In Focus, Screen

‘Complexo do Alemao’, the parallel universe of favela life

– Interview with Mario Patrocinio and his new film –

He first went to Brazil in 2001 when he was 21, to study acting with the director Wolf Maya from Global TV. He felt then that Brazil “was pumping for change” and he had to come back and experience the country by total immersion. The film won the Award for best international feature-category of human rights in the Artivist film Festival.

Interview: Graham Douglas
Photos: Mario Patrocinio


In 2004 his brother Pedro started university in Rio and Mario arrived from Paris. He had been there studying acting with Jack Waltzer a lifetime member of The Actors Studio who trained for many years with the foremost directors of the Stanislavsky System in the United States, including  Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Elia Kazan.

He talks about how his early fascination with Brazil led him from a comfortable European world into this Parallel Universe, where, violence and crime are a constant presence but where there is also more warmth and humanity than in the normal world he was used to. His acting training and his intense curiosity about life enabled him to overcome many practical obstacles to making the film, and led him to some challenging personal reflections

The film, ‘Complexo do Alemao – Parallel Universe’,  which was shown at the annual Lisbon Documentary Film Festival in Lisbon in October premières in LA on 3rd December and on the 11th  in New York , and later in London. It is his first film and the first commercial film to show favela life from the inside. The Prisma talked exclusively to Mario.

What first took you to Brazil ?

In every Portuguese there’s a little bit of the dream of Brazil. You read a lot about it in history classes, you listen to music, and you watch soap operas. It’s part of our culture, and Brazil touched me when I lived in Japan with my parents, because their best friends were a Brazilian couple.

Complexo do Alemao, a difficult subject for your first film?

Because of the location everybody said it was impossible. “Come on ! Its your first time, I’m not going to put money into something if I’m going to lose it, maybe you’ll die, you’ll be robbed. Maybe, maybe…

This is impossible!”….Until I felt “OK if it’s impossible, I’m going to show that it’s not”. I just closed my ears and focused on what I wanted to do, and step by step, starting to do it.

And money, how did you solve that problem?

Working, working, and working, plus our small savings and we sold the only car we had in Brazil.

And I tried to prepare as well as I could, so that the small amount of time I’d be renting equipment I’d be using them 100%, which is why I had to spend so long studying it: Complexo is made up of 12 favelas .And there are so many complexities inside it that I was not used to seeing, so it was part of my growing.

Where the rules are different

Iimagine I had lived in Lisbon, then Japan, Paris, LA and then I go to Rio, … the wonderful Rio,…. and you go to Complexo do Alemao, where inside the city there is a parallel universe,  where the cops don’t go in, with a parallel economy,  so I was like: “how is this possible ?” If you go to the south side, you see the supposedly normal Rio, where people live like we do in Europe, or better. That was a really difficult process. It started when an actor friend of mine called me and said “we’re going to direct a video clip for a guy in the Complexo do Alemao, let’s all go together, his name is MC Playboy.” I’d only arrived 2 months before so I just said: “Oh, OK”.

I didn’t know what the Complexo do Alemao was, and the first day was a bit tense, everybody looking at you because you are from outside; and starting to see the traffickers and the guns. That’s not the reality I’m used to living with.

6 or 12 months previously a journalist from TV Globo had been murdered but I only found out when I got home and my brother told me, and I searched on the internet: “ Wow, where have I been ?” But the feeling of wanting to learn and to discover that new world, was stronger. We finished the video clip , which was called “The music for Love”, and through doing that we had the chance of knowing a lot of places inside Complexo do Alemao. The video was a huge success, it  became the National Anthem of the Complexo.

So you had made a connection with this MC Playboy.

He was the one who opened the doors for us, and in the Christmas of 2004, after a lot of researching, I was wondering  “What am I going to say about this place, how am I going to tell it in terms of photography, the camera movements ? ” I didn’t know much about documentary, so I had to study by myself. I just got all the books, and they told you the films you should see, so I watched the DVDs, right from the beginning of documentary film-making.

Then in 2005, my brother and I decided to spend Christmas there, so we could understand the geography of it, because the Complexo is also a character. You have the characters as such, Snr Zé, Donna Célia, MC Playboy, and the Traffickers, but the Complexo is a character too, and it’s huge, so you have to understand what they do there, when they wake up, when they sleep, at lunchtime, and all the different actions and interactions that go on there.  I chose the characters to show the different facets of the Complexo, and I tried to show it through the photography, because from the beginning, all my research was by photography. I tried to transmit that living image.

Those 5 days were the most unbelievable experience because it was Christmas. We were more sensitive, because we were a long way from our families, more vulnerable…and so were the people who lived there. I knew then that all we’d experienced up to that point meant almost nothing, because living and sleeping there makes the difference. You wake up and spend the entire day with all the living you can have and then you sleep and then you go again.

I felt we had to make a documentary, and it had to be well done. We had to understand the reality, to show how it is, without judgements. We lived in the rich part of Rio, then you go and live there and you come back: you have two separate worlds, two minds: “which one is true?” And then you have to find your own vision of it. In 2006 I wrote the script, chose the characters, and tried to raise some money. No-one wanted to put money in, and because the Pan American Games were going to be in the middle of 2007, the police pressure increased, they surrounded the favela, and there were shootings, it was on the news every day. People worried about their families in case they got involved with us and then got into trouble.

But I had to find at least two people, so I invited a Portuguese friend of mine who’s a promoter, we gave him a short workshop, on how to use a microphone, how to assist the camera. He was a producer too, but of events not film. He just said “Let’s go man”, and then another guy who was a friend of a friend who we’d talked to once, (laughs) talked to this other friend and said “Hey you can trust these guys, its going to be a great adventure”.

