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The streets of Brazil

Times Staff Writer

Gazing from a breeze-swept second-floor terrace, Luciana Bezerra takes in the postcard-perfect imagery of this most photogenic of cities: the golden expanse of Ipanema beach, the dreamy islands bobbing in the Atlantic and the hill where the giant Christ the Redeemer statue keeps watch over wobbly humanity. Looking the other way, deep into the Vidigal favela, one of an estimated 600 shantytown slums slapped up on the fringes of this paradise, Bezerra sees shabby cinder-block houses and maze-like streets that not long ago echoed with relentless gunfire. All things considered, she reckons, it’s a great place to make movies.

“When you live in a favela, you live so close to each other that you end up sharing everything, the problems, the happiness,” says the 33-year-old actor and director, who grew up in Vidigal and can’t imagine living or working elsewhere. “And this movie shows what that is all about, that solidarity, that community feeling.”

The movie in question, “Favela Times Five: Now by Themselves,” is a group effort by Bezerra and four other young filmmakers, each telling a different story about life in favelas, which are often more euphemistically called morros (hills). A contemporary sequel to the landmark 1962 film “Favela Times Five” (Cinco vezes Favela), the new film is one of several cultural projects created by a growing number of home-grown, favela-based filmmaking collectives, theater companies and small animation studios that are looking to foster local talent and present a more nuanced picture of these fecund communities that are commonly stereotyped as crime-ridden urban jungles ruled by vicious drug lords. In fact, most favelados, as residents are called, are simply poor, working-class people who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Some of these new grass-roots cultural venues are drawing attention from Hollywood, Brazil’s Globo media conglomerate and the Venice Biennale. And there are scattered signs that, once in a while, these groups’ artistic projects may be motivating Brazilian authorities to pay more attention to the many needs and problems of favelados.

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Among the most conspicuous groups is Nós do Morro (We From the Hill), an actors studio that has blossomed into a bustling, one-stop performing arts community center for Vidigal. Founded by actor Guti Fraga, who says his “head got filled with ideas” while living in New York and attending lots of off-Broadway theater, Nós do Morro now receives 900 applicants a year for 100 openings in classes that include acting, film production and capoeira, the spectacular Brazilian martial-arts-dance game.

A number of its young performers have been cast in music videos, soap operas and movies, including Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s “City of God” (Cidade de Deus), a 2002 documentary-like drama about youth gangs in a massive Rio housing project that morphed into a virtual combat zone in the 1980s. Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, the film exposed many non-Brazilians to the shantytowns for the first time, and many artists credit “City of God” and its subsequent, acclaimed TV spinoff “City of Men” (Cidade dos Homens), with drawing Brazil’s, and the world’s, attention to a culture clash that many had preferred to ignore.

“Fernando Meirelles did us an immense favor when he says it’s possible to treat our problems in the cinema,” says Bezerra, who has been associated with Nós do Morro since she was 17. Historically, she continues, Brazilians “went to the movies to have a laugh.” Now, more of them are realizing that popular culture can provide a challenging as well as entertaining way to scrutinize their society.

Which isn’t to say that the new favela artists lack humor. Bezerra’s contribution to “Favela Times Five,” titled “Turn On the Light,” deals with a group of favelados who, frustrated by a Christmas Eve power failure, decide to take hostage a power company technician.

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Despite a thriving economy and a recent pledge by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to spend $1 billion to create jobs and build infrastructure in the shantytowns, the country still suffers from huge disparities in wealth. Its murder rate is the world’s fourth-highest, with about 45,000 homicides a year. Heavily armed, narco-trafficking gangs are extremely powerful, occasionally launching raids on police stations and city centers, leaving residents terrorized and scores dead.

But Bezerra believes there are many other stories worth telling about her country and about Vidigal. Growing up, she was influenced not only by Brazilian filmmakers like Carlos “Cacá" Diegues -- one of the country’s most prolific movie directors, who contributed to the original “Five Times Favela” as a university student and is spearheading the sequel -- but by “Poltergeist” and other Hollywood special-effects spectaculars. Fantasy, she says, has a place in her neighborhood too. “I owe those popcorn movies,” she says, “because they made us think about movies, about cinema, this art that makes you believe that Batman can fly. And now I’m here, and I want to make part of this story.”

A replica of the community

At another of Rio’s favelas, Villa Pereira da Silva (popularly known as Pereirão), the Morrinho Project, an art collective made up of children and young men, is making a name for itself by transforming lived experience into quirky animated art.

Pereirão rises on the hills above a much fancier neighborhood, Laranjeiras, where the state governor’s residence sits, a surreal juxtaposition that seems not to bother many wealthy Brazilians. As you drive up the hill, paved road gives way to dirt road. Grand houses yield to squat cinder-block dwellings strung with clotheslines. Finely manicured gardens fade, replaced by piles of garbage and the stench of open sewers. But there’s a creative oasis flowering just a bit farther on.

About nine years ago, on a 300-square-meter patch of steep hillside, the young men (boys at the time) began constructing a small-scale replica of their community, using bricks and other scavenged building materials. The faux-favela came complete with Lego human figurines, toy police cars and helicopters, and miniature AK-47s. At first, it was all for fun and a way to stay out of trouble, say Renato Dias and Nelcirlan Souza de Oliveira, both 24, two of the group’s mainstays. Then one of the young men’s teachers introduced them to filmmaker Fábio Gavião, whose 2001 documentary about Morrinho (“little hill”) helped put the collective on the world’s cultural radar.

