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.

Stigma and HIV reporting – a lesson from the BBC

Zainab Deen wrote an article in BBC Magazine on ‘Sex workers using anti-HIV drugs instead of condoms’. However, her reporting is everything else but neutral.

Her first paragraph reeks with stigmatizing rhetoric:

 “In Kenya 1.5 million people are living with HIV, and there are about 100,000 new infections every year. Despite this, some sex workers are having unprotected sex – and taking antiretroviral drugs afterwards to cut the infection risk. How reckless is this?”

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Then she continues, telling the story of some of Nairobi’s sex workers.

“”Let me tell you the truth about why many of us don’t use condoms,” says Sheila who has been a prostitute in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum for six years.

“We don’t have money, and when you meet a client who offers to give you more money than you usually get, you have sex without protection even when you don’t know his HIV status.”

Sheila says she and other prostitutes can go to a clinic the next morning to get emergency antiretrovirals – drugs which suppress the virus, if taken within 72 hours of infection, and in many cases stop its progression.

“We use this medicine like condoms,” she says.”

While this paragraph acknowledges that the women use preventive treatment for economic reasons, the author fails to look at these structural drivers of HIV/AIDS – no mention of poverty levels, of women’s empowerment in society etc.

The following testimony shows more of this apparent ‘system abuse’.

“”I had unprotected sex when I was very drunk one night and the following morning I didn’t go to the same clinic where I got the first PEP tablets… I went to a different clinic where they don’t have my records, and lied that I was forced into unprotected sex,” she says.”

After the reader is appalled by the ‘reckless behaviour’ of these women, he gets another set of information that will really enrage him – that is the price of these preventive drugs.

“In the US, PrEP costs around $14,000 (£8,700) a year at the full price, although people on low incomes can get it much cheaper, or even free.”

I think and hope that the readers of BBC Magazine are smarter than this and know that the story told in this article is one in a million and does not reflect the situation in Kenya. 26 million people in the world need AIDS drugs, 9.7 million had access to treatment at the end of 2012. Sensationalist and moralizing reporting should not get in the way of how much funding goes into providing these life-saving drugs to those who need them!

Global health reporting fail – tuberculosis


And I read another article covering global health that is somewhat biased (chrmm chrmm). I’m talking about Tulip Mazumdar’s article on multi-drug resistant TB :

Global resistance to TB drugs is ‘ticking time bomb’

We have the usual suspects:

-an alarmist title

-the hopeless situation of the poor (yet not to forget their wisdom)

-the non or mal-functioning government / unorganised systems (they can’t sort any situation without our help, obviously!)

and interestingly:

-“TB is very clever because it kills you very slowly. And while it’s killing you very slowly you’re walking around spreading it” – the silent killer? When will be talking about TB stigma?