Residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas (slums) are suffocated daily under the triple weight of poverty, drug cartel violence, and police oppression. In a culture and society as vibrant as Brazil’s, this pressure pushes against the surface with little outlet, especially for the youth. Schools are underfunded, home life is rocky for most, and getting food on the table is never a sure thing. More often than not, kids drift towards the most readily accessible example of people who have escaped poverty: the drug runners and gangbangers. Positive role models are few and far between in a sea of rickety shacks and makeshift abodes. In 1993 in the midst of the Vigário Geral favela, however, a seed was planted in the minds of a few brave individuals-- a seed that would grow into an idea and a way of life that gave hope and provided direction to a generation of favela youth.
Anderson Sá was a typical young kid in 1993, in the process of being sucked into drug trafficking like so many others. That year a tragedy took place so devastating that it would be forever burned into the memories of favela residents. The Rio police, enraged by the killings of four officers, stormed Vigário Geral with guns blazing, looking to kill anyone in sight. When the shooting finally stopped and the dust cleared, 21 innocent people were dead. Anderson Sá’s brother was among them. This had an immediate and life-changing impact on Anderson. His mother worried that the killing would push him further into the world of drugs, but it had the opposite effect. Right then and there, he set out to find a way to stop the endless cycle of violence that his community was trapped in.
Anderson’s thinking soon led to the realization that the only way to end the culture of violence was to substitute it with a more positive cultural model. The first manifestation of this was the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, a cultural group focused on music and black culture that Anderson started along with his friend José Junior and others. It published the AfroReggae Noticias, a newspaper for youth that focused on hip-hop, reggae and soul music. There was such a need for a positive cultural message that their first community center, the Núcleo Comunitario de Cultura, was opened. It filled a void in people’s lives, and all of a sudden kids in the favela had a place to go to learn music, capoeira, theater and dance. They opened the Vigário Legal AfroReggae Cultural Center in 1997, a larger facility in the community. The musical aspect was especially appealing, and from there Banda AfroReggae was formed. It soon became a huge hit in the favela, thanks to some donated percussion and sound equipment. The band and the movement steadily gained national popularity, thanks in part to the charismatic face of the organization, Anderson Sá.
Several years later, budding filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist was at home in Brooklyn when he received a call from his friend Matt Mochary, who was on the phone from a favela in Rio. Jeff and Matt had been looking to make a movie focused on an example of a successful and innovative community in Latin America, and Matt had found the perfect story. He wanted to examine the community built around AfroReggae and how other communities and favelas throughout Rio were confronting violence. Jeff was sold on the idea, to the point that he quit his job and met Matt in one of Rio’s most violent favelas, Vigário Geral. The scope of the movie steadily shrank as the process progressed and it became more and more apparent that Anderson Sá was a natural vehicle through which to tell the story of poverty, violence, and AfroReggae.
Jeff and Matt spent three years filming in the favela, making many trips back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and New York and becoming close friends with the leaders of AfroReggae. The film Favela Rising emerged naturally from their experiences. It was one of the first documentaries to shine a light on the violence that grips the everyday lives of poor people in Brazil. It shows how courage in the face of fear and intimidation can change the futures and destinies of kids whose outlooks were once hopeless. It illustrates the power that music has to transform society.
Join us this Sunday at 11pm EST/8pm PST for the DOC-DEBUT premiere of the groundbreaking documentary Favela Rising.