Co-Director of Favela Rising Jeff Zimbalist talks about his inspiration, his shoot in the favelas (slums) of Rio, and the way to structure a documentary with a narrative.
Favela Rising is a new documentary by Jeff Zimbalist, a Northampton, Massachusetts native, and Matt Mochary. Back in August, the film won the Audience Favorite Award at the 7th Annual Roxbury Film Festival and is currently doing a successful run on the festival circuit. The film is set in Vigário Geral, one of hundreds of favelas (slums) surrounding Rio de Janeiro and are home to a third of the city’s population living a chaotic existence under the oppression of poverty and drug lords and police corruption. José Júnior, a DJ in Rio’s funk scene, and Anderson Sá, a former drug trafficker who underwent a personal transformation, started the AfroReggae movement to draw youth away from crime by offering them cultural alternatives.
The central character of Favela Rising is Anderson Sá, whom we see as a charismatic leader of AfroReggae and a positive role model blending the best qualities of a monk, pop star, and political revolutionary. Zimbalist and Mochary had unparalleled access to the world that Sá navigates in, providing a unique perspective of his vision, work, and the role of AfroReggae in the community. The film promises to inspire other communities facing problems similar to those of Vigário Geral to organize and work on solving their problems from within.
Jeff Zimbalist is an energetic 26-year-old with the demeanor of an experienced filmmaker who’s down-to-earth and skilled in his craft. I spoke with him about getting started, becoming involved with AfroReggae, his experiences shooting in Rio, and his suggestion to aspiring documentary filmmakers. The interview that follows was edited for clarity.
David Tamés: How did you get started as a filmmaker?
Jeff Zimbalist: I went to high school in Northampton and then to Brown University for undergrad. I did a modern culture and media concentration, more theory than technical. Out of Brown, I worked at the Maine Workshops as an assistant teacher. I was able to teach the theory part and learn the technical (camera, editing, and lighting) in my free time. I spent five years traveling around Latin America, making my own short films about development issues and stories of people in rural situations overcoming the odds, breaking the adversity they were up against, and breaking the stereotype of the Third World as a place wrecked by havoc, crisis, and conflict.
Tamés: How was it you became interested in Latin America?
Zimbalist: I think it had to do with parenting. My father was a Latin American economist and had lived in Chile when he was my age. Those stories in my childhood were influential, and I had this exotic image of Latin America and the adventure that it would hold for me in the future. My mother is an artist, so those two things came together. My interest became this cross-discipline of media work and third-world development rhetoric. Throughout college, I’d go down and be a supervisor for cross-cultural exchange programs, and that’s where I met and developed a lot of the relationships in Latin America.
Tamés: How did you become involved with Júnior, Sá, and AfroReggae?
Zimbalist: I ran the post-production department at the New York Film Academy in New York. [One of my students was] Matt Mochary, who co-directed the film. Matt and I became friends, and I told him how I wanted to go to Latin America and Third World areas that were up against abandonment, racism, and violence and were proactive [and] doing something about it. Two weeks later, serendipitously, he went down to a philanthropy conference where the Hewlett Foundation had invited him down to Brazil. He ran into the guys from the AfroReggae organization. Matt gave me a call from Brazil and said, “Are you willing to quit your job and come down here and make a film about these guys, you’re going to have to trust me, these are some amazing characters, and I’ll fund it.” So I took the opportunity.
Tamés: How did the story evolve?
Zimbalist: It took us a long time to find our story. Initially, we were focused on the divide; the segregation of the “two cities” of Rio and Anderson Sá was only one of many characters in the film. When he broke his neck, and we saw the impact that this event had on the community in the favela as the news got out, it became much clearer to me (at that point, I had another job and was out of Brazil) that we needed to focus our efforts on making his story the film, and essentially we started over.
Tamés: It must have been pretty risky to shoot in the favela.
Zimbalist: We were taking a significant risk going in there with cameras. Tim Lopes, a journalist for TV Globo, was doing a story [in 2002] about corruption with hidden cameras. He got footage of Boca de Fumo, where they deal drugs in the street. There is an understanding with some SWAT teams and certain invasion teams of the military police with certain drug cartels and various neighborhoods that if the police get a share of the drugs and arms traffic profits that certain Boca de Fumo locations will be strategically ignored. The cartel caught Tim Lopes, and a drug cartel jury tried him in a favela court, basically the corner of the street, and found him guilty and tortured and killed him. Since then, there’s been very little media presence in the favelas.
Tamés: And yet you shot there and had incredible access.
Zimbalist: Our approach was different. We always asked permission from the drug lords and went in with favela residents who were respected. We did not wander off and were transparent with our intentions. We would never manipulate people and say this is what you’re going to be represented as, and then change the representation because that would have gotten us into trouble. Even with precautions and transparency, it was very important throughout the edit (the first two and a half months of editing was done in Rio) that we had the characters there to make sure that they felt OK with not only their safety being in the film but also with the way they were represented and what they were revealing. Some of the codes and some of the secrets that people said in interviews that were in earlier versions of the film had to be edited out to protect the safety of people. There’s a big thing about kites in the documentary that I don’t think was in the version you saw; the younger children use the kites as warnings for invasions.
Tamés: You use the kites as a motif in the film; why?
Zimbalist: To me, the kid with the kite is symbolic, he’s the target of both the drug trafficking army, and he’s also the target for the AfroReggae organization. These two armies, an army of drug traffickers and bullets and an army of artists and percussionists and dancers, are targeting this child. The flying of the kite by an innocent youth at play is also the first role that one takes part in becoming a soldier in the drug trafficking army.
Tamés: What was it like shooting in the favela?
Zimbalist: I frequently had to knock on strangers’ doors and go inside because there was a police raid or some gunfire in the background. Matt shot some [of the] footage, and [on the first trip] we had Kelly Green [who] took some serious risks turning the camera on drug dealers and coming up with some good footage and scary stories.
