Judokas spreading the way.
Raissa was born and raised in Maré Complex
It must be said that the 'Maré Complex' has a sinister reputation. It is here where Raissa was born, raised and continues to live in the midst of her relatives, surrounded by violence orchestrated by drug gangs. They are everywhere, making their living out of deadly substances, ready, for a handful of reals, to send to hell a youth already damaged by the social situation of the district.
We are warned: Maré is not on the list of Rio de Janeiro’s touristic sights. If it is indeed on a list, the favela is probably written in letters of blood, sprinkled with cocaine. No, Maré is really not a place to be if you are not of the seraglio. Our driver, though he’s Brazilian and Carioca, was afraid to enter into Maré, and simply refused to go there and dropped us on the edge of the ghetto at a petrol station, where a vehicle of the NGO 'Fight for Peace' came to pick us up. We were to have just one day to plunge into chaos.
When the IJF first visited the favela in 2013 (on the occasion of the World Championships in Rio, President Marius Vizer visited Fight for Peace), the place already had a bad reputation, even if a promise had been made to 'pacify' the region by investing it with the army and police. Now we are back there, we see no signs of this ‘pacification’. The streets are still in the same realm – dominated by the dealers of death, sitting in front of their nauseating stalls. In one hand, they have their walkie-talkies and in the other one, their guns. If they smile, it is because of the dirty money they make and of hatred. Here people do not really laugh.
Cameras and phones must remain at the bottom of the bag, invisible. The urban landscape travelling in front of us gives us no desire to take them out. We may be courageous but we’re not foolhardy.
Within a few minutes we reach the Fight for Peace centre which stands as an oasis of tranquillity on one end of the neighbourhood, wedged between the highway on one side and the lair of the devil on the other. Warm welcoming smiles naturally and quickly appear on the faces of our guests. But despite the cheerful facade, the fear is there, lurking in the corner. You never really know where danger may arise. In 2013, we were able to film from the third floor of the centre; it is now impossible. Here no one insists.
While we were waiting at the entrance of the centre, we see a young man in his twenties, nonchalantly walking. He was shirtless, only wearing shorts and flip-flops. Nothing unusual. Except that he was ostentatiously holding a large gun in his hand. It was ready to spit out its macabre projectiles – a full magazine of bullets was wrapped around his waist. Here no one laughs.
Raissa helps her coach during the judo session
This atmosphere of modern Far West differs with the radiant smile of our host, Caroline. She talks about the difficulties of life here, but surprisingly her speech is not just negative. Yes, it is complicated to grow up in the middle of a favela. "Sometimes we have the feeling of having been abandoned to our fate," says the young woman. Yes, the temptations of falling into the trap of artificial paradises are many: "The dealers? You meet them just down the street." Finding a bright future is reserved for a minority: "Between unemployment, trafficking of all kinds, violence, hope for a better life sometimes dwindles into nothing," Caroline concludes.
But as the saying goes, where there’s life there’s hope. All is not lost and some although sometimes they resemble Don Quixote battling against windmills, some conflicts are worth fighting.
Caroline, Gabriela, Julia, Luke and their friends often feel like tightrope walkers trying to balance on a razor blade. Yet they do extraordinary work, not only by sportingly mentoring hundreds of children, but also by offering them the foundations of a healthy education. Raissa is one of those pupils who came to the centre full of inner violence, but who today has a goal in life. The young woman explains to us how violence guided her steps to Fight for Peace: "My dad was drinking and was beating my mother. I wanted to beat him up. To be able to hit him too. So I started to practice combat sports."
One day, always animated by that feeling of revenge and revolt that flows in the veins of the sacrificed youth, Raissa pushed open the door of the dojo. The judo training was led by a woman. This was new for her. Raissa was interested, curious and was finally hooked. One of her coaches, Reynaldo, was talking about values, respect and mutual benefit. The dojo fell quiet while he was calmly explaining things without ever raising his voice.
He gave Raissa her big chance in life. He included her into the learning process of the other young people in the dojo. He made her his assistant and she literally fell in love with the activity.
Raissa and her friend Julia begin to dance on the chaos of the world
"Hate brought me to judo, love made me stay," she tells us - the love of discovering true values, the love of sharing and really exchanging, the love of one another, the appreciation of what is good in people, not what they look like. The dojo suddenly became a school of tolerance and Raissa admits that today she has no more hatred in her, “My father? I have forgiven him. He is still my father, whatever happened and happens." What a lesson!
