two of his sons to the traffic. Manolo's wife Dona Maria is "black and weights almost hundred kilos. She passes most of her time complaining about her aching feet." She is stupid and superstitious: Dona Maria watches a lot of television, so she recognizes Williams, but because Williams has been declared dead in the television she thinks that she's seeing a zombie. After all, she also saw Michael Jackson's video The Thriller on the telly.

Sadly, the cover of Williams is busted by another favelado, a silly young girl Michele. Michele dreams of a glamorous life and when the colourful electorial crew, with MCs and samba bands, rides into favela, she thinks that her chance is here. She doesn't like studying, so she puts on her better clothes and pushes herself into the glamorous group. There she meets Williams, whom she also recognizes as she too watches a lot of television. Williams begs her to help him, which she gladly promises to do. Of course, Michele immediately calls all her girlfriends and soon the whole of the favela knows - including the gangsters pursuiting Williams

Thus, we learn that the reason for all the misery in the life of favelados is mainly their lack of ambition. A lazy bunch, they spend their time watching television - whereas, we have earlier learned, the heroes just can't sit still and channel surf even when the've been ordered for a sick leave. There are those that get shown on the TV and those that just watch it: the active and the passive, the professionals and the losers. Favelados spend their time brooding, complaining and talking bullshit with their friends. They do, naturally, dream about the good life, but they do pretty much nothing about: the old couple is hoping to win in the lottery, and Michele, despising school and hard work, builds her future on a vague scheme of seducing somebody famous.

John Rambos of everyday

But the clumsy criminals of the favelas wouldn't probably pose such a threat to the white professional class, if they weren't lead by the corrupted upper classes. This reflects the growing insecurity of the middle-class: they are losing their trust on authorities who are failing to control the raising wave of violence. The corrupt politicians are clearly the target to blame, especially populists with leftist sympathies. O Cativeiro is a paranoid cry for help against these threats from all sides and a tribute to the brave vigilantes among the ordinary people. There is still need for John Rambos of everyday.

There is one imaginitive scene in the book. A crime boss is captured by the good cops and taken away for interrogation and torture. The torturer is called Dr. Mengele. He's an obviously crazy old man with a toolbox of strange, sharp medical tools and a heavy german accent. He starts his work in a rather unorthodox way and when the hardened criminal, expecting a painful torture, wonders what the hell the doctor is doing, Mengele slips that the sex-change is painless operation if the patient would just please keep still. The criminal speaks immediately and so would I. This might be funny in a film of Quentin Tarantino, but in the context of O Cativeiro, the scene is plain ridiculous. Of course "the doctor" is an actor. But the trafficers are just so simple.

These are not just personal attitudes of the author, but reflect a wider opinion of the society. As a study by Nova S/B and Ibope - published in O Globo ("Aculpa é dos otros" and "Entre os mais ricos, tortura é aceita por 42%; nos pobres, por 19%", March 9th 2008) - shows, 26% percent of Brazilians accept the use of torture as means of interrogation. There is a significant difference in the opinions between the classes: 42% of the higher income population accepts torture, where as "only" 19% supports the practise among those earning less than a minimum wage. "Rights? Human rights are for humans", sums one of the O Cativeiro's heroes it all, when capturing a black skinned, demonic traficante whining for his human rights.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Admiring the distance

I am in Belem now, up in the northern Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon. 50 hours in the bus turned into more than 60 as a small riot, including a bonfire of tires and road blocks, interupted the journey. As the sun set and the drizzling rain started, a tired looking Policia Militar-officer, toting a H&K, managed to send the people back home.

I was warned against such a long ride, again and again, but I enjoyed the trip. It's much better than flying, as long as the bus is okay and you're not competing against time, that is. You'll get much better idea of the distances in this vast country. There's nothing you can really do in the bus - just enjoy some good music, read a little and watch as the incredible nature of Brazil rolls past the window. Occasionally something goes wrong, so you'll wait an hour or so at the gas station as the bus gets fixed. Sit back, have a beer and practice your portuguese - there's always someone in the bus who really wants to know what on earth the gringo is doing up here.

