The other side of Copacabana

Brazil's underclass is exposed in grim detail at the Rio film festival, Fiona Morrow reports. But Mickey Mouse was there too
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The Independent Culture

Disney's sugary pop muzak blares out as Mickey himself skips on to the stage and waves at the couple of hundred children struck suddenly dumb by his appearance. He could be anywhere: he's a well-trained mouse and he treats rich and poor kids alike. It's just as well: today he's in Pãvao Pãvaozinho, one of Rio's infamous favelas, and home to 18,000 of the city's underclass.

If Mickey appears to have been beamed down from another planet, our own journey to Pãvao Pãvaozinho is all too real. As part of the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, a group of visiting journalists and film-makers are being shown another side of the city's life. Before we leave the plush surroundings of the Copacabana Palace, we are each given a T-shirt emblazoned with the Criança Esperança (Children of Hope) logo and asked to change. This is not, we are assured, in order to give the organisation publicity, but a safety precaution. Where we are going, we are reminded, is not a safe place, and if we become separated from the group we could be in trouble. We've all seen City of God: we don our uniform and make jokes to offset our nervousness.

We reach Pãvao Pãvaozinho surprisingly quickly. One minute we're driving through the city's most exclusive neighbourhoods, the next we make a sharp left turn and are instantly climbing a steep incline through the favela. We inch our way up the hazardous makeshift road. There are no pavements; indeed at times there is nothing, save for a kerb of breezeblocks, separating us from a surely fatal fall down the side of the mountain. The edges are lined with porch-like small shops. We pass one named Atelier de Fantasias, a popular moniker here for hair and nail salons.

Eventually we reach our destination - a community centre perched at the very top. It's a huge sophisticated structure, one originally built for the pleasure of a completely different part of Rio society. It was to have been a playground for the rich, a leisure centre boasting a restaurant with a panoramic view of the city. But it went bust before completion and by the time it was rented out as a club and restaurant, the favela had mushroomed to its doors. Now it houses a cinema, numerous sports facilities including an open-air swimming pool looked down on by Christ himself, and a library with internet facilities.

If this sounds idyllic, remember where it is. This project (supported by Unicef and Brazil's Globo television network) is designed to keep the kids off the streets, to divert them away from crime. If the devil finds work for idle hands, he's a source of much employment here. But children are easily distracted, and initiatives such as this make a tangible difference.

Until they grow up, that is. Toghum is 32 and spent his childhood taking part in as many clubs as his mother could find to fill his time. Intelligent and articulate, he's unable to escape poverty: there's no work and he hasn't the money to go to university. He keeps himself together through Buddhism and rap. Toghum is one of three would-be rappers featured in Guilherme Coelho's excellent, poignant documentary Fala Tu (Living Rap in Rio). By concentrating on young people determined to live decent lives and find creative expression, Coelho smartly avoids stereotyping favela-dwellers, while still exposing the dreadful inequities in Brazilian life. The unexpected ending lingers long in the mind.

Less technically impressive, but no less heartfelt, is Evaldo Mocarzel's On the Fringes of São Paulo: Homeless. Mocarzel is refreshingly honest about his position as a film-maker, and engages his subjects in discussion not just about their lives, but also about how they feel their image has been exploited by film-makers and photographers (Sebastião Salgado comes off particularly badly). He holds a screening of the film (many of the subjects' first cinema experience) and invites them to comment. "If I came to your home," one man challenges Mocarzel, "you wouldn't let me in. Today perhaps, but not tomorrow. I'm certain of it."

Another documentary maker, Paulo Sacramento, is also interested in giving the disenfranchised a voice. For The Prisoner of the Iron Bars, he pieces together video diaries of prisoners in Carandiru that were recorded a year before the notorious prison was demolished. A veritable inferno, Carandiru was evidence of the worst treatment of men by men. Sacramento's powerful testament gives voice and feeling to those whom many were happy to see burn in hell.

Everywhere in this year's festival, the shadow of one of last year's films looms. Bus 174 (being screened in the London Film Festival) made such an impact in 2002 that people are still watching it and talking about it 12 months on. In 2000 a Rio bus hijack was screened for more than four hours on Brazilian television. The director José Padilha takes this raw footage and, through investigating the biography of the young hijacker, creates a damning document of neglect and despair. The hijacker was a street kid who had been looking after himself since he was five years old.

As we drive around Rio, these kids are everywhere, jumping in front of stopped traffic to stand on each other's shoulders and juggle. They don't beg here, they perform. As one of the subjects of Padilha's film explains: "Otherwise we're just invisible."

It's hard to gauge the reaction of the children lining up patiently to have their photographs taken with Mickey Mouse. "They're not really into cartoons," one of the centre workers tells me. "There's so much violence in their lives, they prefer films with lots of guns." Still, the most popular choices in the centre's video room are predictably familiar: Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Today they came to see a compilation reel celebrating 75 years of Mickey, unaware that the rodent himself would make an appearance. I stop one boy of seven to ask if he liked the films. "Yes," he answers politely. And how did he feel meeting Mickey? His eyes widen as he whispers: "Nervous."

'Bus 174' screens on 25 and 26 October as part of the London Film Festival (020-7928 3232)