By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
TO THIS DAY, NO ONE SEEMS TO BE SURE WHY Paulo Sergio Magno, a.k.a. Little Guy — a drug underboss wanted in Brazil on four counts of murder and numerous other charges — dared to show his face at the premiere of writer-director Fernando Meirelles' new film, held last August at a pastel-hued shopping mall in a tony neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro's south side. Such fugitives rarely venture out of the favelas, the squalid, violent shantytowns in which Meirelles had spent the last several years shooting City of God. But there he was, invitation in hand, calmly floating up an escalator toward the entrance of the theater like all the other guests, when out of nowhere, a team of plainclothes cops — specialized officers trained to identify gangsters like Little Guy — had him surrounded, discreetly informed him that he was under arrest and whisked him away in handcuffs before most of the guests had even noticed.
Then came the headlines: The drug dealer told police that he had come on the invitation of the filmmakers, who had been shooting City of God in his territory with the overt sanction and protection of the gang leadership. Meirelles and the film's co-director, KÃ¡tia Lund, were soon hauled in for questioning based on suspicions that they had collaborated with real-life drug lords in order to film within their ghetto dominion.
City of God had opened amidst a volatile winter in Rio. During the presidential and state elections, the Red Command — the city's biggest criminal organization — went on a brutal quest to expand its power, lobbing grenades at government buildings, taking out rival gang leaders inside a maximum-security prison, and gruesomely torturing a popular television journalist, then beheading him with a samurai sword. The public was terrified and angry, and even the vaguest rumors of collaboration with murderous drug lords was, to say the least, bad publicity.
On location for City of God
Meirelles and Lund denied involvement with Magno or having had any direct business dealings with the traffickers, and chalked up the police response to spite. "The truth is," countered Meirelles, "my film portrays the police as corrupt and weak, and the police don't like that." But the newspaper stories, the investigation and the back-and-forth recriminations would take on a life of their own. Meirelles would soon be threatened with criminal charges, and, even worse, he would find himself in the uncomfortable position of being asked to make sworn statements against one of the leaders of the Red Command.
IF THESE ARE NOT THE TYPICAL CONCERNS OF a feature-film director, neither is City of God your typical gangster movie. Adapted from a semiautobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, the movie is a triptych of three decades — the 1960s, '70s and '80s — in the life of a Rio favela called City of God. Over the years, drug traffickers, corrupt cops and overall socioeconomic inequities have transformed this and other ghetto communities into dystopian enclaves, marked by sub-Saharan poverty and homicide rates on par with countries ravaged by civil war. While the middle-class Brazilians who dwell on the stable asphalt of modern Rio can look up at any time of day and see the favelas clinging precariously to the hillsides above them, they remain naive about the human drama and strife transpiring inside. The story of the favela is more often grist for the crime pages than the stuff of Brazil's entertainment culture, which tends to dwell on the insouciant matters of telenovelas or the latest Russell Crowe love interest. And never before had the story of Brazil's slums been brought to the big screen by someone with the cinematic gifts of Fernando Meirelles.
"The favela is a totally closed world, a separate country within a country," says Meirelles, who, before shooting his film, had (like most privileged or even modestly situated Brazilians) seldom dared set foot in such places. "I wanted my family, my friends and neighbors to understand this world, so I had to make it real, to really get inside of it." But while Meirelles' quest for realism would ultimately pay off, it would also bring him into harrowing proximity to his subject — Rio de Janeiro's violent criminal underworld. The director decided early on that "getting inside of it" would require a dauntingly literal mise en scÃ¨ne: He brought his camera crew into the favelas and assembled a cast of young actors drawn straight from the ghetto. All this was more easily conceived than executed, of course. Within Brazilian society, the favela is another social dimension, with its own order and set of laws. Meirelles was an outsider.
To unlock the door, Meirelles brought on as co-director KÃ¡tia Lund, who in 1999 had made the riveting documentary News of a Private War. A freckled, red-haired daughter of an upper-middle-class American family, Lund had learned about life in the ghetto and the esoteric political culture of the drug traffickers. For the reality-driven production of City of God, this was critical; in Rio's slums, drug-trafficking gangs are referred to without irony as the "parallel power" — they maintain order, settle disputes, and buy off or kill any law-enforcement officials who stand in their way. Nothing happens in the favela without their approval, least of all the making of a feature film.
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