'Favela Rising': Hard Life in a Brazilian Ghetto

Ed Gordon talks to two filmmakers about their film, Favela Rising — an unflinching look at the hard lives of those who live in one Brazilian ghetto.

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ED GORDON, host:

When independent filmmakers Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist conceived the idea for a documentary on Rio de Janeiro, they wanted to tell the story of the poor and the privileged. But when they met a resident of a Brazilian ghetto, their story changed. What was revealed to them was a community wrecked by violence, oppressed by drugs and ignored by corrupt authorities. Over time, the favela, or ghetto, still managed to achieve moments of glory through one man's vision. NPR's Therese L.S. Gray(ph) has more.

(Soundbite of "Favela Rising")

Mr. ANDERSON SA: (Foreign language spoken)

THERESE L.S. GRAY reporting:

In the documentary "Favela Rising," Anderson Sa describes the first time he witnessed violence in his community in Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of "Favela Rising")

Mr. SA: (Foreign language spoken)

GRAY: He was 10 years old at the time, and as he walked with his mother along a busy street in the favela, a man was attacked and killed. He still remembers clearly the vision of the man's lifeless body repeatedly being pumped with bullets as people continued on their way. That was more than a decade ago. It wasn't long before Sa got sucked into one of the drug cartels that ruled his community, but Anderson Sa discovered that role was a dead end, and he chose a different path.

(Soundbite of "Favela Rising")

(Soundbite of music)

GRAY: Sa's reformation wasn't easy. The favela was a place where random acts of violence were routine and the law enforcement was responsible for some of the killings. In order to combat this, Sa knew he needed something powerful, something that could bring unity. Music seemed like the perfect tool.

(Soundbite of "Favela Rising")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SA: (Through Translator) Music plays a very important role. Who doesn't listen to music? And who doesn't identify himself or themself with the music? And artists like singers have the power of the microphone, just like telling out loud what they think through singing.

(Soundbite of song sung in foreign language)

GRAY: Sa helped form what's known in English as the AfroReggae cultural group. As musicians, they sing about the truth they experience. As they perform, the years of frustration seem to be released and replaced by frenetic rhythm.

(Soundbite of music)

GRAY: The group has a long-standing reputation. In 1993, they put out a newspaper targeted to young people who liked reggae, soul and hip-hop music. Out of that evolved the full band. Now the group runs a cultural center that teaches the art of dance and percussion.

Mr. SA: Boom! Kah! Boom--kah!--boom, boom.

GRAY: Under the direction of Sa, the children of the favela spend many days in front of the worn-down cultural center building, beating on old water bottles and cans, in harmony.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. SA: (Foreign language spoken)

GRAY: Only five of 60 AfroReggae related projects are showcased in the documentary "Favela Rising," but Sa says the movement is widespread.

Mr. SA: (Through Translator) AfroReggae is in different areas of Rio, and the idea is to raise the self-esteem of people to give validation to Afro-Brazilian culture, to citizens from the favela so that people get their self-esteem back and are proud of what they are.

(Soundbite of drumming)

GRAY: Co-director Jeff Zimbalist.

Mr. JEFF ZIMBALIST (Co-director, "Favela Rising"): And we felt that by telling more of those stories in the First World, people's worldviews would start to change and would start to embrace and allow for a view of the rest of the globe as a place coming together and actually working.

GRAY: Telling the story of Anderson Sa and the AfroReggae movement wasn't easy for the New York-based filmmaker and co-director Matt Mochary. For years, the Pajario Jeral(ph) favela was off limits to journalists. The drug lords demanded they be asked permission to film. Some members of the media decided not to acknowledge the illegal de facto informal government, but Sa is respected by the working men of the favela and the drug cartel. That made it possible for the filmmakers to gain access. Sa recognizes the power of this movement and he wants to continue to invoke change.

Mr. SA: (Through Translator) I think there is a revolution you do inside yourself, and there is another revolution you do inside the minds of people.

(Soundbite of song sung in foreign language)

GRAY: Anderson Sa says this film could prove to be another significant part of the revolution he sings about. So far, "Favela Rising" has shown to audiences in several film festivals and is now in Oscar contention. Both HBO and Think Films have brokered deals with the filmmakers and distributor, VOY Pictures. The documentary is slated for release early this year.

(Soundbite of song sung in foreign language)

GRAY: Therese L.S. Gray, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song sung in foreign language)

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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