Belem. The metropolis of Amazônas, they call it. Towering highrises, crumbling colonial buildings reminding of the days of the rubber boom, bustling markets, huge old cranes creaking at the harbour, all the smells of the ageless river and dead fishes, screaming of vultures hunting for leftovers, fruits in a thousand colours and forms. Wide smiles, though few teeth, and both thumbs up. Tudo bem? Tudo bem.

Water, water, everywhere. Pouring tropical rain turns the streets into little rivers, every day. An umbrella is the local accessory number one: both guarda-chuva and guarda-sol, protection against the rain and the merciless sun. It's said that the weather gives the rhythm to the local life: Let's meet after the rain.

And the rainforest, everywhere. While out there the Amazon is destroyed at an alarming speed, the life still tries to fight back, creeping into every little space available. From my window I can see a concrete wall of a skyscraper, and there, in the middle of the wall, in the height of 20 meters, grows a tree. The little puddles of water in the shower, never quite drying in this humidity, are bustling with insects and worms within minutes. Disgusted, at first I tried to stomp them to death: what a waste of time, what an insanity. Life is everywhere here, in a thousand shapes and sizes. Live and let live.

Now I am waiting for a river boat up to Manaus and from there I aim to continue to Colombia. My computer I left in Rio, so no music or pictures here for a month or so. But I have time to read now, so I'll try to post an occasional book review. I have a lot of interesting reading to make my backpack more challenging to haul around.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Guilty pleasures

For a while now, I've had this weird feeling that something is missing. A background noise, a smell perhaps, something. Until I realized what it is: reggaeton. In the rest of the Latin America there is no way to escape reggaeton - even the monkeys must be pumping it in the Venezuelan jungle - and in Brazil I haven't heard a single "boom-chi boom-chick"-beat. A continent divided by the two languages.

I didn't imagine missing reggaeton. It's not a sound that would hold a very high esteem in my native Finland, and I can't say I liked it that much either. Yet recently I've developed it into something of a guilty pleasure. Up north reggaeton usually gets dismissed as the cheesy Latin bastard-son of hip-hop and reggae. Language is again one obvious barrier, but it's a matter of cultural understanding too. I stumbled on this great blog, by the Hunter College researcher and journalist Raquel Z. Rivera, and reading such an in-depth analysis on the genre and it's background makes also the music much easier to grasp. And there are really great reggaeton artists that should appeal outside the Hispanic world too.

The greatest of them all, to me, is Tego Calderon. There is no match for his laidback flow, scarred voice, fat accent and the calm, super-cool style that would eat the aggressive boasting of youngsters for breakfast, without even breaking the sweat. And it doesn't hurt that Tego's beats include few of the most interesting fusions of various Caribbean and Latin American music styles. Seeing is believing: I witnessed Tego live at Buenos Aires, and there is no way to beat his charisma.

Rivera and Frances Negrón-Muntaner descibe the importance of Calderon in breaking the reggaeton into the main-stream of Puerto Rican culture in a highly interesting article Reggaeton Nation: "A turning point in gaining critical attention was the musically, poetically, and politically sophisticated 2003 debut album of Tego Calderón. His populist lyrics — which reminded many of salsa’s El Sonero Mayor, Ismael Rivera — together with his innovative musical fusions, use of world-renowned musicians in live shows, and charismatic yet humble demeanor appealed to the old-school salsa lovers and the intellectual left."

Allow me to introduce The Underdog. Here's a couple of my personal favourite songs. First two from the album The Underdog / El Subestimado and next two from the most recent album El Abayarde Contra Ataca. And to illustrate Tego's love for the salsa, the song Llora, Llora features the Venezuelan salsa-legend Oscar d'Leon.

