Carnival in downtown Rio, SW19

For Nigel Williams, Omnibus editor, waiting for a film to come in is like waiting for a fish to bite. So how did Brazil's fiesta go down in Wimbledon?
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"It is carnival time in Rio de Janeiro!" said Andre to me almost exactly a year ago. "On the streets policemen are dancing with prostitutes! Men are kissing men! In the samba schools some of the poorest people on the earth are dancing in costumes that have taken them the whole year to make!"

I looked out at the suburban street. It was raining. There was a policeman standing by Wimbledon station and there were a couple of ladies in raincoats near him, either of whom could have been prostitutes. But if they were he showed no inclination to dance with either of them.

"So," I said, "this is a film about carnival in Rio is it?" Nothing jades the palate so quickly as being the editor of an arts programme. From eight in the morning until nine at night my telephone goes. People offer me films about ventriloquists, films about sculptors, films about film-makers, films about rock stars and world-famous violinists. If I give them the money they get on planes and fly to Malawi or Greenland or Rio de Janeiro. I never get to go to these romantic places. I stay in Wimbledon and wait for a new lot of people who wish to fund their airline tickets out of licence-payer's cash.

Why should people be interested in carnival in Rio? Why should people be interested in Bach or Abstract Expressionism? Don't they all just want to watch American policemen shooting at each other?

I looked back at Andre. He is Polish. His English is better than my Polish. But not a lot better. His face is curiously impassive. "It is not a film about carnival in Rio," he said.

On the street the policeman moved in the steady rain. He put one foot out in front of him and lowered it, slowly, to the pavement. He showed no signs of rhythm.

"It is a film," he went on, "about beautiful things coming out of the gutter. It is a film about how gangsters give pleasure and create virtue!"

Carnival in Rio - the one day in the year on which the people of the shanty towns and the back streets might be said to enjoy or control their own lives - is run by the "bicheiros". They are the kings of the underworld who, when they are not running the carnival, shooting each other or doing drug deals, are in charge of the numbers game - Brazil's illegal, unofficial lottery. In May 1993, a judge called Denise Frossard - who is either very brave or very foolish - sentenced 14 of them to jail for "formation of an armed gang". They are now in prison and she is under armed guard at a secret address

"I think," said Andre, "we will make an interview with her. Nobody else has done this."

Andre has the lumpy, decent look of a rural priest. People trust him; because he is completely trustworthy. He sits in front of them with his camera, nodding his big patient head, and his subjects tell him the most intimate secrets of their heart. He has made films with Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, with government stooges in North Korea and with Russian peasants hoping to break into the striptease business. But the people in his films, even when they are politicians, crooks or tarts, have a curious innocence about them. The innocence, I think, comes from Andre.

"We will film," went on Andre, "in the favelas - the slums where everything is controlled by drug barons and where everyone is armed. It will be very dangerous to shoot there. Also we will photograph the scenes from carnival that are not seen on the cable television. There will be dancing and costumes and guns and squalor and life and death."

"That sounds like an Omnibus to me," I said.

"He was in the middle of a gun battle," said Roger. We were sitting in the same restaurant six months later. It was no longer raining outside but there was still no evidence of anybody wanting to dance. I poured another glass of wine.

"There were these guys in this favela having a gun battle and there was Andre filming it," said Roger. He pushed across two news clippings. One was in Portugese and the other in Polish. In the middle of each of them was a picture of Andre. He was smiling beautifully.

"We had to send that walkie-talkie he wanted to control the second camera by courier!" Roger went on. "Because if you send things through the post they just nick them. The third day he was there some local chap ran up an imitation of his credit card off the receipt slip and charged two thousand quid's worth of stuff to him."

I took a sip of wine and looked at the picture of Andre. Roger, who is an efficient chap, had attached a translation of one of the new clippings. It seemed that Andre had crawled across the street in a hail of bullets to retrieve one of his cameras. Next to the news clipping was a letter from the man himself, telling us that he had filmed 13 hours of material (including the interview with the judge). He said he was very excited about it all. I poured Roger a glass of wine.

"I suppose," I said, "this means it'll be expensive!" Roger said that filming the carnival didn't come cheap.

"He's got hold of a deaf and dumb woman," he said, "who is that way because some fireworks exploded near her on carnival a few years back. She's typical of the street people of Rio, apparently. She worships the drug barons who are in jail. She wants this judge shot. And yet this woman is dirt poor. She has nothing. She is the paradox of carnival."

Roger and I have been in the BBC over 20 years. But Andre seems to manage to excite the man in a way I find quite unsettling. I took another sip of wine and stared moodily out at the summer suburban day. For an editor, waiting for a film to come in is a bit like waiting for a fish to bite. I know - or I should think I know - that it ought to be good. But I have no control. Not until I get into the cutting room.

And sometimes directors on the other side of the world - especially when they are being shot at by gangsters - lose all sense of perspective. They can be positively churlish about the fact that they are risking their lives to get footage while you are sitting in a bistro in Wimbledon worrying about how much money they are spending.

"She may be the paradox of carnival," I said, "but is she Elton John?" "They're getting to you," Roger said. "Don't let them get to you."

I went back to that restaurant a week or so ago, almost exactly a year after I had given Andre the money to go off and make the film. Roger and Andre and I ordered a bottle of wine and sat looking out at the rain. We had just spent the morning looking at the final version. We had seen vast colourful parades, deafening, exciting music, costumes as brave and extravagant as a Gothic cathedral. We had listened to crooks and policemen and tarts and common people, and gone in among the crowds and the dirt until steam and sweat seemed to be coming off the screen.

We had heard a woman with no voice and no hearing talk as eloquently as a poet. We had seen a woman who sells herself for money explain herself with dignity and authority. Andre's cameras had held us like a storyteller to our seats and made us experience a city where tortures and their victims, drug barons and their customers, gay, straight, rich, starving and the merely normal come together on February 21 for a glorious parade funded by an illegal gambling operation that runs into billions of dollars.

"Look," said Andre eventually, "tell me. Do you like the film?"

I looked out at the day. It hadn't changed. Over by the station a line of taxis, beaded with silver rain, waited hopelessly for custom.

I found it hard to believe that all I had done as far as carnival in Rio was concerned was talk about it and watch it on a television screen. I felt I had been there. I simply couldn't believe that we were having this conversation in SW19. I reached across the table and put my hands on Andre's wrist.

"I don't like it Andre," I said. "I love it!"

Roger smiled. The waiter arrived with the wine and, looking out at the drab February day, the three of us drank it.

`Omnibus: Carnaval - The Biggest Party in the World', Tue 10.40pm BBC1