Tell me about the slums

I like to watch what I call ‘popular documentaries’ about life in other countries. In my eyes, these are different from ‘regular documentaries’, because they appeal less to an intellectual elite, but to people who enjoy entertainment shows. Often they include a British reporter who goes on to explore a new culture and give us a glimpse of what life may be like in other countries, making generalising statements in an overly sympathetic voice. Over the past few weeks, two BBC programmes caught my attention, because they offered me a new approach to the popular documentary.

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Welcome to Rio: Rocky

The first one was BBC2 ‘Welcome to Rio’ , a series of three episodes giving the audience an idea of what life in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas may be like. Over the different episodes we meet different characters, be it a funkeira, a scantily clad hip-shaking feminist performer, and her struggles with her family’s conservative attitude; Rocky, who can be described as the favela’s concierge, you will marvel as he carries your standard two-door fridge up the hundreds of stairs; a graffiti artist from the slums and his political statements, or the struggles of a savvy business woman who recycles material from the dumping ground but has to send her husband to negotiate, as their partners don’t want to talk to a woman. The series even takes us amongst the ranks of the (in)famous BOPE, the special police force in charge of ‘pacifying’ the favelas. These and many more testimonies enable you to immerse yourself in the favela, to make you feel at home.

The other example of slum representations is BBC3’s Slum Survivors. Three British young people are sent to spend a week in a slum (Lagos (ep 1), Jakarta (ep 2) and learn about a specific trade (mechanics, cookery). We follow their journey and see the slum through their eyes. We watch them witness difficult living conditions, the generosity and hospitality of the locals and how skilled and hard working the people they meet are. Indeed the young people in both episodes fail at many tasks set for them to the local standards. They are all in some way or another overwhelmed by the experience, which they share with us in frequent interview sequences.

Now, I must say that I much preferred the way ‘Welcome to Rio’ was made. For one, it didn’t include any teenage tantrums, but it was really the use of point of view that made it very interesting. Hence it is interesting to put the two shows side by side. One tries to put us in the shoes of the favela residents with a first-person-narrative, while the other lends us three pairs of eyes who discover the slums for us.

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Welcome to Rio: Ingenuity

Really immersing the audience into the slum environment may seem a more genuine approach. We are getting the real thing, the narration is from the residents’ point of view. Unlike the news, where a professional journalist helps us analyse a situation, there is no intermediary. At least so it seems. We don’t actually know who wrote script.

From what we can gather, the story is not told by somebody we can easily identify with – the British audience’s reality is very far from life in the favelas – yet we are immersed. We can see similarities between our lives and the lives the favela – not only through common family struggles but also through the framing: When describing Rocky’s son, the narrator explains that like in all families, a teenager gets into trouble, but in Rocky’s case trouble means the drug dealers.

Despite all the apparent honesty of the series, we cannot forget that we’re completely relying on the choices made by the filmmaker and the editing carried out on the documentary. We just have to wonder what the agenda of the producers is. Are they telling the whole story? They are certainly critical of the pacification process.

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Slum Survivors: episode 2 – Jakarta

In Slum Survivors, we are being told a story through an intermediary, but not any intermediary. These young people are a form of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’’, ingénues, who look at the world with their somewhat naïve eyes. Some of them have no idea where the place they are going to is – they are in fact asked at the beginning to point at it on a map. For some it’s the first time away from their families. We see the slum through their experiences, impressions and feelings. We are still subjected to the editing, however the young people’s responses and statements are (somewhat) uncontrolled by the producers of the show. In the first episode the young people go on to discover corporal punishment as a method to improve on the job – and interestingly we don’t see the usual vilification of culturally inacceptable practices.

Whichever point of view you may prefer, both are interesting and both shows are definitely worth a watch if you want to find out more about life in the slums! They also made me happy, because they are a breath of fresh air after travel documentaries à la Billie Porter’s ‘Secrets of Latin America’ and others, with their series of leading questions on their quests to ‘the truth’, often leave me somewhat unsatisfied.


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