How did you know that by making one friend you’d not become an enemy of his enemies?

No, in the Complexo there’s only one faction, it’s the headquarters of the biggest faction in Rio.

Comando Vermelho?

Yes, so before going to film there, we talked to The Guy and told him we want to make a documentary. And he said: “OK just tell the truth don’t invent”. Because they’d learnt not to trust journalists, but they’d known us for 2 years.

You kept in touch during that period?

We began staying there 2, 3, 4 days, to talk to people and try to understand the place, and we made friends. And we also brought friends from the Complexo to our home. It was very important to show the other side, because we were not filthy rich kids. We wanted to do this for ourselves, and because we fell in love with the characters, but: “it’s for you guys”. I believe that by showing the situation good things can come out of it.

You didn’t make any accommodation with the police?

No, we didn’t even talk to the police in terms of “We’re going to do this documentary could you please make some statements?”

No, we wanted to show the inside view, because you don’t see the police inside unless they go there to do an operation and then they get out.

I was thinking, also of your own safety, not getting caught in the crossfire.

Well, when an operation started, first you drop to the ground, and then you get up and run, that’s what we did.

With the camera?

Camera? We didn’t think about filming!

No, sure, but it’s running with a heavy piece of kit….

Ah, the camera, with a tripod and lighting, you’re like a marine with 20 kilos on your back. Physically it was really difficult, because we walked a lot in the favela, and it’s huge. If you imagine it’s 2000 steps up and then you go down again. It was exhausting but we couldn’t stop because we only had the equipment for those few days, we had to do it all then. After about 12 days filming,  we had the interviews with the traffickers, with Dona Célia, Snr Zé, MC Playboy, and the scenes of daily life, I decided  to take the images out of the favela”,… because at any time the police could come. And the next morning 1,500 cops went in.

How do the traffickers see their lives?

For some of the people inside, it’s normal, a firm where you work, you can be a guard, or be delivering goods, or whatever.

But it affects everybody, because there was a war between traffickers and police, and … who’s in the middle of it?

The humble inhabitants of Complexo do Alemao…who work every day. I tried to show their life in the movie, and let them talk, and you make your own conclusions.

Children sometimes see the traffickers as heroes because they’re rich, they show off gold jewellery, and they have guns. The girls respect them, the inhabitants have to respect them, and so that’s the problem. A child should look to a physician, an engineer, a musician…. Maybe there aren’t a lot of rôle models in those areas, just a few, so that’s what has to be changed. They have to give opportunity.

Do you see the change coming from the government? The change always comes from inside of you.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in Complexo do Alemao, or in Tokyo, I believe that changes come from inside. But, government has to act, not only…

In a different way, not just going in and slaughtering people.

Exactly. This year I felt different, because they’re doing this PAC, the Programa do Aceleração do Crescimento. It’s like the Development Plan for Brasil… and I’ve seen a lot of differences, in terms of infrastructure, changing the face of the favela, there’s a lot of work, so people have a chance to earn their own money. But… they’re installing a cable car, but Dona Célia doesn’t have anything to eat. you have to act in education, that’s the only salvation.

What about the community spirit…?

There are 300,000 people in Complexo do Alemao, but you feel like you are in a small village. I never felt that in any other part of Rio.

You’re in a small community, people helping each other. The neighbours, talk to each other. It was funny to find that. Sometimes it felt like home almost..cosy…

I suppose you could never say that the gangsters were the good guys, but they were delivering employment, they created some sense of belonging, some kind of ideology….

It’s all about money. Of course they give employment, but maybe to 1% of Complexo do Alemao which has 300,000 people, it’s nothing.

The scene that everybody talks about in your film is the one with the woman with the child around her neck, and the child says “I want to kill everybody when I grow up”. Is that distorting the picture?

For me it was a unique moment. It makes me think, because it was registered in the image. She’s just walking on the street and he looks at the cops there with a big car and all the guns and says… It’s a symbol, it makes you think. If you’re in an environment where you see guns all the time, on the cops or the traffickers, huge guns, you grow up used to that.

Where do you go from here?

In January we’re going to have a commercial première here in cinemas, which is a great conquest, because it’s very difficult here, in a small market, to have a documentary in the cinema. I believe it can work, especially at the present time… I didn’t think much about that until the première here in DocLisboa..We are in a time of big crisis here in Portugal, and when people saw those characters, especially Dona Célia, living through such difficult situations and smiling…at life… it made them think.

I have the idea that in order to be an actor, you’ve got to understand yourself in some depth, and be able to play with your psychological possibilities, and explore your own spiritual reality. This must bring something quite profound to the process of film-making?

I’ve found that in order to be a man you have to do that. Of course, all the training I’d done started to open me to these things. But if you are a human being, a man or a woman, its the natural way, you have to try to understand yourself before you try to understand the world. You have to look inside, sometimes it’s not good what you see, but dealing with it, it’s the learning, the journey. And then changing comes inside of you, if you start dealing with it, but you have to have the courage to look at it. And you should put yourself in situations in which you can grow. And sometimes you don’t do it, because you get stuck in a circle of routine. You know, we’re always depending on subsidies… the subsidiology of Europe…we can do more for ourselves. You just see life passing through you, and you should be in it, living, growing, making changes inside of you, because when you start making changes inside of you everything around you changes? It has to start from inside, it’s for life. It’s the journey that matters.

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