December 09, 2006

The City of God and Rio de Janeirio

As readers of this blog will be aware, thanks to an earlier post the Brazilian film, the City of God, is one of my favourite films of the modern era. I outlined in that earlier post some of the great philosophical issues that struck me as arising out of it- issues to do with the power of tyrants to create stability and the political importance of justice- issues which I beleive the film illustrates.

Its worth noting though that those are not the only questions thrown up by this modern masterpiece. When the film came out, it came out to amazing ammounts of praise, my DVD has comparisons to a true modern classic- the Scorcese film Goodfellas amongst others on its sleeve and the majority of reviews that you can read on the net are exceptionally flattering, noting the cinematic skill and powerful performances that went into the film. One review though sticks out in my mind as raising an important issue about the film, and that is Katia Santos's review.

What Santos points out is that whilst the film portrays the favella and particularly the City of God as a nest of drug dealers and criminals, ordinary people lived there as well. As a recent study of the slums of Rio de Janeirio posits only around 1% of the population live the lives of drug crazed murder familiar in the film. Going by that study, and admittedly it is of a later period but a later period whose criminal dynamics date to the earlier time, most of the murders in Brazil aren't even committed in Rio. Furthermore Santos argues that the film misrepresents the criminals it seeks to portray- even a complete devil like Ze Pequeno had a family and was loved and loved in return. To take that out of him is to render him a devil, to take away his humanity.

Santos is right and wrong. She is right in my view to state that the film, that other dramatic pictures of a time or a place (Goodfellas would be a great example) are partial. The film stresses the violence- only one character escapes it- and the crowds of kids who as Santos remembers from her own years in the City turn away from drugs and gangs are uninteresting to the film. The film is not an account of the City of God's history- to the extent it claims to be the claim is false- but does that make the claim unjust.

As I argued earlier the City of God is in many ways an ideal history of the city. Ideal in the sense that there is a fairly obvious set of concerns about the way that people relate that flow through the film, this is a film with an agenda and a way of viewing the way that people and power relate, that character and criminality relate that goes beyond the story it tells. What the film makers are doing is not creating a history of the City of God as much as they are creating an ideal history- they are arguing through history. It matters therefore to them that we for the duration of the film only regard those incidents as mattering that support or that fall within the confines of the argument. The kids that went home to play football don't fit into the argument- they aren't counter examples- but they aren't relevant. Those that stay in the power struggles are relevant. What we are being told is an elided story, a story with the irrational and illogical taken out, in short a story and not a history.

Is this a dishonest film then, is this an act of propaganda? In a sense it is, as all art indeed as all perception is an act of propaganda. By choosing to emphasize certain things and deemphasize others, by choosing which bits of the field of vision to concentrate on yes it is an act of propaganda. But the film is not an outright lie. Violence was endemic within this society, as the study I cited above suggests and it was tied to drugs. The point of the film is to argue for an interpretive model within which to fit this violence. That interpretive model requires the film maker to emphasize parts of the narrative- the gang around Ze Pequeno not his family and not the other gangs within the locality- which are part of the story that the film wishes to show us. In that sense then it is showing us a history of the City of God- even if not the history of the City of God. A film maker to my mind can do no more- he doesn't have a canvass to allow comprehensive coverage (who does), all he can do is extrapolate a truth from the truths he chooses to film.

Consequently I find the accusations of Katia Santos troubling but ultimately I reject them. The difficulty of course is that I am writing this, not being a Brazilian and not knowing what went on in the City of God, but I'm not sure that the fact that something isn't the whole picture neccessarily invalidates it. Part of the craft of an observer of the world is fitting the world into your own incomplete and propagandist view- giving the actions that happen and might happen randomly in front of you, an order and a story- in a way that is a function of memory- to an even greater extent its a function of film.

Of course the truer story is the one that includes the most facts within its remit whilst still being a logical explanation- stories have to both correspond to the outside world and retain an inner logic. Using this argument, I don't think that the City of God deserves to be classed alongside say the Battleship Potemkin as a brilliant lie, just because it doesn't tell the whole truth, doesn't mean it doesn't tell the truth.