For the past year, a photography collective in São Paulo, Brazil, has been creating short, troubling, and cinematic videos of the public protests that first swept the country in 2013. 12PM Photographic’s films are a far cry from the grainy cellphone videos that flood YouTube. Crisp and composed, they bring the South American conflict into alarmingly clear focus.
In one characteristic video shot on January 25, 2014, and titled “460 Years of the City of São Paulo,” protesters jump on police cars, disrupt traffic, and break glass. A local woman shouts at the cameraman, expressing her dismay: “I rebuke you in the name of Jesus!” The 1:20-minute film closes with the city’s motto: Non DVCOR DVCO — meaning, “I am not led, I lead.”
It’s difficult to make sense of “460 Years of the City of São Paulo.” While many protests in the country have been peaceful, this one, as well as several others shot by 12PM Photographic, are plainly violent. What incited the crowd? Who started the mayhem? What was the role of the police? Unlike the footage of protests that played on the nightly news during the Vietnam War, there’s no concerned narrator to offer a comfortingly clear explanation of what’s happening. Are the people in the video protesters, or are they criminals (or both)?
We aren’t used to seeing such social unrest come out of a country known for its beaches, soccer, and cachaça. Protests in Brazil’s major cities have been mostly unprecedented in recent years; Forbes even ranked the country last year as being more peaceful than the United States. After all, these are the people who overthrew the Portuguese monarchy, abolished slavery, and established democracy without shedding the kind of blood generally associated with such power struggles. Despite the country’s problems, the last decade has seen education levels increasing and inequality steadily declining.
But as these videos makes clear, things still aren’t as rosy as travel guides make them out to be. Corruption remains rampant, and many have had enough. That’s why Brazilians first took to the streets last year after the government announced bus fare hikes in preparation for the FIFA World Cup (the government quickly rescinded the hikes). As the journalist Fábio Chap wrote in a description of a video posted in June, “If today there exists a culture of protest in Brazil, it’s because we are tired. We are in a new cycle of consciousness. Vindication — now — is also part of the Brazilian agenda.”
While it may be tempting to lump 12PM Photographic’s videos together with those from other protests in places like Egypt, it’s important to remember that Brazilian President Dilma Roussef is no Hosni Mubarak; hers is a seemingly representative government, one that President Obama has praised as a shining example of democracy. Brazil’s protests may not lead to revolution, but politicians can’t afford to ignore their spirit and voice. Brazilian officials wanted the global attention that a World Cup would bring, and they got it — but that also gave citizens an international stage on which to air their grievances and expose their leaders’ corruption. The futebol competition may be over, but the country will remain on the world’s radar, for better or worse.