The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will kick off Friday with an opening ceremony directed by one of Brazil’s most renowned filmmakers, Fernando Meirelles.
To some, it might seem like a surprising pick. That’s because Meirelles is best known for making 2002’s City of God, a gritty film featuring drug trade and violent crime in Rio’s impoverished favela neighborhoods in the 1980s.
City of God remains one of Brazil’s most famous films — and is also famous for bringing favelas to the forefront of the world’s consciousness. In an interview with Slant Magazine in 2003, Meirelles said former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva told him the "film changed his policies of public security."
To understand City of God’s impact on Brazilian society and the significance of Meirelles directing the Olympics opening ceremony, I spoke with Brazilian film expert and Columbia University professor Richard Peña. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tara Golshan: What’s the significance of Fernando Meirelles, best known for City of God, directing the opening ceremony of the Olympics?
Richard Peña: He is certainly one of Brazil’s best-known international directors. [City of God] certainly did shine a spotlight on Brazil and did bring Brazil into the spotlight of international cinema. It did have a strong impact.
I have been going to Brazil for 40 years. I first went there in the mid-'70s. The favelas were off limits. You could only go if you knew somebody. And if you knew somebody, maybe you could go to a rehearsal of a samba school or something like that. And it got worse after that.
What has been remarkable for me is how much the favelas have opened up. Some of them have guesthouses. Some of them have restaurants.
I’m on the board of Princeton’s Latin American Studies, and every year we go and listen to the [Princeton] seniors’ projects on Latin America. This one young woman who – not wanting to sound terribly restrictive – but tall, blond, Southern, was talking about the six months she spent in a favela, and I was like, "What? Are you kidding?" I was really actually dumbstruck.
That is really different. Some of that is due to policies on the part of the Brazilian government, a sense of policing more. That worked to a certain extent.
But as the economic conditions have gotten worse, many of the problems that have plagued the favelas for years with drugs and violence have come back again.
It’s a fascinating study in a way, and certainly City of God shined a bright spotlight on it.
TG: As you said, City of God, brought international attention to favelas, but what was the impact domestically?
RP: You have to go back a little bit in Brazilian history. There was a tremendous period in Brazilian cinema in the ’60s and ’70s called Cinema Novo, or New Cinema. In that period, the vast majority [of films] were really on the poor – very often the rural poor, but on the city poor as well.
In a way, in 1975 or 1976 there was a move away from that. There was a beginning of distaste for Brazilian cinema that had always been about miserabilism and not really about the wonderful things about Brazil.
While there were occasionally films about the poor or disenfranchised, Brazilian cinema moved in a different direction. And, in a way, one of the things people welcomed about City of God was the return to really shooting in those parts of Brazil tourists never see and almost never make it onto the screen.
TG: During the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, the promotional videos didn’t show the favelas at all. Yet Meirelles, who brought favelas into the international spotlight, is directing the opening ceremony. Is there significance there?
RP: I think it just speaks to [Meirelles’s] confidence. He is a talented guy with a style and sense of motion. It’s like why did the Chinese government ask Zhang Yimou in 2008? He was a guy who knew how to put on a good show.
In Brazil, where there have always been extremely politicized fronts, there has always been a push and pull to create a national cinema that really addresses the concrete political and social issues in some way and create an industry that is successful and claims back a space from the Americans. That has never been an easy marriage.
The one thing that was really important [about City of God] was that it was really successful. It gave a lot of hope that Brazil can create internationally successful films.
With the election of [former President] Lula, and, at least for the moment, progressive governments, there was an attempt to say, "What can we really do?"
The best thing to improve a lot of Latin America, which has areas like this, is make them part of the city. Because as long as these people feel they are not part of the city, they feel they are at war with the city. And once you include them, you find that things like drugs really do begin to go down.
TG: You talked about Meirelles’s sense of motion and style. But you are critical of City of God as a film. Why?
RP: I think there was a certain sensationalism that went along with it. It is a film that every shot came with an exclamation point. It was a certain style of the time: MTV, music video–driven style, quick cuts, fast camera movements. It was appealing and obviously made it an international hit, but for me the subject got drowned in the style.
You hear of months of working with these kids. I never felt that. I thought they were kind of objects filming for this impressionistic, almost psychedelic vision of the favelas.
The critical establishment was very uneasy [with City of God], and a lot of that establishment had been formed by the ideologies of the ’60s and ’70s, which tried to desensationalize Brazil. And this seemed to go in the other direction. It made things rather exotic.