Despite the difficulties, we persist because we would like to film the district in order to put everything in perspective. But how? It really sounds complicated, if not impossible, and especially dangerous. Raissa invites us to come with her to her home. We discover a tiny and neat apartment. Everywhere there are holy pictures on the walls, while the kitchen is decorated with a representation of the Last Supper. Despite a noisy and leaking air conditioning device, the kitchen where we sit to talk with Raissa is a real furnace. After this first incursion in the heart of Maré, we also pay a visit to the grandparents of the young woman, who live close to her home, at the end of a corridor, which resounds with the joyful laughter of children. The place is an even smaller windowless apartment.
The couple is proud of their young girl. Sitting on a sofa together with her, they are cherishing her and drinking every word she says, their eyes reflecting their pride in having a granddaughter who is trying her best. As if to remind us of the world outside, a talkative bird perches on the refrigerator, enlivening the atmosphere by its chirping. It’s the only tangible contact with a very remote nature. We spend some time with the family, almost being included in their world. Time to leave. We head back to the centre without wasting too much time on the busy streets where life finally looks just like it does in any other popular district in the world. Yet the dealers are still there, proud of their impunity. Here one does not risk flouting their rules.
After lengthy negotiations and having exhausted plans A, B, C and D to film the favela, a massive young man, working for the NGO, says he’s ready to welcome us in his place, practically on the roof of his house, so that, away from weapons and inquisitive looks, we can film and photograph without taking too many risks.
The ascent, as in all those houses of odds and ends, is almost vertical. We come out in the fresh air and suddenly we seem to dominate the entire neighbourhood. Maré is like an ocean of cubes thrown on the floor and stacked on one another by a flippant giant, who doesn’t have any concerns about his storage space. Everything seems to be either in a construction phase or a destruction phase. The landscape is punctuated by a myriad of dark blue tanks which collect and redistribute water in homes. From our vantage point, the dealers suddenly feel very distant, and life seems almost peaceful. Two army helicopters fly past and we hide our cameras just in time to let them disappear on the horizon. Yet perched here, one could have fun and dance.
Young children in the Fight for Peace Center
Raissa and her friend Julia begin to dance on the chaos of the world. Everyone laughs heartily, it felt good. But it’s already time to return to the lowlands of Maré. We repackaged our equipment. No one is laughing anymore. There is no farewell party. A simple goodbye as if finally visiting this unsettling place had been a dream, or maybe a nightmare. We reach the gas station where our driver seems happy to see us in one piece. Here one can breathe.
The next day, we went to Rocinha, another of the nine hundred favelas that make up the city of Rio de Janeiro. If Maré was as flat as the hand and sprawling, Rocinha clings to the mountain not to collapse into the sea. The houses are dripping from above and the entanglement of cubes seems even more inextricable.
We had an appointment at the Instituto Reação founded by Flavio Canto, Olympic judo bronze medallist in 2004 in Athens. There we met Julia, fifteen. The girl appeared shy and fragile. Did she really have the strength to live in such an environment? But the young girl was speaking of her determination and her desire to move forward, and explained how her encounter with sports changed her life. She talked about her role-models, the main one being Flavio but also Rafaela Silva, also coming from a poor neighbourhood but who managed to become World Champion in Judo. Everything is a matter of choice: a choice of light and shade, a choice of paths that may be difficult and steep, or else apparently easy but terribly slippery and dangerous. Is it possible not to admire this determination not to sink into the abyss of life?
Julia shares her time between her mom and dad who are separated, and her grandmother who lives in a Lilliputian nest perched on the top floor of a lopsided building, stuck in an oppressive street whose sky is lined with a spider web of electrical cables hanging between the houses. (The favela has literally made out of the thousands of kilometres of these cables.) Once again it was necessary to climb stairs with uneven steps to reach a room which could hardly contain more than two people at once.
Unlike Maré, Rocinha was ‘pacified’ a few years ago. So we were allowed to film, even though we had to be accompanied by a local resident. Our passport for the day. Here one could laugh, but not too much anyway.
Given the lay-out of the favela, to reach the top of the area we took the moto-taxis and we were quickly astride unstable motorbikes. We had no choice though but to rely on the skills of pilots who weaved with ease between other zigzagging motorcycles, buses climbing the steep slopes and antediluvian trucks thundering downhill on roads crowded with pedestrians. Our moto-taxi managed to avoid all the hazards to the millimetre. Phew, here we were!
The view was breathtaking. On one side, behind us, the entanglement of the favela was like puking its smash bricks stakes, while in the other direction the city of Rio stretched out of sight in all its finery. The Corcovado was extending his Redeemer’s arms towards the uptown. In the distance, we could almost hear the neighing of horses on the racetrack. The beaches of Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon ... were like pearls leading to the imposing silhouette of the Sugar Loaf. A real postcard, and such a contrast to the nest we just climbed. How could these two worlds coexist? How, in the eyes of many visitors and Cariocas themselves, could these cities within the city that are the favelas become almost invisible? Rocinha is alive, full of life indeed. The cacophony of sound that hit our eardrums as we climbed had been deafening. Our heads were buzzing.
