There’s something plaguing Rio in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games and it has nothing to do with the Zika virus.
Australian filmmaker Dan Jackson’s knowledge of life inside Brazilian favelas was limited to what he’d seen in cult movies like City of God. That was before he left his job in commercial production, bought a car in Argentina and ended up living in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela, for a year. He said that what initially drew him to the favelas was that, “…these really sprawling places that could directly exist next to some of the wealthiest neighbours in all of Latin America.”
His documentary film, In the Shadow of the Hill, plays out within the backdrop of the highly controversial military operation, known as the ‘pacification,’ of Rio’s favelas. Reports began to surface of police abuse and in the space of six years, 38, 000 people disappeared from these areas. The film follows the disappearance of one, local bricklayer Amarildo de Souza, who was taken in for questioning and never seen again. His family believes he was tortured and murdered by the police.
‘Pacification,’ aimed to clean up the slums by reclaiming gang territory, making the cities safer (and more aesthetically pleasing), for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. “The pacification process means a permanent police presence in the favelas, but it also doesn’t mean that the traffickers ever left. They’re still very much present, the police are still present, it’s kind of like a bi-polar power dynamic,” said Jackson.
But what does the Olympic Games have to do with the disappearance of Amarildo? Jackson said, “If we are to accept that the World Cup and Olympics acted as a trigger for the invasion and pacification of many of Rio’s favelas, we must also accept that the consequences of these operations are inextricably tied to the sporting mega-events themselves…human rights abuses, torture, murder and disappearances, especially targeting young, black males from the favelas.”
The disappearance of the man who was to become the central character in his film didn’t happen until his third visit there. “I was just running around interviewing everyone, from residents to police officers, drug traffickers, sociologists, criminologists and lawmakers.” A process which, in hindsight, he says was an “extended casting session,” forcing Jackson to learn Portuguese very quickly. “I’d conduct all these interviews and not really have a clue what was being said to me. I’d take them back home and watch them over and over to make sense of them.”
Being heavily scrutinised by the Brazilian media, Jackson says, caused both residents and traffickers to be naturally distrustful of anyone with a camera. Although a different time and context from 2002, it’s unlikely that any journalist or filmmaker venturing into the favelas would forget the horrific murder of Tim Lopes. Lopes, a Brazilian journalist on an undercover assignment, was tortured, partially dismembered and set on fire by local drug traffickers who believed he was secretly filming their operation
Jackson said he made sure to make friends with everyone in the community, even the drug traffickers, who Jackson says are not all bad people. “Sometimes they’re just people who are put in really difficult circumstances and have families to feed and the only way they know how to do it is to go and work in the drug trade.”
Over time Jackson found himself becoming a part of the community, but on more than one occasion he found that taking a wrong turn down an alley ended up with a gun to the head. “I ended up in one of the drug selling dens… they saw me with a camera so I think they assumed I was covertly trying to film them. I found myself with guns at my head and being patted down. When they realised, these huge grins erupted across their faces and they started offering me meat from a BBQ, jamming beers into my hands and I ended hanging out with them for a few hours.”
Jackson said that for the most part, he felt safe living in Rocinha, but that violence would undulate quite wildly. “You could go for weeks without hearing a shot, it was all quite calm. Then out of nowhere there was seemingly shootouts every day, you’d go to sleep with the sound of machine guns echoing throughout the favela,” he said.
The eyes of the world are on Rio for the upcoming Olympic Games and to put it lightly, Jackson’s film is a police and government PR nightmare. “On more than one occasion I was told in no uncertain terms by the police that I was in danger and I should leave. They left it ambiguous about whether the danger was posed by the drug traffickers or them but I certainly took it as a veiled threat.”
At one point there was an estimated 100, 000 Brazilians involved in favela gangs, more than the entire number of the Brazilian police force. Police stayed well away from favelas and as a result, the favelas and the drug trade within were left to flourish as gang fiefdoms, where traffickers word was law, and laws were enforced with guns and violence.
So when the decision came from the government to ‘clean up the slums,’ the response was divisive between favela residents. “A lot were very sceptical because they knew how the police had come in in the past and it had been in a violent way. Some people are happy and think it’s only going to improve their lives, but there’s also a whole lot of people that are very nostalgic for the rule of the traffickers and very much preferred living life in that kind of context.”
But what happens when the eyes of the world and its media leave Rio? Jackson worries that any attempts made to establish peace within the favelas will go backwards. “I think you’ll probably see a lull in some of the really violent episodes that have been happening in the favelas. We’ll probably see cartels start to invade territory of other cartels and the situation will become more unstable and dangerous for the residents.”
Click here for more info on the film and screening locations.