Riodemption Songs by Tom Jennings
[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007]
Favela Rising, dir. Jeff Zimbalist & Matt Mochary, 2006
Tom Jennings is disappointed at Favela Rising’s focus on its founder’s personality rather than Brazilian Afro-Reggae’s grass-roots potential
Screened on cable/digital More4 on January 24th, the Oscar-nominated Favela Rising documents the development of the Afro-Reggae cultural movement in Vigario Geral, one of 600-odd illegal shanty settlements (favelas) perched precariously among the hills behind Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach which together house over 20 million inhabitants in desperate poverty. They have experienced forty years of barbaric repression, with massacres repeatedly perpetrated by a brutally corrupt military police controlling and profiting from the drugs trade while battling the shadow criminal dictatorships within. The 1993 Afro-Reggae newspaper and videos chronicling police violence were followed by music workshops, weaving a powerful syncretism of African drumming, hip-hop, dance, martial arts, politics and spiritualism. Original member José Junior (JJ) explains: “Nothing could be left up to outside authorities … It was the beginning of a new consciousness … We are destroyed people infected by idealism. Shiva is the Goddess of destruction and transformation. We are a Shiva effect”.
Initially resourced by begging, borrowing and stealing, long-term funding from a US charitable foundation (1997) and an international record deal with Universal (2001) helped the group expand – all income being ploughed back (likewise any profits from Favela Rising itself). With thirteen programmes now in Vigario, the support of Rio city council is facilitating the spread into neighbouring favelas. However, “movement has to come from the community itself … we’d be applying our solution to their problems. If we become McDonalds, putting one everywhere, we’ve lost the essence” (founder Anderson Sà). Afro-Reggae’s integrity and inspiration in preaching unity among the favelas quickly led to immense local enthusiasm, with drug soldiers crossing over and their leaders showing respect and even tacit, if fitful, protection in the war zone: “Why [do we] take these risks? Because … our ideology won’t allow us to live passively, in comfort” (AS).
This fascinating film expertly blends edgy digital video techniques, sharp editing and pacing, and the saturated colour and energy of the Latin American new-wave – a winning formula for independent festival hype and MTV-friendly urban-style commodification, and a labour of love for US co-directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary. Yet, despite their reservations, the narrative neglects wider grass-roots perspectives, centering on the messianic figure of Sà and his rhetoric of “respectable, hard-working” favelistas: “Now all the favelas must start to move for the first time. We must all begin to show that we are able. That we can lift our own arms. That we can raise our heads” (disclaimers notwithstanding; e.g. “What we create and destroy doesn’t end with me [JJ] or Anderson. It is passed through the generations. All life is a karmic process. Our actions will be infinite”). Sure, the film-makers couldn’t sidestep their hosts’ agendas, being completely dependent for safe passage – but the resulting deficiencies highlight the limitations of documentary activism, and positively invite recuperation by capitalism and its neoliberal state handmaidens.
In ‘Slumsploitation’ (Mute magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2006 – also at www.metamute.com), Melanie Gilligan persuasively details the promotion of ‘favela chic’ in Brazil’s booming media – with populist President Lula’s culture minister Gilberto Gil (himself an internationally-renowned musician) courting foreign investment for electoral legitimacy and to shortcircuit resistance. While colonising the bootstrap entrepreneurialism of the ghettoes, the governing Workers’ Party policies also continue to starve them of infrastructure and plan intensified assaults on their security and autonomy in line with IMF/World Bank ‘structural adjustment’. Translated onscreen, the hackneyed Hollywood Manicheanism of evil drugs gangbangers versus heroic charisma celebrates talent transcending humble roots – erasing history, class, economics, oppression and collectivity. True, this may satisfy fashion-conscious better-off youth, reinforcing the desirous exoticisation which betrays their distanced complicity with the status quo. But whether assimilating or critiquing its mediated representation, Favela Rising and Gilligan both inadvertently downplay the lived significance of the street-level phenomenon to its immediate audience.
After all, Brazil’s 1960s/70s military dictatorships incarcerated thousands of leftists, whose militancy heavily inflected the rise of prison networks and drugs cartels originally as self-organised welfare and defence institutions. Similarly, even if Afro-Reggae proclaims itself “directly against the drug armies” (SA), the proliferation of gang member sympathisers suggests far more complex intercourse. The longer-run resonance of its bottom-up, practical, expressive formations simply can’t be judged from above and outside – which should already be crystal-clear from the contradictory persistence of US hip-hop despite its magpie aesthetics, get-rich-quick artists, corporate debasement, choruses of detractors, and generally dishonest co-optation into sundry elite discourses. Further, as the performances in the film demonstrate, this new genre itself draws strongly on other popular Brazilian musics (samba, capoeira, baile funk, etc) which themselves have little explicit political potential – the production of superstar egos being incidental.
As in other times and places, the shifting tectonics of culture provide incomparable food for thought and action, knitting together and/or dividing suffering populations according to specific circumstances, and circumscribing what can be achieved. Salutary examples of radical struggle often turn out to hinge on the room to manoeuvre furnished by the imaginative renewal and creative singularity of cultural patterns which are constitutionally opaque to conventional political analysis. In the present context this doubtless includes the magnificent Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers’ movement in Durban, South Africa (see Richard Pithouse’s crucial ‘Thinking Resistance in the Shanty Towns’, also in Mute 2:3), or the recent insurrections in Oaxaca, Mexico, reported in Freedom. So, what will transpire in the favelas is (to understate) uncertain. But not for nothing did philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggest, in characteristically global terms (‘Knee-Deep’, London Review of Books, 26:17, 2004), that “The new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germ of the future”.