Beyond poverty and insecurity that is impossible to ignore, Rocinha is a work of life, an ode to life, an unlikely combination of emotions. To go down, we took the tiny alleyways, true canyons between buildings where only two people can cross at one time. We had taken the principal traffic route to get to the top, but on the way down we travelled along myriads of inextricable lanes. It felt like navigating inside a body, looking for what makes the heart of this hybrid monster beat - a monster torn between the drug-traffickers willing to draw you into the depths and some researchers into light who have only one desire: to fly toward a brighter horizon.
"Go, go, go!!!" our guides suddenly commanded in quiet but insistent voices. We did not ask questions and raced down the slope. We learned later that two men, as we passed, had signalled that our presence was not desirable. The sign of their dangerous displeasure: one had stopped laughing suddenly.
Main street of Rocinha
Back in Reação we could breathe a cleaner air. We felt less tense as we finally got acquainted with an open, affable man called Flavio Canto. He has an undeniable presence and aura. Speaking several languages fluently, he was born in Oxford, England, although he spent much of his life in Brazil.
He was not predestined to find his way here into the sidelines of the world. Yet he gives everything and believes in the power of sport and education, "These favelas are real life communities. There is an incredible energy," he said, adding: " But, while there is vibrant life here, people pass by without seeing it." One must not be naive, the dangers are obvious and visible – a fact almost admitted by the residents, or at least a part of them. Around us we could feel an implacable kind of resignation, an acknowledgement that being born in Rocinha or Maré is not the best to start in life. Flavio explained: "You know, there is the beach here, the sun and life follows a different rhythm. But we Brazilians remain fighters and if we can channel that energy, then we can do great things."
Reacao is located just accross the highway from Rocinha
On the mat, a young man was training. "Today he is doing Brazilian ju-jitsu," said the Master, "but he also does judo." The man was limping. About ten years ago he was caught in an ambush that took the life of his brother and left him unable to walk for several years. “He is always pulled down in life - torn between falling on the wrong side or bouncing back," explained Flavio, "but at least here in the centre, he can escape and try to rebuild." This summarises, in a few words and a few examples, the forces that preside over the destinies of Rio’s favela neighbourhoods, that let them live and die and that make their hearts beat to the rhythm of gangs which define the local law. If there is the chill of danger, there is also life and a wild hope of warmer days. But would not this process need hundreds of other Flavio’s to show their people a future under better auspices? In our continuing quest to answer that question, we still had someone to meet.
Flavio Canto teaching judo at Reaçao
Rafaela Silva is on her twenty-fourth spring, and yet she has already made her mark in the history of her country by becoming the first female Brazilian judo world champion in 2013. It was precisely in Rio where she went from being virtually unknown to a national glory. This transition was further reinforced by the fact that Rafaela was born and raised in ‘Cidade de Deus' (City of God), another Favela of Rio, made famous by the directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund who in 2002 described the violence prevailing in the district, based on the book of the same name by Paulo Linens.
Evolving into the category of -57kg, Rafaela is, as fine as she seems, frail. Reserved and rather shy in appearance, she nonetheless exudes a force that speaks volumes about her career. And there is no boasting from the champion when she says that she is aware of the impact she has made: "Sport has changed my life and if I reached the top of the world, I owe it to all those who helped me and believed in me."
She is a warrior in the noble sense of the term, a warrior who knows where she comes from and how she got there. A few words and a tearful eye explain enough. The tattoos emblazoned on her arms only underscore how Rafaela’s life was not always an easy one. But the smiles that illuminated her face on the last day of our stay in Rio, also showed that she was able to make choices and they were good. Today she has an iconic status for a youth in need of benchmarks, who would like to believe and dream that their future is not limited to the boundaries of a ghetto.
Rafaela Silva at judo training
We would soon be returning to our good old Europe, which is languishing in its problems of rich people and who is struggling with the coordination of its refugees.
But here in the favelas we felt we had found a form of greatness, whether at Maré, Rocinha and Cidade de Deus. There is life, liveliness and a crazy energy. There is also decay and suffering. There you laugh, but you cry as well, you are born as easily as can die. An askance look can send you six feet under. A smile, and the crowd would rise to help and support you. But it still seems difficult today to get out of this world. There are so many walls still to break down. This is the beauty and ugliness of Rio's favelas.
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Images and text © IJF Media by Nicolas Messner
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