Favela on Blast

Two years after completion, Leandro HBL & Wesley Pentz's documentary on the sound of Rio's favelas finally sees a proper release. Greg Scruggs serves up critique and sociological context.

By Greg Scruggs

Rio de Janeiro: A Brief Sketch of the Divided City

In 1976, Janice Perlman published The Myth of Marginality, the result of several years worth of research she conducted while living in the favelas (squatter communities) of Rio de Janeiro. She concluded that the standard conception of favelados as socially disorganised, politically apathetic, and civically unengaged was a gross inaccuracy. While well received in the academic community, the book did not exactly penetrate the windowpanes of most middle- and upper-class cariocas, peering out their apartments with fear at the unabated growth of favelas along the hillsides.1

By the 1990s, that contrast — commonly described as between the morro (hill, where many but not all favelas are situated) and the asfalto (asphalt, the formal neighbourhoods of Rio where paved streets are the norm) — boiled over from the favelas and onto the privileged space of Ipanema beach, where teenagers from rival communities caused havoc on the sands, creating mass confusion and hysterical reactions from the media about a “looting rampage” that had not actually occurred. Around the same time, there were two headline-grabbing massacres by police that pointed to other social ills — one of street children on the steps of a downtown church and the other of an innocent family in the favela of Vigário Geral after a botched drug raid. The latter in particular was tragic and senseless collateral damage in the quixotic quest to corral the drug gangs that had ensconced themselves in the favelas.

One result? Another book — Zuenir Ventura’s Cidade Partida (Divided City). The veteran journalist did what few would dare — he crossed over and began spending time in Vigário Geral, getting to know the community, its residents, and those affected by the murders. He called the collective civil society of Rio to task for essentially ignoring the growth of favelas and letting social and economic isolation fester rather than confronting it head-on. He concluded that the two halves of the divided city could be reconciled, but that the underlying economic forces — namely the appeal of the drug trade vs. the alternative of menial labour — were a particularly daunting challenge.

Ventura’s book certainly changed some perceptions, although he pointed out as recently as 2001 that newspapers still routinely report that a hillside shootout disturbed the residents of so-and-so neighbourhood without mentioning the effect it had on the residents of the favela where the bullets were actually flying.2 Nonetheless, his book symbolizes an era of new willingness to recognize and engage with favelas, from the creation of VivaRio, the city’s largest NGO, to the award winning Favela-Bairro program, which sought to physically reconnect the divided city with much needed infrastructure improvements (water, sanitation, utilities, transportation).

Cultural Discord

Favelas are more than just physical spaces of bricks and mortar. As self-built communities, their residents — too often black, young, and poor — are equally in need of integration. But rather than passively accepting their fate, as the myth of marginality contends, they contest it. The desire to call attention to the plight of favelados was one motivation ascribed to the aforementioned chaos on the beach. In that respect, it is noteworthy that the perpetrators were derided as funkeiros — fans of the already exploding music scene of Miami bass beats sampled, looped, and rapped over in Portuguese. Sound systems, MCs, and DJs were crisscrossing the favelas and suburbs of Rio to play massive parties, bailes funk, while few in the asfalto had any idea.3

In The Funkification of Rio, George Yúdice initially compares the lyrics of a samba tune to a funk track in order to illustrate how the favela culture of the 1990s — after the military dictatorship, but in an era of unkept promises for democracy and of economic stagnation — was a form of “‘opting out’ of the ‘consensus culture’” as expressed through samba, Carnaval, and the traditional tropes of Brazilian culture that imply “racial cordiality.”4 The latter especially is a shibboleth in Brazilian society, where the notion of a “racial democracy” born of mesticagem (miscegenation with a positive connotation) obscures the reality of economic and social inequalities. The favelados funkeiros articulated their non-participation in this status quo by invading the beachfront to the tune of funk — bringing, however briefly, their favela culture to the main stage of Rio de Janeiro.

Unsurprisingly, they were rebuffed by police and funkeiro became a cultural shorthand for menacing youth — suddenly sporting bleached blond hair, tank tops, and Bermuda shorts was grounds for a stop-and-frisk. But the bailes continued unabated, mutating musically from the hard, hollow 808 percussion of the Volt Mix loop (sampled from an obscure DJ Battery Brain instrumental) to the fuller, Fruity Loops or Sony Acid induced tamborzão drum pattern, banged out live on MPCs. Meanwhile, funk was simultaneously prosecuted (from legislation to raids on bailes to daily harassment of funkeiros) and celebrated — in 1994, MCs Cidinho and Doca had funk’s first national hit with Rap da Felicidade. That responses to funk could range so widely were an indication of its ability to challenge the existing cultural order and pave the way for the heterogeneity of contemporary Rio.

