“We were far from the picture-perfect postcard image of Rio de Janeiro,” says Rocket, the ray of hope at the heart of director Fernando Meirelles's City of God, the true story of two children who grew up in the favelas of Brazil during the 60s and how one turned to violence and another turned to photojournalism during the disco 70s. Meirelles's competency as a storyteller is remarkable, as is the jittery lyricism with which he connects the film's many narratives, exposing an epic battlefield of urban corruption at the center of one of the world's most populous cities. Tarantino's influence is all over City of God though the effortless grace with which the entire film is assembled more accurately brings to mind Scorsese's Goodfellas. Since the film's world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Meirelles has used the film's unprecedented success as a platform to focus the world's attention on the darkness of Rio's slums, one of the most violent and dangerous places in South America. Take City of God then as a humanitarian effort, Meirelles's attempt at globalizing the horrors of the favelas for the sake of their potential emancipation. Slant Magazine recently spoke with Meirelles about his next project, his role in the resurgent Latin American film movement, and how City of God has taken on a life of its own as a stirring work of political activism.
How important was the Paulo Lins book in Brazil?
Paulo Lins was raised in City of God. He was doing research for an anthropological work about dealers in the favelas and his boss asked him to write a novel about it. He took eight years writing it. When the book was published, it was a bestseller in Brazil because it was very shocking for us. Nobody knew exactly what happened inside the favelas and this was a book that was telling the story from the inside.
How did you come to be involved in adapting the book for the screen?
A friend of mine gave me the book and said that it was an amazing piece and that I should shoot the film. In the beginning, I wasn't interested because I didn't like action films and I didn't know anything about drug dealers. But I decided to read the book and it was amazing. I was shocked, because I live in Brazil and the story seemed like it was taking place in another place and era. It didn't seem like it was 1997 in Brazil, so I wanted to understand and show that world. But I did the film thinking about Brazilian audiences. I never thought the film would be an international project.
Apart from being Brazilian yourself, how familiar were you with the favelas before you began production on the film?
I knew a lot from newspapers, television and even from other films, but this was information coming from a middle-class point of view. All the information I had about the favelas was from my part of the country. The book was written from the other side, from inside the poor part of Brazil. When I decided to do the film, I wanted to put the camera on the other side and tell it through Paulo Lins's point of view and not a middle-class one.
What has been the impact of City of God in Brazil?
The film was such a hit in Brazil because of all the debates it provoked. I've been to a lot of universities and unions with the film. Lula [Brazil's president, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva] came to me and said that my film changed his policies of public security. It was great to hear that.
What's the current state of the favelas?
Now it's worse than it was in the 80s, when the film ends. The drug dealers control all the favelas, especially in Rio. During the late 70s and early 80s, in each favela a guy like Little Ze took control of all the territory in order to sell drugs and control the lives of everyone who lived there. In the 80s, all those bosses began to control their neighbors and other areas. They didn't just want one area for themselves, so they began to control other areas. Now in 2002, Rio de Janeiro is split between three criminal factions: the Red Command, Friends of Friends, a faction run by ex-policemen, and the Third Command. All the favelas belong to one of those three factions.
During shooting, did you worry at all about your safety and were you afraid that you were exposing police corruption?
No. The police didn't know that I was talking about their corruption until later. And we weren't really afraid to shoot inside those areas because we had permission to be there from the community centers inside the favelas. We never talked directly to the drug dealers but we knew nothing would happen to us. It was very relaxed.
Can you discuss the role music plays in the film as a cultural hallmark of favela life?
Brazil is a very musical country and music is part of our lives. If you go to a favela and walk by the houses, there's always music playing, like samba, funk and rap. I was kind of criticized in Brazil because the film has so much music and because it's very happy and funny sometimes. But when you go to a favela, it's a very fun place to be. The film tries to capture that same feeling.
What was your goal in working mostly with non-professional actors?
I decided to use non-professionals because I wanted to recreate the same feeling of the book. This was something I learned from Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, to never give my actors the script. I would just tell them the intentions behind each scene and character and let them improvise. So 70% of what you see and hear on the screen they created by themselves. This is what gives the film its sense of reality.
What's your involvement with filmmaker Kátia Lund?
Kátia was finishing an amazing documentary about drug dealers called News From a Private War, so I knew she knew a lot about this universe. I went to Rio and invited her to work with me to create a workshop for those boys that wanted to work as actors in the film. Because we worked so well together, we invited her to join the project as a co-director. We had a special way of co-directing. She didn't choose locations or art direction. She didn't edit and never talked to the director of photography. She was really just focused on the acting.
Can you discuss the themes of hopelessness and redemption in the film?
For the drug dealers, there's no hope. There's no way out for them and, in the end, they all die. Rocket represents hope in the film. He's a blend of Paulo Lins, someone who was raised in City of God and became a known writer, and his friend Rocket, who became a photographer.
What do you think of the comparisons that have been made between your film and other films like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction?
Pulp Fiction is quite different from City of God because Tarantino uses violence as an amusement, something funny and spectacular. City of God does the opposite. When you watch my film, you don't want to be part of these gangs. I think there's a certain morality there. Every time I had an opportunity to show violence I tried to avoid showing it on purpose. I don't think crime is glamorized in the film.
What is happening these days in the Brazilian film community?
We're very enthusiastic here. In the 80s, we were doing five or six features a year. Last year, we did 45. There's definitely a new generation coming out. There's a guy called Berto Brechi, who did a great film called The Intruder. Andrucha Waddington, who did Me You Them, will be releasing a new film. And Walter Salles just finished The Motorcycle Diaries, the story of Che Guevara.
You've said, “City of God is not only about a Brazilian issue, but one that involves the whole world. About societies which develop on the outskirts of our civilized world.” Can you talk about this a bit?
When I was traveling with the film through different festivals, journalists would ask me how my society allows things like this to happen and why we don't take care of this problem. My answer is always the same. I live in middle-class Brazil and not in the other side of Brazil. No matter what happens in that part, it seems like it doesn't effect us. We allow things to get to this point because we don't think this is our problem. It's the same relationship everywhere-in the U.S., in Latin America, in Africa. There are a lot of people without food and everyone thinks it isn't their problem. This isn't true because it's a worldwide problem, especially since all economies are so related.
You've received several Hollywood offers because of the film's success.
Yes, a lot. [laughs] Like 30 of them.
And you haven't taken any of them?
No, because I'm involved with this project Intolerance, The Sequel, which I'm going to shoot in 2004. I'm so enthusiastic about it. We're still writing the script. Maybe in five years I'll do something in Hollywood but I don't think I'm prepared yet. I'll always be very independent. I financed City of God myself so I'm not used to anyone telling me what to do. I have to learn to relate to producers and studios. I'm afraid of studios. [laughs]
Is Intolerance, The Sequel a sequel to the D.W. Griffith film?
The name is a joke but I'll try to keep it. It deals with the same idea. Intolerance tries to tell the story of mankind on a timeline. I'm going to talk about mankind on a geographical level. It's like a little puzzle. Five different stories and, after 30 minutes, the stories begin to connect and, in the end, it's the same plot. It takes place in the desert, in China, in Kenya, in New York, in Brazil. It seems kind of ambitious but it's a dramatic comedy. The theme of the film itself is globalization. No country is as unfair as the world itself.