Tego Calderon: Slow Mo (zShare)
Tego Calderon: Llora, Llora (feat. Oscar d'Leon) (zShare)
Tego Calderon: Ni Fu Ni Fa (zShare)
Tego Calderon: Los Mios (feat. Pirulo) (zShare)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Super Classics of Funk Carioca: Boladona

There is no question that Tati Quebra Barraco is the baddest bitch in the funk game. If funk carioca often tends to treat the ladies with a highly objectifying, though playful attitude, Tati is there to strike back for the girls. The big lady beats the guys in their own game: Tati's lyrics are openly, explicitely sexual, super-funny and dirty enough to make a grown man blush like a teenager sneaking to buy his first porn mag at a local kiosk.

As Paul Sneed wrote on Tati: "She sings that she doesn’t like “little dicks, “Não gosto de piru pequeno,” and graphically describes what she does to the men she catches. She is perhaps the most enduring and widely known female entertainer in funk and almost all of her songs play with the objectification of men and the liberation of the female libido."

Tati also got into the headlines of the tabloids some days ago, as her brother confessed the killing of his ex-wife. The motive for the murder was that the poor woman had been possessed. I didn't read which spirit, demon or other evil entity had taken over the victim, but from the angle of the recent development in the Brazilian religious field the motive isn't that bizarre. Pentecostal christian cults like hugely popular Universal Church - sometimes described as "the McDonald's of religion" - have popped up everywhere and are actually holding sermons to banish the orixa-spirits of the umbanda- and candomble-religions.

But more on the affairs of faith later. Here's a classic Tati-song, produced by DJ Marlboro.

Tati Quebra Barraco: Boladona (zShare)

And now for something totally different

Huoratron's $$ Troopers video has nothing to do with the usual content of my blog, but I have to post it as both the song and the video are just so awesome. I've worked as a VJ for Huoratron on a number of occasions, ever since Koneisto 2003-festival, and it's always been a pleasure to co-operate with this guy (I have nothing to do with this video though). Now the long avaited single on the man's New Judas-label is finally out and is getting everyone very exited. I'll go and buy one as soon as I get back to Finland.

The Divided City I

"Exite o Rio de Janeiro, o Rio de Janeiro e o Rio de Janeiro. Três cidades que occupam o mesmo espaçi geográfico, mas raramente o mesmo espaço simbólico." -Silvio Essinger: Batidão

Rio de Janeiro is a divided city, as is every third world metropolis. But Rio is divided in a unique way, because of the geography of the city. The city is a mosaic of the sea and the city, the hills and the rainforests, a labyrinth of the asphalt and the unpaved paths.

The poor in Rio live right next to the rich. They haven't been pushed to the fringes of the city, which would be the usual solution to get the slums out of sight and out of mind, nor has the middle-class fled to seek refuge in the suburbs, as is the case in the North American cities. The poor have built their favelas on the hills overlooking the richer neighbourhoods.

Such proximity evokes fear in the rich. Poverty and social problems breed violence and Rio has plenty of both. The media is happy to pour gas into the flames. News of murders, robberies, kidnappings and car highjackings. The rich are caging themselves in, seeking protection from the dangers real and imagined.

This is the first Rio, a city of metal bars, locks and private security. A city of door-men, red carpets and refridged, freezing air. A city hidden by behind the darkened windows and bullet proof glass. A city of birdcages.

I had planned to file these images in my Flickr under a collection called Photo reportages. But it sounded too pompous, as professional photo journalism these pictures are not. They move somewhere between pure artistic expression and an attempt at a social documentary, yet I do try to convey an honest (if somewhat personal) image of the issues tackled. I ended up naming the collection Photo essays. Maybe that would be more accurate. First "essay", The Divided City, is about the social divide in Rio de Janeiro and I just got the part one - A Life in a Birdcage - on-line. Please follow the link below to see all the images in their proper size and order. The second part "A View to the Sea", on life in the favela of Babilônia, will hopefully soon follow.

View A Life in a Birdcage as a slideshow.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Super Classics of Funk Carioca: Rap da Felicidade

Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian super hero of MPB (Música Popular Brazileira) said in an interview in 2004 that if it was up to him, Rap de Felicidade would be one of the funks that had a guaranteed spot of honour in the history of the Brazilian music. The song, published 1995, is perhaps the biggest funk song of all the time and if you are even slightly interested in the genre, you probably have heard it already a countless of times.

