Directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary on Making Favela Rising

Submitted by Paul Griffiths on Mon, 03/27/2006 - 15:00

U.S. filmmakers Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary found Anderson Sa and Junior Jose bringing about change against all the odds in a true story that galvanises, and humbles, the spirit. After founding the Afro Reggae group, they began to excite their communities with an energetic mix of drumming and dancing that packs a powerful message.

Director Matt Mochary talks here about the logistics of filming in a suburban war-zone on a tight budget, and the inspiration that he and others have gained from the film.

PG: I read that you brought the idea for Favela Rising to Jeff after a conversation you had a while before. Can you tell us about that conversation?

MM: I had taken a crash course in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy and Jeff was the editing teacher there. He started telling me about the next step that he wanted to take and stories that he wanted to tell. We had both travelled a lot in the in developing world and had really enjoyed those experiences. We both clicked on the same sense that the positive stories that we were seeing weren't being told in the media in the US and we wanted to change that. It wasn't anything more ambitious than to tell a story that it positive at some point.

About a month later I was invited down to Brazil by the Hewlett Foundation to a conference on social work and I figured what a great opportunity to make a film about Brazil and get introduced to the country. I went down there and that's where I met Anderson and Junior - and immediately knew, 'Wow, this is it!' I realised this is exactly the kind of stuff Jeff Zimbalist wants to film.

So, I pitched him. I said, 'Hey, do you want to quit your really good job because I think I've found the story that you and I were talking about'. I described it to him, he quit his job and five days later we were in Brazil and for the next two years neither of us got paid anything and made a movie.

PG: So you were doing this on a 'voluntary' basis, committed to the story?

MM: We were funding it ourselves. The way we funded it - we decided not to pay ourselves. We each had some savings. By the end of it we had less savings!

But that's really the true cost in making a non-fiction film, it's your time. It's amazing to me how many people don't make their films because they think they need a whole lot of money in order to make it. So they just wait and sometimes they wait forever. The reality is they don't. It's just two cameras, even one. We had two. The cameras you can get used for $2,000 and the tapes cost us $5 for an hour's tape. We had 200 hours of tape, which is a lot. Everything else is just living costs. We lived cheaply. Real cheap, actually!

PG: When you hooked up with Anderson and Junior, how receptive were they to you and Jeff and your ideas?

MM: Anderson tells the story that Afro Reggae are very spiritual and very intuitive. They make a decision pretty much on how they feel when they first meet someone. When he met me he just had a really good feeling and that's what allowed him to say, 'Ok, I'm going to accept let this guy in'. Now he didn't just end there, he didn't just then trust Jeff and me blindly, but it allowed him to open up initially. Then he would keep checking in with himself: are these guys really partners? Are they trying to take something from us, or trying to give something to us? And every time he checked in with himself the answer was, these guys are trying to give something to us.

That was not coincidental. Jeff and I both believed that the important thing was that we involved Afro Reggae in the telling of their own story. We know we're outsiders. We know that no matter how much time we spend with them, we'll never really know what their lives are like. So we're going to make a film that is going to represent what their life, what Anderson's life is like. Only he knows what it's really like.

So we made what a filmmaker might think is a very dangerous decision: we decided to bring Anderson and Junior into the editing room. As we came out with cuts we would share them with them and ask, does this accurately represent the life that you live? They would look at it and say, 'yes pretty much, but here are some things that we don't think are accurate'. They'd mention them specifically and say, 'here's what we think you need to represent. We're not going to tell you how to get there but we'll let you know when you've got there.' So we'd go and make the changes and they'd say, 'yeah, now you got it'.

Then there were a few times that they said, that is accurate but it's going to put us in danger if the wrong person sees it, so you've got to take it out!

PG: So there was something very authentic in the piece, but too close to what was going on in the favelas?

MM: While it did take away from the impact, there was no question what our priority was: keeping these guys safe. I think the fact that we did allow them into the editing room, that we did heed their opinions and advice, made them realise, 'Wow, these guys are partners, they're not coming in and shooting for a few days, going home, making up some story and then we'll never see them again'. Our relationships have grown very close.

This has definitely gone beyond a filmmaker-subject relationship. We're all the closest of friends. As a little example of that, and quite an honour for me: Jeff and I always felt super-close to them, but we never knew how impactful to Afro Reggae. Anderson's getting married in April and he's asked me and my girlfriend to be his 'best couple'. In Brazil, they don't have best man or best woman, they have best couple.

PG: Congratulations!

MM: Thanks! I guess they viewed us as closely as we do them.

PG: Didn't you also train some people in the favelas to use your DV cameras and while you went back to New York.

