"Never doubt," Margaret Mead famously said, "that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." A vibrant documentary, "Favela Rising," makes the case for that philosophy in the strongest possible terms.
Winner of close to a dozen festival awards and one of the films short-listed for last year's documentary Oscar, "Favela Rising" is a remarkable story of transformation and challenge on several levels, some completely unexpected.
"Favela Rising" was shot in the same teeming, endless, ultra-violent Rio de Janeiro slums that were the setting for "City of God" and "Pixote." It shows us that the reality behind those Brazilian films is even more unnerving than their fictionalized portrayals.
Vigario Geral, the particular favela directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary have focused on, is a place where children are used to falling asleep to gunfire, where the selling of drugs and the violence surrounding it are business as usual.
"Favela Rising" tells us that while 467 minors were killed from 1987 to 2001 in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the number in Rio for the same period was 3,937.
Anderson Sa, "Favela Rising's" protagonist, is very much a product of that world. He witnessed his first murder when he was 10 and grew up initially fantasizing about being in the drug world and then actually joining it. "The problems of your childhood," he says, "stay with you for the rest of your life."
Then, in 1993, after his brother died during a flurry of random killings by Rio's often corrupt and ineffectual police, something changed for Sa. He wanted things to be better, he wanted to do something to stem the violence, and so he joined Grupo AfroReggae, an organization founded by Jose Junior that had exactly that goal in mind.
Looking at themselves as "a group of destroyed people infected by idealism" and inspired by the Hindu god Shiva, who followed chaos with transformation, the AfroReggae organization was determined to use music as an instrument of change, to offer an alternative to the drug lords as a role model and/or identity for the children of the favela.
As the frontman for the group's signature band, AfroReggae, and a charismatic neighborhood organizer, Sa was wonderfully effective in using music to "change our reality."
Through local concerts and classes in dance, drumming and other disciplines, the group galvanized the kids it came across through the music's high energy and furious pride.
"You can't live passively in a drug zone," Sa tells the filmmakers. "We go to war to demand peace."
If this makes "Favela Rising" sound like a simple story of community uplift, the reality is more complicated. The social structure of the favelas is too complex, the violence too deeply ingrained a part of that, for there to be easy answers.
Like a tide that is always coming back in, violence is a problem that never completely leaves anyone alone.
Sa's personal story also becomes more complex in ways that only reality could imagine. But his grace under pressure, his energy as an onstage performer and his determination, as his worried but admiring fiancee puts it, to "do anything to save the world" makes his story and this film memorable and significant.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A ThinkFilm and HBO/Cinemax Documentary release. Directors-producers Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary. Cinematographers Zimbalist, Mochary, Kelly Mark Green. Editor Zimbalist. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
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