Rap da Felicidade is sung by MCs Cidinho & Doca - born as Sidney da Silva and Marcos Paulo de Jesus Peizoto - from the favela of Cidade de Deusin Jacarepaguá, the Zona Oeste. The infamous favela was built to accomodate the refugees of a deluge in 1966 and quickly descended into an inferno of violence, due to the rich neighbourhoods rising around it and the resulting increase in the demand and traffic for drugs in area. Cidade de Deus was made famous by the book of the same name from 1997, by Paulo Linz, and especially the already classic film based on the book.

The song became an immeadiate success. Together with Rap de Armas and Rap do Borel, the equally classic hits of Junior & Leonardo and William & Duda, published around the same time, it paved the way for the funk carioca to enter the record industry and the main-stream consciousness. Cidinho & Doca made their first full album, Eu só quero é ser feliz, and got to taste a slice of a sweeter life: Cidinho later recalled how he suddendly found himself as a happy owner of a house and a car - the stuff of dreams for a young favelado - and 21 pairs of imported tennis shoes on top of that. Cidinho & Doca have kept up a succesful career for over ten years and Cidinho's daughter, born in 1996, is already following in her father's footsteps on the career of an MC.

The impact the song has made is partly due to it's highly conscious social content. It serves to illustrate that not all the funk music is about praising the organized crime, like the proibidão-funk, or detailed descriptions of sex. That's why I've posted the lyrics below, with a somewhat free translation. I especially like the part about the tourists and coconuts, since like a proper gringo, I often enjoy coconut water by the beach, too. Aqua de coco even rhymes with sufocu.

Rap da Felicidade

Eu só quero é ser feliz
Andar tranqüilamente na favela onde eu nasci
E poder me orgular e ter a consiência que o pobre tem o seu lugar
Fé em Deus... DJ!

Minha cara autoridade eu já não sei o que fazer
Com tanta violência eu sinto medo de viver
Pois moro na favela e sou muito desrespeitado
A tristeza e a alegria aqui caminham lado a lado
Eu faço uma oração a uma santa protetora
Mas sou interrompido a tiros de metralhadora
Enquanto os ricos moram numa grande e casa bela
O pobre é humilhado e esculachado na favela
Já não agüento mais esta onda de violência
Só peço a autoridade um pouco mais de competência

Diversão hoje em dia não podemos nem pensar
Pois até lá nos bailes eles vêm nos humilhar
Fica lá na praça que era tudo tão normal
Agora virou moda a violência no local
Pessoas inocentes que não têm nada a ver
Estão perdendo hoje seu direito de viver
Nunca vi cartão-postal que se destaque uma favela
Só vejo paisagem muito linda e muito bela
Quem vai pro exterior da favela sente saudades
O gringo vem aqui e não conhece a realidade
Vai para a Zona Sul para conhecer água de coco
E o pobre na favela passando sufoco
Trocada a presidência uma nova esperança
Sofri na tempestade agora quero a bonança
O povo tem a força só precisa descobrir
Se eles lá não fazem nada faremos tudo daqui

Rap of Happiness

My only wish is to be happy
Go peacefully in the favela where I was born
And be proud and know that the people have their place
Faith in God... DJ!

My dear authority, I don't know what to do
With such violence, I'm afraid to live
'Cause I live in favela and am very disrespeced
The sadness and the joy walk here side by side
I do a prayer to a protector saint
But am interrupted by shots of a machine gun
While rich live in a big and beautiful house
The poor are humilated and told off in the favela
No longer do I stand this wave of violence
I just ask from the authority a little more competence

Amusement today, we cannot hope for
Since there to bailes they come to humiliate us
There in the square everything was so normal
Now the violence is a fashion in the place
Innocent people who have nothing to do with it
Are asking today for their right to live
Never saw a post card that pictures a favela
Just landscape, very nice, very beautiful
Who goes by the favela feels sadnesses
The gringo comes here and doesn't meet the reality
Goes to Zona Sul to meet the coconut water
And the poor in the favela have a hard time
Change of the precidency, a new hope
I suffered in the storm, now I want the calm
People be strong, all you need to see is
if they do nothing there we’ll do it all from here

