By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – So much has been written, said, photographed and filmed about favelas, especially in Rio de Janeiro where some twenty percent of of the city population calls them home, that it has become almost impossible to distinguish the lines between fiction and reality in any work of art, due to the ubiquitous documentation and speculation overshadowing any true cinematic representation.
Yet the mystery and intrigue wrapped up in the favelas is a goldmine for Brazilian filmmakers at this point in history, as the world seems to be fascinated with rampant accounts of guns, drugs, and violence. Even though no one denies these occurrences, such two-dimensional depictions largely ignore the context, doing injustice to the wealth of experiences waiting to be explored by the communities’ artists.
5x Favela, Agora por Nós Mesmos (5x Favela, Now by Ourselves), a low-key production composed of five short films all written, directed, and acted by promising artists from the favelas of Rio, premiered as part of the Official Selection of Cannes Film Festival, which is known for encouraging and rewarding cinematic courage and invention. Could this prove that the world is ready for more honest accounts of the favelas of Brazil, having been exposed to their shocking realities in Cidade de Deus (City of God) and the fight for their control in Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad)?
Given that the universal appeal of cinema comes from a sense of escapism and immersion in different realities, it comes as no surprise that Brazilian cinema-goers tend to gravitate towards the lighter flicks that tell whimsical stories on the soap opera-esque lives of the upper-middle class, while the international audiences expect to witness the unusual, exotic side of the country in Brazilian film.
5x Favela is a brilliant concoction in this sense, given this paradox of expectation and perception that afflicts the national cinema in the international scene, telling five lighthearted stories from the favelas of Rio and painting short but wholesome pictures of these communities, which involve more graffiti, samba, baile funk, laughs and kisses than guns and drugs.
The thin line between the whimsy, and the harsh, heart-wrenching reality is so well-observed that the producer, veteran filmmaker Carlos ‘Cacá’ Diegues, deserves praise for keeping his eyes on the big picture, considering worldwide repercussions. Modeling the film on the 1962 classic Cinco Vezes Favela, Diegues opted to use the favelas’ own filmmakers in order to reflect the insiders’ points-of-view, including those emerging from local initiatives such as AfroReggae, who were coached by such masters of Brazilian cinema as Walter Salles (Central do Brasil, Central Station), and Fernando Meirelles (Cidade de Deus, City of God).
Made up of vignettes of different aspects of the life in favelas, it would be unfair to criticize the film for the lack of a cohesive thread or satisfactory character development. Each short film not only presents us with genuine issues, but oozes personality and style, possibly heralding a new generation of Brazilian filmmakers — one that has the resources and the talent to build the bridges between the genuine and the exotic.
5x Favela takes us on an all-around journey on the favela streets, with each story adopting a different genre, subject matter and tone. The first short film, Fonte de Renda (Source of Income), explores the class relations and the prejudice faced by favela residents through a new student at a law school who can barely afford to take the bus being gradually pushed into selling drugs to his classmates.
Arroz com Feijão (Rice and Beans) is an amusing story about a kid who wants to get some chicken for his father’s birthday, with an unexpected revelation that becomes food for thought on the origins of crime and personal choices.
The darkest and arguably the most powerful of the films is Concerto Para Violino (Concert for Violin), about three childhood best friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the law. The grim tone the movie takes makes it clear early on that it is unlikely to end in hugs and tears.
Deixa Voar (Let It Fly), is a light touch look at the issue of gang rivalries, and follows a boy whose kite falls onto the “wrong” side of the favela, but who nevertheless decides to go and collect it.
The last film Acende a Luz (Let There be Light), about a community frustrated with the lack of power supply on Christmas Eve and ends up kidnapping an engineer to restore it comes as comic relief, and is the perfect piece to end the movie with by focusing on the characters’ incredible ability to celebrate and have fun regardless of circumstance.
If seeing the everyday happenings through a lens of humor, tragedy, and absurdity may sometimes be the best way to understand what a community is really like, 5x Favela offers exactly that, allowing the audience to leave the theater with a bittersweet mix of emotions, and having gained at least a bit of a genuine insight into the lives of the people from the favelas, and hopefully, having ditched some preconceptions on the way out.