Favelas formed a colorful backdrop to the Opening Ceremony at Rio’s Olympics. Was this a naive choice by show designers or a calculated display, intended to bring awareness to the persistant problem of inequity in Brazil?
Real favelas may be found within a mile of Maracana Stadium; they have become a tourist attraction luring both thrill-seeking and well-meaning visitors to experience their density, texture, and street life. One, the City of God housing project, built by the government in 1960, was captured in gritty and violent candor by Opening Ceremony director Fernando Meirelles in his 2002 movie, City of God. The Oscar-nominated film was cast from residents of the neighborhood, who toook part in casting calls that became acting workshops. The original, five-story concrete housing, and the home-built accretions of plywood and building scraps, house a population of over 38,000 in an area of 0.5 square mile. It is hardly the worst slum in Rio – until recently, that accolade went to Rocinha, a labyrinth of dead-end corridors and drug traffickers which has seen a dedicated police presence since 2011 to control the rampant violence.
Favelas, and the problem of housing an exploding population, have vastly changed Rio from the cidade maravilhosa described in Stephan Zweig’s Brazil: Land of the Future in 1936. The city is no longer known for its ordered architecture and city planning, its lush green fringe around a tropical city; the city edge has transformed into informal settlements in stacked blocks,replicated wherever the topography allows a flat floor to be carved out of the steep slopes.
Meirelles told the Daily Mail, ‘When 40% of the houses in Brazil have no sanitation, you can’t really be spending a billion reals for a show.’ Instead, for the opening ceremony, he used the concept of çambiarra or improvising something special out of difficult circumstance. Perhaps it was necessary to recreate those handmade blocks inside the giant stadium – necessary to give the thousands in attendance the chance to respond to an environment that is more private than public, to see the slums in their party clothes, as a creative caldeirão from which beauty – in music, movement, and models – could emerge. The spectacle mythologized these neighborhoods and glossed over their desperation: sanitation, economy, safety. Did acknowledging the poverty of the city truly make them part of the games?