"Eight years later after the song's initial success, the Rap da Felicidade is one of the few funks that, in the mixed crowd of the TIM festival, under the direction of DJ Marlboro, is sung together by everyone - from the patricinhas [a nickname for the daughters of the upper middle-class, among whom Patricia is a particularily popular name for a girl] to the waitresses selling beer, from the clubbers to the security", writes Silvio Essinger on the importance of the song in the book Batidão: Uma História do Funk. Batidão, by the way, is a highly recommendable reference, full of interesting anecdotes, for the funk carioca-fans reading portuguese.

And after the duo's letter to the authorities, from the favela with love, let's finally take a listen to the song:

Cidinho & Doca: Rap da Felicidade (zShare)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Reminder for the Film Oriented

What people outside the film festival circuit often might not know, there is a vibrant and skillful film industry in South America. Argentina produces tons of great flicks every year and Brazil is not far behind. And then there is Mexico, the giant of Central America, of course. There are movies to suit all the tastes, from action to art house. I've already posted a few notes on the Paraguaian oddity Hamoca Paraguayana and this year's most talked about Brazilian movie Tropa de Elite, and I'll post some tips on Argentinian cinema in future.

Sadly, outside the blockbusters like City of God and Amores Perros, it's not very easy to find Latin-American films in countries like Finland. So, here's a film festival, happening the next fall, people in Helsinki and Tampere should keep an eye on: Cinemaissí - Festival de cine Latino-Americano y Caribeño Finlandia. Film-makers, check out the call for entries and act; film-goers, mark it up in your calendars. Call for entries closes on 15th of May. From what rumours I've heard of this year's edition, it is gonna be something nice indeed.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Big Skulls and Men in Black

A view from my window had it's fifteen seconds of fame when the Brazilian film Tropa de Elite, directed by José Padilha, picked the Golder Bear for the best film at the 58th Berlin Film Festival and shocked the audiences with a merciless description of police violence. Film starts with police cars racing up the ladeira - a curvy, steep road climbing up the hill to the favela - just outside my window, to a baile - a funk party - that in a few minutes turns into a blood bath.

Now the road up the hill to the favela of Babilônia is quiet. On a crude brick wall, a throw-up reminds the passers-by that Leme is the property of CV. There is no need for explations, everyone knows that CV stands for Commando Vermelho. A few guys are hanging around the entrance to the favela, laughing and chatting up the passing locals. I don't know if they are guards on the watch for the police or just youngsters doing what the yougsters do on a friday night. Occasionally a series of firecrackers goes of, a warning from falcões, the scouts watching over the favela. But there are no guns visible, big or small.

Dynamics of power: The favela logic

Favelas in Rio de Janeiro are the nexus of a complex web of power and violence. Organized crime, community organizations, churches, businesses, different types of police forces and politicians, all have their part to play. And most importantly, there are of course the regular people inhabiting the favelas: over one third of Brazil's urban populations lives in slums.¹

All the favelas are controlled by one the three leading drug trafficing organizations: Commando Vermelho (CV, "Red Command"), Terceiro Commando (TC, "Third Command") and Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, "Friends of Friends"). These are powerful criminal factions with armies of soldiers armed up to the teeth, carrying modern military-grade weaponry, from machine guns to sniper rifles and hand granades. Their main business is controlling the drug traffic in the city.

The factions rule the shanty-towns with a cruel but efficient hand: Theft and other kind of crime in favelas is quickly and heavily punished, death-sentences being far from uncommon. This makes the situation so complex. As most favelados - the residents of favelas - percieve that the city and the state have abandoned them - and they probably are right to a certain extent - the factions fullfill a social need. Their rule is not exactly democratic, but they do provide security, some basic services and pay for entertainment like bailes. In exchange, the residents accept their activities within the community and keep their mouths shut should the police dare to come sneaking around. The factions have created themselves an image as social bandits, modern-day Robin Hoods, as is illustrated by Paul Sneed's highly recommendable research work Machine Gun Voices.²

The favelas hardly offer opportunities for the young people to get an education or a job, despite the best efforts of numerous volunteer organizations. That makes joining the drug gangs often the most lucrative - and regularily only - career option for the kids growing up in Rio's shanties.

