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The Guardian, Saturday 21 December 2002

On a wing and a prayer

Using amateur actors and a traumatised chicken, City of God exposes the violent truth of life in the slums of Brazil. Here, the Oscar-winning director Walter Salles explains why it had to be made It begins with a chicken who knows too much. We are in City of God, a favela (a Rio de Janeiro slum) in the early 1980s. A gang of young drug-dealers is preparing feijoada, the local stew. This chicken knows that she is dead meat and tries desperately to escape. The tragi-comic scene that ensues determines the tone of City of God, a Brazilian film by Fernando Meirelles, co-directed by Katia Lund. The fleeing animal is chased and fired at by the young hoodlums until fate leads her under the wheels of a police car. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. City of God (Cidade de Deus) Production year: 2002 Country: Rest of the world Cert (UK): 18 Runtime: 135 mins Directors: Fernando Meirelles Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Matheus Nachtergaele, Phelipe Haagensen

A clash between the young princes of the favela and the police is imminent and promises to be bloody. It will, however, be frozen in time, as Meirelles takes us to the 1960s and 1970s in the same locale. Based on a true account by Paulo Lins, a writer born and raised in the place that lends its name to the film, City of God does not offer the comforting and touristy image of the Brazilian slums that Marcel Camus's 1959 film Orfeu Negro sold to the world. This is about a nation within a nation, about the millions of olvidados (the forgotten) that are statistically relevant, but scarcely represented on screen. Rarely has a film created such heated debate in Brazil. The country's current leader, Luiz Inacio da Silva, at the time the socialist presidential candidate, urged the then president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to see City of God in order to understand the extent of the urban tragedy in Brazil. Cardoso did. Arnaldo Jabor, one of Brazil's most important intellectuals, wrote that "this is not only a film. It is an important fact, a crucial statement, a hole in our national conscience." After I directed the Oscar-winning Central Station, our small production house had the opportunity to help a few films by upcoming Brazilian directors. The decision to be part of City of God was defined by the trust we had in Meirelles and his co-director, but also because few films could shed more light on the social apartheid of Brazil. There are more than 40,000 violent deaths a year in Brazil, more than three times the total number of deaths in Kosovo. Many of these deaths in our urban areas are the result of confrontation between drug gangs, or between dealers and the police. What City of God achieves is the possibility to understand how we got to this chaos. In the 1960s, families of immigrants expelled from their land in the north-east of the country found an illusory refuge in the slums of the capital, Rio de Janeiro. The marginalised youth living

on the fringe of society at that time had to bend to strict familial codes and rules. The drug was marijuana, which inspired a contemplative, "romantic" lifestyle. Gun use at the time was sporadic and the ends justified the means. In the 1970s and 1980s everything changed. The first large drug-dealers appeared and outlaws ceased to lead a nomadic life and settled their businesses in the heart of the favelas. These dealers began to control the communities in which they operated and created a parallel system of justice within their borders. Cocaine became the drug of choice and the .38 was traded for the AK47 and other machine guns. The death toll grew dramatically and the dealers became younger and younger. It was hell. City of God follows several real characters, whose lives started and ended within the favela's perimeter during these three decades. Bene, the cool marijuana dealer, Ze Pequeo, a merciless killer, and Rocket, the innocent eye, Lins's alter ego, a young black kid who manages to break the country's social and race barriers - at a price. Most of the film's actors are kids from amateur theatre groups in favelas, or non-actors found in a year-long casting effort in these communities. The directors rehearsed them for more than six months before the shoot and improvisation was encouraged. Like other directors in Brazil, I am used to working with non-actors, but I still do not know how Meirelles and Lund managed to achieve such a sense of realism. Do not expect pity or redemption. There are no such things in City of God. This is the depiction of a world where people have been forgotten for too long by the Brazilian ruling classes; a world where the state does not provide proper health or education services. In fact, the only items it provides freely are bullets. Now for the present: a time when the olvidados got tired of being forgotten, a time of diffuse, uncontrollable violence. " City of God is not only a portrait of our favelas, it is also our portrait, at 24 frames a second, our faces blurred with the faces of 10-year-old children holding machine guns. All the manifestations of our chaos become visible. This film will be seen by the whole country in terror, and I believe it will cause transformations in the political arena," says Jabor. There were also dissonant voices in Brazil, arguing that the film gives the impression that favelas are populated only by drug-dealers. They are not. In fact, an immense part of the Brazilian population has been the victim of this present state. This is when we realise that the chicken caught in the cross-fire at the beginning of City of God is not only a chicken. It is the reflection of so many Brazilians trapped in an unjust country. City of God is released on January 3.

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