MM: Yes. It wasn't the $2,000 cameras, though! It was $300 cameras! There are these 15, 16, 17 year old kids there who were part of this group that had hung around the filming of City of God and they were really excited to learn more. So we showed them how to use the cameras, a little bit of editing. We thought, how can we somehow incorporate this into the film? So we left these cameras with them and said, you go and film.

We didn't really expect much, anything to come out of that, but we had nothing to lose. So they took the cameras and they shot. Wow! Particularly one kid, the stuff he shot was mind-blowing.

PG: Was there any kind of standout footage that you included in the film from this?

MM: The real hardcore stuff where people are actually shooting and people are actually dying. That's not us.

PG: How old was this kid?

MM: 16. Fearless.

PG: Right on the frontline.

MM: And a good shooter!

PG: Was he the guy capturing the images of the drug army and the drug warriors parading their weaponry in the favelas? Was that all him?

MM: It wasn't all him. The deep access came from him and another source: Afro Reggae had had the support from people and artists throughout their history and there were two or three filmmakers who had been filming alongside Afro Reggae sort of pretty early on in their history and had made that footage available to Afro Reggae. Afro Reggae hadn't done anything with it, they were sort of waiting. About a year and half ago Junior and Anderson came up to New York for a concert and actually stayed at my place. The whole band did. All eleven guys crashed over and we all watched the movie, the cut at the time. Everyone cried. Junior said, 'Ok, I've been waiting for this moment. Afro Reggae's had films made about it before, one was made by the BBC, one was made by an American filmmaker about eight years ago and this is finally the one where we believe we want to give you the footage we've been saving'.

PG: So not only did they contribute to the editing, they contributed their own stock footage, as it were?

MM: Absolutely, but we didn't really expect much from that. Then this tape arrived. From now on we've learnt to expect a little bit more. Our jaws dropped because that's the footage of the 1993 massacre. So that was stuff we could never have recorded because it was not possible. So that was amazing. Those were the two sources of footage that were quite dramatic which we could never have got ourselves.

PG: The film points out that the vast majority of the people who live in the favelas are trying to live a peaceful sort of existence and they're not involved in the violence and the drug trafficking. However, it quite vividly portrays they are constantly living in fear of it. Were you ever afraid when you were going into situations there, I would presume, as fairly noticeable outsider people?

MM: No, I was never afraid of going in because we always had permission through Afro Reggae from the drug lords. So it was always known by everyone in the community who we were, what we were doing and that we were ok. We never had direct contact asking them permission, it was always Afro Reggae asking them permission.

The only times we really had any difficult situations were not going into the favela, it was always coming out.. Because, here we are these white guys coming out of the favela and the police see us. 'Why are white guys coming out of the favela? They must be buying drugs.' So they came and stopped us, wanted to see what the cameras were about, what are we filming. But once we explained to them who we were, what we were filming, everything was fine. Obviously, there were pretty tense moments, because it's never fun to have the wrong end of a gun pointing at your head.

PG: Why did you think it was important to portray the police elements in the film?

MM: Well it's a vital part of what the favela is. There are three major constituents groups in a favela. The residents, the drug traffickers and the police. Those are the ones who determine what each day is like. To not include them would be to exclude a huge portion of what reality is.

PG: André Louis Azurvado, the investigative journalist that you interview, explicitly points out that the corrupt police force in Rio de Janeiro controls the drug trafficking and the poverty situation in the favelas. Did you ever have any conflict with the authorities?

MM: We never received official permission, we never asked for official permission, so the official channels didn't know about us. When individual police stopped us on the street they were never really worried that we didn't have a permit for making this film. They just wanted to make sure we weren't either supporting the drug trade or shooting images of them committing corrupt acts. As long as they didn't see any of those two things they were fine, because they were just worried about their own skins, at that level. So we never really had any problems. We flew under the radar screen in terms of authorization.

PG: Quite guerrilla.

MM: Absolutely. In terms of the film afterwards we were pretty nervous about how this film would be viewed by the police. Because we continued to go down to Brazil often. My girl friend is Brazilian we want to have kids together and we want to go down to Brazil often. So I want to be able to go to that country. So when the film was shown, Junior did a private screening for the Rio Chief of Police. We were pretty nervous about that, because it does not portray the police in positive light.

PG: Especially the Special Tactics Squad that were going in?

MM: Yes, but apparently Junior tells us that the Chief of Police cried, in a positive way when he saw the film. He was actually touched by the film. Junior said that just as there is no representation of the life of the favela resident in the media or the cinema, just so there is no representation of the life that the policeman leads in the media and in cinema. So whilst the film did not portray the policeman positively or romantically, it did portray the life that they face everyday and that was more than what has been portrayed in the media so far. That was what made the policeman cry. Because he recognised that this is the reality and it's his reality.