The other side of conflict, represented in the favelas by the occasional invasions of the police, are seen as either corrupt and hopelessly ineffective - which sadly usually is true - or as brutal murders - which also unfortunately is often true, especially in the case of the BOPE-forces, the subject of the film Tropa de Elite. The letters stand for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais. BOPE is the black-uniformed elite division of the Military Police, specialised in urban warfare - in other words missions in the favelas - and known for both cruelty and incorruptability. Just seeing them guarding a plaza in the centro in the broad day-light - carrying piles of bleeding-edge killing technology - is enough to send shivers down my spine. In the shanties, they are usually seen riding in the caveiraos, "big skulls": fearsome armored vechicles named after the troop's skull symbol.

But of course also the police force consists of regular people. The corruption is a deeply rooted epidemic in the public services. For regular cops out on the street, the main reason for accepting bribes is probably the next-to-non-existent salary: closing eyes on the activities of the narco-trafficers is the most certain way of getting back home to the wife and the kids in a one piece - and it also pays better. Up the ladder, corruption, hypocricy and opportunism among the politicians stir up the mess even more and they are, more or less rightfully, often seen as the root of all evil.

Most of the violence in favelas occurs between the drug factions fighting each other or the police. But innocent people do die, too, on a regular basis, due to the stray bullets and berzerker sprees on the side or the other. The violence outside the favelas, against the citizens of the asphalto, for an example robberies, is more often not related to the drug gangs but simply to the terminal poverty faced by a huge percentage of the city's population. In the end, all the violence is a result of the disgusting level of inequality in the whole country. Already in 1996 Brazil's disparities of income were second only to Botswana in the whole world, and the situation has hardly gotten better.

The Troop of the Elite

The movie Tropa de Elite received mixed reactions in Brazil, which were followed by the heavy criticism in Berlin. It was seen as fasistic and in Brazil audiences had people actually cheering when a drug trafficer hit the ground on the silver-screen. What shocked the reaction boils down to the viewpoint. The already classic film City of God (2002, dir. Fernando Meirelles) showed the street violence from the angle of the favelados on the both sides of the law. Carandiru (2003, dir. Hector Babenco) made the point that even the criminals are humans. Then the excellent TV-series City of Men presented the more peaceful side of the life in favela, often in a hilarious way, and exposed a reality that rarely makes headlines in the news papers. The series was a surprising success and continued for four seasons.

Now Tropa de Elite seems to strip the favelados of their human rights by showing the reality of the slum strictly through the eyes of the police. And not just any police, but the most efficient and brutal force of urban warfare in the world: BOPE of the Polícia Militar. Not an easy but definitely a provocative viewpoint. One might wonder what is a force trained for war doing in a favela in the first place, and that's just the start of the social complexities the movie seeks to tackle.

In short, the film is a hyper-realistic story about a captain of BOPE called Nascimento - a role that made the actor Walter Moura into a huge celebrity in the country.³ After Nascimento's wife gives a birth he starts facing mental problems and wants to get out of the force. The film is a story of Nascimento crafting himself a replacement, in an attempt to redeem himself. The victim is Mathias, a young, black, idealistic policeman who dreams of becoming a lawyer. Despite the pitiless style of the film, I see it as a cruel tragedy where a Mathias' dreams are swept under the wave of violence and a man yearning to become a hunter of monsters is consciously turned into a monster himself.

The movie draws a vivid, bloody and often shocking picture of the dark web of violence the city is tangled into. It does not pretend to offer many answers. At least easy ones. This would be naive, an understatement of the gory mess that is Rio de Janeiro.⁵ And also hypocritical, movie seems to say, showing the rich kids from Zona Sul going for a peace march on the sunday - after they've spent the saturday night playing with fire, dealing drugs from the favela to their well-off friends. After all, it is this white demand for the narcotics that fuels the fires burning down the favelas.⁶

Beneath the action-packed surface, Tropa de Elite is a complex movie. It is not a film one would fall in love with, but it is a powerful and important film, even if not an easy one to watch. It raises more questions than offers answers. It leaves an uncomfortable feeling. Considering the subject, these are good things.

