Sunday, October 11, 2009

More Than a Distant Land

In the liner notes to the 1998 Luaka Bop compilation album Beleza Tropical 2: Novo! Mais! Melhor!, David Byrne writes of Brazil as a kind of harbinger of what's to come for the rest of the world.

We're just catching up to what they've been doing for years, decades even.... Sadly, not only in the musical arena, but also in economic and social aspects, the Brazilians outpace us; they are the future.... the growing gap between the rich and poor ... the destruction and waste of natural resources, every politican up for sale ... these are all symptoms—soon we'll catch up to Brazil.

I thought of Byrne's comments while reading Jon Lee Anderson's New Yorker article (available only to subscribers, but here's an audio slide show in which Anderson talks through some photographs of the people and places he writes about) about gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. A gripping piece of reportage, it reminded me of the world of The Wire, but multiplied by a hundred.

The favelas, slums rooted in the aftermath of slavery (abolished in Brazil in 1888), are controlled by druglords who act as virtual mayors while viciously killing their enemies. These enemies include journalists (Anderson writes about a reporter who was tortured to death after sneaking a hidden camera into a baile funk, a street party sponsored by a gang chief), policemen (some of whom have joined vigilante militias that are becoming gangs in their own right), and even those who would dare go to a baile funk sponsored by another gang chief. Like the drug organizations in The Wire, the drug gangs of Rio have "a hierarchical structure that mimics the corporate world," Anderson writes.

In an astounding section of the article that is nevertheless typical of Anderson's incredible access as a reporter, he gains entree into the home of a thirty-one-year-old kingpin called Fernandinho, who controls all but one of the favelas on Ilha do Governador, a large island on the bay of Guanabara. Fernandinho has "Jesus Cristo" tattooed on his forearm, cartoon characters on his bedspread, and he hasn't been out of his immediate neighborhood for two years because he's wanted by the police. He claims to be a Christian and working his way through the Bible, yet the evangelical pastor who was instrumental in his spiritual awakening feels betrayed because he and his lieutenant, Gil, have resumed the killings that they had temporarily suspended.

It's scary to contemplate these favelas as America's urban future, yet The Wire does indeed depict a world that is heading toward something like what's happening in them. Let's hope that, in this case, we don't catch up to Brazil.


Ben Scholle said...

Have you seen the movie, City of God? Supposedly it's been turned into a very Wire-like Brazilian TV series.

framiko said...

I haven't seen the movie. Sounds interesting!