The role of the international media and observers in bringing visibility to injustice and abuse in Rio de Janeiro has become of paramount importance in recent years with the city hosting a series of mega-events designed for global consumption which have often come at the expense of local citizens’ rights. Canadian documentary filmmaker Jason O’Hara has been on the front line of these efforts, working collaboratively with Rio’s communities to tell stories of resistance and document human rights abuses since 2010. Now, with over 300 hours of unique footage documenting the forced evictions, mass protests and police brutality which define Rio’s preparations for the World Cup and Olympic Games, O’Hara has launched a crowdfunding campaign to realize a feature-length documentary, State of Exception, telling the essential and inspiring stories of community resistance at this critical moment. Please read RioOnWatch‘s exclusive interview with O’Hara about his experiences and the film and support the State of Exception campaign here.
Please tell us a little about your background as a filmmaker. What led you to this field of work, and what were some of your inspirations to do it, and early projects?
Jason O’Hara: Growing up in Canada, I have been very inspired by our country’s tradition of political filmmaking. In particular the 1960s Challenge for Change Program at Canada’s National Film Board. Historians credit the Program to be the precursor to the entire contemporary global movement in participatory filmmaking. The filmmaking process was approached as capacity-building exercises in which both the production and post-production tools were put in the hands of communities so they could tell their own stories.
My first foray into participatory media was organizing a series of participatory photography workshops in a number of favelas in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte and neighboring municipalities in 2007, utilizing a methodology that would later be made famous by the Academy-award winning documentary ‘Born into Brothels.’ The overriding ethos of participatory art projects is a recognition that creative expression should be a fundamental human right, and so participatory projects seek to mitigate some of the structural barriers that prohibit people from exercising this right.
In terms of my own documentary practice, I have so far completed two short documentary films independently. ‘Demur‘ is a 15-minute short film that I shot in my hometown of Toronto in 2010, when we hosted the G8 and G20 summits amid a situation of martial law and compromised civil liberties. My second documentary, my MFA thesis film–‘Rhythms of Resistance’ –tells the stories of artists resisting police brutality in Rio’s favelas.
How did you first start doing this work documenting evictions and human rights abuses in Rio?
Having lived in Brazil twice, and knowing of the socio-political context in the country–a relatively new democracy emerging from an authoritarian dictatorship with high levels of corruption in both the private and public sphere–I was deeply worried about the negative social impacts of the mega-events, particularly in Rio where the two mega-spectacles, World Cup and Olympics, would be hosted back-to-back for the first time in history.
I began aggressively researching these events and quickly discovered how hosting the 2004 Olympics precipitated Greece’s successive debt crises. I learned about the thousands of poor displaced and relocated to unlivable tin shacks in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, and the epic 1976 Games here in Canada, bid at a total cost of $120 million, but which ended up costing $1.5 billion, indebting Montreal for 30 years. The city of Montreal ended up paying their Olympic debt by levying a cigarette tax on its citizens. For me, this provides the ultimate metaphor for the events’ true legacy in host societies. Whether the host city is left smoking cigarettes, or coping with inadequate public services after public funds were diverted to spectacular new stadia or other event-related infrastructure, it is the host citizenry who ultimately ends up paying for the events.
While I was worried about Brazil, I also knew that a pending social catastrophe was hardly a fait accompli. On the contrary, Brazilian civil society is a force to be reckoned with as some of the most effective political organizers on the planet. It is no coincidence the World Social Forum was born in Brazil, in Porto Alegre in 2001 under the guiding principle that “another world is possible.” Brazil is also home to the Landless Workers Movement (MST), one of the world’s most successful and widely studied social movements, and to Paulo Freire, whose ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘ asserted the democratic power of the world’s marginalized classes.
And so, given the vibrant culture of political resistance in Brazil, the stage was set for the David and Goliath showdown that constitutes the primary narrative of the documentary: Brazilian civil society fighting back against the illegal human rights abuses spurred by the mega-events.
In this time, how many times have you been in Rio, and what were some of the events you filmed?
Since 2010, I have traveled back and forth to Rio eight times shooting a total of 32 weeks of production. During this time, I have witnessed a number of forced evictions, and a number of other human rights abuses in the favelas of Rio. I was in Rio in June of 2013, when the mass civil uprising began, and for the FIFA Confederations Cup that same month, which was for us in Rio, perhaps the first glimpse of the heightened police repression that accompanies the state of exception, a precursor to what we would again see one year later during the FIFA World Cup.
