INTERVIEW BY MAX BARTRAM PHOTOS BY GIUSEPPE BIZZARRI
Thirty years ago, an English film producer called Bob Nadkarni decided he’d had enough of London so he packed his suitcases and headed to South America. Eventually, he settled in Tavares Bastos, one of Rio de Janeiro’s drug-lorded favelas. Not only did he decide to make an impoverished, shack-filled slope his home, he also managed to almost single-handedly clean the place up, chase out the machine-gun-toting dealers and build an art gallery to live in that gradually became a hotel.
Bob’s building became known as The Maze and now contains bars, swimming pools, monthly music nights and a guest list that includes Snoop, Tim Roth, Edward Norton and, erm, Gary Lineker. Due to the relatively low chances of getting randomly gunned down in an argument over the price of a wrap, Bob’s favela has also become the primary location for just about every film that needs a shanty setting to have come out of Brazil in the last decade.
Vice: What made you leave London for a new life in South America?
Bob Nadkarni: I had a reasonably successful film career in England, but my marriage to a girl from art school who became a model didn’t stand a chance because we barely even managed to cross paths at the airport. The break-up hit me pretty hard and I ended up in Southampton, forgot one of my cases on the dockside and got on the first ship going anywhere, which, as it happened, was Guayaquil in Ecuador.
That sounds pretty exotic but how did you end up in Rio?
Engine trouble coming down the coast of Brazil forced the boat to pull in for an eight-day repair in the port of Salvador. I took a taxi at the foot of the gangplank for a look around and almost immediately got surrounded by seemingly crazed transvestites, one of whom opened the right door and drenched me with a bucket of water, followed by the left door through which a petite and topless girl was projected. Skipping a few sordid details, the ship sailed away with my other case and I, in my one pair of jeans and a t-shirt, discovered that Brazil was cheaper, more efficient and more fun than psychotherapy.
So you stayed?
After two months I bussed down to Rio where I stayed out the year until I was visited by the military regime and escorted straight to a ship bound for Southampton. I picked up my life in commercials in England working with directors like Adrian Lyne, but despite being on an extradition list I was determined to get back to Rio. I decided to train myself as a newsman as it was the only job that scared the hell out of the Brazilian military. As I spoke Portuguese, I got a job for NBC covering the 1974 Portuguese revolution and then covered Beirut until 1978. I returned to Rio at the beginning of 1979 as a UPITN [United Press International Television News] correspondent and spent three years crucifying the Junta. Which was fun.
What was it that possessed you to want to live in a favela?
At the beginning of 1981 I went with my maid, Creuza, to her favela home and the view from her window staggered me. I had always considered my job as temporary, planning a return to painting by the age of 50. So I built my studio up here amongst 500 people huddling in precarious shacks.
An old, white English guy who is into painting doesn’t really sound like your average favela tenant.
Naturally there’s always someone trying to rip you off. In my case a guy called Antonio Hilario tried to sell me a house which turned out to belong to a couple spending a few months back in the North-East. I smelled a rat and steered clear of him, but I subsequently discovered that he was a killer when his rage turned on me. Antonio caused me enormous headaches and stole constantly from me, almost daring me to confront him. In the end I didn’t have to. People like Antonio go around making enemies everywhere and one day he picked on someone who shot him dead.
Clockwise from top left: Bob’s paintings, a view from the top of The Maze, the artist in residence, a game of football in the favela.
How did you end up building The Maze?
A local community leader proposed that if I built a social centre I could put whatever I like on top. When I started building, the road stopped three hundred yards down the hill. I had to carry every 50 kilo sack of cement, sand and crushed stone on my back. I had to earn my respect. But in less than year I had it running with dances, parties, adult literacy classes and a pre-natal clinic. I had to return to Beirut for a few months in 1982, which was so mentally stressful that, on my return, I withdrew from the city and moved into the beginnings of my favela studio and got my permanent residence visa.
**What about all the running gun battles that tend to go on in a favela—doesn’t sound like ideal retirement conditions? **
When I first came to the hillside, there was one guy, unarmed, selling marijuana. Soon, though, the hillside was under constant attack from bigger gangs and it wasn’t long before we had gun battles in the streets. Since 1985, when I started at the BBC, I could use my status as a weapon. A corrupt cop refused to believe that a foreigner in a favela wasn’t a drug lord and threatened me and my family. I recorded it all and caught my first cop.
You bribed a cop?
Extorted a cop. Every Thursday the police came up to collect their percentage of the drug traffic. I hid a wireless microphone on one of the local drug gang, and filmed it all. That put my second cop in prison.
The dealers must have loved you.
Because I never used drugs some of the younger traffickers wanted to eliminate me but their mistrust stopped after a young guy called Henrique, from a family who I’d sheltered years before, became the gang’s executioner and declared himself my protector. I made it clear I was asking for nothing and my views on drugs remained the same. Soon after someone threatened me with a knife. He was found in the rubbish tip riddled with 78 bullet holes the next day. As dictates the law of the favela: everyone knows, but nobody speaks. I will never know for sure, but there is little doubt. As with all young men involved with the drugs trade, Henrique died too young to either confirm or deny what actually happened.
How did you manage to clear the gangsters out?
Twenty years ago it had become obvious to me that the violence could only escalate, and that the gangs from other favelas would outgun the boys from our hill. We had a gigantic abandoned casino in our favela and I proposed that the state government turn it into the Rio police force’s Elite Squad HQ. Unlike the regular police, the Elite Squad are uncorruptable. Once they moved into the favela the drug gangs fled.
How did the favela become so popular for film-making?
Even during the drugs era we had shot clips up in the favela. Snoop’s signature is still somewhere under the pebbledash on my living room wall. Encouraged by this, I started to put ads in media journals abroad and soon people like Pharrell were turning up to shoot stuff. “Shoot without being shot” was our motto. They even did the Incredible Hulk here. Having Charlotte Rampling, Fisher Stevens and Irene Jacob here was nice and finally at the age of 65 I’ve made it to the other side of the camera and started acting myself.
Looking back, what have you have been proudest of doing here?
Probably the freedom that everyone has gained up here. Before, nobody would come up the hill.
We couldn’t have opened hairdressers or vegetable shops. The bars were always here of course but within months of the BOPE (the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, aka the Elite Squad) joining us, we had opened a ballet school and now, eight years later, we’ve placed five students in the Municipal Ballet School. There are art classes, a football school, 40 kids from the favela are in the Petrobras Child Orchestra and another 40 are in the local samba drum band.