Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Heliopolis

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by James Scudamore

Heliopolis by James Scudamore
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    Oct 2010, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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Brazil's Favelas
In his novel Heliopolis, James Scudamore candidly describes the favelas of Brazil as poor shantytown communities; "from a distance, you can't imagine anyone living in such a place: the area has the chaotic texture of a landfill site, a rubbish dump… dense thickets of unofficial power lines; walls and roofs of remaindered breeze-block and stolen brick and found-iron sheeting and repurposed doors; structures that should never work but somehow do because they must". His descriptions are by no means exaggerated. Favelas are often populated by people who illegally occupy lands on the outskirts of Brazil's larger cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Homes are made from scrap materials and frequently lack electricity, running water, and proper sanitation, leading to increasing health problems as well.

The rampant expansion of favelas can be associated with the unequal distribution of wealth in Brazil. According to Oxfam, "Brazil is one of the most unequal nations in the world, although it is one of the wealthiest... The country's high income concentration is revealed in figures: the richest one per cent of the population - less than 2 million people – have 13% of all household income. This percentage is similar to that of the poorest 50% – about 80 million Brazilians." And with over 190 million inhabitants, Brazil's general population growth pushes lower-income people to the borders of affluent city centers, making the differences in socio-economic status even more obvious.

Drug lords, often supplying substances to their upper-class neighbors, have control over favelas, and their inhabitants live by unwritten rules. Violence and shootings are not uncommon, and police officers (both corrupt and honest alike) are responsible for many of the fatalities. According to Philip Alson, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions, "When I visited the country two and a half years ago, I found that the police executed suspected criminals and innocent citizens during poorly planned and counter-productive war-style operations into favelas… Off duty police, operating in death squads and militias, also killed civilians, either as 'vigilantes' or for profit."

Though this description sounds discouraging, it is important to remember that favelas are not inhabited entirely by uneducated criminals or drug traffickers. Despite the rough circumstances surrounding the favelas, there are many hard-working and proud members of these communities who are looking to improve their standards of living but not necessarily looking to leave the favelas

Groups within the community, such as Favela Tour and Favela Tourism Workshop, are working to raise public awareness, to provide favelados with jobs as tour guides, bring in tourist dollars, and help fund community schools with revenues. By letting people know that favelas are not just frightening places to be avoided, these groups help put an end to the marginalization of the lower classes. Similarly, in 2005, filmmakers Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist created a movie entitled Favela Rising, about Anderson Sá, a man who is "haunted by the murders of his family and many of his friends, ... a former drug-trafficker who turns social revolutionary in Rio de Janeiro's most feared slum. Through hip-hop music, the rhythms of the street, and Afro-Brazilian dance he rallies his community to counteract the violent oppression enforced by teenage drug armies and sustained by corrupt police." This project has opened and continues to open doors of opportunity for young men who are too quickly snatched up by the allure (and threat) of the drug cartels. In the same year, an artistic duo by the name of Haas&Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn) began working together when they filmed a documentary about hip-hop in Rio and São Paulo for MTV. "Inspired by this visit, they embarked on a journey to bring outrageous works of art to unexpected places, starting with painting enormous murals in the slums of Brazil together with the local youth." This project transformed the selected favelas into bright and inviting places, in addition to providing local kids with productive alternatives to crime.

Article by Elena Spagnolie

This article is from the November 17, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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