It’s easy to romanticize a slum from above. Brazil’s favelas, famous for their tightly-stacked houses painted in vivid colors, are often used as a shorthand signifier of Rio’s exotic culture, as obligatory in video montages as shots of Christ the Redeemer and samba dancers at Carnival. But from below, life is often intensely difficult for the people of the favelas, who deal daily with violence perpetrated by gangs and the police—it can often be difficult to tell one from the other as well as government policies that push out locals and the very architecture of the favelas, a labyrinthine jungle of winding footpaths and crumbling concrete.
As one person in Dan Jackson’s documentary “In the Shadow of the Hill” says of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, “No one would live here if they didn’t have to. The favela is a consequence of one’s need to survive.” Others in the film express deep affection for Rocinha, and Jackson’s documentary is in many ways a love letter to the neighborhood, but Brazil’s government is often more interested in crushing poor residents under its heel than in helping to make their lives more livable. In preparation for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games this year, the government cracked down hard on Rocinha in a campaign eerily known as “Pacification,” deploying urban warfare units—essentially kill squads—to retake sections of the favela held by drug traffickers.
According to the Rocinha residents profiled in Jackson’s searing film, Pacification often felt more like an anti-poor, anti-black campaign than an anti-drug campaign. Thousands of people have been tortured and disappeared by government forces. One of these, Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old bricklayer with no prior criminal history who vanished after being called into the local police station for questioning, set off mass national protests and even garnered international attention.
“In the Shadow of the Hill” is organized around Amarildo’s disappearance, but Jackson allows this narrative to arise out of a broader portrait of Rocinha. The film profiles not only Amarildo’s niece, who helped organize protests over her uncle’s disappearance, but also Maria Clara, whose house was demolished by the government leaving her homeless, after which she began performing as a clown named “Lady Passionfruit” to raise money for a new home, and Aurelio, who puts on a politically-charged theatrical retelling of the life of Jesus in the streets of Rocinha. Jackson shoots Aurelio’s production as if it were a real event, with chaotic camerawork capturing the bloody spectacle as if it were an actual instance of the police violence the production was meant to evoke.
Jackson’s camerawork is stellar throughout, capturing the beauty, squalor, and resilience of Rocinha without romanticizing or pornographizing its poverty. This is a real place with real problems and one that Brazil has done its damnedest to sweep under the rug before the international spotlight was placed on it for the World Cup and Olympics. “In the Shadow of the Hill” stands a stirring rebuke to those who would write off the slums as violent hellholes, a war zone to be avoided at all cost by tourists and wealthy Brazilians.
The parallels to the United States are remarkable. Amarildo’s disappearance was just one of thousands, but, like the state-sanctioned murders of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the incident became a rallying point for those who are sick of the government’s relentless criminalization of poverty and blackness. Just as America is dealing with the ever-growing militarization of its police forces (a topic compellingly covered by Craig Atkinson in “Do Not Resist,” which also screened at AFI Docs 2016), so too is Brazil deploying quasi-military forces to “pacify” poor, black neighborhoods. Jackson’s film is an unexpectedly beautiful work, a paean to the resistance of Rocinha’s underclass and a film that will hit home for marginalized communities around the world, from Rio to Ferguson to countless places in between—anyone who has ever felt her local police seemed less a peacekeeping organization than an occupying army.