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, Kátia 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 scène: 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 Kátia 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.
Years earlier, Lund had played fixer for American director Spike Lee, helping him to secure permission to film the 1996 Michael Jackson video “They Don't Care About Us” in a Rio favela. The video production caused a stir when it was reported that Lee had paid the favela's drug boss for location rights, and Lund raised eyebrows again when she struck up an intimate friendship with the same drug boss. The Brown University graduate spent more and more time hanging out with criminals and denouncing the police. “Kátia knows the 'hill,'” Meirelles says. “She helped me get in.”
Like Spike Lee, Meirelles had to get a location “permit” to film. He initially used the real City of God as a location, but gang rivalries there were at a boiling point and blood was in the air. After months of tension — and a memorable experience in which a young man leveled a high-caliber pistol at Meirelles' face — the directors realized that City of God could not be shot in City of God. That was a little too real. As an alternative, they chose a hilltop favela governed by a Red Brigade crime boss known as “The Miner.” The Miner was in prison at the time, but even from behind bars his undisputed reign over the community ensured a modicum of stability, enough to lay down sets and roll tape. The production team delivered the script to his cellblock through intermediaries, and after making a few stipulations — for example that filmmakers would employ people from the community as support staff (the drug boss also beseeched them to “make it real”) — the Miner gave them the green light.
AND SO THE FILMING PROCEEDED AMID the quotidian business of drug deals, armed men, and the occasional cluster-burst of fireworks to warn of police in the area. “I suppose all that would have bothered me if I stopped to think about it,” says Meirelles, “but we were too busy to be scared.” Meirelles claims that after he secured the rights to film, his dealings with the Red Command ended, and that he never so much as spoke a word to Little Guy or any of the other crime bosses. In fact, most of Meirelles and Lund's time in the favelas, he said, had been spent dealing with kids. They felt that for the film's main characters, they had no option but to assign the roles to the young favelados themselves, the only ones who could bring the kind of ghetto vernacular and idiosyncrasies that no amount of dramatic training could ever reproduce. “The actors had to understand the subtleties, the tightrope situation that you are in when you live in a favela,” said Lund. “You have to know the rules and be smart, talk softly. There is a lot of body language. Things aren't said explicitly, and nobody ever says people's names. The slang is like codified information, only for those who are supposed to understand. There is just no way you can get middle-class actors to come across as being real in that environment.” In other words, it was not a simple matter of casting P. Diddy as a Manhattan gangster.
To assemble the cast, a team of scouts with video cameras was sent out among Rio's ghetto communities in search of talent. Two thousand candidates were screened, narrowed down to 400, and interviewed personally by the directors before a final 200 actors were selected to undergo an intensive six-month schedule of dramatic preparation. While a few had performed in community theater or a few minor movie roles (blacks are a rarity on Brazilian screens, despite being a majority of the population), most of the cast had never acted. Many of them came from unstable backgrounds; some had been discovered in orphanages — or on the street, living by their wits. What united them was the experience of the brutal life of the favela and the constant threat of police harassment.
Inevitably, some of the actors had a role in the drug trade, a fact that led to unique contributions to the film's plot. One night on the set as they prepared to shoot a scene in which a gang is preparing to strike out for a raid against its rivals, Meirelles was about to call “Action” when one of the actors stopped him. “Ain't we gonna pray first?” the kid asked. The director did not understand. “Every time we go out to attack someone, we pray first and ask for protection. Just start the camera and you'll see what I mean.” Meirelles began shooting as the actors prayed, a sequence that ended up in the movie. This interplay between the actors and the narrative led to constant rewrites, and draft after draft of the script.
The film's debut was initially overshadowed by the police action at the premiere, which led to a flurry of invective in the Brazilian press. Marina Maggessi, Rio's media-savvy chief of the counternarcotics police, wrote a long and scathing opinion piece in a major daily newspaper portraying the directors as dishonest and unscrupulous associates of violent criminals. “How could someone go into a favela with a camera for two years and leave untouched . . . and say that he made no deal with the traffickers?” she wrote. “Anyone who believes that is naive, stupid or cynical.”
But the exasperated police did more than just write editorials. After the movie's premiere, the directors would twice be called in for questioning, and threatened with criminal charges for contempt and “personal favoring” with the drug traffickers. Maggessi said she was particularly interested in what Meirelles could tell her about the Miner, who had since been released on bail but remained one of her principal targets. When Meirelles delayed the questioning, Chief Maggessi speculated, “He is scared. He doesn't want to mess with Miner and the Red Command.”
Meirelles concedes the point: “During the whole process of the film, that was the only time I ever was scared, scared that the traffickers would think that I was collaborating with the police.”
MEANWHILE, AS THE RIO POLICE sought to embarrass Meirelles and Lund, at movie theaters across the vast Brazilian nation, City of God was catching fire. Within a month of opening, Meirelles' film had broken the million-viewer mark and surpassed other popular Brazilian phenomena, such as Walter Salles' 1998 Central Station. Many of the children in the film have been lifted out of their hardscrabble lives to become movie stars in Brazil. The film has also made Meirelles, the head of a successful ad-production company in São Paulo, a serious commodity. His 2001 feature, Maids, had drawn praise for its sophisticated but unpretentious look at the life of domestic workers in São Paulo; Golden Gate, a short that he and Lund used as a kind of practice run for City of God, had won a series of festival accolades from Aspen to Berlin. But following the release of his latest work, people have begun to refer to Meirelles as the Martin Scorsese of South America, and the big Hollywood offers have come rolling in. Meirelles has turned them all down, however, and is embarking upon a new film adventure: “It is going to be in several different countries, a comedy about globalization.”
City of God made a big splash at Cannes and won first prize at the Latin American Film Festival in Havana. It is the official candidate from Brazil for this year's “best foreign” Oscar. Most important, City of God has generated heated debate in Brazil among a morally awakened middle class and the favelados alike. By now, the controversy over the directors' methods has been subsumed by the magnitude of the work itself. Still, and despite its impact, Meirelles does not believe that City of God can do more than make people aware of a seemingly intractable national plague. “The story of City of God begins 40 years ago, but it is still going on, and it is getting worse — more wasted young lives, more violence,” says Meirelles. “We have reached a new limit. This film cannot change that.”