Sonoma Film Festival: Favela Rising

Last night was the pre-opening night of the Sonoma Film Festival and the only movie slated was Favela Rising. I can’t tell if it’s an endorsement to have your movie show all by itself or a slight to have it run before the festival’s even opened. Despite the Festival’s recommendation that we queue up an hour in advance due to the popularity of the documentary, we showed up about fifteen minutes before showtime and easily got seats in the half-empty theater. Seems the management had over-estimated the popularity of the subject matter – Rio’s slums and hard-driving Afro-Reggae music. Basic demographic analysis could have told them that: the average age of the passholders, as far as I can tell, is about fifty. Guns and drugs and rap don’t seem high on their list.

I’m probably more the target of the film – young, liberal, susceptible to drumbeats – but I didn’t love it either. Favela Rising is a documentary about Anderson Sa, a founder of the Afro Reggae movement in the crime and drug-infested slums, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro. Following a retaliatory police massacre of twenty-one innocent people, including his brother, in the early 90’s Sa turned to non-violent protest via a drum, rap and dance movement he and his fellow reformers dubbed Afro Reggae. The movement has drawn some 2000 kids away from the drug trade and into its schools and performance groups. Compelling social upheaval subject matter. I wish they’d stuck with that.

I can’t tell if the filmmakers a.) didn’t have enough footage, b.) lacked imagination, or c.) suck at editing. Whichever it is, they did their film a disservice by focusing on Sa like he’s Jesus. Instead of painting a broader picture of Rio and its obvious and violent class issues, which would have leant substance to the picture, they follow Sa’s personal ups and downs more and more closely as the film goes on. Gradually, this anecdotal approach undermines the potency of the story.

I have no reason to disagree with their belief that Sa is a living saint, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting film: lots of mini climaxes, repeated usage of the same inspiring shots, and very little substantial information about the history, present and future prospects for the favelas and Rio. By the end, much as I admired Sa’s work, I felt manipulated and annoyed rather than galvanized. The filmmakers should take a lesson from other, more excellent documentaries (see review of Pursuit of Equality) and use the individuals’ stories in service of the bigger story, not vice versa.

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