City of God (2002) – The Violence of Poverty

It was suggested that I watch City of God after watching Straight Outta Compton, City of God is Straight Outta Compton turbo charged. Straight Outta Compton deals with First World poverty and City of God deals with Third World poverty. While all poverty is ugly and violent, in the Third World there’s an extra layer of hopelessness and despair, a poverty so violent and oppressive that its turned inward and that aggression explodes into outward physical violence.

City of God is a real place, a favela in the outskirts of Rio De Janeiro. In 1960 the government decided to move all of the slum dwellers inside the city to a new housing project away from the city in an effort to ‘clean up’ the city. The residents were provided with housing and basic utilities (water electricity) and education but attendance is not enforced. Other than that they were cut off from government and social agencies, the economy and left to fend for themselves. All the government cared about was that ‘those people’ were out of sight from the Rio city center. Brazil is a racially and ethnically diverse place, but it’s worthy to note that the majority of the residents in the City of God are Afro-Brazilians (black). Brazil is held up as an example of a country where there exists a harmonious relationship between black people and white people (and every shade in between), but Brazil is also one of the countries where the gap between rich and poor is the largest and two-thirds of the poor are Afro-descent. So, yes the black Brazilian may not be randomly stopped and frisked by cops or treated with suspicion on the account of being black, but the black kid goes home to a favela at night and the white kid return to a nice house in the suburbs.

Favela dwellers are usually poor, black, under educated, unemployed and unemployable with no access to the formal economy. Any money or income they derive comes from robbery, stealing or drug dealing. A favela dweller’s chance of getting a proper job with a salary and benefits in the city center is near nil. Those jobs are reserved for the affluent and middle classes, with university degrees. The favela dwellers are the uneccessariat of Brazil. They are surplus army of workers spat out by capitalism. In Brazil’s version of turbo capitalism, they’ve no need for hoodlums. And for a hoodlum to transform into a worker, it’s a near impossible feat. The City of God will always draw you back into the life of an outlaw. One of the tagline of the movie is:

“If you run, the beast catches; if you stay, the beast eats”. 

In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

City of God is a violent film. It’s disturbingly violent, at times it’s overkill. It’s based on a semi autobiographical novel of the same name by Paulo Lins. It is lauded as one of the greatest movies about the world’s poor and what poverty does to people, but one must be able to look past the violence, withhold judgement for a minute  in order to process the message of the movie. The message is poverty is violence. Poverty causes not only misery, death, stress, anxiety but also violence. The grind of having to fend and scavenge for every meal, every life’s necessity will turn the most docile and gentle person into a beast. It is a life of extreme indignity which should not be borne by any human being. To know that your community, your country expects nothing of you but to breed more people like yourself and one day shooting each other to death will turn anyone into beasts. There is no expectation of you ever succeeding in your life besides a life of organized or petty crime.

The narrator of the movie is young man called “Rocket”, he is a photographer for a local newspaper. By luck he has avoided the pitfalls and didn’t become a hoodlum. He was able to finish his primary and secondary education and enter the formal workforce, even as an unpaid photographer. He makes friends and acquaintances who do not live in the favela and has had a taste at normal life. The movie begins as Rocket inadvertently walks into a gang war and he had his new camera on him (given by the newspaper editor) and as he’s photo-documenting the shoot out, he takes us back 20 years to tell us the story of the main characters. He grew up surrounded by crime, petty and organized. The organized crime in the favelas is normally drug dealing; petty crimes include holding up stores, motels, restaurants, gas delivery trucks, anything which involves cash transactions. This is their only economy, the only way for them to have access to any cash, which without, one can’t live.

The gang leader of City of God is a nasty fellow called Little Z, he is a childhood acquaintance of Rocket. Little Z committed his first mass murder before he hit puberty and did so with glee, to show up the older boys who were making fun of him. He took all the money stolen from that mass murder and ‘disappeared’ with his friend Benny. Many thought they died due to their young age but they didn’t, they kept their heads down until they came of age and Little Z came back into the favela with Benny and one by one bumped off his ‘business’ rivals and became the drug kingpin of the City of God. The streets of the favela are so violent that the police enter with caution, and there seems to be an endless stream of weapons. Children as young as 8 or 10 years old have a gun. This is where I find the narrative of the film goes overboard. There is a gang of young boys called The Runts who routinely rob and hit business establishments under Little Z’s control. Wrongly believing that their status as children will protect them from the wrath of Little Z, they couldn’t be more wrong, Little Z to teach those rascals a lesson (to not fuck with Little Z’s interests) forced one child to shoot another or else he’ll die to prove his loyalty to Little Z and to make sure they never try something so stupid again.

