City of Men, set in the favelas of Rio de Janiero, is the sequel to the award-winning City of God. We catch up with director Paulo Morelli.
The Brasilian government, and the cultural authorities, took a pretty dim view of the international hit movie City of God when it was released a couple of years ago. It painted a no-holds-barred, uncompromising portrait of life in the favelas of Rio de Janiero – extraordinary areas built onto the steep mountainsides where hundreds of thousands of the socially disadvantaged live their lives.
Write off for a brochure about Rio, and ask for tourist information, and you will get glossy guides galore – with wonderful pictures of sun-kissed beaches like Ipenema and Cococobana. There will be endless views from, to and off the statue of Christ the Redeemer, descriptions of the city’s night-life, and of its many museums, restaurants and attractions. There will be few (if any) mentions of the favelas.
Visiting Rio, you’ll be able to pick up a leaflet, printed off by tour and coach entrepreneurs, which promise visits to an “authentic” favela. It is alleged that a sizeable proportion of the fee that you’ll pay for the “secure” tour will go to supporting educational and creative enterprises within the communities. It is probably best to take these assurances with a pinch of salt.
Paulo Morelli, who has directed City of Men, the sequel to the critically-applauded, much-award City of God of two years ago, knows the truth. How did he and his camera crews, and his actors, manage to film in the reality of the mean streets and shacks of the favelas? The answer is simple – just as with the coach trips for tourists – money changes hands. “You have to get all the permissions from the communities”, he says, “and then they will allow you to do very much what you want. But – make no mistake. The community leaders then hand nearly all of the money over to the drugs barons, who really control the favelas. The dugs lords have the final say – and they are armed, violent, and crazy. And VERY dangerous!”
Morelli, a slight, quietly spoken man with prematurely grey hair, directed the TV series of City of Men, which has been one of the hits of the Brasilian schedules “to the extent where you could see the streets emptying, and homes and bars filling up with the fans. The country went quiet every time it was on – just to see what would happen next. If the you couldn’t hear a pin drop, there was either a major football match on TV – or it was our show.
“So, when Fernando Meirelles (Paulo’s partner in Brazil’s O2 Films, and the director of City of God) asked me to make the ‘sequel’, then I was over the moon. I was delighted. And I immediately knew what I wanted to do. Let me emphasise here that I am not, no way, a spokesperson or an apologist for the Tourist Board. What they do, or say is of no concern to me. I doubt that they will like our film very much – they certainly didn’t like City of God. But that is of no consequence. We re showing a reality, a truth, not the sanitised view of life in Rio today.”
The screenplay for City of Men was written by Elena Soarez, and the base of the story is a portrayal of everyday families attempting to lead their lives in the middle of what is an incendiary chaos. This time around, however, the action focuses not so much on the violence, but on two youngsters, Laranjinha (who is just about to turn 18 and who has never know who his father was) and Acerola, who is a few months older, and who already has a son of his own. But the toddler is child for whom he shows little interest – or responsibility.
Life in a favela is (generally) cheap, and prospects are minimal. The lads are inseparable childhood friends – but then they get swept up into rival gangs, and they have to decide where their loyalties lie. It’s Acerola’s time to take an interest in his young son’s development….but does he? And what happens when Laranjinha finally discovers his own dad, and finds that, after 15 years, he is finally out of prison after a murder rap? Both lads are starting to realise that they re leaving their teens behind, and are becoming men. Neither one wants to take the easy route that they’ve seen so many of their contemporaries take – the short and cheap life of the drug gangsters. And both of them, deep down, know that they have – finally – to wise up to and accept their personal responsibilities.
Morelli explains: “City of God was the story about organised drug dealing in the Rio hillside communities. Drug dealers were the central theme of the film, and in the background were the communities learning how to cope with the new order. City of Men is the other side of the coin. The main issue here is broken families, and the drug dealing is in the background.
“I don’t honestly know what proportion of favela families are a complete family unit – mother, father, and children. But I DO know that there are many, many of them, probably the majority, where the father is missing. He’s either dead, left the area, or just not interested in the children he has fathered. In Brasil, there’s no Child Support Agency to make men support their children. They go with a girl, they get her pregnant, they move on. I’m saddened to tell you that one of the guys working on the film, and he’s not even 21, had THREE different children to three different girls while we were making it! Sense of shame? Are you kidding? It could even be seen, among his male peers, as a ‘badge of pride’!
