City of God Analysis
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Published: Wed, 12 Jul 2017
The films studied for this essay – City of God (2002) and Favela Rising (2006) have taken favelas from the marginality of Brazilian society and transported them into the consciousness of the international public. Favelas have become a cultural icon of Rio de Janeiro, as famous as the postcard images of Copacabana beach and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado mountain. Since 1992 tourists have been able to sign up for “favelatour“ and see first hand the favela of Rocinha via one of the multiple tourism agencies competing for business in what has become one of Rio’s most popular tours. 
City of God
Fernando Meirelles’ film City of God (2002) is based on the Brazilian novel of the same name by Paulo Lins (1996). City of God (Cidade de Deus) is the name of the favela where Lins grew up, and the novel is based on a true story taken from interviews and research conducted by Lins in the favela over a period of 8 years regarding the state of drug trafficking and gang warfare. The film has attracted much critical acclaim due to its confrontation of the issues within the favela as well as the gritty realism with which it was shot and unabashed depiction of violence within the favela. The film is narrated by one of two central characters, Rocket, and tells the story of the lives of himself and Lil Ze, children who grew up in the Cidade de Deus in similar circumstances yet who chose separate pathways in life. In the film the character Rocket symbolises hope, as he dreams of becoming a photographer, and this is used as a vehicle within the film to portray imagery of the favela to both the media in Rio de Janeiro within the story, and to the viewer. Lil Ze is a child with the ‘taste for crime’ that grows up to be the favela’s most powerful and notorious drug dealer. The lives of the two are intertwined and ironically Rocket’s dreams of becoming a photographer are realised through his access to life in the favela and his depiction of the crimes perpetrated by Lil Ze and his gang.
The film’s opening and closing sequence include a 360 degree rotational shot of Rocket in the centre of a face off between the gangsters and the police, unsure of where to turn. This is symbolic of the story of the film in that his life can take one of either direction. The narrative is then broken down into a series of vignettes which tell the story of the favela and the central characters, and ultimately which path Rocket decides to take.
I argue that this film was imperative in raising awareness of both the existence of as well as the issues within the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and was one of the first cultural representations to emerge from Brazil to show the darker side of the city and an alternate reality to what is commonly perceived about Rio, that is postcard images of beaches, sunsets and samba. Via this cultural vehicle I argue that it was possible to begin to conduct businesses in the city such as ‘favela tour’ and ‘favela party’ due to interest from foreigners in seeing and experiencing a slice of life in the favelas. Which raises the question: Did this film glorify life in the favelas, or did it depict a realistic perspective of reality? How has consciousness raising of the foreign public since affected the inhabitants of these urban spaces and has this effect been positive or negative?
I argue that one of the key strengths of the film is realism. The actors are amateurs recruited from the favelas, and the central character Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is from the Cidade de Deus favela itself, which lends authenticity and personal perspective to the characters. The film was shot inside a real favela rather than a film set, taking the viewer directly into the urban space of favela inhabitants.
There are several key themes in the film which I will outline below and which raise points of discussion related to the reality of life for favela inhabitants. Alongside the theme of choice, the film raises the questions of what options children who grow up in this environment have for survival. One of the most shocking and criticised features of the film is its portrayal of violence executed by young children in the favela. The characters ‘The Runts’ are a group of children in the favela aged younger than 8 who view crime and becoming part of a drugs ring the only option for their future. Their youth is emphasised in a scene where they are discussing wanting to take over the most powerful drugs ring in the favela whilst sat in a fenced off cubicle which could be likened to a children’s playpen. This scene culminates in possibly the most memorable and shocking scene in the film, where a child wishing to be initiated into Lil Ze’s gang is forced to decide between which two children from the ‘Runts’ he wants to shoot and kill. We are faced with his indecision coupled with his detachment from the situation he is placed in. One of the children whose life is being decided bursts into tears, and with a close-up shot of his face we are immediately drawn to his extreme fear of the situation he is in, as well as his age, which could not be more than 5 years old. The child character who pulls the trigger. ‘Steak and Frites’, is later depicted in the house of the rival gang being questioned as to why he wants to be involved in the gang warfare, and says: “I smoke, I snort. I have killed and robbed. I’m a man“. At the termination of the film when the Runts have murdered Ze and are discussing how they will take over his business and become the leaders of the favela, their lack of education is highlighted when one of the group asks for the purposes of creating a hit list of those they intend to murder ‘who here knows how to write?’ and one of them responds ‘a little’. Either these children have had no access to education, or more concerned with their survival in the favela consider schooling to be an unnecessary part of life.