Filming Favela Citizenship

However, Yúdice offers an insightful quotation from Milton Santos, an Afro-Brazilian geographer, who points out that “the multiple spaces of the new megacities of the world are not traversable by everyone, and that the poor tend to be prisoners in their own neighbourhoods. Multiplicity and heterogeneity do not translate into access.” Despite the ebbs and flows of funk as a national popular music — it has gone through several such waves, and is experiencing one currently — funkeiro status still does not afford citywide citizenship.

This claim, while lamentable, should not obscure the space where favelados are more than just citizens, but active participants in the creation and consumption of their own culture — the baile funk; its context, the favela or suburbia; and the attendant world of pirate CDs and DVDs, makeshift studios, dance routines, boomboxes blasting the latest hits, banners advertising this weekend’s baile, and the latest in funkeiro/a fashion.

The movimento funk inside and outside the baile is subsequently the subject of Favela on Blast, the documentary by Leandro HBL and Wesley Pentz. It has been years in the making, but finally debuted under the title Favela Bolada in 2008 at the Rio Film Festival and in 2009 under its English title at South by Southwest. Digital sales go live on August 24th this year.

It is a lush and lavishly shot film, accomplished by incredible and unprecedented access to the source material (favela bailes are notoriously camera unfriendly). The film showcases the veteran cinematography and editing talent of the Brazilian co-director, as well as the more than competent skill of Pentz, who studied filmmaking at Temple University before becoming better known as the globetrotting DJ Diplo.

The visual excellence is a result of attention to detail — from zoom-ins on a DJ’s hands manipulating an MPC to unconventional angles on the dance floor. Dramatic cuts as well as more subtle transitions skilfully manoeuvre from the mass spectacle of live performance to quotidian life in favelas to more intimate moments in homes and studios. Colourful MC Biruleibe, who graces some versions of the cover, is the subject of a particularly brilliant scene — arguably the centrepiece of the movie, a baile in the Morro do Prazeres that was organised by the directors’ close friend and collaborator DJ Sany Pitbull. It splices the live footage of Biruleibe’s hit, Treme a Tabaca, with the music video of the same track, with the considerably older MC (gray hair and all) acting the consummate showman.

Of a different tenor, an endearing aside shows the accelerated process of constructing a speaker from scratch in the Valão area of Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, with the start to finish scene capped off by a smiling pose next to the fruits of the carpenters’ labour. This happens in the middle of a busy Rocinha street, and many shots follow MCs around their own communities, using various favelas as both background (such as Deize Tigrona walking through Cidade de Deus) and element of the film’s tableau (MC Leonardo of the duo Júnior e Leonardo playing in the Acadêmicos da Rocinha samba school). MCs in particular are seen as community troubadours, joining their neighbours for a quick number without the bombast of a 40-foot sound system. Several such scenes combine to make ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall consider the notion of funk as favela folk music by illustrating how funk permeates life in the favela beyond the ritualised space of the baile.
 
 
 MC Deize Tigrona
 
Thus the genius of Favela on Blast is to turn the equation of marginality on its head, as the directors made a courageous decision not to depict the morro in relation to the asfalto, but rather to film inside several communities on their own terms. With the favelas of Rio and their culture as the central focus, it is the asfalto, the formal city of Rio, which is marginalised. The traditionally affluent Zona Sul, nouveau riche Barra da Tijuca, and the iconic tourist symbols of the city are quite literally cut out of the frame. Whereas exterior scenes within and around favelas abound, providing slices of life from the butcher shop to the corner bar, there are no street scenes of, say, pedestrians along Ipanema’s boutique-lined avenues. And in what must be a first for a movie set in Rio, there is only a brief shot of the beach — the nominally common space that nevertheless skews toward Rio’s privileged — in a montage toward the end of the film.

