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BRAZIL: Modelling Change in the Favelas

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 6 2007 (IPS) - When police in Brazil discovered an enormous detailed scale model of the Pereirão favela, they were going to destroy it because they thought it was part of a drug trafficking gang’s plan to invade a nearby neighbourhood. Ten years later, portions of the miniature reproduction built by children have travelled around the world to art exhibits and festivals.

The colourful scale model covers 300 square metres at the top of the "morro" (hill, in Portuguese) in Pereirão or Pereira da Silva, a favela (shantytown) perched above the middle-class Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Laranjeiras. Like the community it represents, it is built on a slope.

Made of brightly painted broken bricks, the model, "Morrinho" or little hill, began to be built for fun 10 years ago by children in the community, who had few other recreational options and would get together every afternoon to build a little more of their tiny favela.

Nelcirlan Souza, who is now 24, lived at the time in a shack made of less solid materials than his brick scale model.

The tiny neighbourhood of houses, bars and shops is inhabited by tiny figurines, toy cars and all kinds of colourful items scrounged from the garbage, such as Legos or plastic animals.

One-third of the population of the state of Rio de Janeiro, or 1.8 million people, live in 1,800 different favelas, mainly on the outskirts of the capital, according to the Federation of Associations of Favelas of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FAFERJ).

In Morrinho, scenes of everyday life are played out: adults work and children play. But there are also stand-offs between the police and drug dealers, and members of elite security forces can be seen patrolling the tiny streets. All of these figurines are heavily armed.

In an interview with IPS, Souza, who is now a member of the non-governmental organisation of the same name, Morrinho, recalls tough times in the favela. But since the police "occupied" the neighbourhood five years ago, things have been peaceful, he says.

"Our community was very violent, and my eight-year-old brother and I began to build the model to pass the time. The drug trafficking gangs were really strong, and it was better to stay busy in other things, to avoid going that way," says Souza.

The two brothers were joined by other friends who were also seeking to stay out of the violent world of drugs. After school, they would spend their afternoons adding bricks, cleaning the ground where the replica of their neighbourhood was being built, rebuilding after heavy rainfall, and play-acting.

Like boys all over the world, they played their own version of cops and robbers. "Back then, we would be police or drug traffickers. But when the situation started to improve, we began to see that the favela didn&#39t just have bad aspects, and we started to hold dance events with sound systems (in Morrinho), or we would play with the animals, or with motorcycles," says Souza.

But their past-time was almost taken away from them abruptly when the police, during one of their incursions in Pereirão, ordered the destruction of the scale model, which was "so realistic that they thought we were making a map of the nearby Río Cumprido and Catumbí favelas for the local drug traffickers here to invade those areas," he says.

It was not easy to convince the police otherwise. But the children defended their project, and refused to carry out the orders to take down the mini-favela.

It was the chief of the military police special operations battalion (BOPE) who finally understood that Morrinho was just a harmless children’s project. Not only did he cancel the order that it be destroyed, but he took photos of it to hold up as an example in other communities.

"The head of BOPE told us that we were playing and creating a real work of art, when we could have had guns in our hands, and be shooting, and leaving our mothers crying," says Souza.

The colonel told his subordinates to "stop bothering these boys and go out and look for the real crooks," he adds.

But it took a while for the project to receive the artistic recognition that it deserved.

In 2001, filmmaker Fabio Gavião heard about the mini-favela from a friend who did social work in Pereirao, and decided to go and see it for himself.

He was extremely impressed, from an artistic point of view as well as by the project’s social significance.

"I was even more surprised when I started to interview the boys (for a documentary produced with their participation) and they explained to me that this was a reflection of reality. That here in the Morrinho, there are no superheroes and that the little figurines died. It was like an RPG (roll playing game) that they created here," Gavião tells IPS.

From there, things began to progress quickly. Portions of Morrinho were taken to art festivals around the world, like the Venice Biennale earlier this year, or exhibits in Barcelona and Paris.

Gavião and another local filmmaker, Julio Souto, decided to bring filmmaking and photography classes to the favela. After that, the scale model became a tourist attraction, and t-shirts are now sold by the Morrinho NGO.

Sergio Paulo Duarte was one of the art critics who have shown up. Describing Morrinho as "art in situ", he said that while renowned Rio artists had created works of that genre in their weekend homes "by hanging Coca Cola lids on a jacaranda tree," "this on the other hand is enormously authentic, because it is a reflection of the place where they live, and the materials are bricks, bricks that became a doll’s house."

While IPS holds interviews in Pereirao, children of the generation following that of the Morrinho’s creators show up to play.

Junior Dias, 13, "drives" motorcycles along the steep roads of the mini-favela, making "vroom vroom" noises.

He says he likes to play at buying and selling houses in a middle-class neighbourhood near the favela. But when he thinks no one is listening, he also recreates a fight in a little bar in which a woman shows up to shout at her husband, complaining that he’s drunk and that he never brings any money home.

But what Junior really likes is to hold "funk" dances in the favela, with colourful lights and music, which he provides by humming.

The "people" attending the dance are made of little Lego blocks. The ones with ponytails are women. The men dance with abandon, in Junior’s hands.

He says Morrinho, replicas of which are now being built by other children in Pereirao, is a way of showing the rest of the world what life is like in the favelas.

"Favelas are not just shooting and death. They also have their good sides," he tells IPS, mentioning, for example, the close ties among the members of the community.

Others who are no longer children also play in Morrinho, alongside Junior. Paulo Vitor da Silva, one of the original creators of the mini-favela, is now 21 and works with the Morrinho NGO as a cameraman.

Da Silva says he still does not know if what they built is a "work of art."

"Even today, when people ask me, I don&#39t know what to say. For me it&#39s not art, it&#39s a children’s game, and I think it still is for all of us," he says.

Gavião and Souto’s plan, which has not yet been implemented due to a lack of sponsors, is to make the NGO a social organisation that would provide language courses, skills training and community service, besides the filmmaking classes that it now offers.

But in Souza’s view, the miniature favela has already fulfilled a mission that is just as important, or even more so: it has created a bridge between the favela and the "asphalt" – a slang term used to refer to the middle-class and wealthy sections of the city – below, and has fought prejudice and social discrimination, while helping to restore the dignity of those involved in the project and people around them.

"I believe it has been useful in showing that the favela isn&#39t what everyone out there thinks: prostitution, violence, drugs and marginality," says the young man, who was spurred by the Morrinho tourist-related activities to take up tourism studies at the university.

"Both outside of Brazil and in our own country, everyone talks about the violence and poverty in the favelas. Now we are showing that the favela also has art and culture, that it wants to change, and that the only thing we are asking for is a chance," he adds.

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