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By Cecilie Hestbæk, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The epicenter of the recent violence and massive police operations, Vila Cruzeiro was put on the world map last week. The community has existed for around forty years, and is located in Penha in Rio’s Zona Norte (North zone). The areas has between 40,000 – 70,000 inhabitants, who all – as oppose to other, newer favelas – have water, gas and electricity.

The main characters in the documentary about Vila Cruzeiro, image provided by Patricia Maresch.

The neighborhood is located near the Complexo Alemão, which encompasses ten neighborhoods and over forty favelas, and is generally considered one of the most dangerous favelas in Rio. The zone is responsible for over one third of the city’s murders, and a common death cause for inhabitants is stray bullets.

After tense fighting and numerous deaths, Vila Cruzeiro was taken over by BOPE and other police forces on November 25th. Most of the armed drug-dealers who escaped were expected to have fled to Complexo do Alemão, which the police then moved on to apprehend the alleged criminals and put an end to the recent attacks on the city.

Vila Cruzeiro is later going to be occupied by UPP, and the state government has plans of pacifying the entire surrounding area as well. During the recent police action in Zona Norte, the negative media coverage of Vila Cruzeiro has perhaps reached a climax, but it is nothing new.

‘You are crazy. You cannot just walk into that favela and make a movie. It’s impossible!’ That was the standard reaction a Dutch journalist and filmmaker, Patricia Maresch, met from people in Rio several years ago when she told them she wanted to make a documentary about life in the favela Vila Cruzeiro.

One episode specifically in 2002 triggered the media’s illustration of Vila Cruzeiro as hostile and dangerous. The journalist Tim Lopes from O Globo was killed by drug dealers in the community, and since that local journalist especially have been showing Vila Cruzeiro in the worst possible light, Maresch explains.

The main characters in the documentary, Cruzeiro, image provided by Patricia Maresch.

This is very sad, the documentarist thinks, as nobody then sees all the positive things about life in the community, the bad stories overshadow the culture and for example the remarkable social work that is being done there.

In Maresch’ documentary, Cruzeiro, she lets four young people from the community tell the story of life and dreams in the favela, without her interference in the topics covered or the decisions on what should make the last cut. “That way I could tell the story without my preconceptions being a part of it – and as preconceptions from society is exactly what these people suffer from, I wanted to avoid that,” she explains.

While the people living in Vila Cruzeiro have been quick to bounce back from the recent violence, and daily life is almost back to normal routine, Maresch is afraid that the episode has contributed significantly to an even more negative perception of the inhabitants of the community.

A small peace protest in Grota (Complexo do Alemão) during the recent violence, photo by Patricia Maresch.

“Truth is, 99 percent of the people living in the favela have no part in the trafficking of drugs and arms,” she says and adds that people are “desperate for peace.”

The inhabitants generally welcome every initiative to help progress in the community, Maresch tells, and they just hope for things to calm down and for the government to keep their promises and install good schools, health care, and create a safe environment in the favela.

Years later, in spite of what everybody told her, Maresch’s project turned out not to be impossible. And she is certainly not crazy, she laughs, and explains that nobody ever interfered with their filming. “I loved working there – people were always helpful and nice.”

Maresch’ documentary can be watched at cultureunplugged.com where it is currently one of the most viewed films.

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