Tamés: Can you share one of these stories?
Zimbalist: We were at a “Baile Funky,” big parties thrown by the drug lords, historically for the community to come and get addicted to drugs, but through the years, they have become a way to win the sympathy of the community and the drug lords invest money in big speakers and fireworks. In one scene in the film, Anderson is approached by a drug lord who thanks him for his work. [These guys have] massive guns and grenade launchers and everything military. The idea was that we would not turn our cameras (we would not even turn our heads) anywhere that Anderson did not allow us. And Kelly wandered and started turning his camera wherever he wanted and shot some drug lords dealing drugs. Exactly what we wanted to avoid. He found himself with a gun to his temple up against the wall. Anderson had to come to rescue him. Those were some crazy moments.
Tamés: Did you ever find yourself in a tight spot?
Zimbalist: On one visit, we were driving out of the favela, and I saw a team of military police in the back of this pickup truck [wearing] black ski masks, and they all had AK-47s. I brought the camera out because I felt this was the image of police as a gang, it made them look just as outlaw as any of the drug traffickers, and they saw the reflection of the red light of my camera in the window. It was raining. They pulled us over, and they held us up at gunpoint. Six of them all held their guns at me in a circle, and their chief had me take the camera and put it in VTR mode. Under an umbrella, I had to play him back everything on tape to ensure I had not caught them doing whatever illegal activity they had just done, and luckily I hadn’t. I got to the end of the tape, it went to blue, and he said, “that’s it?” and I said, “that’s it.” He let us go, an extremely lucky moment.
Tamés: What did you think as they pointed their guns at you?
Zimbalist: I was trying to stay calm and feel like I was going to make it out of there.
Tamés: Several films have been made addressing related issues; why do you think Favela Rising has received such a positive response?
Zimbalist: Part of [it is] the emotional arcs accessible to an audience that isn’t already interested in, or involved in, the dialog around development and youth educational work. We decided early on that we were making a film that would spread and move people and spark interest in the concepts. To have Anderson Sá’s neck injury happen while we were making the film is a primary reason the film is touching people outside of the conventional target audience for a film about these concepts. So it was about emotion first, arc first, and then, through that, getting people interested and provoked and activated around the issues and concepts we were discussing.
Tamés: Are there filmmakers or other artists you draw inspiration from?
Zimbalist: I loved When We Were Kings, that was a film that I referred to many times; what it’s about and what my film’s about have very little to do with each other, but then again, there are similarities, and there’s something about that film that felt like a guide or a model that I kept coming back to in the edit. Lee Hirsch’s Amandla! A Revolution In Four-Part Harmony is about music’s role in the South African revolution, how music can transform and how culture can overcome. He’s a good friend of mine, and his film was inspirational and set a course for me.
Tamés: The film has a beautiful range of textures and looks; what formats did you shoot with?
Zimbalist: I shot some 16mm film, but mostly in 24P with the Panasonic DVX-100. I also had a couple of Sony PD-150s for nighttime shooting since the DVX is bad in low light. We did some underwater and helicopter stuff [in] 16mm. More orchestrated [scenes] that we could set up were shot on film. The actual cinéma vérité scenes and the bulk of the footage came from the DVX. 10-15% of the film is footage local filmmakers had given us, we also got some archive footage from Globo (Brazil’s most prominent broadcast network), and then about 10% of it was shot by kids that we worked with and gave cameras to.
Tamés: How did you bring all these different formats and frame rates together in post?
Zimbalist: The 35mm print version of the film is all 24 frames per second. For the DVX stuff, we went back to the original tapes. We did an online in Final Cut with 4:2:2 recapture using Black Magic as our new render codec. We went through a Teranex to do the 29.97 to 24 frame rate conversion, and anywhere where it did not feel right, we would either re-Teranex it with different settings in the machine, or we’d use other plug-ins in an Avid Nitris suite trying to adjust movement and make it feel a little smoother. I did all of the color corrections in Final Cut myself.
Tamés: What advice can you give to documentary film students?
Zimbalist: I’ve taken two disciplines and used them together to become my storytelling technique. I think it’s constructive to be educated about filmmaking’s process, procedures, and vocation and to have another specialization, something else that one feels passionate about and educated about, and bring those two together. This is where the unique voice springs up and where films come alive.
Tamés: What are your hopes for the film from this point forward?
Zimbalist: The short-term hope is that it does well commercially and critically, facilitating the film’s more significant hope to do an extensive outreach campaign. We’ve been talking with the [several] foundations about funding an outreach campaign. We use the film in other urban areas that face similar adversity as the favelas in Rio de Janeiro face, neglect, abandonment, racism, violence, etc. What AfroReggae is doing is applicable in other urban areas. This kind of development is asset-based; it’s inside out. My ultimate goal is that [the film] becomes accessible beyond the usual self circulating world of development workers and documentary film lovers and introduces new concepts to the people it’s relevant for.
If you missed the screening at the Roxbury Film Festival, you’ll have a chance to see it locally at the Northern Lights Documentary Film Festival in Newburyport (September 30 to October 2) and the Northampton Independent Film Festival (November 9 to 13). Specific screening dates had not been set at the time this article went to press, check the festival web sites for screening dates and times.For more information on ‘Favela Rising’ visit www.favelarising.com. Also see: Northampton Independent Film Festival at www.niff.org; Northern Lights Documentary Film Festival at www.northernlightsfilmfestival.com and Roxbury Film Festival at www.roxburyfilmfestival.org.
This interview was initially published in New England Film on September 1, 2005, as “Narrative Documentary.” This post was last updated on April 16, 2022, to remove broken links and clean up some spelling and grammatical errors.