By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – This week saw the premiere of Te Vejo Maré (I See You Maré) held in Botafogo, a new film based in the Complexo da Maré community by the talented young English filmmaker, Ben Holman.
Made with the support of English broadsheet newspaper The Guardian, which is showing a different chapter every day this week, the film offers a rarely-seen glimpse of the bittersweet reality of the much-maligned community, more often synonymous with media reports of drug-gang violence than images of hope, happiness and positivity.
Reflecting the geography of the sprawling, flat complex sandwiched between highways that link the postcard-perfect beaches of Zona Sul and the international airport, the film’s title opens viewers up to considering a vision of an area of Rio all but ignored by outsiders, including the government.
Its release has become more pertinent still, at a time when, with one eye on the Olympics, the state has begun construction of a huge wall along the length of the Linha Vermelha highway, hiding from view the community that Holman spent several months filming.
“When you put a camera in front of people in the favela they think you want them to talk about the violence,” says Holman, who split his time between Maré and his then apartment in Copacabana. “I wanted people to see the community in a different way though. You won’t see one gun in the feature-length film, and that was important to me. Those images sell newspapers, sell films even, but it’s deeply unfair to 99% of the population.”
Holman first came to Rio in 2000 for New Years, satisfying a curiosity about the city he had held since childhood. In 2005 the amateur boxer and filmmaker made the move to live here, and was introduced to Maré and more specifically Luta Pela Paz, a boxing NGO run by fellow Londoner Luke Downdey, after searching for a gym where he could train.
“I didn’t speak much Portuguese at the time, but it was so friendly there. I tried coaching some of the kids but soon realized my talents lay in filmmaking more than boxing, so I offered to make an institutional film for them.”
That gave him more reason to spend time in his adopted home, where what struck him most was the thriving sense of community that is so rare in the UK or many Zona Sul neighborhoods. After all the clichés and warnings from people about even daring enter a favela, the reality was something utterly different.
“That made me want to try and get other people to overcome their preconceptions and lazy generalizations. Coming from London where everyone is so integrated, nobody says ‘Don’t go there’, so it is easier to come with an open mind,” Holman continues. “I got in touch with The Guardian, who had put a previous film of mine on their website, and wrote a proposal to make a film about the other side of favela life, and this is the result.”
The intimate film, a seven-chapter look into some of the characters he met while in Complexo de Maré, is a touching, often funny, but always inspiring snapshot into a different world from that of Rio’s affluent South Zone. As far as could be from a sensationalist drugs and guns story, the picture drawn is rather one of simple hard work and love, neatly summed up in the penultimate portrait of the Paraiban “Galega” who moved to Rio as a young woman.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Rio,” she begins. “Its beautiful to see everyone sitting outside their front door chatting with their neighbours. A good neighbour IS your family”
It didn’t take long for Ben to appreciate her point of view. “Spending a lot of time there you actually feel safer inside than outside, and I had a culture shock coming back to the fenced-in life of Copacabana”, he says. “I mean, I’ve been jacked twice at gunpoint in five years, neither time was in Maré. At times I felt truly envious of the people there and their sense of community. They are in fact focused on what’s important in life – the neighbor’s new baby or the local football game. But maybe I’m lucky, I can step in and out of that world.”
The Guardian has discussed the possibility of entering the film for festivals in the UK and Sundance, and hopefully the premiere will have also served to open up the opporunity for more people to see the film. Not for Ben’s benefit, as he is happy to point out, but for the benefit of seeing what the reality of life is like in a community like Maré.