PG: ...the inherent danger that the police face as well as the favela residents. Fantastic.

MM: So we're not banned!

PG: What has been the authority's reaction to the emergence of the Afro Reggae movement?

MM: The city of Rio has wanted to promote Afro Reggae to expand their programme throughout the entire city. They see Afro Reggae as one ray of hope among all this darkness in a situation that they have no ability to control.

Afro Reggae wants the communities to develop in their own way, they don't want to impose their community. So they are willing to expand but only in a way which is controlled and with the support of the communities that they go into. The Rio police have a sort of relationship with Afro Reggae. They know that Afro Reggae members are safe and not involved with trafficking, they are accorded respect but they are not yet working closely with Afro Reggae.

But what Afro Reggae have done is started a programme in a state 300 miles away where they have started working closely with the police. It's sort of a less controversial area, but they are training the police in bands, graffiti and art and the Police are also giving classes in the favela. All the teachers that are training the police are members of Afro Reggae who have been victims of police violence. So it's the two people who mistrust each other the most getting to know each other. Apparently the results of that programme have been phenomenal. I think the idea is to take the success of that programme, go to the real police which is really where those interactions are needed and say look how successful this was there, lets do this here. That hasn't happened.

PG: A model of joint working to combat the prejudices inherent in the completely bipolar cultures. Considering the power imbalance, financial, sociological etc, how do you view what Anderson, Junior and their colleagues have been able to achieve?

MM: What I find most fascinating about Afro Reggae is when they started they weren't trying to make money. They were trying to take the horror that they felt and tell everyone, 'let's just not do this anymore'. They started out with the sort of Mahatma Gandhi philosophy, 'Let's just say no'. Of course, it started with a newspaper. Well, it was a great idea but not many people in the favela know how to read, so not many people read their newspaper.

So they thought, 'Ok that doesn't work, how do we get this message out?' Then Anderson one day just started singing, he wrote a song and started banging on a drum. They thought, 'wait a second. People like music, they'll maybe listen to the words'. They started this band and people started listening and all of a sudden the message started getting out because people liked the music. Everyone can access music.

Then kids started wanting to join them. It happened very organically. There was no plan, no vision of how they were going to achieve this goal. It was just blind desire to throw out a positive message. The next thing they knew they had a few hundred kids and now a few thousand kids that they're training.

All of a sudden the world notices and the Ford Foundation say, 'boom, you guys are doing great work, you're actually giving kids an alternative to going into the drug trafficking'. Literally at the age when they're just catching these kids they have nothing to do. There's no school, there's no sports teams. They want to hang out. So what's the only group that hangs out in the favela? The drug traffickers. So these kids hang out, 10 years old, holding a gun watching over something, or they can hang out and bang drums. You know what, to a kid of 10 years banging drums is more fun! So they start doing that, start getting good at it - and then they start getting paid. That was the big amazing thing.

PG: Creating a financially sustainable option for them?

MM: Right. There are now 150 members of Afro Reggae who have earned enough money that they are now the top earners in their households. They're 16 years old. So they're giving kids a physical alternative and they've creating a self-sustaining economic alternative to drug trafficking - but that again was a complete fluke.

So what's next step? It's clear for Afro Reggae that the next step is getting jobs for these young kids, jobs outside of music. To train them in direct job skills - now they've seen that that's possible. Five, ten years ago there was never even a thought of it. They just wanted to get out a message, the message turned into an activity, which turned into an economy engine, which turned into an alternative lifestyle.

PG: Anderson becomes the central figure in the film, especially due to the incident he experiences. Do you think Afro Reggae would have existed without Anderson Sa?

MM: Who knows exactly how it would have developed. Junior is the person who came into Vigário Geral and took these kids and looked to do something positive, and Anderson was attracted to that. Would Afro Reggae have existed if Anderson didn't exist? In some form or another. Would it be the same Afro Reggae? No. Is there anyone in my opinion as charismatic as Anderson in the group? No. He is the face of the band, he is the image, he is what people know. But it would have existed in some form or another.

Anderson would say, 'absolutely Afro Reggae would have existed if I didn't exist and I am nothing, I'm small piece in a much bigger thing than me'. That, of course, is his own humility.

PG: Looking at the collaborative process with giving the kids a chance to film for themselves and involving Anderson and Junior in the editing process, do you see Favela Rising as part of the Afro Reggae movement?

MM: Definitely. It was very important to us for this film to not be promotional. We wanted to show reality, reality that never gets cited.

