But to some extent, that's changing. Salve Jorge, a popular Globo novela that just ended, prominently featured characters from Rio's Complexo de Alemão favela, including real people like Renê Silva. Esquenta, a Globo program which often features culture and residents from favelas, recently brought on children from a Rio favela to the show. The host, Regina Casé, asked them which communities they were from. "Maybe only two years ago, the idea of asking someone what favela they were from, on national television, was unthinkable," writes Rio Real blog's Julia Michaels.
And now, a full-length documentary called "Batalha do Passinho" or "Battle of the Passinho," hits Brazilian theaters next month. It details the makings of a cultural movement born in Rio's favelas, featuring young people who developed a new dance form set to funk music. I spoke to Emílio Domingos, director of the film, about the movie and the passinho.
The passinho, or little step, is a combination of dances like break dancing and pop-and-lock, along with traditional Brazilian dances like samba and frevo. It's almost always improvised, and like break dancing, involves dancers facing off against one another. Started in 2011, a competition called Batalha do Passinho seeks to find the best passinho dancer. "When I saw a boy do frevo to funk [music], incorporating elements from capoeira, I was sure there was a cultural revolution going on," Julio Ludemir, the creator of the competition, told Folha. The competition is different from funk parties, late-night affairs sometimes attended by heavily armed drug traffickers. The event attracts families and dancers alike, and the show is now sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Coca Cola, among other entities. In the final round, 16 dancers go up against each other for 45 seconds. The final of the most recent competition was broadcast one of Brazil's most watched weekend programs on Globo. The winner, a 16-year old from Nova Iguaçu, won R$20,000, which he said he would use to take a class and help his mom.
Domingos, who earned a degree in social sciences from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has worked for a long time with funk culture in Rio. For over a decade, he was a DJ for a funk party featuring international and Brazilian hip hop and "black music," and has worked on research for documentaries since 1997. He made his first film in 2000, looking at Rio's hip hop scene, and has made a total of 11 movies, several about funk music and culture. He also directs music videos, and works as a researcher on Esquenta. His latest film project is directing a film about the Vasco da Gama soccer team, slated for release later this year.
"Batalha do Passinho" came about when Domingos was asked to be a judge at the competition. He'd seen the dance on Youtube beginning in 2008, but hadn't been to the competition. "I was really impressed with their movement, because it was fast and sophisticated," said Domingos. But he wanted to learn more about the dancers, and decided to make a short film. He ended up with a full-length documentary.
Domingos wants to bring the passinho to a larger audience. "The culture of the passinho is an expansive thing that brings together youth from different places, who often live far away from each other," said the director. It's not just a style of dance, but is also evidence of growing digital inclusion in favelas and a chance for social mobility. "They created a strategy to disseminate the passinho," explained Domingos. "Youtube is essential for them." Using the online video site, dancers not only developed an audience in Brazil and beyond, but used it as a place for debating, discussing, and learning the dance. The dancers tend to use basic technology, such as cell phone cameras and point-and-shoot cameras. The internet is so important for spreading the dance, said Domingos, that some who qualify for the competition had never been to a dance or performance before, learning the steps entirely online.
Changing one's reality is also important to dancers. Many of the young men work and do the dance as a hobby, hoping to turn it into a full-time source of income. "The big challenge is to transform this visibility into financial recognition...it's difficult," said Domingos. Some dancers say they spurned selling drugs in order to dedicate themselves to the dance.
The other goal of the film is to change people's minds about funk and those who are part of the culture. Domingos explained that some are prejudiced against not only those who live in favelas, but funk music itself. One of the first things that happens when police pacify a favela is to ban funk parties. Despite the popularity of passinho videos online, comments reveal how some people view the dance and music. "I never really understood the criminalization that people attribute to funk," said Domingos. "It's a story of what's happening."
The passinho competition and the movie have had success in changing people's minds. "A part of society is quite surprised by the passinho, with its sophistication," said Domingos. He always brings those featured in the movie to screenings so audience members can meet them. "[The dancers] are conscious of the artistic power of the passinho," Domingos said.
However, the reality of Rio's favelas is a part of the story, too. One of the young men Domingos featured in the film was murdered last year, likely by security guards. Domingos says he was an icon who developed his own style, and was called the "King of the Passinho." Though he worked in manual labor at night, he was starting to get paid opportunities to dance. The movie is something of an homage to him, Domingos noted.
To learn about the film and its release, follow Batalha do Passinho on Facebook.
Image: Courtesy of Emilio Domingos.