An important aspect of the manner in which the film is shot, and a characteristic for which the film has received much criticism, is that of detachment. How the viewer feels towards the acts of violence and the characters they are enacted upon is a metaphor for how society in Rio de Janeiro feels towards the favelas- unemotional, detached, separate. That what happens inside the favela is their own business and does not affect those who live outside. The majority of characters in the film are presented in a one dimensional manner and are not depicted displaying emotion. Thus when they are murdered they become another number of the large headcount in the film. Characters are filmed from a distance and the lack of facial close-ups imbues the viewer with this sense of emotional detachment. The one exception to this is portrayal of the gangster Benny, Lil Ze’s best friend, who decides he wants a life outside of crime and the favela. We view him preventing Ze from shooting those who owe him money, his kindness in letting people out of debts owed to him, his desire to give Rocket a camera to pursue his dreams, and intimate scenes with his girlfriend. When Benny is killed by an addict and thus prevented from leaving the favela we are confronted with the only moment of remorse in the film; this is the only moment where Ze shows emotion, where the camera shots linger at the scene of the death, and where the viewer is in a sense instructed to feel grief for his loss. His death is also paramount in depicting the difficulty of trying to be a good character within or trying to leave the life of the favela.
The final key theme of the film I would like to discuss is that of police corruption in Rio, which is clearly depicted in the film as integral to the survival of drug rings and proliferation of access to weapons. At the climax of the film when the two rival druglords Lil Ze and ‘Carrot’ are captured by police, we witness two important events: Carrot is kept in custody by the police who say he will be a ‘present for the media’, whereas Ze is let go and through Rocket’s camera lens we see that police have been providing him with weapons and drugs in return for money.
On August 30th 1993, a group of approximately 30 masked officers from Brazil’s Policia Militar entered the favela Vigario Geral and using machine guns and hand grenades killed 21 residents, including 8 members of an evangelical Christian family inside their home (NYT 1993). Henceforth known as the Vigario Geral Massacre, this was said to be in revenge for the murder of four policemen at the hands of the Comando Vermelho drug faction several days earlier.
Day to day life within favelas is often referred to as wartime in a country officially at peace. Residents are accustomed to daily gun battles and being under the control of the armed drug factions.
Police corruption is viewed by many as the prime reason this war is able to take place. As depicted in City of God and Favela Rising, and as told by favela residents under interview, Brazil’s military police provide the weapons to drug factions, and facilitate the trafficking of drugs in and out of the favelas. A 1993 robbery of an armoured van in Sao Paolo perpetrated by member’s of Comando Vermelho was found to have been possible using metal piercing bullets from automatic weapons legally available only to the Policia Militar. (NYT 1993). The documentary XXXX shows film footage of police transporting weapons into the favela.
Violence within a Political Democracy
Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1985 after 20 years of rule, however under the democracy many Brazilians feel less safe. (Caldeira) Since democratic rule, police violence has reached critical levels and events indicate serious degradation of democracy, with high levels of violent crime, police crimes against citizens, and human rights abuses a regular occurrence. Public space in Rio de Janeiro is often characterised by assaults of different types, muggings, and general lawlessness, creating a culture of fear and suspicion (Caldeira). Policies attempting to bring violence under control, such as Operação Rio in 1994 where military police were sent into the city on a mass scale, are replacing democratic initiatives at state level with assertion of civil order in an episodic manner. Public opinion polls found general support for the operation, with a general attitude that suspected criminals should not be subject to the same human rights conventions as normal citizens (Caldeira). Violence against civilians in favelas should also be considered a failure of democracy to protect their rights.
Violence towards favela inhabitants can be seen as the result of a mixture of public attitudes towards criminal activity and middle and upper class attitudes towards favela inhabitants coupled with a police system which effectively serves only the elite. Public attitude plays a large role in the politics of policing and providing assistance (or lack thereof) to favelas. Volunteer worker XXXX in the film Bus 174 spoke of the public opinion polls in relation to the police shooting of 8 street children at Candelaria, where people said the shootings were a positive event, and that “society needs to be cleaned of this dirt“.
**QUOTE CALDEIRA HOLSTON P699 CRIMINALISATION OF THE POOR***
***ALSO ‘ALTERNATIVE JUSTICE’ IN FAVELAS P713***
Development of Brazil’s Urban Spaces
Industrialisation in Brazil began in the early 20th century and has always had significant links with urbanisation, directly influencing the composition and evolvement of the urban network. The primary urban centres of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo received the largest amounts of investment during the course of Brazil’s economic development, resulting in mass amounts of migration from rural areas. The National Census in the year 2000 (IGBE) documented 82% of Brazil’s 174 million residents live in cities. Furthermore, 80% of the total population live in 25% of the municipalities, indicating strong spatial concentration. (Xavier).
Despite being one of the more important economic centres of Brazil (together with Sao Paolo constituting 20% of Brazil’s GDP (Acioly) ) the metropolitan region of Rio De Janeiro is marked by discernible social and wealth disparities between inhabitants. The needs of low income families unable to afford rent and living in favelas and cheap land on the periphery of the city mean continuous large volumes of transit of inhabitants between the periphery and the centre, where they have access to employment and services, creating severe socio-spatial stratification at the metropolitan level. In the 1990’s, confronted with increasing social tensions and the recession of the entire country, favelas and low rent land became the focus of violence, with drug trafficking establishing a power parallel to official local controls, to the detriment of municipal regulations and law. The resident’s associations (AM’s) which were very active in the 1980’s fell under continuous intimidation and fear, and were often physically in the centre of shoot-outs between gangs and police.
