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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.