John Hannigan & Claudia Hoffmann

Institutions, Youth Violence, and City of God: Perspectives from Sociology and Cinema Studies

A lecture by Profs. John Hannigan & Claudia Hoffmann

By Danny Li

This mini-lecture organized by the Students of Sociology (SOS) @ UTSC in conjunction with the Students of English Literature and Film (SELF) took place in MW110 on Monday, February 10th from 5 to 8pm. The 2002 film City of God (Cidade de Deus) co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund is the focus of this lecture. The presentation was split into two segments, with Professor John Hannigan of the sociology department discussing the numerous sociological and cinematic themes throughout the film, and Professor Claudia Hoffmann of the English department discussing the construction of the “cinematic favela” through various cinematic techniques. A screening of the film took place after the lecture.

Professor Hannigan began his lecture by briefly introducing the film to us. City of God is a pulpy and gritty semi-biographical film based upon a book of the same name written by the narrator of the film, Paulo “Rocket” Lins. Influenced by other films which took place in the Brazilian favelas, such as Black Morpheus (1959), City of God garnered four academy-award nominations. Professor Hannigan then discussed some of the sociological and cinematic themes found throughout the film such as; favelas, the police, race and inequality, and exclusion.

Favelas are the name given to the shanty-towns/neighbourhoods found throughout cities in Brazil. These towns are established spontaneously by local residents with no other prospect for housing. They remain largely self-sufficient until the state begins to formally institutionalize the neighbourhoods by bringing in services and utilities in exchange for political support. Though specifically called favelas in Brazil, these shanty-towns can be found in many places. Another aspect/theme of the film, as well as life in the Brazilian favelas, is the constant police presence. Professor Hannigan characterizes the contestation between the gangs and police as essentially a war. He notes the potential for these antagonisms to intensify with the hosting of the World Cup later in 2014. Professor Hannigan mentions the unequal way characters in the film are treated based upon their race (black vs. Latino characters). Interestingly, Professor Hoffmann later contradicts this point by stating the equal treatment of different races throughout the film. I found this view to be more compelling after screening the film. The most salient theme Professor Hannigan speaks about is the “absolute exclusion” experienced by residents of the favelas. Prior to the film, the favelas were not part of the popular notion of Brazil. It is often perceived as an autonomous region/the “wild west”. Favelas divide the haves from the have-nots and tend to insulate poverty. With weak institutionalization, the only structures available to the youths in the favela are the criminal gangs. Professor Hannigan closes his lecture by mentioning the recent development of tourism in Brazil specifically targeted at favelas and slums.

Professor Claudia Hoffmann coincidentally begins by discussing the tourism within favelas and their connection to the “cinematic favela”. She notes how the actual neighbourhood, “cidade de Deus”, depicted in the film is neither a destination for tourism or used in the shooting of the film. The “favela is organized for tourism” (Bianca Freire-Medeiros, quoted in slides) as well as for the shooting of the film. Over six different favelas were used in the shooting, none of them being the city of God. The favela is cinematically constructed as a space of youth culture, one which is attractive to Western audiences.

Though an artistic representation and construction of the favelas, the film is able to depict a sense of realism through four cinematic techniques/strategies. Realism is achieved through the use of naturalistic performances of the actors, location shooting (real favelas, but not cidade de Deus), handheld camera shots and movements (create a sense of tension and action), and intertextual references (affirms the existence of a fictional character within a nonfictional world).

Although depicted with a sense of realism, Aline Fray suggests that City of God still romanticizes urban youth violence through the use of structured cinematography, art direction, soundtrack, and narrative. The film is criticized for not showing the historical, cultural, and social context of life in the favelas, by having an oversimplified division between “good vs. bad”, and failing to depict any relationships with the outside or agency on behalf of the residents to change their situation. By blending together fiction and nonfiction, film and reality, the favelas are presented as “faraway places”. The presentations were then followed by a screening of City of God (2004).