A decade ago, the Brazilian gangster Li’l Zé took movie screens across the world by storm in the low-budget crime drama “Cidade de Deus,” or "City of God." Set inside the eponymous slum in Rio de Janeiro, the film grossed $30 million, received four Oscar nominations, and won festivals from Los Angeles to Toronto.
Li’l Zé dies at the end of the film. The actor who portrayed him, however, still lives in the notorious slum, or favela, of Cidade de Deus. For his role in the original film, Leandro Firmino was offered either a percentage of the film’s potential revenue or several thousand dollars. A poor kid who had been pulled directly from the favela into the film studio, he took the cash.
Bitterness over the wildly successful film's uneven distribution of wealth for Mr. Firmino and others who starred in “City of God” – which famously recruited its amateur cast from Rio's slums – is palpable in the new documentary “City of God: 10 Years Later.” The film premiered this week at the Rio Film Festival and explores the lives of the actors since 2002.
The documentary asks the question: “Can a work of art change someone’s life?” In part, the answer appears to be yes.
“City of God” shined an international spotlight on Brazil’s favelas and pressured the government to address the ingrained crime and poverty. In 2009, police established a permanent security presence in Cidade de Deus as part of a citywide "pacification" program. By 2012, the annual homicide rate had dropped to five from 38 while the annual robbery rate had plummeted to 53 from 618, according to state data.
For many of the favela kids cast in the film, like much of Brazil’s poor, life has changed little. Firmino says he spent most of his salary on a computer that soon broke. Others bought groceries, marijuana, jewelry, a skateboard.
“They said either you take 10,000 reais [$4,500], or you can have a percentage of the movie’s box office revenue,” Alexandre Rodrigues, who played Rocket in the original film, says in the documentary. “And what did I choose? I chose the 10,000 reais. Man, what a call! If I could go back in time, 10 years ago, I’d say, ‘What I want is the box office, man!’ Now I’d be like, ‘wow!’”
Such resentment is a driving tension in the film, but was also a hurdle for directors Cavi Borges and Luciano Vidigal as they shot over the past year on a shoestring budget of $90,500. While neither filmmaker worked on the original movie, both knew many of the actors through the local non-profit film studios Cinema Nosso and Nós do Morro, which work with kids from Rio’s favelas. To make their documentary, Mr. Borges and Mr. Vidigal just had to convince the one-time stars to settle for $90 per interview.
Some balked. Phellipe Haagensen, who played Li’l Zé’s sidekick Bené, refused to participate in the documentary, according to Borges. Others, like Rubens Sabino da Silva (Blackie) and Renato de Souza (Goose), seemed to eagerly accept the chance to air grievances and supplement their salaries from selling peanuts and fixing cars.
“Some actors didn’t want to participate,” says Borges, speaking on the sidelines of the documentary’s world premier here. “Other actors said they wanted to be paid to do the interviews. They think we have a lot of profit and say, ‘The last film I didn’t get a lot of money so I want money now.’ ”
The documentary includes interviews with 18 of the original film’s actors, some who continued to act in domestic television and film and others who were subsequently propelled to international fame, such as Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned) and Alice Braga (Angélica). Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, who received an Oscar nomination for the film, declined to participate in the documentary but supported it with access to archival footage from the making of the 2002 film, Borges says.
Something akin to a survivor’s guilt lingers between those who seemingly made it out of poverty after the film's acclaimed release and others who felt left behind. The documentary reintroduces us to Felipe Paulino, who played a young boy shot in the foot by Li’l Zé during one of the film’s most riveting scenes. Now we follow Mr. Paulino in a bellboy uniform as he visits Seu Jorge in an upscale hotel in Leblon.
“Are you working here?” asks Mr. Jorge, who is now an international film and music star.
“I’m working here, right next to you,” says Paulino.
“I’m always staying at this hotel,” says Jorge, awkwardly. “Where are you living?”
“Right here in Vidigal [a nearby favela].”
“That’s a sweet commute. On wheels or on foot?”
“No, I walk,” says Paulino.
More than just a film about a film, the documentary underscores how Brazil has lifted millions out of poverty during the past decade while at the same time leaving many behind. Much like The Economist’s cover last week of Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue as a flailing rocket – four years after the UK-based magazine portrayed the statue rocketing skyward with the nation’s soaring economy – the documentary shows the side of Brazil still suffering from poor education, inadequate infrastructure, and a notoriously corrupt government.
"Now I have this to tell people: 'I was in "City of God," I was the kid who was shot in the foot,' " Paulino tells the camera. "So I have that as a childhood memory."
Wondering how he will now support his family and young daughter, Paulino adds: "I just need a break."