In 2002, a Brazilian movie called City of God was released. It was filmed in Rio's favelas with favela residents as actors. It became an international phenomenon, and was nominated for four Oscars. And since then, there hasn't been a Brazilian film with the same commercial success in the United States since, nor a Brazilian movie that has managed to loom so large in the American imagination about Brazil.
As the World Cup is set to begin, the image of the favela is firmly entrenched in the U.S. coverage of the event, be it the news or commercials. Favelas have been in the foreign spotlight even before the film (think: Michael Jackson), but "favela chic" and the fascination with favela imagery is a clear part of City of God's legacy.
A few have saw their careers take off, like Seu Jorge and Alice Braga, and others managed to build acting or showbusiness careers in Brazil. But the majority of actors interviewed in the film are living similar lives. Some have become family men; others are just scraping by. A number were arrested for robbery or involvement in the drug trade; one is presumed dead. One man is selling peanuts and hoping to kick off a music career.
Like the actors, Rio's favelas have undergone changes in the time since City of God came out. Pacification has meant that some communities have seen a drop in homicides, though a rise in disappearances and other types of crimes mean the overall result has yet to be defined. A huge socioeconomic shift brought millions into the middle class, meaning that nearly two-thirds of Brazilian favela residents are considered part of the "new middle class." With the development of mobile technology, cheaper phones mean that 90 percent of the new middle class owns a cell. That means homes in favelas are much more likely to now have TVs, computers, and electronics than back in 2002, and a growing number of favela residents are getting access to education and better jobs.
Still, the concepts that City of God cemented are ones that haven't changed much as far as foreign perceptions of favelas. There's still this romanticized or demonized notion of favelas that you'll continue to see throughout the World Cups. Do favelas still suffer from violence, drug trafficking, and poverty? Yes. But they're also an important part of how Brazilian society is transforming.
With this in mind, last month I agreed to be a volunteer writer and translator for Voz da Comunidade, a community news site based in Rio's Complexo do Alemão, run by Rene Silva. My first piece, a translation of my Ingrid Silva profile, ran last week. I agreed to contribute through writing New York stories and doing English translations of Rene's reporting because not only will it be fun to write for a Brazilian audience, but I also think there's a great benefit to getting Rene's coverage to a larger international audience.
Because while violence is an unfortunate reality, there's so much going on and Rene and his staff are able to report from within the community. It's important that foreigners realize that some things haven't changed in Rio's favelas, but thanks to technology and the socioeconomic shift, residents are telling their own stories every day.