I started writing this post a few weeks ago. Since then the bubbling discontent we witnessed across Brazil when we were there in January and February in relation to a number of social and political issues including the huge costs of the upcoming World Cup has spilled out into the streets.
People across the social spectrum have got fed up with the way the World Cup costs have spiralled up, sucked public money into private coffers and at the same time, across the country, displaced people and destroyed parks and other common spaces for the building of new facilities. In some cases like the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, this historical stadium will be operated by a private company in the first time in its history.
People have also got fed up with the rising cost of living in the country (in part a consequence of the Games), with the rise in public transport costs, but most of all they are fed up with corruption, with the failure of the rising economic growth to tackle the problems in the health and education system in the country.
Brazil has not seen such mass protests in twenty years and it looks like the government is going to have to listen. The post I write here, is about the struggle of media spaces and the images and stories which are produced about, and now increasingly from, marginalised places like favela communities. The post relates to the present struggles in Brazil in as much as the media continues to be a place of contest where a battle over stories and imaginations is also waged.
Imaginary: “Existing only in the imagination” (…) Origin from Latin imago which in psychoanalysis is “an unconscious, idealised mental image of someone, say a parent, that influences a person’s behaviour”.
Favela: “a group of dwellings with high density occupation, the construction of which is carried out in a disorderly fashion with inadequate material, without zoning, without public services, and on land which is illegally being used without the consent of the owner”
(Official Bulletin of the Brazilian Secretariat of Social Services quoted in Perlman The Myth of Marginality 1979:13).
Imaginary of Marginality: An imaginary about historically marginalized populations, held by dominant social groups (and sometimes internalized by the marginalized themselves) often containing prejudiced representations, images, stories, sometimes connected to stereotypes around race, poverty and gender. These negative representations tend to circulate in the dominant mass media and in certain forms of research and educational systems. Un-confronted, these representations come to be widespread amongst the population and perceived as the main narrative, the norm.
We often come to see and know places and people we do not personally encounter through stories and images that others create about them. These stories most commonly come to us through the media – through television, the news, the internet, etc. At the scale of a city, the media helps to virtually weave an imaginary web linking separated places and lives. We are often not very mindful of this web – this matrix of images and stories, feelings and attitudes, but also a landscape we walk through in our day-to-day lives that provides a sense of meaning to us and the world around us.
The nature of this imaginary web is shaped by those who weave it. Those weavers, often the most privileged sectors that dominate and own the media, have little experience or willingness to convey the stories and perspectives of the less powerful in those communities, especially through their own voice, their own point of view and experienced reality. Here in Rio de Janeiro, places and communities like favelas for instances.
The democratization of the media has been an important area of mobilization amongst civil society and social movements in Brazil for several decades. Especially since the end of the dictatorship (in 1984) gaining access to the institutions of mass communication has also come to be seen as an important right to acquire, that is intrinsically linked to the identity and practice of being a citizen in Brazil. This right-to-acquire has come from the growing recognition of the media as a force that shapes society and public opinion and, as such, something that ought to be more equitably distributed and controlled. The theme of media and citizenship, or what has been referred to as ‘visual inclusion’, has also gained importance in Brazil’s public sphere over the last two decades.
Visual inclusion here means the inclusion of a more diverse and representative presence of Brazilians and their stories across the national media. Indigenous people, Afro-descendants or else regional cultures are infrequently or else stereotypically depicted in the media which is dominated by the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo axis (and a particular upper middle class culture and perspective from these cities).
Visual inclusion also involves the more equitable distribution of the means of image production amongst the population. Though community radio has been around for much longer in favela communities, what we now see in Brazil is the intensification of alternative media production centers and dissemination networks, in particular through new forms of technology such as social media, digital video and photography and the Internet. Such initiatives are often aligned with grass-roots and community organizations across a number of historically marginalized groups and communities.
