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Monday, July 22, 2024

The People of the Hill

SMGP grantee Daoud Qamar created a docuseries portrayin life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Brazil: The People of the Hill

2019 Student Media Grant Program

Daoud Qamar, a Texas A&M University student and freelance photojournalist, traveled to Brazil in 2019 to produce a series of documentaries. The project is currently in post-production as it is being translated from Portuguese for an English speaking audience. We will share Daoud's videos when available. 

Project Report 

Howdy!  My name is Daoud Qamar - I am a junior at Texas A&M and a freelance filmmaker.  Last August, I was blessed to produce a docu-series through partnership with the Center on Conflict and Development.  The vision for this project was to provide an inside look to the people who make up Rio De Janiero’s favelas, notoriously some of the most unsafe neighborhoods in the world.  Each episode features a specific community member from one of Rio’s hundreds of favelas and a narrative to the good they’re doing in the absence of government’s intervention.  In fact, in many cases, the government’s attempts to pacify these favelas are in fact failing the people and causing casualties.  By intention, this project sought to highlight the people who are pillars of strength amongst all the turmoil.


 Here is a day by day report of production:

 August 4th - I arrive in Rio as the sun is rising on a quiet Sunday. The drive from the international airport to my AirBnB in the Lapas neighborhood takes me across much of the city, where I catch my first glimpses of the favelas in between barriers on the highway.  My questions to the Uber driver in English go unanswered - a common theme throughout the trip becomes relying on google translate and a few token terms of Portuguese. I’ve chosen to stay in Lapas because this neighborhood is regarded for its nightlife and I assume the constant traffic will help me fit in.  Coming to Rio, I’ve heard a lot of cautionary tales which lead me to be concerned for my safety, especially carrying my camera equipment around.  The first day is relatively quiet, I begin to message my contacts that I am on the ground and Uber to Botafogo Praia Shopping Mall to run some simple errands and grab dinner.  After struggling to order a meal to go, I come home and eat alone, Facetiming my family.

August 5th - Coming to Brazil, I have two main leads: a professor of social work at the local PUC-Rio University and a tour guide in Santa Marta, a favela made famous for Michael Jackson’s music video “They Don’t Really Care About Us”.  That’s really it. I uber to the PUC-Rio campus and meet with Professor Rafael.  He is the first person I meet who is able to converse in English, and provides me with helpful advice about my project.  For example, many prefer the term communidade over favela, which is viewed as more politically correct.  An ongoing theme of the project was asking people which terminology they preferred, and why? As I leave my meeting, I walk to another local shopping mall and spend a few hours trying to meet strangers who have been to a favela and would be willing to take me.  It appears that if you don’t live in a favela, many would never even step foot inside one. I uber to the beach as the sun is setting and buy a “I <3 Rio” keychain from a street vendor for a few reis.  Over the coming days, I photograph this keychain in various locations on my adventures around Rio.  I buy another take out meal and proceed to enjoy a second meal of rice, beans and steak alone in my studio apartment.


August 6th - Today is the first day I enter a favela.  I have enlisted the help of local Roberto Gremler, who I connect with through my summer employer in New York City’s contact.  Roberto speaks english and portuguese and also lives near the entrance to Santa Marta, the favela where I intend to film a majority of this project. Although we had just planned to meet and discuss the project, after months of researching and watching countless videos, I was itching to finally step foot inside and see Santa Marta with my own eyes.  Roberto and I find a tour guide at the base of the hill who is willing to take us to the top in exchange for a small payment.  Because of the spontaneity of my trip, I don’t alert the other tour guide I’ve been working with that I am entering the communidade.  This became a critical mistake. We ascend to the top of Santa Marta using a cable cart installed by the government.  As we walk down through a maze of alleyways created in between each brick construction, the walls are speckled with artwork and bullet holes.  As we descend I am instructed to hide my camera multiple times as we approach groups of armed men who offer to sell drugs.  But aside from these isolated incidents, everyone is welcoming.  Our tour guide seems to know each person we pass by, and quickly suggests multiple interview candidates for this docu-series.  The sense of community was very real, and the role of a tour guide in these communities seems to be highly respected.


