RIO DE JANEIRO — Stacks of houses that showcase raw, exposed brick frame the rooftop view where I meet screenwriter Fabiana Escobar, or Bibi Danger, as she is known in Rio de Janeiro’s Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. With around 70,000 inhabitants, Rocinha is a vibrant community made up of low-income improvised homes built atop rolling hills that tower over Rio de Janeiro like a city within a city. Rocinha is also where, since 2015, Escobar and four other filmmakers have championed a budding film scene they call “Rocywood,” combining Rocinha with Hollywood. Their Rocywood production company has one award-winning short under its belt and another short and two features in the making. The films portray local realities, from the joys of growing up in a tight-knit neighborhood to the difficulties residents face living among drug traffickers and gun violence.
“When I was a kid, I stayed home to watch the Oscars on TV and I would marvel at every little detail. Hollywood creates that kind of magic that envelops us, even though it’s something that is so distant from our reality,” Escobar says as she lights a cigarette and runs her fingers through her long, sleek black hair. “I grew up with that magic, but the industry doesn’t embrace Rocinha. We have to create our own magic. We are going to make it happen for ourselves.”
The 38-year-old screenwriter used to own a salon and clothing store, but now rents out her shop while she dedicates her life to making Hollywood magic. But most of the people involved can’t afford to make movies full-time.
“The actors, the producers, the whole team has a second job. I am a manager at a clothing store, and I make films up here on the hill on the side,” says Sergio Dias, Rocywood’s 31-year-old director. Dias was born and raised in Rocinha where he is known by his stage name, Sergio Mib. His one-bedroom apartment functions as a dressing room and houses Rocywood’s equipment and props, including three toy assault rifles that look impressively real.
Rocywood’s productions cost $50 dollars (USD) on average. The filmmakers often take the budget out of their own pockets to cover transportation fees and snacks. With no dedicated financing, everyone in the community pitches in to make the films come to life, from lending filming equipment to styling hair and makeup for free at the local salon. Dias explains that Rocywood makes a conscious effort to include only people from favelas in its productions. The films, made for locals by locals, are screened on the streets of Rocinha using a projector and an improvised tarp as a screen, but are also available on YouTube for a worldwide audience to see.
“It’s from Rocinha to the world. That is our motto. We want to show the world all of the talent we have here, and we want the world to get to know Rocinha. We want to show them that we know how to make movies too. We exist too!” he says.
A Micro Wave?
I went in search of Rocinha’s low-budget Hollywood scene after meeting American filmmaker Alan Hofmanis by chance at a traditional Rio de Janeiro fast-food style chicken restaurant in the bustling tourist neighborhood of Copacabana. I struck up a conversation with him about his dessert and ended up learning about Wakaliwood, Uganda’s version of Hollywood, named after Wakaliga, the slum in Uganda’s capital of Kampala where the films are made. Eight years ago, after Hofmanis saw a trailer for a feature by Ugandan director Isaac Nabwana that mixed mafia gangs, kung fu, and gun fighting, he hopped on a plane to meet Nabwana. In 2013, Hofmanis sold everything he owned in New York and moved to Wakaliga, where he has been making movies with Nabwana ever since. Nabwana founded Uganda’s first action-film company, has produced about 45 films, and just had his feature Crazy World premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Fascinated by Nabwana and his ability to make kitschy action films with budgets around 65 dollars that still draw in millions of online viewers, Hofmanis searched the world for others like him. He found people in Ghana, India, Afghanistan, Peru, and even Siberia who are also making low-budget, Hollywood-inspired productions. He came to Brazil in the hopes of discovering the same scene in Rio de Janeiro.
“Extended families come together to watch these films. It’s completely by locals for locals. But somehow, because they are working in genre and the films are told visually for the most part, they translate seamlessly to other audiences,” he explains, adding, “It’s like they figured out how to make films for these micro-economies, which is the opposite of what we do [in Hollywood]. They hacked the system.”
The American filmmaker believes low-budget, Hollywood-inspired films are a growing phenomenon. He compares it to the French New Wave, an experimental film movement in the 1950s and ’60s in France that broke with traditional film conventions. “What these guys are doing is so similar. They are taking something that is outside their reality and spinning it and making it their own,” he says. “So maybe this [new movement] can be called the Micro Wave because it’s a New Wave movement, but it’s based on these micro-economies.”
Local Themes, Big Audiences
As in Uganda, low-budget Hollywood productions in Rio de Janeiro can start local and reach a larger pool of viewers. In 2016, when filmmaker Antonio Jr. launched Escape from Rocinha on YouTube, he had no idea the film would end up with 11 million views. Antonio Jr. put a little under $1,000 dollars out of his own pocket to make his vision come to life. The feature tells the story of a young advertising agent who falls in love with a hairdresser from Rocinha. They become entangled in a series of conflicts with a local drug gang that caused unforeseen casualties.
“It’s part of everyday life in Rio de Janeiro. Since childhood, you hear about innocent people dying because of stray bullets,” Antonio Jr. explains. “This whole idea of thinking about a film that is universal, but uses a regional language is not something we came up with, but it’s something we use a lot.”
During the film’s action sequences, Antonio Jr. used recordings of actual gun shots being fired in Rocinha that he gathered from locals. The director says the reality portrayed in Escape from Rocinha translates to favelas across Brazil. “Definitely the majority of people who watch the film [on YouTube] come from favelas. Not necessarily in Rio de Janeiro; we also have a large viewership in the northeast where there are also a lot of similar communities, and we also have lots of views in São Paulo.”
Although Antonio Jr. does not live in Rocinha, all of the scenes shot in the favela were entirely carried out by locals, from the film crew to the actors. In fact, Rocywood’s Sergio Dias starred in one of the leading roles.
As filmmakers who live and breathe Rocinha in their films, the Rocywood crew says they like making movies like the short Stray Bullet, which is currently under production and deals with the ways that armed conflicts affect local residents. But they emphasize that their main goal is to show audiences a different side of Rocinha. Their feature-length film Valley of the Spirits, which is set to premiere in June of 2020, tells the story of seven local kids who go on a spooky adventure in a nearby, deserted forest.
As Escobar summarizes, “I decided our next feature will be a horror film to break free from that stigma that because I live in a favela, I can only make films about drug trafficking and violence. If we want to write about drug trafficking it will be a great film, but we can rock other narratives, too, and we want to break that barrier.”