This is where I may get accused of having First World middle class privilege. It is my belief that as humans we have some control over our decisions, no matter how small or insignificant. The residents of favelas are controlled by a monster bigger than they. They didn’t choose a life of poverty, indignity and oppression, and should they act out accordingly to redress that, I find those actions justified and mandatory. But asking a child to shoot another child to teach them a lesson is a choice Little Z made out of the monstrosity of his soul. He’s a psychopath. On top of making one kid shoot another, he shot another young child in the foot all for fun, to teach The Runts a lesson. I don’t even expect him to have empathy and think “I was that Runt once”, that’d be asking too much, but he knows that his actions were beyond the pale. Just like when he raped Knockout Ned’s girlfriend because she spurned his advances saying she has a man already, Little Z, feeling insulted, raped her in front of Knockout Ned, and then proceeds to kill Ned’s brother and father and an uncle. This action forces Knockout Ned, who considers himself a ‘worker’ and not a hoodlum to retaliate and get revenge, he joins forces with Carrot, the only white gang leader in the favela and plans to take out Little Z, which results in a massive gang war that Rocket walked in on and documented.

Throughout the film, I kept wondering where on earth did they get their endless supply of weapons. After all, no one goes to the favela unless they live there or they go there to score drugs. We find out it’s none other than the fine policia of Rio De Janeiro. In a deal to get the cops to leave the favela alone an arms deal was struck. Rocket photographed Little Z handing cash over to the police for purchase of weapons. The photograph alone can bring down the local police department, not that it would be a huge shock, Brazil is known for its corruption. The newspaper Rocket interns for, their journalists have never been able to get inside of City of God, and upon finding out Rocket was born and raised there and still lives there, they saw it as an opportunity to get pictures of the gang leaders and gang activity inside the favela. It was a career advancement opportunity for Rocket, even for a lowly paid part time internship, his transformation to ‘worker’ would be complete. He would be legitimate, he’d be part of the formal economy, a contributing member of society – something that capitalism values above all else until they decide they don’t want you anymore.

At the last moment, upon deciding which photos to use for the newspaper front page, instead of choosing the photo of the cops exchanging money with Little Z, which is the real story, he chose to use a picture of Little Z’s dead body in an alleyway somewhere as front page news photo. Signifying the end of an era and beginning of another. Rocket chose his career over exposing the truth. He’s now a participant in the system that oppressed him and his family and friends.

This is a difficult movie to watch, the running time is over two hours, and the directors force you to confront the reality of Third World Poverty, the ugliness, the violence. Usually films about the poor, the director puts a human and loving face on the poor. They are poor but they are kind, they look out for each other, they take care of each other, they are kind to each other; the directors don’t do that here. The people of the favela are nasty and horrid, just like how they grew up. There is very little kindness shown anywhere in the movie. My first gut reaction when half way through the movie is these people wake up, eat, fuck, get high, go commit a crime and do it all over again, everyday. The young men and women try to seek meaningful romantic relationships with each other, but they are obstructed by the forces in City of God. The women want the men to become workers and leave the favela, but where would they go where they can get all their basic necessities met without resorting to violence. These men are unemployable, discarded and ejected from the formal economy. When Benny met a nice girl Angelica not from the favela and as they prepare to leave the favela for good and live a rural farm life, at the farewell party, Blackie’s (another gang leader) gun goes off by accident and kills Benny. But even before a bullet stopped Benny, Little Z tried to stop Benny from leaving, Little Z has no other friend besides Benny, but Benny’s mind was made up. Benny was Little Z’s gatekeeper, when Little Z got too out of hand, Benny would step in and pacify and diffuse the situation, now he was leaving. But sadly, that small desire of living on a farm somewhere with a girl you love was out of reach.

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