August 7th -Waking up after my first taste of the favelas, I am greeted by an angry message from my original tour guide contact in Santa Marta.  He is offended that I have entered his community with the help of another guide and that I must make a decision to work with one or the other. Rather than return to Santa Marta, I meet with another connection, Matheus Giffoni who offers me a tour of historic Rio De Janeiro and introduces me to the subway system.  I gather additional footage to frame the juxtaposition between Rio’s sprawling metropolitan landscape and the brick and clay construction I had witnessed the day before. To finish the night, I visit Tavres Bastos, my second favela in Rio.  Famously there is a jazz club here owned by ex-patriot Bob Nadkarni which offers breathtaking views of Rio.  Nadkarni has constructed a hostel in the middle of the communidade which in it of itself, functions as a beautiful art piece of mosaic tile work.  I’ll be back multiple times over my visit and working closely with Bob and his wife Malu.


August 8th - I had plans this morning to enjoy a quiet morning on the beach to reflect on the new direction of the project.  Instead, I am greeted by a WhatsApp message from the guide who had lead us through Santa Marta two days prior.  He wants me to come join an Israeli tour group who will be getting an extended tour of the community.  I quickly obliged and hop in the uber.  This is going to be my last time visiting Santa Marta. The tour guide brings me to the top of the hill where the Israeli tour group has assembled on a soccer pitch to play the local teenagers.  A huge crowd forms as I film the game and I notice my tour guide has taken money from each of the tourists in order to buy snacks for the forming audience.  This speaks largely to the sense of community and the role of tour guides in these settlements. As we descend, the group takes another detour to a large empty warehouse nestled between the brick towers that dominate the landscape.  Inside there has been prepared a Samba demonstration, complete with performers and drummers from the national Carnival parade.  It was a truly remarkable and unexpected experience. Leaving Santa Marta that day I’m excited to return and film the rest of this project.  Unfortunately later that night I am greeted by messages from both tour guides.  The guide who had just shown me around hours before is demanding a payment to continue working with me.  All of a sudden, now the other guide is too. When I explain that this is a student production without expendable funds, they threaten my safety if I return without making a payment.  Santa Marta is no longer the focus of this project, and all of a sudden I don’t have any interview subjects.


August 9th - This morning I woke up early to experience the sunrise at The Maze Inn where I stayed the night in between AirBnB reservations.  Taking my suitcase down the tight alleyways of Tavares Bastos at night may not have been advisable, but the view was totally worth it. Today is the day my co-producer, Chase Guttman arrives.  Chase is a talented drone photographer and a colleague from The School of The New York Times.  We settle into our new AirBnB which becomes the headquarters of our operations in the next few weeks. I spent the day walking around Rio with Chase showing him the various neighborhoods and walking the beaches to collect b-roll for the film.  Chase gets filled in on the project and we quickly begin moving forwards.  I am reaching out to interview subjects independently using WhatsApp and the recommendations of each contact I had made in the past few days.


August 10th - After getting some b-roll footage in the morning, one such WhatsApp conversation leads us to Kevin, a Belgium student at PUC-Rio who is living in Rocinha.  He invited us to a meeting at the local church where community leaders would meet and discuss social work. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil.  With that, comes the reputation for also being the most crime infested with many of the established gangs laying their roots to this community.  Upon first arrival, I was blown away by the sheer size of Rocinha, the city climbs up the sides of the mountain and extends far beyond the eye.  It is truly a city within a city and functions fascinatingly with many of its own infrastructure. Our meeting is in a local church where we meet with various social workers in the community.  Amongst them, Kevin introduces us to Martin, who was once the mayor of Rocinha.  He is the man who is responsible for bringing running water to the settlement in the 1970’s by running the pipes himself.  By the end of the night he agrees to be our first confirmed interview. As the night concludes, we also arrange interviews with Professor Rafael from PUC-Rio and an officer with the UPP (Pacifying Police Unity) through Matheus’s television contacts.


