RIO DE JANEIRO — Just before Christmas, a fit young man in a gold chain and a ski mask barreled through the hillside gulleys of a slum in Rio de Janeiro before lifting an automatic rifle and firing several rounds past unfazed residents used to keeping themselves out of the way.
But this scene — a horrifically common sight here — ended happily, with a director calling for the cameraman to cut the tape.
Welcome to Hollywood's new on-location hotspot: the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
The massive, destitute and crime-ridden shantytowns of Brazil — a country with one of the world's largest wealth disparities — would seem an unlikely setting for Los Angeles' glitzy film industry, "Slumdog Millionaire" notwithstanding. But filmmakers took a liking to Brazilian slums well before "Slumbdog Millionaire" highlighted Indian neighborhoods.
In recent years, Rio de Janeiro's favelas have served as a conspicuous backdrop for a string of big-budget productions, from Edward Norton's 2008 superhero flick "The Incredible Hulk" to rapper Snoop Dogg's video for his hit single "Beautiful."
Bill Pullman filmed an independent feature in Rio's slums, and in recent months Sylvester Stallone was in town scouting for favela-fabulous locations for his next shoot-'em-up.
There's at least one major challenge when bringing large film crews and movie stars into the more than 700 favelas that line Brazil's second-largest city. Most of the areas are literally war zones, with highly organized and heavily militarized gangs of drug traffickers on one side and Brazil's military police on the other.
The drug mafias are so powerful in some neighborhoods that police, expecting a shootout, will only enter in armored vehicles. The murder rates are among the highest in the world.
The violence of Rio's slums was vividly depicted in the 2002 feature film "City of God." Made in one of the city's favelas with a cast largely composed of neighborhood amateurs, the movie won tremendous acclaim in Brazil and abroad for its brutal honesty, as well as its innovative, flashy production value. It's now been followed by a sequel and a TV series in Brazil, and by a bona fide trend of other productions looking to ride the wave of favela chic.
But Rio's true Studio City is a special sort of favela.
Located a few hills away from where "City of God" was produced, the neighborhood of Tavares Bastos has the appearance of any other of Rio's favelas, with its winding gulleys flanked by precarious-looking houses. But it has no drug trafficking, no guns and very little crime of any kind. A few years ago, longtime resident Bob Nadkarni, a former BBC filmmaker, saw in the new favela chic an opportunity for his perversely picturesque neighborhood.
So he started taking out advertisements in Variety magazine: "Shoot without getting shot."
The ad worked, and the phone calls soon started coming from production companies in Brazil, as well as North America and Europe. Local newspapers started calling the neighborhood "Bobbywood" after the man who attracted the film crews to the safest favela in town.
"We have one of the very few — if not the only — really peaceful and drugs-free communities" in Rio de Janeiro, Nadkarni said.
That's thanks to a unit of the Battalion of Special Police Operations — the elite branch of the military police, themselves the subject of a hit Brazilian film in 2007.
Nadkarni invited them to set up shop in the neighborhood 10 years ago, after two decades of watching the rise of drug gangs in all of Rio's favelas, including his own. "I said, 'For God's sake, we've got this disused building here, and wouldn't it make a nice SWAT center!'"
The elite squad accepted, and there's been almost no trouble ever since. The place is a rare example of Rio de Janeiro law enforcement harmoniously and effectively securing a community. Rio's police are often accused of subduing criminals only by becoming criminals themselves: using excessive force and extortion to control territory.
The often ambivalent police-citizen relationship may have been taken care of in Tavares Bastos. But there's still the question of how the community will handle the influx of outsiders that the neighborhood's safety allows.
"We're becoming a permanent community stage," said Maria da Conceicao Costa, the leader of the Residents' Association of Tavares Bastos.
"Which is good in a certain way, because it brings resources." She said that many residents have learned how to use cameras and make films, both by osmosis and through filmmaking courses that have been held in the neighborhood.
"There's a real change happening in this community, which is very rapid and very beneficial, and in which practically all the residents are participating in one way or another," Costa said.
Many residents have even found direct employment with film crews. Thirty-two-year-old Raimundo Nascimento was born and raised in Tavares Bastos. He used to sell ice cream on the beach, but has now found steady work as a production assistant on the film crews that pass through his neighborhood. He impressed the crew of "The Incredible Hulk" so much, in fact, that Edward Norton flew him to Canada participate in production there.
"Today I'm very competent at my job," Nascimento said. "And I'm very happy to be working in film. I love it."
The big-budget productions also bring a direct injection of cash to a community that was built by the hands of residents too poor to buy their own property. The latest neighborhood production, a Brazilian mini-series whose title translates as "Law and Crime," cost a major television network 500,000 Brazilian reals to produce each episode — more than $200,000 per show at current exchange rates.
Even while surrounded by so much money, the community does not charge for use of its streets: Instead, production companies are encouraged to make a donation to the Residents' Association. Costa estimates that the neighborhood has collected a total of about 500,000 Brazilian reals from all the productions there (more than $200,000).
According to Nascimento, "The Incredible Hulk" donated 10,000 reals — a drop in the bucket of a Hollywood budget, but enough to build the neighborhood a medical clinic.
Savvy individual residents do charge a fee when crews want to use their property. The going rent for a house is about 200 reals per day, but Costa of the Residents' Association hopes that the rate will rise to 500 reals or 1,000 reals before long. And according to Bob Nadkarni, property values in the neighborhood have quadrupled in the decade since the arrival of the special police and the ad in Variety magazine.
But Nadkarni says that the primary benefits to residents of "Bobbywood" are not measurable in financial terms. "What's really happened mostly is in the mind," he said. "People are now proud to be here, which is something that never happened before."
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