Two decades of City of God: Fernando Meirelles in conversation

Two decades of City of God: Fernando Meirelles in conversation
We talk to the Brazilian director about the film’s legacy, Brazilian cinema, and how non-Western countries are producing the most exciting movies.

It’s a celebratory evening in Rio de Janeiro, as hundreds of young people dance, drink and party on an open-air dancefloor. Benny, “the coolest hood in the City of God”, is hosting a farewell party after deciding to leave the ghetto and gang life behind with his new love. Everyone – the soul crew, the samba crowd, the groovy crowd – is there. As he beckons aspiring photographer Rocket to the DJ booth, he’s confronted by his childhood friend and business partner Lil Zé. Then flashing strobes intensify, gunshots ring out, the dancefloor clears, and reality bites.

‘Benny’s Farewell’ is one of the most memorable chapters from 2003 classic Brazilian movie City of God. The scene encapsulates much of what makes it a brilliant film, and why it’s often referred to as a “masterpiece”. There’s young people enjoying the nascent disco movement of the ‘70s, complex characters acted with authenticity and authority by kids from the favelas, and a stark reminder that in the City of God, violence is always around the corner.

As one of the Brazilian film industry’s biggest global successes, City of God took millions across the world into Rio’s underbelly – highlighting police corruption, gang violence, and poverty faced by those living on the extremities of its society in the 1970s. Based on Paulo Lins’s novel of the same name and inspired by real life events, it explores life and endemic crime in the Cidade de Deus – a neighbourhood project on the westside of Rio, created by the Guanabara State government to physically move the favelas away from the city centre and Rio’s beaches.

To celebrate the iconic movie’s 21st anniversary and its coming-of-age, City of God has been re-released in UK cinemas from February 23. Huck caught up with the film’s director and creator Fernando Meirelles to hear about its evolving legacy, the growth of Brazilian cinema since, and how non-Western countries are producing some of the most exciting movies right now.

Congratulations on the film’s re-release. How does it make you feel when people describe City of God as “iconic”, or “a masterpiece”?

It’s a bit weird – I didn’t make the film for that. When I made the film it wasn’t supposed to be a hit. I financed it myself, with a low budget, unknown actors, a first-time crew, editor, writers and director. It was really a bunch of friends – talented friends – and we were doing the film because we liked the story.

Do you think that doing it completely independently would be possible in today’s film industry? Which is dominated by streaming services like Netflix?

To be honest, I think that funding your own film is the most stupid thing you can do. My chance of making the money back was really minimal. We were supposed to have some money coming in, but then it never came and I decided to finance it myself because we were so passionate. Nowadays it would be even worse, you really have to go through platforms, like Netflix and Amazon. They have really smart people, but they send you pages and pages of notes for casting, shooting and when you cut the film, so you’re dealing with 10, 15, 20 different opinions. It was much better when I could decide if I wanted this actor or this line.

Having not expected it to be such a big deal, did you feel any real world impact after the film was released? Did you think it woke anything up in people?

Well in the cinema world, a lot. In Brazil at that time you wouldn’t see films shot inside of favelas, there were just a few examples, and Brazilian society wouldn’t know what was happening with a big part of the population. So the film in some way revealed Brazil to Brazilians. Also City of God was a hit, and Brazilian cinema really grew. At the time, City of God was the best performing film at the box office in 30 years, then two years later was the third best-performing, and five years later the eleventh. There was also a wave of films shot inside of favelas, like 15 or 16 films straight after, and we included people from the favelas in the film, and as a population of Brazil [in popular media].

Of course, in the crime world, the film didn’t touch anything. Nowadays favelas look very different to what we see in the film, they are controlled by militias. Ex-policemen that were expelled [or retired] from the [force], they started taking control of the favelas and would promise to send the drug dealers away and bring order. But actually they started charging people living in the favelas for security, electricity and gas – they’re worse than the drug dealers.

Do you think that the movement of favela films went too far at all? And no longer highlights the issues in favelas, but instead exaggerates them and projects an idea of favelas that might not be true?

At first, as you say, most of the films about favelas were about violence, guns and drug dealers, but after a while there was too much. Now we see romance and comedies, there’s a lot of films shot in favelas that are not about violence or drugs – so if you watch them from the 2000s until today you’ll see the kinds of characters changing.

City of God also focused on the stories specifically on Black people in Brazilian cinema, who were very underrepresented – are they still?

Yes and no, I think they need to be more represented, and we need more Black directors. But compared to 20 years ago there has been a big, big change. Now there’s a lot of Black Brazilian stars, [especially] in soap operas and if you watch Brazilian commercials, most of them include Black people. Especially in the last eight years, it has been changing really fast.

Having a whole cast of amateur actors is partly what gives the film its authentic edge – can you talk about how you managed to find all these amazing talents and why you chose that route rather than traditional casting methods?

We had a team of four or five people living in favelas, and they would go through their communities in Rio and invite people to join workshops on acting. We would offer [to pay] for the bus ticket and sandwiches, for them to spend two hours going into the communities with a VHS camera. And everyone who was interested would say something like “I want to be an actor”, then I spent two weeks watching those little videos and choosing the people who I thought were charismatic. Then we prepared them for four months, coming three times a week to the workshop, and that’s how I chose my actors.

With these kids coming from much poorer backgrounds, did you have any measures in place to make sure that what you were doing wasn’t exploitative?

We were very clear from the start that if they were interested in the workshop, we’d pay for their lunch and their transport, and then they could go back to school in the afternoon. Then when I invited the boys to take part in the film, they signed normal contracts. Some people, when you talk to them today say, “ah, the film was such a success, but we didn’t make much money”, which is true but when we offered them the paycheck for the work, they were all very happy because that was a lot of money.

And I didn’t get any money from City of God [either] because I sold the rights ­– when I finished the film I was broke, 10 years of my work was in that film. So, I went to Canal+ and Miramax and sold it. I still don’t have the rights now.

If you were to make a film now that spoke to life on the margins of Brazilian society, what would it focus on?

There’s two things to say here – we’re finally doing a TV series on City of God. The same actors we didn’t kill in the film are back and now living in the Cidade de Deus in a different kind of society [and era]. It’s coming out next year, and we’ve started shooting the second season already.

And another world I want to explore is the Amazon rainforest. My son is directing a TV series in the north of Brazil where people live in boats and rivers. It’s an amazing environment that I am exploring this year. The story is about the trafficking of girls, which happens a lot, but this world looks like Venice in the Amazon – little avenues and streets with people living along the river. It’s such a different world that nobody knows, not even Brazilians.

Do you still think there’s appetite for films that have an element of activism to them, as there was for City of God when it came out in 2003?

I think so, yeah. At least from my point of view I’m interested in seeing different voices. I’m a voter for the Oscars, and this year they sent us 56 international films, so I’m watching films from places like Bhutan (The Monk and the Gun), Burkina Faso (Sira), and Bangladesh with No Ground Beneath the Feet, which is the story of a driver – there’s a flood in his countryside house and it all takes place in a day of him diving. It’s very absurd what happens, and it’s also very real.

I’ve watched American films like Oppenheimer or Barbie, and I have no interest [in them]. I’m much more interested in real life – you asked me why City of God was so well received, it’s because it’s a different world. That’s what I like, you see the way they eat, they live, how they walk. It’s much more interesting than seeing a plot in Los Angeles or New York.

City of God is in UK cinemas from February 23. The release is accompanied by a limited edition City of God Capsule skate collection by Clown Skateboards and AllCity.

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