When Jeff Zimbalist got a call from from his good friend Matt Mochary, he didn’t know his life was about to change. Mochary was calling from a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro to tell Zimbalist he had found a story the two of them had to make into film, about a movement in Rio called Afroreggae, and the two men behind the movement, Anderson Sa and Jose Junior. Zimbalist quit his job and flew to Brazil, and the two friends spent the next two years filming the story of the Afroreggae movement. The resulting documentary, Favela Rising, is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary and shared International Documentary Association top honors with another film. Cinematical interviewed Mochary and Zimbalist recently about their film, the Afroreggae movement, and how making Favela Rising has changed their lives. This is Part One of the interview, with Jeff Zimbalist. Part Two, with Matt Mochary, will be published tomorrow.
Cinematical: Jeff, I know from talking to Matt that Favela Rising got started when he called you from to tell you he had found a story that you had to film. Can you tell me more about that?
Jeff: Matt and I had been talking a lot about our interest in telling stories about communities that were being portrayed as falling apart - about crisis and conflict, especially in the third world. We’d both traveled a lot separately and met so many people who were inspiring, saw so many stories of hope, and you never hear those stories. Then Matt called me and said, “I can’t pay you and I know you don’t have much faith in my technical skills since I’ve only taken one class, but you have to come to Brazil."
Cinematical: And so you quit your job and went to Brazil.
Jeff: (laughs) Yeah. We initially had a different vision for the film, to make it more about the contrast between the wealth and poverty, and just to weave the Afroreggae movement through it. We filmed initially for about five months, and then Anderson broke his neck. Then we had to make a decision – do we keep filming this or not? We were torn; by this time Anderson was not just a documentary subject, he had become a friend. And Matt said, Anderson is our friend first, not just a collaborator in this work project. We weren’t sure what to do.
Then we got a call from Junior, from the hospital. He said Anderson was awake and asking where we were with our cameras. He wanted us to film this – to film what he was going through. He said this film couldn’t be just about the public obstacles, but the private obstacles as well. That it was part of the story.
Cinematical: Were you just blown away by that?
Jeff: I was blown away and overwhelmed with different sets of conflicting emotions. One of the challenges with any kind of nonfiction storytelling is how you end up connecting with your subjects. By this point, we had been living with Anderson in the favela, he had stayed with us in New York , and we were friends. So it was hard to film that – the hospital he was in was the furthest thing from hospital you can imagine. This was a public hospital in a war zone – he was in a ward with gunshot victims, everything you can imagine. Matt, he’s more open emotionally – he let it all out right then. I held back all my emotions from all that for a long time, maybe a year and a half, and then one day I was thinking back on it all, Anderson in that place, and the dam just burst and I finally cried about it. (laughs) I guess a psychiatrist would have a lot to say about that, how it relates to my childhood or something.
Cinematical: Does Anderson care more about the community than himself?
Jeff: There’s really this tendency with the guys in Afroreggae to have this collective energy and to put it above themselves. The favela has that sense of a collective. All the kids see everyone as their godmothers and godfathers. Someone might introduce you to five different people and tell you they’re all his mom. There’s more of a family unit in a block in the favela than in a lot of homes here in the States. That psychology contributes to the solidarity of the Afroreggae movement.
Cinematical: Let’s talk a bit more about the process of filming Favela Rising.
Jeff: We collaborated with them (Afroreggae) over a couple of years. We started teaching some of the favela youth to shoot digital video. We were trying to engage the community, to let them show their own voices. We wanted to be true to the philosophy of Afroreggae. Most of the people involved with Afroreggae are young – 25 and younger. Anderson was, I think, 25 when we finished shooting.
Cinematical: So you really worked with Afroreggae every step of the way.
Jeff: I think that's why the film is doing so well; the authenticity of the film’s voice, is because we involved Afroreggae every step of the way. Afroreggae was with us in the editing room. They’d tell us when something needed to be cut out because it incriminated Afroreggae to the drug community, which could have been dangerous for them.