The Elite of the Troop

Before the film there was a book. Elite da Tropa, published in 2005, is written by Luiz Eduardo Soares, a political scientist and an anthropologist, with two ex-members of BOPE, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel. It's a work of fiction, in the sense that the names and the places have been changed and the events mixed up, but it's strongly based on the actual experiences of the authors.

The book is even harder piece to chew and swallow than the movie. It starts with a little tune from the song-book of BOPE - a few roughly translated verses give you the idea: "Man of black, what is your mission? It's invading favela and leaving corpse on the ground ... Do you know who I am? I am a damn dog of war. I'm trained to kill. ... If you ask where I come from and what is my mission: To bring the death and the desperation and the total destruction."

First part of the book consits of a number of short stories, illustrating various dilemmas and situations from the lives of members of BOPE. Writing is not perfect nor elegant - let's just say it's functional - but the plots tend to be clever. They create an disturbing image of the grey area of moral these men operate in, where torture is just one of the necessary professional skills, where men are systematically turned into savage dogs but yet where there still exist a strick moral code and dishonesty is punishable by death.

What hits first, from the page one, is the violence. The book goes much further than the movie: when in the film the trafficer confesses after the torture by suffocation, mercifully before one of the officers pushes a broom up his rectum, in the book the officer goes all the way with the broom. That chapter is with a somewhat grim humour named Sexo é Sexo - "Sex is Sex". This is just one example of the book´s detailed descriptions of torture and murder.

Second part of the book book steps two years forward and presents reader with one longer story. And, curiously, at some stage the reader has become numb to the violence and the most disgusting parts of the book turn out to be the ones that describe the ruthless opportunism and selfishness of the politicians and the corrupted part of the police force. This theme is central to the second half of the book, during which the real enemy reveals it's face. Unfortunately, on the second half the book also loses much of it's power, becoming a clumsy conspiracy thriller.

Like the movie, the book excells at forcing the reader to form an opinion and pushes him beyond the most obvious ideas. But written word has a power to drag the reader very deep into the head of the character. So deep that, whether this is intention of the authors or not, it gets hard to see the favela from the shacks. The first half of the book suffers from the fact that the only viewpoint you have is that of the narrator. And he doesn't give much options, constantly repeating same arguments: "Accept my truth, like it or not, or keep your head stuck in the sand, I don't care." And I cannot accept his truth, methods or most of his arguments and thus the narrator inevitably pushes me away from the book too.

Lost in Babilônia

"In Barra, two citizens were murdered during following days... Why not rule a death penalty for these cases? It would be a just response to innocents' outcry for blood", writes a reader on the letters-page of O Globo, Rio's main newspaper. The pages of the local news are filled with crimes: 17 people are murdered daily in the city. I can imagine how tired the people are of the all the violence. Everyone has either experienced it or lives in the constant fear of it. I can imagine how frustrating the problem seems when there are hardly easy solutions in sight. I can imagine that people are starting to feel so tired that just killing 'em all seems like a viable solution. But it must not be.

When I for the first time climbed up that ladeira, it was because I'd been asked to come to Babilônia to film a capoeira practice. It was already dark when I got here: a quiet friday night. A few times I ducked at the last moment to dodge a motorcycle taxi. They are an example of favela inventing it's own ways to get by the everyday-problems, like the exhausting walk up the road: for two reals you're taken with a motorbike where every you want on the hill. But of course when coming down the road they spare gas by keeping their engines off, silent ghosts rolling through the darkness.

Finally getting to the top I ended up hopelessly lost among the shacks, crossing paths, stairs going up and down, trees and deep shadows. I wasn't sure if I should be scared, but I considered it the most efficient policy for my safety to supress any sign of fear. I decided that the attack is the best defence and asked everyone for instructions. It took me a while to get to the capoeira hall - I even ended up chatting for half an hour with the president of the community - but everyone gave their best effort to help me.