In doing so, Leandro HBL and Pentz admirably resist the temptation common in recent mainstream Brazilian cinema, from Orfeu (1999) to City of God (2002) to Elite Squad (2007), to view favelas through the prism of the asfalto. They err only once, when the end of the baile in Prazeres alternates with a generic overhead shot of a favela. The side-by-side makes the point that funk’s musical pastiche is symbiotic with and a mirror image of the bricolage construction of favelas, but it also uses the dangerous trope of presenting favelas anonymously and non-specifically, like in the introductory shot of Bus 174 (2002). Luckily, this is an isolated incident, and a later scene in the outer suburbs at the urban-rural interface, complete with a pig bathing itself in a river, adds another layer to the heterogeneity of Rio’s poor and marginalized spaces — in other words, not everything takes place in a hillside favela.

An interview with MC Galo is particularly telling. He is one of Rocinha’s original and most respected MCs, and in yet another breathtaking shot, Galo is captured high up on the side of the Morro Dois Irmãos that overlooks the community. The camera begins with the high-rise condominiums of São Conrado, the formal neighbourhood that lies near the entrance of Rocinha and serves as the counterpart to a vivid picture of Rio’s social divide. However, the camera swiftly pans away from the condos as Galo begins picking out specific streets and neighbourhoods down below before singing an acapella version of Rap da Rocinha, an early ’90s classic paean to his home turf. The overall effect is to suggest that the condos are nameless and anonymous in their rigid sameness and it is the community of Rocinha that is a rich and varied tapestry.

The same formula roughly holds true for interior and enclosed spaces, as there is plenty of footage of the improvised places — samba schools, small plazas, bus garages — where sound systems are able to set up. Here, the film cuts frequently between energetic shots of funkeiros, especially shots of the dance floor at its most stylish, from choreographed dance moves to skin-tight ensembles. By contrast, the film acknowledges funk’s popularity among the playboyzada (middle- and upper-class youth) pejoratively, with shots of a leering crowd ogling a female dancer and snapping camera phone pictures — passive, panting consumption of funk. To punctuate the moment, an MC comments that funk used to be “coisa de pobre, coisa de favalado, esse ritmo, de negro!” (something for the poor, something for the favelados, this black rhythm!), but nowadays the “suit-and-tie crowd” enjoys it. But while that Johnny-come-lately crowd may enjoy it, the film is adamant in its exuberant portrayal of the crowd that lives it.

Culture as Voice or Weapon?

The low-key one-on-ones in Favela on Blast give the MCs and DJs personality, from MC Colibri’s musings on Neptune, his favourite Roman god, to a rare lucid moment with superstar Mr Catra as he discusses his childhood in the forested area of Catumbi. They also lead to an organic history of the music, with the key elements — Volt Mix, tamborzão, DJ Marlboro, Miami Bass — spun in a non-linear fashion. One expository tidbit is revealed with particularly cunning camerawork. The scene titled “montagem ao vivo” (live mix) follows DJ Sany’s simple but elegant explanation of how DJ performance in the movimento funk transformed from the horizontal hand motion of spinning records to the vertical button pushing on an MPC. As if to mimic the MPC DJ’s rapid-fire hand motions, the directors immediately cue rapid-fire cuts between DJ and dancers.

Overall, the interviewees yield some interesting insights, such as the claim that DJ Luciano invented the tamborzão (my own investigation resulted in a hung jury with many competing claims) and the affirmation of an argument that I have maintained, that funk is repeating the history of samba on its path from prohibition to prominence. There are also great one-liners, such as DJ Carlos Machado’s explanation, “Bass, my friend, people like bass.” Catra, ever the spokesman, is particularly quotable, making grand pronouncement that funk is “a catalyst for faith, joy, sensuality, creativity, love, and sex” as well as the searing argument that “City of God was proibidão and it won an Oscar.”

Proibidão means extremely prohibited and describes a style of funk whose lyrics discuss and praise the actions of the narcotraffickers that rule most of Rio’s favelas. Catra, who sometimes sings proibidão himself, argues that City of God, by telling the story of the rise of one such drug gang, is committing the same narrative act as a proibidão track. Favela on Blast does not shy away from addressing this most controversial aspect of funk, with a chilling scene that shows a boy of maybe 9 or 10 singing a proibidão that he has clearly memorised. But another MC clarifies, with an oft-repeated defense, “The MC is the one that sings. MCs don’t shoot anyone. The MC is not a drug dealer.”
 
