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City of God, City of Barriers

Reading Time: 4 minutesAQ takes a tour of Rio de Janiero’s Vidigal favela with local filmmaker Cavi Borges. View an exclusive slideshow here.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Some see Rio’s favelas as crime-ridden danger zones. Cavi Borges, a local filmmaker, sees them as dynamic film sets.

The movie producer and director hops on the back of a motorcycle taxi at the base of the Vidigal favela—a shantytown snaking up Morro Dois Irmãos in Rio de Janeiro—and zips through a series of alleyways and cobblestone streets until the road ends and he stands before a sweeping view of the crescent beaches of Leblon and Ipanema, the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.

Borges then gestures behind him to a boutique hotel under construction atop Vidigal—a symbol of the wealth that is rising up from the sea and creating a new dynamic for the filmmaker’s lens.

View a slideshow of Rio’s Vidigal favela below.

Borges—whose 2010 short film Distração de Ivan (Ivan’s Diversion) was selected for Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival—is back on the festival circuit promoting his new feature documentary, Cidade de Deus: 10 Anos Depois, which explores the lives of Rio’s favela actors who starred a decade ago in the Oscar-nominated crime drama Cidade de Deus. Co-directed with local filmmaker Luciano Vidigal, the documentary premiered on October 3 at the Rio Film Festival and has been submitted to Cannes and Sundance.

“I want to show the changes happening in Rio, and the difficulty of being an actor in Brazil,” Borges, a bear-like man with a boyish face, tells Americas Quarterly during a recent walk through Vidigal, his constantly changing film set (AQ first profiled the director in 2010.)

Rio de Janeiro is known internationally as the Cidade Maravilhosa, or “marvelous city.” It’s also known here as Cidade Partida, or “barrier city,” because of its stark divisions of wealth. Tin shacks sit directly above palatial mansions, as for decades money has pooled at the base of the city’s iconic hills and mountains like rain.

Now, investment is flowing up into favelas around the city as super-rich neighborhoods such as Leblon and Ipanema become saturated with wealth and housing prices soar. The trend has sped along, thanks to the government’s citywide “pacification” program, which established a permanent security presence in many formerly gang-controlled favelas, including Vidigal and Cidade de Deus.

In visiting these favelas, Borges uses the blockbuster film Cidade de Deus as a hook to reconnect with the actors and explore how the lives of ordinary people are changing. Yes, Brazil’s economy more than quadrupled in size since 2002. Yes, more than 40 million Brazilians have risen out of extreme poverty over the last decade. And yes, crime rates in Rio de Janeiro have plummeted since the police pacification program was initiated.

But how are lives changing?

Soberingly, life seems to have changed little for many of the favela kids cast in the film, which recruited its amateur cast from Rio’s slums and primarily from Vidigal’s renowned acting school Nós do Morro (We from the Morro). Borges found many actors still live in the infrastructure-poor favelas—some by choice, but many due to a lack of alternatives. Leandro Firmino, who played antagonist gangster Li’l Zé, still lives in Cidade de Deus. Alexandre Rodrigues, who played protagonist photojournalist Rocket, still lives in Vidigal, along with some 30 other actors from the original film.

“Every day I see the actors from Cidade de Deus; it’s normal,” says Vidigal resident Leticia Souza, 35, who we meet at a street-side ice cream shop. The actors are regular people—not rich people, just neighbors, she says.

Over the past 10 years, Vidigal has grown safer from the new police presence, but inadequate health care and education services have not improved, Souza says. Real estate prices have also jumped since the police-enforced pacification program began in November 2011, with homes regularly selling for six-figures as foreigners flock to the now-trendy neighborhood—even if social services are still lacking for local residents.

“The most important change is there are no more guns, but the rest is the same—hospitals, schools,” says Souza, adding that she sends her 8-year-old son Juan to a private school. “Life doesn’t really change.”

We continue walking through Vidigal as Borges points to actors’ homes, notable graffiti tags and new restaurants like Fenix Sushi Bar that mark the favela’s rapid gentrification. We pass through a futebol field where Borges filmed parts of his previous documentary in 2010, Copa Vidigal, which followed the first—and last—ill-fated attempt to hold a futebol tournament between gang-controlled favelas.

For his new work, Borges tracked down about 40 actors from Cidade de Deus, some who continued to excel in domestic television and film—like Roberta Rodrigues (Bernice) and Thiago Martins (Lampião), who both still live in Vidigal. He also connected with a few others who gained international fame from the film, like Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned) and Alice Braga (Angélica).

Still, others who were interviewed, like Rubens Sabino da Silva (Blackie) and Renato de Souza (Goose), seemed to have lost their way and now live in poverty, surviving on meager incomes from selling street food and fixing cars. On camera, they express bitterness that a $30 million blockbuster failed to enrich them.

Other actors are simply grateful that Cidade de Deus opened the door for more movie roles. Demand soared for actors from Nós do Morro such as Marcello Melo, who played a minor role in Cidade de Deus as a drug dealer and since then has enjoyed a successful career with roles in domestic hits Tropa de Elite (2007), Última Parada 174 (2008) and most recently as a police officer in Quase Samba, which premiered at the 2013 Festival do Rio.

Nós do Morro changed after Cidade de Deus,” says Melo, 31. “It gave the actors more opportunities.”

“I always wanted to be an actor,” he adds. “When I saw Bruce Lee films, I knew I wanted to be in them. But there was no opportunity where I grew up, no acting school there.”

Melo got involved with Nós do Morro when he moved to Vidigal at age 10, which eventually led to his casting in Cidade de Deus. Why someone like Melo was able to seize such opportunities while others struggled is a lingering question from the documentary.

Notably, one life that has changed is Borges’, who was inspired to try filmmaking after seeing Cidade de Deus in 2002. At the time, he was a former top judo wrestler and the owner of a movie rental store in Rio de Janeiro, undecided about what to do with his life after heart-breaking attempts to compete in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics—Borges was injured only months before each torch-lighting ceremony. Cidade de Deus got Borges involved with Nós do Morro and introduced him to Vidigal.

Back at the ice cream shop, Borges asks 8-year-old Juan what he wants to be when he grows up. An actor? A futebol star?

Juan whispers into his mother’s ear. “My son wants to be a judo teacher,” she says. “He prefers sports to acting.”

So did Borges.

“My film marks 10 years since City of God came out, but also 10 years since cinema came to the favela,” he says. “In another 10 years, what will we see? I think much more.”

All photos courtesy of the author.

Tags: Brazil, City of God, Vidigal
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