A friend living in the neighbouring favela told me yesterday how the cops had again raided their community the previous night. But in here, I've seen no guns. There are, of course, guns in the favela. But they are not blazing every day.

- - -

1) 36,6 percent of the Brazil's urban population - amounting up to 51,7 million people - lived in a favela in 2003 according to estimates of United Nations presented in Mike Davis' book Planet of Slums (London, 2006). The same book shows how Rio has grown from 3,0 million inhabitants in 1950 to 11,9 million in 2004, a rate of urban growth extremely hard if not impossible to control in a sustainable, planned fashion, inevitably resuting in a exploding number of slums.

2) Paul Sneed (Machine Gun Voices: Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk, 2003) summed up the role of trafficers elegantly: "The drug traffickers of the hills and favelas of Rio de Janeiro: demonized and romanticized, pre-modern and post-modern, social bandits who are oddly millenarian even as they are anti-revolutionary, the fear, neglect and complicity of the middle- and upper-classes have allowed them to come to power and helped them to stay there. The poor have made them their champions, albeit reluctantly, and they have come to occupy a crucial role in the administration of power in the larger Brazilian social order... Now, the “divided city” is the great challenge for the restored democracy in Brazil in the years after the military dictatorship."

3) In the light of the generational change between Brazilian film-makers, shed by Carlos Diegues in essay Como as Coisas São in a recent book on Brazilian cinema, Cinco Mais Cinco, what might be mistaken for nihilism in Brazilian cinema could be rather seen as a part of the younger generation's move from idealism towards realism, from utopianism to individualism. "Para o Cinema Novo, imporatava cultura e politica; para os cineastas da Retomada, arte e tecnologia." ("For the Cinema Covo, important was culture and politics, for filmmakers of Retomada, art and technology.") A political message might be implicit in the story but is never placed before the realism and the artistic purposes. I've included here a few further notes based on that essay, since I feel that they provide a useful background for the Padila's controversial film.

4) This hope of redemption for Nascimento is not without parallels in Brazilian cinema. Diegues writes: "Como essa lute é individuel e ninguém, a princípio, deve estar solidário conosco, a única proteção em que ainda podemos confiar é a do que nos restou da harmonia natural da família... a família é uma espécie de lugar de suspensão da luta contra o outro, onde o poder se disputa e se exerce de outra maneira, em nome do amor." ("Like this fight is individual and no-one, in principle, should support us, the only protection in which we always can trust is the one remaining in the natural harmony of the family... family is a kind place of suspension from fight against each other, where power is disputed and exercised in in another manner, in name of love.")

5) According to Diegues, the cities have become symbols of hell in Brazilian cinema. "Não se trata mais de procurar uma harmonia com os outros para viver bem e em paz; trata-se simplesmente de sobreviver... Nesse esformaço solitário por sobrevivëncia e se possível ascensão, amizade, amor e sexo, são, de fato, meros exercíos de poder." (One does no more seek to find a harmony with others to live well and in pace; one simply tries to survive... In this solitary attempt for survival and if possible, social ascension, friendship, love and sex, are, in fact, mere excersices of power.") Against such a bleak view of the life in Brazilian cities, it's hardly surprising that the ethic of kill or be killed is shown as a natural process of survival. Everyone is using the means of power available to them, and on the level of streets it comes from the barrel of guns. Again, this does not imply it is right, but the way the realism of contemporary Brazilian cinema chooses makes it's point: by showing the things as they are.

6) After being awarded with the Golden Bear, Padilha explained his aims and corrected misunderstandings in Jornal do Brasil ("Filme 'Tropa de Elite' ganha Urso de Ouro em Berlim", 17.2.2008): "Fiz o filme sem partir de idéias marxistas ou neolibérais. O princípio foi o de levantar as regras de vida de cada grupo de personagem e como eles fazem suas opções a partir delas." ("I did the film without marxist or neoliberalist ideas. The principle was to show the rules of the live of each group of characters and how they create their options onwards from those.")