Now, using their toy maquette as a kind of miniature TV set, the young artists are making animated, four-minute mini-dramas based on some of the real-life events and oversized personalities of Pereirão. With off-screen voices supplied by the animators, in a squeaky falsetto style that recalls the old “Mr. Bill” character on “Saturday Night Live,” the segments deal with everything from gang wars to samba dancing schools. Several segments can be seen on YouTube, and four are being tested by Nickelodeon for possible distribution. Their naif but savvy, deliberately low-tech style captures the do-it-yourself aesthetic of much favela-produced art, recycling elements of Hollywood movies, hip-hop and funk culture but giving them a Brazilian twist.

“It’s like a mirror,” Souza de Oliveira says while reviewing a segment on a digital editing machine. “Everything that happens in the favela mirrors here.”

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Their efforts also earned Morrinho a trip to last summer’s haute monde Venice Biennale art fair, where the young designers built another miniature favela to accompany an exhibition of photographs of them by Brazilian artist Paula Trope. Now set up as a nongovernmental organization, Morrinho develops independent and contract-based television projects, sponsors audiovisual, art and culture workshops, and offers $10 tours of the maquette and environs to help pay the collective’s power bills.

As for the favela itself, the men say that, despite the gurgling open sewers and overflowing dumpsters, conditions have improved since the police started cracking down on criminals. “Now we only see rubbish,” Souza de Oliveira says. “In the old days we saw bodies. It was terrible. I was taking my brother to school and saw many bodies without heads. That’s what happened when they didn’t throw gas and fire on them. Thank God it’s over.”

Although massive shantytowns and squatter settlements are common in Latin America’s major cities, Brazil’s have earned a special notoriety. The government recently issued official figures showing that 12.4 million of its 190 million people live in favelas, mainly in Rio and São Paulo, a number much higher than previously had been acknowledged.

Some of the oldest favelas in Rio were settled in the 1890s by freed black slaves as well as ex-soldiers and survivors of a brutally repressed peasant uprising in Bahia state. But many arrivals in recent decades have been economic refugees fleeing Brazil’s impoverished northeastern and Amazon regions. While many upper- and middle-class Brazilians fear the favelas and look down their noses at the occupants, these teeming cities-within-cities have long been breeding grounds for the country’s rich popular culture.

“During a long time, Brazilian culture has been represented by what was being made in the favelas -- samba, soccer, carnival,” says filmmaker Diegues, 67. “Those favelas in Rio, São Paulo, keep a permanent dialogue with the formal society. Many times favelas influence the formal society more than the other way around, culturally speaking.”

The epoch in which the original “Five Times Favela” was made contrasted starkly with that of today, Diegues says. Forty-five years ago, Brazilians were feeling optimistic about their country’s youthful potential and proud of their brash, cosmopolitan culture: bossa nova music, Oscar Niemeyer’s monumental architecture for the new capital of Brasilia, new-wave cinema novo and the sinuous futebol artistry of Garrincha and Pelé.

“It’s a sort of time when we believed that Brazil was the spring of a new civilization for the whole world, absolutely,” Diegues says. “I was absolutely convinced that next morning we [would] wake up in a great country, in a very important country, with social justice.”

Favelas themselves -- much smaller and less violent than today -- were widely romanticized at that time as colorful, pastoral places, where middle-class Brazilians went “slumming” on weekends. Though Diegues and his fellow filmmakers tried to convey a more accurate image in movies such as “Five Times Favela” and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ landmark “Rio 40 Graus” (Rio 40 Degrees), the popular myths persisted.

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The military-controlled government that ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985 claimed that the shantytowns were only a temporary problem that would soon be removed. Instead, favelas fell under the sway of crime bosses, who at least managed to supply certain basic needs such as potable water.

But when carjackers and drug dealers began leaving the favelas to prey on those living below, Brazil began to admit the scale of the problem. About the same time, Diegues says, 10 to 15 years ago, young men in favelas began to create non-governmental organizations and cultural associations of their own. That produced groups such as Nós do Morro, which today receives funding from Brazil’s giant Petrobras gas company.

Not all of the new cultural centers are so fortunate when it comes to attracting corporate cash. Cine Favela, a nonprofit filmmaking collective and educational and cultural center located in the São Paulo favela of Heliopolis, faces a constant financial struggle, its directors say. But that hasn’t stopped it from making two feature films: “A Drop of Blood” (2003), a drama that lays bare Brazil’s grievously troubled state health care system, and the forthcoming “Excluded From Society,” about a young man who gets caught up in crime and pays the price. More than 700 people, many of them amateurs, acted in the movie, which was shot on a half-million-dollar budget. It already has received a publicity boost from Spanish actress Victoria Abril, who offered to appear in a cameo role after visiting Cine Favela in 2005 and admiring its work.

“Excluded From Society” also satirizes corrupt politicians, says Cine Favela’s president, Reginaldo de Túlio, adding that some characters were modeled after the real-life politicians who promised to help fund the movie while campaigning for reelection, then disappeared. But somewhat mysteriously, a 24-hour public health clinic recently opened just three blocks from Cine Favela, a couple of years after the group began distributing free copies of “A Drop of Blood” around the community. That gives the group hope that, little by little, their work may be helping the favelados.

“Art in itself, cinema, is something that gives you the possibility to complain, to demand your citizen rights,” says Cine Favela’s cultural director, Vladimir Modesto de Souza. “If I leave here now and [make a sign] and write, ‘Everything’s wrong in this country!’ and go in the streets, they will think I’m crazy. That won’t solve anything. But when you think, when you create a project, and this project grows, it shows, and people come over and end up believing and listening to you.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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