Tuesday, May 2, 2017

In the Shadow of the Hill

My first thoughts as I watched the film were that favela life was culturally rich even if it was possession- and cash-poor before the drug lords came in. As we watch the scenes unfold, it is this richness of connection and community that holds the narrative and refuses to give up, showing a resilience in the face of oppression, violence and vilification that cannot be silenced and that, eventually, overcomes injustice.

Rio de Janeiro didn’t care about how the traffickers’ hostile occupation of the favelas affected the disenfranchised residents in the impoverished favelas, despite having a thriving community. Rocinha was especially disrupted by the traffickers, but equally especially ignored by the politicians. The ‘favela problem’ wasn’t seen by the politicians until the city was awarded the honor of hosting the 2014 Olympics, and then the government saw the favelas, but saw them as a problem to be eradicated, by force if necessary. The favelas were seen as troubling not because of the disenfranchisement, racism or unrelenting poverty and poor housing conditions, but because of the need to assure the Olympic Committee and the global tourists who would soon be visiting that the city of Rio was safe and clean, two things the city government held that the favelas distinctly were not. The trafficker-controlled favelas, Rocinha the largest amongst them, stood as a direct counterpoint to the image and narrative that Brazil and Rio were showing the world.

I find it interesting that the government policy to address this undesirable element to be that of “pacification,” the overrunning of the favelas by force with guns and armor. This annexation of the favelas through martial law was an extreme response, one that reflects the government’s comfort with the use of threat and intimidation through a police state in the middle of the city. The residents are treated little better than animals. Early in the film, we see a man in a suit walking in Rocinha, heavily-armed and armor-clad officers at every turn warning him of the folly. He saunters casually through the lovely sun-drenched day, pointing out bullet holes in the murals, his nonchalance its own protest against the fear that the officers are peddling.

The rebellion of Rocinha is brutal and inspiring in equal measure. The injustices rained down upon the slum residents reflect their second class status, showing the Brazilian government’s priority of joining the global cities ranks over the safety and community of its local Rio citizens, even if they be poor or black. Power corrupts; Money corrupts; guns corrupt; the combination in Rocinha leads to an explosion of the poor against the government who would eradicate them altogether.

The protests began around a single missing man, but quickly become the voice of the power of community even in communities without power. Through creativity and organization, Rocinha citizens stand up, push back, and claim their right to live, even in a favela. They refuse to be silent despite threats of violence and vilification by the press. They engage a wider audience by taking their outrage to the internet, adding the government’s attempts to silence them to their listed complaints. Change comes, eventually, in a real and meaningful way. Michelle Lacerda says that “Twenty years ago, a black favela resident would have deserved their death in the eyes of the public, but not today.”

It is the eyes of the public, the very global perspective that Rio and by extension Brazil want to claim, that brings the justice to the community. The world stage backed the protesters, making it more than an outcry and transforming the organized resistance into real empowerment. Through exposure, their plight became real and the residents became seen. While we are all aghast at the government and its abuses, we rejoice with Lacerda when she says, “There is justice in this country. It’s slow, complicated and sometimes corrupt. But it exists.”