By W Albert I Aelbrecht, on 12 April 2011
In recent years there has been an explosion of films on the informal constructions (favela’s in Portuguese) spreading over the hills of the city of Rio de Janeiro. The Elite Squad (1997), City of God (2002) and The Elite Squad 2 (2010) are only a few examples of such productions. All are filmed in the streets, alleys and interiors of the favela, while the plot evolves in most cases around gang violence and drug trafficking. So besides the fact that the slum returned in the mass media, if it ever was really missing, as geographer Alan Gilbert (2007) mentioned, with it also the slum spectacle. In most new film productions, these ‘slum’ spaces together with its inhabitants are equated to violence and gang culture. The international prizes these films received do NOT improve the situation for the inhabitants at all, on the contrary, they only strengthen the Brazilian government’s rhetoric in their attempt to clear these pockets of ‘violence’.
Besides the usual travel brochures highlighting the many tropical beach paradises or Rio’s yearly carnival festive, we hardly come to see other visions on the city and its slums. And they do exist! There have been projects made from different disciplines, such as architecture (whether you believe it or not), graphic design, documentary filmmakers and photographers. And I am not referring to Mike Davis’ book The Planet of Slums, by which I mean that we have to think of representations that go beyond the hopelessness of these situations. We have to think about representations that can counter and critique existing and forthcoming slum spectacles.
High Rise, a film I saw some weeks ago in a screening made by TINAG (This Is Not a Gateway), fits well in this discussion. Although the title is not well translated from Portuguese to English, since Um Lugar ao Sol translates as A Place in the Sun, it does link the film interestingly to one of Ballard’s well-known books High-Rise from 1972. However, this time we are not confronted with a dystopian vision of high-rise living; a kind of favelization of the high rise building. Instead, we are siting in luxury penthouses lined up along the beautiful white beaches of Rio de Janeiro. In these luxury paradises the discourses on poverty, violence and the right to the city appear at first sight far removed. However the contrary is perhaps more true. By focusing on how poverty is framed from above, through the penthouse windows, we can reflect on the mindset of the rich people and the middle class people (see interview with Mascro in Festival Visions du reel – Nyon 2009).
The young Brazilian documentary maker Gabriel Mascaro produced High Rise in 2009. And just as his first documentary, The Beetle KFZ-1348 and forthcoming, Defiant Brasilia (2010), Mascaro searches to capture the interplay between objects, architecture, the built environment and people. Here, he deals with the popular rise of the penthouse in the city of Rio De Janeiro, owned mostly by Brazil’s new and fast emerging rich middle class or better said Brazil’s nouveaux riches. These luxury flats – with their own garden, often with swimming pool overlooking a flat horizon, complete privacy and lack of any curious neighbours – are Brazil’s gated communities.
The film works as a extended montage whereby nine proud penthouse owners are juxtaposed with shots from their building on to the beach and Atlantic Ocean; glimpses from their house; views from the window on to the informal settlements of Rio concierges; images of the buildings themselves with strange names such as Akropolis, Versaille, Cannes and many other epic names; and sometimes with interview excerpts with the concierge of one of the buildings. The selection of the nine penthouse owners was simple and easy. They were the only once of 125 whom Mascaro found in a recent publication of penthouse owners that reacted on his call to be interviewed for his film. While often such modes of production fail -interviews that are extensively cut up, spread out over the whole length of the film and juxtaposed with other images or interviews – here it seems to work very well. For me one of the explanations why in High Rise it does work very well is because of the content of the interviews. In their responses, practically all interviewee’s frame there life in opposition to the informal settlements close to their own house. Images of luxurious penthouses are thus overlaid with images of poverty and violence through language and words. We no longer see slums, instead, in our perception images of wealth collides with images of poverty. So while these penthouse owners are constantly defending their position and attitude high above, we can no longer identify with them. We can only feel empathy for the Other, the one that lives in those informal settlements! Several episodes could be recounted here, but there is one that always stayed with me: “fireworks”. In that particular episode one female penthouse owner describes, by using many gestures, the shooting between gangs in the nights as a kind of celebratory fireworks. She explained how much she enjoyed those spectacles from her windows!
By the way if anybody wants to experience life or views from a penthouse window during their visit to Rio de Janeiro, don’t despair, the following platform can bring you a step closer: Rio Brazil Penthouses.com.