My close friend and co-filmmaker Matt Mochary called me on the phone from a shantytown in Brazil. He told me to pack my bags because he’d found the story we’d been searching for. A week earlier, I’d sat with Matt at a Mexican bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and expressed my wish for more nonfiction stories in the news, television, and theaters about communities that succeed, that overcome great adversity, that unite and reach and achieve. In short – communities that work.
It seems most people’s image of global harmony or disharmony is predominantly shaped by the media. When I find myself surrounded by stories of the world falling apart, naturally I imagine the world as a place falling apart. The more access I have to stories of communities that work, the more I imagine a world in which people are also realizing change and breaking the odds stacked against them. I am attracted to these vital and inspiring stories because it is in them that I find myself the most activated and alive.
On the phone, Matt told me of a chance meeting with the two leaders of a movement in the slums of Rio called AfroReggae. Here were a couple of broken individuals infected with idealism, eager for any chance to represent themselves, to share their winning prescription. I quit my job teaching editing and 10 days later was with Matt in Vigário Geral, Rio’s most violent slum. Across the table from us sat José Junior and Anderson Sá.
Over the next couple years Matt and I made many trips back to live in the favela with Anderson and Junior. We had taught youth from AfroReggae and a group called Nos do Cinema how to shoot with some of our DV equipment and would sometimes leave cameras with the children when we returned to New York. The idea was to encourage self-representation, to empower the youth using the same inside-out model of third world development preached and practiced by the AfroReggae movement itself. What was achieved was unique access to some of the more violent episodes of the favela and some of the most visceral and authentic scenes in the film.
On one of my trips I found myself driving to the emergency room at a beat down public hospital in Rio after getting the call that Anderson had a freak accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. Anderson was a good friend by this point, and it was devastating to see him in full body traction, unable to move, in a room overcrowded with gunplay victims and the nearly dead. In a faint whisper, Anderson told us to film him. He told us this was the truth, this was part of his story. Just as suddenly as a man finds himself unable to move below his neck, Matt and my film had unexpectedly shifted. What had started as a more general investigation into the AfroReggae movement and the horrors of the favela had become the story of one man’s fight to overcome. As Anderson faced the biggest obstacle of his life, a vast favela community held its breath, praying for a miracle to resurrect their leader.
FAVELA RISING celebrates the strength of the human spirit to assert itself in the face of human rights violations, social injustice, and unexpected adversity. Chronicling the rise to greatness of the AfroReggae movement, the film shows how the music and culture of Brazil's underclass transform into a catalyst for grassroots social-change. But most of all, FAVELA RISING is the story of a community that works. The success of the film should be judged on how well it serves to activate its viewers; how well it inspires action.