This film has had big impact for Afro Reggae. It's allowed many more people to understand what Afro Reggae's doing, what Afro Reggae's been through and how remarkable this group's success is. And how repeatable it is. On the one hand: 'Wow, these guys are amazing'. On the other: 'Hey, let's go and repeat that', because it's not that hard to repeat now they've figured out how to do it.

PG: a very tough place!

MM: Exactly. So it's definitely allowed Afro Reggae's message to reach a wider audience, just as many more people now know Afro Reggae as they opened for The Rolling Stones, at the world's largest concert in history that took place on Copa beach in Rio. That allowed a lot of people to know who they are. This film allows people to know why they are.

That's the most satisfying thing for us. The great thing is to see a film affect positive change and if it helps our friends, and clearly they're our friends, that's a wonderful thing.

PG: It's gone onto considerable success. 20 plus awards, international distribution...

MM: We're pleasantly surprised!

PG: How do you think audiences are being affected by Favela Rising? And how would you like them to be affected?

MM: There are two different audiences that see this film. One audience is the arthouse film audience, who see it in the ICA cinema, at festivals, in cinemas in the US. They are well educated, fairly wealthy.

We realised early on that we wanted this film also to be seen by audiences that were living the same reality. That's not an audience that the typical distributor knows how to access, especially for a documentary that's subtitled. That's an audience we had to go and access on our own.

On our own dime we've started the US Favela Tour. We're showing this film for free in under-served communities in the US. We started in LA and then New York and already the impact has been amazing. The communities we've been in the reaction has been much more impassioned than we could have imagined. Gang members are saying, 'that's my life!' There have been some really dramatic moments. We had a screening in Boyle Heights and there must have been eight different gangs there. These are gangs that kill each other on sight, sworn enemies, active right now. They came to the same screening. Afterwards I rode around in a van with 12 gang members either side of me and both got to hear the others' thoughts. One guy was thinking about leaving the gang and this film was really helping him move closer to that ...

What our goal now is to have this film be shown in these under-served communities in the US, eventually around the world, and what we want, what we have seen is possible, is putting in the same room youths, community groups and people from the non-underserved communities, individuals or members of foundations.

PG: You mean bring in the authority institutions?

MM: Put them all in the same room, watch the film and have the kids say, 'I wish there was something like that for me'; have these grass-root groups say, 'here we are'; and then have the funders there saying, 'we want to be involved as well, we'd like to give the money to support'. We're almost at that level; we're having screenings with the kids and the groups there. We haven't got the funders yet! That's what we're working on.

That's really the audience for us that's the most important. We want to have everyone see it under one roof and interact with each other right after they've seen it.

PG: One of the things the film shows is that Afro Reggae do then get mainstream funding, showing that that can be done.

MM: Yes. It's interesting also because when we opened the film last April at the Tribeca Film Festival, we had three screenings. All big, very emotional. Anderson and Junior were there and walked up afterwards and ... a chill goes down your spine. Literally, a five-minute standing ovation from a 1000 person audience. Afterwards many people came up to Junior afterwards saying they want to give money, they want to support. His answer was very interesting.

His answer was, 'No. I won't accept you're money. And here's why.

'One, we're already well funded by major groups. But two, and much more importantly, this is not the real problem. This is not a Brazil problem. This is a world problem. So, if you really want to help, go find a community near you that's under-served. Go find a group in that community that's trying to make a change and support them, either with time or money or however you want to do it. But don't support me 10,000 miles away.'

That's a very powerful message - and that's why we want to do this US Tour. It's our response to that message. We get the same message from Junior - 'Matt, Jeff, if you really want to help, help where you live in the US'.

PG: They sound pretty tireless guys.

MM: Unbelievable! Unbelievable!

PG: So that's how Favela Rising is affecting Afro Reggae and how it is affecting audiences. It sounds like it had really affected you as well a filmmaker and your other work

MM: Yes. The interesting thing about living with, befriending and hanging out with Afro Reggae is that they take away your excuses. If anyone has excuses, obstacles, they do. Yet they keep marching ahead - and they succeed. So all of a sudden all the excuses I make up for myself about why now isn't the right time, the right place, what can I do, what difference can I make? All those excuses disappear. That's kind of frustrating as all I have left ... is to do something!

To this end Matt coordinated a course aiming to get a small number of under-privileged kids in Miami trained in film and television skills. Some have now gone on to good industry jobs. The successes brought his project to the attention to the Office of the Miami School Systems, who have commissioned his project for 400 students.
It's not the favelas, but it's the message.

MM: Just the fact that they noticed made me realise, this can have an affect, people will notice. Maybe it's because so few people do it, but if you stand up and do something, people notice it.