“Fatherhood is a crucial social issue in the favelas. Often, young boys have many kids with extremely young girls, and the result is fatherless grown-ups, usually brought up by their mothers or grandmothers. To make matters even worse, these kids are totally abandoned by the state, which runs a health and educational system that completely ignores this escalating and devastating situation. Drive around Rio, and at just about every street corner in the city you will see kids, four, five, six, years old, doing acrobatics, selling candy, juggling, whatever, to earn money from the drivers and passengers in the cars. They should be in school, learning things, but they are not. Their families use them as a means to get an income into the home, and the authorities couldn’t care less – they’re never (or very rarely) stopped or questioned by the police. What’s the point? They’re (maybe) told to go home. They just pop up again at the next pitch on the next corner! Those kids should be in school but (he sighs) that’s our government for you!”
He adds: “So, you find many thousands of broken families, in which there is no strong male figure. So who do the young men turn to? They go to the drugs guys, the ones with the flash jewellery, the guns, the attitude, the possessions, the nice sneakers and trainers, the girls and the material things. Those guys are looked up to, and respected. For all, you would say, the wrong and misplaced reasons. Those drugs guys, well, it’s ‘the Father I never had’ thing. They give the illusion of better status. What happened, however, is painfully obvious – the kids, and often the drugs dealers, end up in a pool of their own blood in the gutter. But there are always fresh faces to take their place”. Morelli is “acutely aware” that this is rapidly becoming a problem that afflicts many other cities and communities around the world, “it’s not unique to Rio. One parent families are becoming commonplace internationally and with them, come the same problems.”
Morelli says: “It is sometimes hard to explain the structure of the favelas and the way that they run. For a start, anyone who hasn’t visited Rio will not know that they are not ‘distant’ communities. You get the beaches, a short tract of land behind it, and then the step hills and mountains. The hillsides are the favelas. So you can go from relatively middle class comfort to the edge of a favela in just a few hundred years – as quickly as that, as short a distance as from one side of the road to the other. And the favelas are far from lawless. They are far more strictly controlled, in a lot of ways, than the streets of Rio proper. Because if anyone robs or transgresses in a favela, then they have the pistol or machine-gun of the local drugs lord to deal with. And who wants that? If you’re going to be mugged or robbed, strangely enough, it is NOT going to be in a favela!”
And, he admits (with a slight grin) “there are many ways in which the arrival of a new drugs supply is announced. A British journalist, visiting Rio, was interested to hear, on a few consecutive mornings, a nice firework display going off on a local hillside. ‘Whose birthday are they celebrating?’ he asked his host ‘Don’t be an idiot’, said the host, ‘That’s saying that some new drugs have just arrived!’
“Why don’t the police speed to the scene of the celebration? Two reasons. Because the Brasilian police rarely (if ever) venture that far inside a favela – for their own safety. And secondly, because many of the police have their fingers in the till, and corruption is rife in the Rio police force.”
If his film does any good, he says, “it will be that the kids that see it will reflect about what it means to be a parent. That it is important to take care of your family. The guys who run the favelas won’t see it – they never go to the movies, rarely watch TV. I hope that they will recognise a few of the stories that are told about the gangsters – nothing in the film is made up, all of it is true, although names and places have been slightly changed. The incident where the drugs lord decides to go to the beach on a swelteringly hot day, and have a swim, well away from his home turf, safe territory – that’s all true. The police were alerted, and kept away from him, and his own guards watched out while other rival gangs were kept at bay. It happened. And he had a very pleasant afternoon!”
There were no sets for the film, he promises, “it was all, all, shot on location. In a way, that’s a good way to connect with the favela folk, because they see it, they recognise it, and they say ‘That’s our real life…’ The actors we use, they are all from the favela. Now many of them want to be actors full time, or technicians creating things on the other side of the camera. The performers don’t get a full script, just an overall idea of what I want from them. Then we sit down and we talk through the scenes and the plot. Then I have a quick run-through, and then we film it, with them doing the dialogue in their own words. Any other way, and it would all look so fake and false! It’s all improvisation, al slang, and all in their own words”.
But for all his insistence on reality, even Paulo Morelli sometimes has to cheat – just a little. There’s a key scene in City of Men where a motor tunnel (one of the many which connect the many areas of Rio with roads through the mountains) sees chaos as a gun-gang hijacks some cars. It’s at night, the traffic in the tunnels is generally going at breakneck speed, and….well, given that Rio city council aren’t exactly the film company’s biggest fans, how on earth did he pull it off?
Morelli grins and says: “It was maintenance day in the tunnel, and we wangled a couple of hours of access. We didn’t have to stop the real traffic, we brought a little of our own. But the lights were only what were available in the tunnel, the overhead halogen strip bulbs, plus the headlamps on our cars. I had to be quick to get what I wanted n a hand-held camera.
“A gangland hi-jacking in a major through-way motor tunnel…implausible? No way. Not in Rio. That was based on a real story as well!”