How do you define “state of exception” and why did you choose this name for the film?
A “state of exception” is temporary legal framework that suspends the rule of law, and strangles civil liberties such as the right to free movement and protest. Thousands of families have been forcefully displaced in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil, despite unambiguous international laws prohibiting such displacement. The state of exception is justified by the requisite expediency needed to prepare for time-sensitive events, which cannot risk the potential delays of due legal process.
I chose this as the title for the film because the “state of exception” is really the foundation of all the human rights abuses we tend to see with these spectacle events. Whether it’s the suppression of citizens civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to protest during the event, or the illegal forced evictions that occur in the years leading up to the events, the laws that would otherwise protect citizens rights are for all intents and purposes, suspended.
While the forced community evictions provide the backdrop to the film, the story is really about communities’ resistance against this process, so this documentary is not a sad story, but on the contrary, it is an inspiring story about communities standing up for their rights and fighting back.
While the protagonists in the film are victims of a significant injustice, I am not interested in portraying them as victims. Their story is never one of helpless victimhood. Rather, these are inspirational stories about human resilience, about people confronting extraordinary adversity by exercising their personal and communal agency to assert their rights.
What have been the greatest challenges in realizing this project?
Without a doubt, the greatest challenge in realizing this project has been financing the film. Because so many broadcasters (and the advertisers that sustain them) have deals with FIFA and the Olympics, this story is a political hot potato and marginalized by the traditional funding and distribution models. As one broadcaster told me in no uncertain terms shortly after beginning the project in 2010: “This is a really important story, but we’re not going to touch it with a ten foot pole.” I planned to be finished with the film by now. However, due to the nature of the content–being critical of the two biggest broadcast events on the planet–I have had an extremely difficult time finding any support and am now facing 300+ hours of footage without any financing for post-production. And so, for lack of any other options, we have just recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, asking civil society to join our community and support the project, seeking to raise a minimal post-production budget in order to complete the film in advance of the 2016 Olympics.
Which have been the most marked experiences during this time documenting evictions and the “state of exception” in Rio? Are there any moments or situations that particularly stand out?
On my first trip to Rio in 2010, I awoke one morning to a message from my friends at Catalytic Communities that a forced eviction was underway in the West Zone community of Vila Taboinha. I hightailed to the location to find the community entrance barricaded: men, women and children defiantly refusing to allow the passage of the bulldozers. It was not long before the State Riot Police were called in and what happened next has become a tired story: tear gas, rubber bullets, the whole force of the Brazilian State unfurled upon the men, women and children who courageously stood in defense of their community.
Despite the brute force, the police were outnumbered and the community defiant, and as the sun set, the police were forced to retreat. It was a small victory. Three days later, with most of the community away at work, the police returned, this time with neither the same fierce community resistance nor the media presence of days before. The bulldozers started toppling homes. Working with an activist friend, we again responded to the urgent SOS call and started shooting as soon as we arrived on the scene. We were accosted immediately by the police Chief, who screamed in my face: “This is not for the world to see.” I begged to disagree. The police started antagonizing us and we were quickly surrounded by the community who rose to our defense, several of them filming the altercation with their cell phones, the new instrument of accountability. The intimidation was quickly reversed and the police forced to withdraw. We were quickly ushered away by members of the community who accompanied us from one safe hiding place to another, awaiting the departure of the police.
It was on that day in Vila Taboinha that the documentary project was born. The community was confronting what seemed like a helpless situation and clearly saw my camera as a glimmer of hope amidst an utterly desperate situation. The incident clearly demonstrated the emerging power of citizen journalism, the new accountability being created by the infallible witness that are video and cell phone cameras.
You were injured during a protest in Rio in July this year, can you tell us about that? How did that happen? What were the consequences of this for the film project and you personally?