History of Favelas in Rio
The Portuguese founded Rio de Janeiro in 1565 and by the end of the 16th century the hilled regions of the city were already substantially populated. Swamplands surrounding the hills were drained and soon also attracted settlers. Until the late 18th century the primary crop of the economy was sugarcane grown on the peripheries of Rio, which greatly influenced the spatial structure of the city. (Xavier). Following the relocation of the Portuguese Royal family to Rio in 1808 and the naming of Rio as the capital of Brazil, the population increased 25%, 50% of whom were slaves. (Xavier). There was a need for construction of housing for the higher income migrants and Portuguese nobility, with houses built closer to the periphery of the city, shaping the beginning of the patterns of segregation in Rio as rich and poor lived separately and in greatly different standards of housing yet within the same city centre.
In 1888 slavery was abolished and freed workers from the coffee plantations migrated in large numbers to Rio. The word ‘favela’ originated in the first low income residence to be constructed in the city centre, named Morro da Providência and later “Morro da Favela“ by residents who were primarily ex soldiers and ex-slaves whom were not capable of integration into the city’s economy. (Xavier). Government initiatives to modernise Rio led to large low income residential areas including those on hillsides being demolished, displacing predominantly the city’s poor and forcing them further to the peripheries to resettle.
By definition a favela is a squatter settlement, usually self-built by its inhabitants illegally on land lacking any infrastructure and without any urban plan for its development. The last official estimate for the number of favelas in Rio de Janeiro was 605 (PCRJ, IPP) but unofficial estimates read that 100 more have arisen since then. The typical location of favela construction is hillside areas, though in the 21st century they have increasingly been built in swampy land areas such as near the higher income Barra de Tijuca expansion zone. (Xavier 8)
Rio’s first urban plan was developed in the late 1920’s, named Plan Agache, following a segregated functionalist principle to organise the city (Xavier). In this plan the southern beachside areas of Ipanema, Leblon and Gavea were reserved for the upper classes, while the working classes were relegated to the suburbs, and the first plans for total eradication of the favelas were made. This was the first official document to describe favelas as a problem which must be eradicated; they were viewed as an ‘epidemic’ which was blighting the most expensive land in Rio. As a result of this first urban plan dividing lower, middle and upper classes into distinct sections of the city, the only option left for the poor who did not fit these categories was to move into squatter settlements, either on the city outskirts or in dangerous and therefore undesirable locations such as steep hillsides. Alongside the explosive population growth and industrialisation of the following decades, Rio’s transport and housing systems were unable to cope with the rise in migrants to the city, leading to the increasing spread of favelas into the city centre into environmentally fragile areas such as the hillsides separating the upper class suburbs.
Living conditions in Rio display exceptionally poor distribution, demonstrated by the discrepancies in living conditions between the rich and the poor. There is a high level of socio-spatial inequality, with income being concentrated in a miniscule proportion of the population; the poorest 50% of Rio’s population earn only 13% of its income, while 12% of income is earned by the richest 1%. (IPEA).
The social inequality prevalent in Rio de Janeiro is not applicable only to the physical make-up of the city but in the social configuration. Those located in the periphery in a physical sense are not only spatially remote; even when located in the centre of the city nest to a high income suburb, the favelas are in contrast with the “formal city“. (Xavier). This inequality resonates in the difficult quotidianity of life for favela residents, who constitute 17% of Rio’s 5.8 million residents according to the 2000 census (IGBE).
Telles (1995) in his study of the structural sources of socioeconomic segregation in Brazilian metropolitan areas concludes that the extent of urbanisation and predominantly population size is the key to understanding socioeconomic spatial inequalities in Brazil, and explains the majority of variations in segregation between different metropolitan areas. In dividing up income and race groups in Rio de Janeiro based on data from the 1980 census of Brazil it can be clearly seen that there is the smallest proportion of non-white households in the largest income group, and this percentage grows proportionately as the income levels are lowered. Due to issues of race and class being strongly correlated in Brazil, segregation (found to be largest between Rio’s lower and middle classes) becomes racialised. Thus racial segregation is partially ascertained by the higher numbers of non-whites in poorer socio-economic groups. However in the specific case of Rio, Telles finds class identities to be stronger than racial identities, and this is explained by Rio’s particular spatial factors, for example the idiosyncratic mountainous landscape which played a part in the formation of Rio’s favelas.
- Xavier, Helia Nacif & Magalhaes, Fernanda (2003) Urban Slums Report: The Case of Rio de Janeiro Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements UN
- IPEA/PCRJ/PNUD (2000), Relatório de Desenvolvimento Urbano – A distribuição de renda na cidade do Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro, RJ
- Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro PCRJ, IPP (2000) Anuário Estatístico da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro 1998, Instituto Pereira Passos, Rio de Janeiro, RJ
- Website: http://www.armazemdedados.rio.rj.gov.br
- Brooke, James: 21 Shot dead in Rio Slum; Policemen are Suspected New York Times Section A p3 Column 1 August 30 1993
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