Ballet and Bullets: The Favela Dance Class Stuck in the Crossfire
With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, it's more important than ever that this Rio dance class is able to use culture as a force for resistance and change.
Photos: Frederick Bernas
Millions of children across the globe dream about dancing – whether it's hip-hop, salsa, swing, bachata or ballet. Some get the opportunity to learn, others don't – perhaps due to time, money, parents, cultural taboos, access to schools or dozens of other reasons which lie well within the realm of feasibility.
The risk of being caught in a crossfire should not be on that list – but it's a very real danger for Tuany Nascimento and students of her Na Ponta dos Pés ("On Tiptoe") project in the Complexo do Alemão, a sprawling cluster of favelas in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro.
Last year, while filming for the new VICE documentary Ballet and Bullets: Dancing Out of the Favela, our crew tasted that bitter reality at an outdoor sports court in the Morro do Adeus neighbourhood, where the girls live. As Tuany put her pupils through their paces, stretching limbs and rehearsing routines – like any other ballet class, anywhere in the world – a flurry of gunshots ripped through the air.
Panic. We had no idea where the terrifying crackle came from, but it was all too close. We scrambled for shelter. Thankfully, no one from the group was hurt. The chaos subsided moments later, but a small boy who'd been curiously watching the young ballerinas from a nearby rooftop, while flying his kite, was injured by a stray bullet – along with another innocent bystander.
Morro do Adeus is at the heart of a perpetual conflict between rival drug trafficking gangs, which control different sections of Alemão – a vast network of communities with a population that may be as high as 120,000. Frequent police raids only escalate the tension.
The scary situation that we captured on camera was a tiny glimpse of what these brave girls live through every day. Many have lost friends or loved ones; some nights, firefights rage for hours on end. Their tears of fear will not be quickly forgotten – along with a queasy sense of confusion as we left the favela, driving back to safety in stunned silence.
The tragic recent history of Rio has been well-documented. In 2017, 6,590 people were killed in the city (and 64,000 nationally – about six times higher than the US). Mobile apps which map crowdsourced data in real time, helping users avoid potential violence, have become ominously popular.
As Brazil's economy slumped in the last few years, the cash-strapped city government needed federal bailouts to balance its books, including police salaries, while crime levels spiked. The army carries out regular operations in favelas and soldiers maintain a disconcerting street presence in central areas.
That turbulent situation is a mirror for the current political climate. On the 28th of October, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro won the second round of presidential elections, with 55 percent of votes, after waging a toxic campaign. His track record as a radical right-wing congressman is light on policy but heavy on xenophobia, homophobia, racism and sexism.
Known as an admirer of tyrants like Augusto Pinochet and the vicious dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-85, Bolsonaro set out a populist platform which includes fighting crime by relaxing gun ownership laws and giving police greater freedom to shoot first and ask questions later.
"If it's up to me, every citizen will have a firearm at home," he said in 2017, before promising "no money for NGOs" should he win the presidency. The candidate repeated his call earlier this month, pledging to "end all activism in Brazil" – a menacing omen for residents of Rio's favelas, where community groups have a strong tradition of civic action.
When the result was confirmed on Sunday night, soldiers held an impromptu parade on the streets of Niteroi, which neighbours Rio de Janeiro. The hills of Complexo do Alemão echoed with a dreadful cacophony as police officers fired round after round of bullets toward the sky in celebration.
At a time of ugly political polarisation, Brazil's fragile democracy, already plagued with corruption, is facing an unprecedented crisis – which, by Brazilian standards, is really saying something.
Most disturbingly, the president-elect has openly endorsed authoritarian violence over democracy: "You won't change anything in this country through voting – nothing, absolutely nothing," he said in 1999. "Unfortunately, you'll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn't do… killing. If a few innocent people die, that's alright."
The imminent Bolsonaro administration means it is even more important to tell the story of these inspiring young women who are using dance to strive for a better life, channeling the power of culture as a force for resistance and change.
On a practical level, the likelihood of a more aggressive public security plan under Bolsonaro heightens the need for Tuany's ballerinas to find a safe space, away from the outdoor sports court where they currently train.
The good news is that they are not far from achieving their goal: a plot of land has been secured, and foundations laid down. Locals have promised to chip in with labour and some building materials, but one last push for support is needed.
We hope this film will generate a fresh impulse for the Na Ponta dos Pés community centre to finally become reality.
The filmmakers have set up a JustGiving page to receive donations on behalf of Na Ponta dos Pés. Click here to help.
Ballet and Bullets: Dancing Out of the Favela was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.