No more apparent was the state of exception than on that day–the FIFA World Cup Finals–when Rio saw one of the largest mobilizations of army and Military Police forces since the dictatorship. It wasn’t Brazilian citizens the police were there to protect. It was clear they were protecting FIFA and the associated global market interests
Police had quarantined activists and media alike, using the same kettling tactic we saw police using in Toronto during the G20: no one permitted to enter the public square, no one permitted to leave. The memory card in my camera filled up and I ushered myself against a wall to change it. A line of Military Police were running by and one swung his baton my way, and immediately others jumped in and I was soon taking blows from all sides. One of the officers ripped off the GoPro camera affixed to my helmet, and another swooped in for the final blow, a swift kick to the face. I was left on the ground to be treated by medics and soon ushered away to the hospital for stitches.
There was nothing particularly special about my case. I had witnessed many such unprovoked attacks by the police at protests before, however on this occasion it was a privileged “gringo” being attacked and the story made international headlines. The fact that this relatively minor incident garnered so much international media attention is emblematic of precisely the inequalities Brazilians were protesting against in the streets that day–the transformation of the urban landscape in Rio and throughout Brazil to serve people like me, international tourists and capital, at the expense of the people who actually live there.
What do you feel your role as a documentary filmmaker is in covering these situations?
It is often said that our role as documentarians is to bear witness, and in so doing, to share what we witness with a broader audience who are privy to these experiences through the images and sounds captured by our recording equipment. Personally, I think such a detached description is a bit of a cop-out. This notion of a neutral observer is really a legacy of journalistic conventions–the idea that all stories should be “fair and balanced”–whereas the participatory approach to filmmaking sees the storytelling process as a collaboration, where I am very much engaged in the reality I am documenting. This is not to dismiss the importance of being fair, but I think we must do away with this whole illusive notion of “balanced,” as if the world of subtle greys could be reduced to black and white.
Documentary filmmaking is about a lot more than merely witnessing, it is an art of storytelling–constructing engaging stories that connect with audiences. There is something very human about the experience of watching a documentary film. We connect with the “characters” in the narrative, despite all of our social and cultural differences. We see our own humanity reflected in them and their struggles. And so, I see my role as bringing these stories to an international audience, such that the audience experiences them not as tragic stories occurring in some distant land, but injustices with definable causes occurring to people a lot like them. The folks on screen share similar hopes and dreams as the people in the audience, and they are being victimized by circumstances in which we are implicated as consumers of these spectacle events.
In your opinion, having documented the half-decade running up to the World Cup and Olympics, what impacts have these mega-events had on the city of Rio de Janeiro and the favelas?
I think event critic Helen Lenskyj most aptly summarizes the overall social impacts of hosting mega-events: “These projects, massive in their scope and scale, cost many billions of public dollars and leave behind ambiguous legacies. Nearly every global mega-event has resulted in financial losses for the host, temporary cessation of democratic process, the production of militarized and exclusionary spaces, residential displacement, and environmental degradation.”
The grievances being expressed in Rio have been multi-fold: thousands of families forcefully evicted from their homes (often brutally, by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets); overspending on the stadium and other event-related infrastructure, while basic public services such as health care, education and basic sanitation remain pitifully underfunded; and the militarization of the favelas in Rio, through the “pacification” program.
What is your dream for the film ‘State of Exception’?
I want the film to wake people up to the egregious human rights abuses that are left in the wake of these events we so revere: the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games. As we watch these events from the comfort of our homes, bars, and restaurants in cities and towns across the globe, we should not forget the real cost of creating this spectacle. Brazilians will be coping with the legacy of these events for years to come.
It’s important to acknowledge that the documentary is but one element of a much larger global movement seeking to bring light to these untold stories, a broader struggle to which Catalytic Communities and other groups actively contribute every day. Together, we are seeking to bring these stories to the eyes of the world, because this nonsense has to stop. We are already seeing similar abuses unfold in Russia and Qatar in advance of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, and we can expect the same in other future event hosts. Wherever there is a state of exception, there is ample opportunity for abuse because laws prohibiting such abuses cease to apply. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists, and so the gross human rights abuses we are seeing are a logical manifestation of this dynamic.
There is such an extraordinary amount of money involved with staging these events, it would be so easy to do them right. The time is nigh, the laws are already on the books, there should be no exceptions, not for FIFA, nor the IOC. Let’s keep the beautiful game beautiful, and insist on the most basic standards of human decency from those organizing these spectacle events.
To find out more about the State of Exception film and to support the project, visit the crowdfunding page here.