August 11th - The morning began with our visit to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.  The rest of the day consists of arranging other interviews whilst exploring the beaches and downtown areas further. That night, walking along the beach, I notice a man handing out newspapers entitled “A Voz De Favela” which translates to the voice of the favelas.  This is a newspaper produced activists who sought to report on the news the bigger newspapers neglected, such as reported casualties caused by the UPP.  After reaching out, we are lucky to get in contact with one of the journalists who agreed to schedule another interview.


August 12th - On this morning Chase and I meet with Matheus to conduct our interview with an officer from UPP.  In this interview we asked point blank why pacifying the favelas was causing so many needless casualties. In the afternoon I bring Chase to The Maze Inn where we film b-roll of the favela.  We are able to coordinate our following two interviews from Tavares Bastos for the following week and meet other travelers who are staying at the hostel.  One introduces us to a photographer named Luciano in Rocinha who agreed to be interviewed as well.


August 13th - The morning is spent acquiring drone footage of Rio from various vantage points that we have scoped out over the past few days.  In the afternoon we visit Rocinha to spend some time with Luciano and get a more in depth tour of the sprawling city within a city.


August 14th - Taking the subway this morning, we visited Providencia, the very first favela in Rio.  Our guide is Cosme Fellipsen, the journalist we had reached out to days prior.  He shows us around and brings us to the top of an abandoned gondola system the city had installed for the Olympics.  After our interview, we have a meal at a local restaurant which I happened to recognize from a viral YouTube cooking video.  “Bar de Juda” which is owned and operated by Juda was featured in Mark Wien’s video on eating in the favelas.  The meal is delicious, and Juda agrees to be featured in our project. In the afternoon Chase and I return to PUC-Rio to interview Professor Rafael to better frame the context of the favelas for the intended audience of the film.  His interview directly contrasts that of the UPP officer.

August 15th - We return to Rocinha and visit an english school with Luciano.  He takes us to the rooftop of the schoolyard for his interview where we meet a man named Paolo who worked with the late Anthony Bourdain. The view from on top of the school reveals the vast size of the community, a depth that is otherwise invisible from the ground floor.  Despite that, with less than a week seeing Rocinha, I was already recognizing faces in the street and seeing the settlement change.  In fact, while I was there a sinkhole formed in one of the streets.  By the time we were leaving the interview, the same sinkhole was being patched up by local workers with a fresh layer of asphalt.


August 16th - Today we returned again to Rocinha to meet with Martin, the old mayor who was responsible for the community’s running water.  At the conclusion of the interview, Martin initially offered to take us to the top of the hill and follow the pipework down.  However, for Martin, who is very well known, the trip could be dangerous - his power and respect amongst the community makes him a frequent target for local gangs. Instead Kevin takes us to the top and shows us some more amazing views of Rocinha.  Despite living here for multiple years, even Kevin gets lost on his way down from the top.  Having finally seen the top of Rocinha, Chase and  I bid our farewells as the last interview of our documentary comes to an end.


August 17th - On this final day in Rio De Janeiro, Chase and I gather the remaining b-roll we need before enjoying a few hours at the beach.  We have a flight in the afternoon to Iguazu Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world.  I couldn’t leave Brazil without seeing it for myself.


August 18th-20th -- Chase and I visit Iguazu Falls, which conveniently sits on the border of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  Over the course of our short visit we experience the falls from both the Argentine and Brazillian side and even take a speedboat through the falls themselves.  In Uruguay, which is overrun by shopping malls, we get a bit more drone footage before bidding this short intermission from the trip a goodbye.


August 21st - Flying into Rio from Iguazu, I have one last dinner to say my thanks to those who lent a hand on the production of the film.  One last subway rides reveals my last opportunity to get any additional shots I need before the Uber ride back to the international airport.  On the way back I catch glimpses of favelas in between the barriers on the highway.  It feels more important now than ever to tell the stories of the people who live there.

People of the Hill Project
People of the Hill Project
People of the Hill Project in Brazil
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