Cinematical: How do you stay focused? You must be getting attention, with the film doing so well.
Jeff: Every day you have to remind yourself of where you are. There’s been a lot of new attention from Hollywood , and you have to remind yourself of what’s important. I do the outreach. Because Matt and I independently spent half our weeks on this outreach campaign, it keeps us focused. We have a process where we run the ideas for the outreach campaign through Anderson and junior. Afroreggae is using the film as a tool for outreach themselves.
There’s no black and white, nobody to rebel against, it’s a very complex system. Culture and art and education are very limited. There are a lot of systemic obstacles. They (Afroreggae) are working within the system. Kids that have been victims of police brutality are now teaching the policemen how to play music, how to draw graffiti – the policemen come in uniforms and the kids teach them in this great reverse power dynamic.
Cinematical: You were in Brazil off and on for 2 years, filming this movie. Did you see any violence yourselves while you were staying there? Were you ever scared?
Jeff: Well, here’s the thing. Several years ago this investigative journalist, Tim Lopez, took a hidden camera into the favela and filmed the drug dealers and drug lords. And he got caught. He got caught, and the drug lords put him on trial themselves, with a jury of themselves, and of course they found him guilty, and then tortured him and murdered him and burned his body. So then the media got together and said, if we have to ask permission of drug lords to do stories about the favela, we’re legitimizing them, and we aren’t going to do that. And so since then, there have been no media stories from inside the favela, just reports from outside about how bad and violent and filled with drug lords they are.
We did it differently. We went in and we asked permission of the drug lords to make our film. And they would tell us – we want you to stay out of the eastside today because we don’t want you in the crossfire. We always stayed within the periphery of Anderson and Junior – they are very respected by both the law abiding community and the drug community. So we felt we were pretty safe with them.
We were frequently pulled over by police and had to show them our footage – they wanted to make sure we weren’t filming anything that would incriminate them. We had scary incidents with police in full masks holding machine guns , making us show them our footage.
The scene with the reggae party – we had a third cameraman at the party. We had been specifically told what we could and could not film there, and there’s this whole line of drug lords in their SUVs sitting there with – you just wouldn’t believe it, machine guns, grenade launchers – military grade weapons – and he turned the camera, slyly he thought, toward these drug dealers with their weapons, and we weren’t supposed to shoot that. Next thing I knew he was slammed up against a wall with a gun to his head. Anderson had to intervene and talk them down – if Anderson hadn’t been there they would have killed him.
Cinematical: How do you think most people in Rio feel about the favelas?
Jeff: Fear. And then there’s also this element of the oppressor romanticizing the oppressee – a sense of envy, rich kids looking up to the favelas and mimicking their culture, similar to the thing with rich white kids and hip-hop. I think the romanticization thing – I think it’s a customized thing for each person. But I think there’s a tendency to want to be born in to a cause or sense of person. In the favelas, that’s there, that sense of cause is clear and very tangible. In the wealthy areas there’s not same sense of urgency. The fulfillment is more on superficial accomplishments – fleeting fulfillment. There’s no life or death survival like there is in the favela.
Cinematical: Some of the most riveting footage shown in the film was filmed by kids you’d given DV cameras. What inspired you to have the children shoot some of the footage themselves?
Jeff: It’s something that I had learned through working with the United Nations Development Project. It’s something that’s been done before –we had talked about self-representation, having them tell their own stories. It’s a method of winning the trust of the community. I’m more interested in the way you tell your own story than the way I can. A journalist typically takes the story and hijacks it in the way that’s the most marketable for them. We’re in this with Afroreggae and the favelas for the long haul, we want to build trust.
The concept of Shiva that Afroreggae has so embraced – birth coming out of destruction –without the ashes there is no phoenix. That’s the favela, that’s Afroreggae. People uniting and rising.