It seems a hopeless place, much like its namesake movie that’s competing for four Academy Awards — dusty and unrelentingly hot, with rotting wooden shacks and chickens scratching at piles of fetid garbage.
Cidade de Deus (Portuguese for “City of God”) is like any of the other 600-plus slums in Rio de Janeiro, where gorgeous beaches and wealthy neighborhoods contrast with the destitution in poor areas known as “favelas,” or slums.
“Nothing has made this neighborhood better. Frankly, after that movie we expected some action from the government to improve living conditions here. Nothing, nothing happened,” said Alexandre do Rego Lima, president of the Cidade de Deus neighbors association.
Cidade de Deus was founded 38 years ago, but it was not until recently that its name gained international attention from the movie “City of God,” directed by Oscar-nominated Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles.
When it was new back in the 1960s, Cidade de Deus looked like it could honor its name by providing job opportunities for thousands of homeless who lost everything to rains and landslides and were desperately searching for a new start.
Too many people, not enough jobsThere was a solid reason for that hope. Cidade de Deus was only about three miles from the rich seaside neighborhood of Barra — often called “Rio’s Miami” — which was expected to supply jobs for the electricians, handymen, bricklayers and housemaids of Cidade de Deus.
But Cidade de Deus attracted more people than it could afford. The job market was too small for the legions pouring in. Apartments built for families of four became home to 10 or more. Soon it was just another favela deprived of most basic services.
Meirelles’ film reflects the reality of life in the favelas, telling the story of young people trapped in a whirl of drugs and violence.
Many of the favelas, home to at least 20 percent of Rio’s 6 million people, are virtually run by drug lords. Because of the poverty and lack of education, youngsters are easy prey for traffickers who pay much more than any decent job — something tough to find anyway.
“Late in the evening you can see youngsters of barely 13 or 14 years offering drugs right here, on the street,” said Brother Ronie Anderson, from the neighborhood’s Catholic parish.
The parish, he said, was trying to help keep young people off drugs by running an academy where volunteers teach music, dance, martial arts and computer skills.
“But it is just a grain of sand in an ocean of needs,” Anderson said.
The slum’s poverty has been compounded by Rio de Janeiro’s declining economy and the ensuing fall in the quality of life. The state of Rio now ranks fifth in life quality among Brazilian regions — down from third place 10 years ago.
Has the film made things worse?People in Cidade de Deus feel Meirelles’ movie has made discrimination against poor neighborhoods worse.
“People already tend to distrust those living in favelas. When job applicants say where they live, they get doomed. ‘Cidade de Deus? No, you don’t fit here.’ That is what we have gotten,” said Enair Martines Goncalves, a community leader. “We have been stigmatized by the movie.”
The movie at least has brought business for Enisia Melo, who runs a video store. She says her three VHS and two DVD copies of the film have been rented daily since the Oscar nominations were announced in January. Each copy leases for $1.37 a day.
Videos are the best way for people in the community to see the film. Cidade de Deus has no movie theater — nor does it have a technical school or hospital, despite its estimated population of 120,000.
Alexandre do Rego Lima, the neighborhood association president, said he saw the movie on video and blamed the drug violence it depicted on lack of government action.
“Drugs are a result of lack of investments for the youth,” he said. “Without education, without progress, people tend to turn to gangs. The movie ... gives a vision of violence in the neighborhood, but nothing has been done to fight it effectively.
“Politicians come here with their promises only at election time. Then nothing is done and the community is forgotten,” do Rego Lima said.
Rain is the biggest threatIn Cidade de Deus, people tend to talk more about their fears of the current rainy season than of drug violence.
The slum’s residents fear that if the rainy season is too heavy and rivers nearby overflow, it could create a repeat of what happened eight years ago when 38 people drowned. Many say they still recall alligators and snakes emerging and threatening unprotected shacks.
“You can safely write that. Even more, you can say that there were also scorpions and cockroaches,” said Manoel de Paula, one of the favela’s founders.
Neildes Bahiana insists she saw an alligator and several snakes near her hut after one downpour and had to call neighbors to scare away the reptiles. But that’s hardly the 30-year-old woman’s worst problem — she recently was hit by a car, suffered a broken arm and has not been able to return to her job as a maid.
“I only dream of working again, to get some money and run away from here,” she said.