Presenting the history, context, and distinctions of funk in such a scattershot fashion will be confusing for the uninitiated, whether gringos or clueless Brazilians alike. The American release contains an introductory cartoon that narrates the history of funk; the Brazilian version does not, dropping the viewer in medias res. That immersion — no narrator, no frame, no imposed interpretation — is the most courageous cinematic choice of Favela on Blast. It offers funk in all its vulgarity, crudeness, and outsized sexuality without apology, as equally as characters discuss the trenchant issues of police repression and youth culture. The film could be faulted for not discussing the issue of funk and representations of women. While scantily clad women far outnumber scantily clad men in the movie, there are at least strong, quasi-feminist voices — like MC Deize Tigrona — who offer lyrical repartees to the aggressive come-ons in male vocals, though with a hint of embarrassment when singing the raunchy songs out of context. It is worth noting that Tati Quebra-Barraco, the brashest voice in female funk, is conspicuously absent from the film.

Ultimately, however, the presentation is unedited — at least as far as direct, voiceover commentary is concerned, since obviously the directors chose which footage to keep and what was left on the cutting room floor. This decision is the strongest indication of Favela on Blast as a means of giving direct voice to funkeiros. What they do with it remains to be seen. By contrast, the most visible, organised cultural force from Rio’s favelas is the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, a band that morphed into a multifaceted, multimedia mega-NGO offering radio, circus, dance, and music to favela youth in a variety of communities. AfroReggae is buoyed by national and international support — a month long residency at London’s Barbican Centre, for example, in 2008 — and was the subject of both a documentary film Favela Rising (2005) and book Culture is Our Weapon (2006). Their work is part of what Yúdice calls “favelados participating in putting back together the city that elites and narcotraffickers have torn asunder” or more simply “parlaying culture into social justice.”5

AfroReggae, then, in all its organisation, can be said to do cultural work — culture that achieves concrete objectives for its constituents. At the same time, their story makes for a predictable feel-good film and a book that is more manifesto than biography. Both lack the sheer thrill of Favela on Blast. It is true that several of funk’s more visionary players in the film, like DJ Marlboro, Mr Catra, and MC Leonardo, address the music’s social role and hint at the power of such a mass movement, perhaps prefiguring the politically-charged APA Funk movement that arose last year after the film was completed.

Favela on Blast
definitely has no coherent agenda, a wise aesthetic decision that may have been a bad business one. The film has only come out in fits and starts — the aforementioned festival appearance, but since then no wide-scale release or DVD sales. Meanwhile, Pentz’s record label, Mad Decent, which nominally co-produced the film, sells records like hotcakes. It could be that a record label simply doesn’t know how to market a film, or that a documentary without a story is too hard to market. Perhaps Pentz has been unable or unwilling to put his muscle behind the film’s promotion — a frenetic tour schedule both solo and with Major Lazer doesn’t exactly leave much free time. To my eyes, the film, while begun during Pentz’s first trips to Rio, serves as something of a latter-day restitution on his part for earlier transgressions, such as uncredited tracks on his funk mixtapes (including his first, Favela on Blast, whence the title of the film). Pentz’s penance complete, has he simply shifted his attention elsewhere?

Whatever the cause, this beguiling, and disappointing, lack of exposure for such a gem of a film makes me doubt the future of the trilogy that I had heard Leandro HBL and Pentz hope to complete — this funk documentary coupled with future titles on Angolan kuduro and Latin American cumbia. If they ever do come to fruition, I have no doubt they’ll be as lovingly polished as this film. Even if they don’t, Favela on Blast will remain a singular work, the most honest and important depiction of funk yet made, and the closest approximation that exists to actually attending a baile in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
 
 
 Favela on Blast trailer
 
Footnotes:
 
1) She published a follow-up, Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, this year.
2) “Zuenir Ventura” in Para entender o Brasil, eds. Marisa Sobral and Luiz Antonio Aguiar, São Paulo: Alegro, 2001, p. 348. “The other day, I read the caption of a photo in the newspaper that said the residents of Copacabana weren’t able to sleep the night before because of a firefight in the favela Pavão-Pavãozinho, as if those up on the hill, closer to the bullets, had slept peacefully.
3) Hermano Vianna, who wrote the first academic treatment of funk in 1988, O mundo funk carioca, made the rough estimate then — over 20 years ago — that upwards of 1 million people frequented bailes every weekend.
4) Yúdice, George. "The Funkification of Rio." In Microphone Fiends, 193-220. London: Routledge, 1994.
5) The former is the title of conference remarks Yúdice made in 2007 and the latter is the subject of a 2001 article that appeared in Social Text.
 
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 Greg Scruggs lives in Philadelphia, where he recently organized a showing of Favela on Blast through the Braziladelphia project. He will be based full-time in Rio de Janeiro as of December.
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