Favela Rising

On November 15, 2005 the Academy announced the documentary films in competition for 78th Academy Awards and I was pleased to learn that of the 15 films from which the five nominees will be selected, “Favela Rising” was among them. While the film did not make the final list of Nominations, it remains among the most important films to make the rounds of the festival circuit this year. I first saw the film at the Roxbury Film Festival and was impressed by the film and its potential as an agent of social change, as well as the way it weaved together both documentary and narrative conventions.

There are a lot of films with the primary goal of entertaining the audience, and then there are others with a loftier goal to motivate social change. Whenever I start to doubt that film and media can have a real effect on communities and can help mobilize people into action, along comes a film that renews my faith in the power of good documentary filmmaking to inspire pople out of their slumber and think. “Favela Rising” is of those films.

More and more films are getting hard to categorize, are they a narrative or documentary? “Favela Rising” raised this question again, and in very interesting ways. As Mike Nichols suggests in his book “Introduction to Documentary,” there are two types of films: documentaries of wish fulfillment, commonly referred to as fiction films, and documentaries of social realities, commonly referred to as documentary films. “Favela Rising” is a film that sits in both camps.

On the one hand the film tells a solid story and shares the aspirations of Anderson Sá, a leader of the AfroReggae cultural movement that exists to counteract the drug violence in a handful of the favlelas in Rio de Janeiro. The film plays a role in creating the myth of Anderson Sá as a leader and co-founder of the movement, without getting into the messy details of too many facts and details. Not that the film should. Anderson Sá’s position as a role model is more important that any mission of documentary purity for specific facts of what actually happened when. The truth lies beyond the fact, and myth is a powerful vehicle for social change.

The film at the same time is a documentary, not a documentary about it’s central character, for that story plays out more like a narrative, but the film is a poweful documentary about the social realities that lead to a third of the population of Rio being abandoned and ignored by the other two thirds. The citizens who live in the favelas are not afforded the same rights as other Brazilian citizens, for them the law is in the hands of teenage drug gangs and the police are accomplices to the drug lords providing arms, looking the other way, and collecting a handsome sum.

This reality is clearly depicted in other films like the documentary “Bus 174” and the narrative “City of God“. While “City of God” is clearly in the narrative camp, “Bus 174″ is clearly in the documentary camp. “Favela Rising” is different from these two films dealing with similar social realities in that it clearly and unapologetically staddles the line between narative and documentary and is better for it.

I suspect that this staddling is one of the reasons for not only the films popularity, but it’s ability to motivate people. The film has caught the attention of the Ford, Hewlett, and Kellog Foundations as an entertainment vehicle that can be used as a device to inspire other communties with parallel problems to look at how they can solve their problems from inside-out using their internal resources. The film has the potential to go way beyond the festival circuit and small audience of documentary film lovers and become an agent for social change.

So, yes, “Favela Rising” is a documentary, and it’s a powerful documentary, because it is both types: a documentary of both wish fulfillment and a documentary of social realities. And as a film, it stands as a potentially more powerful agent of change than it could be if it had followed either the conventions of narrative alone or the conventions of documentary alone. Maybe films like this are bringing to the fore a new mode of documentary, the narrative documentary.

An interview I did with Jeff Zimbalist, co-director of the film, appears in the September issue of NewEnglandFilm.com.