An example of this kind of work is a project I came across in Rio de Janeiro around 2006, the Observatório das Favelas based in one of the city’s biggest favela Complexo da Maré is large conglomeration of 16 different communities and has a population of around 140,000. The Observatioro das Favelas is a large community-NGO responsible for a number of different projects inside favela communities focusing on research, policy development and capacity building.
Observatório das Favelas and others like it who, to varying degrees in scale and success operate in different favelas, see a major part of their role as involving the formation of technically competent and politically aware individuals and groups inside low-income communities. A key element in many of such initiatives is what is often referred to as “Critical Communication”, involving the telling of stories and conveying the perspectives of those who live in these communities, especially from members of these communities themselves. Essentially – their own narratives, stories, voice.
A pioneering project of the Observatório das Favelas is the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica ESPOCC (Popular School of Critical Communication) which had its first class of forty-two students in 2005 and is now in its 8th year. This project is a one-year vocational course with the aim of training young people mainly from Rio’s favelas and peripheries, but now also from the middle classes, to become critical communicators, to learn how to engage with and challenge the imaginary of marginality prevalent in the city.
For example, favela communities are often depicted in the mass media as violent spaces, lacking in all the things the other parts of the city have – education, work, culture, organisation, safety, and so on. Such representations mean that these places, and those who live there, bare the stigma associated with these images and stories. They have an identity imposed on them emanating from these images and stories, which have no part in creating themselves. Residents of favela communities, which as we saw in the previous post on the Museo da Maré have in some cases been here for three generations, live under and cultivate their identities under these adverse conditions, and not only this but they are also discriminated in day to day relation to others across the city and to the state.
You could say that the young people in ESPOCC learn to read the web, the matrix, the media landscape in an acute way so as to subvert it and create their own narratives and media spaces. They learn to weave different imaginaries across the city, contributing to the transformation of the imaginary of marginality into more inclusive imaginaries. I will write more about this in the next post.
We witnessed an example of the prejudiced media landscape in the city and how people have been trying to combat this during our time in Rio. Though not directly involving ESPOCC, I point to these events here as they occurred whilst we were in Rio and clearly show the kind of mass media logic that places like ESPOCC are engaging with.
The city has been busily preparing for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 building many new sporting facilities. For the World Cup the city has been converting the 60 year old Maracanã Stadium (in its time the biggest stadium in the world with a capacity of 100,000) to the international criteria of FIFA demolishing some surrounding structures and buildings for new parking facilities. One of the buildings to be destroyed was the former Indian Museum which has been unused as a museum since the 1980s but which has been occupied by a group of indigenous families since 2006 in protest of plans to demolish this historically significant building. After a number of standoffs with the police Rede Globo, the dominant media conglomerate in the country, did a news piece to discredit the indigenous protesters by saying that they had been selling drugs at the premises. Armed with their own video cameras indigenous filmmakers filmed the reporter and confronted her with the lies being told about them. The clip went viral on the Internet and Globo was forced to retract their story.
Mural outside the Popular School of Critical Communication (ESPOCC) in the Observatório das Favelas, in the Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi
As Salvador Passos, analysing the incident put it:
The objective of this type of comment was to disqualify the families that were there. When running such news-story without due verification, the channel does a disservice to democracy. The news item provides the perfect alibi for a violent intervention and removal of the indigenous families. Suddenly, there is no more talk of real estate speculation and profits, but rather of drug trafficking and vandalism on the part of the natives, all based on images that prove nothing. [my translation from http://www.advivo.com.br/blog/luisnassif/acusacoes-da-globonews-sobre-as-tribos-do-museu-do-indio?page=1]
The story encapsulates the overlap of media interests and the imaginary they attempt to weave with the corporate logic and profit motive that pervades these mega sporting events with full endorsement of the state. Both attempt to transform the city without much concern for those whose stories and lives have no place in their imagination. That the ‘natives’ now have a camera and access to alternative media networks, like those associated with ESPOCC, means that such dominant interests cannot weave their own imaginary of the city unchallenged.
To see clips of the story around Indigenous occupation of the museum and Globo and its response see:
For a friends’ (Nayana Fernandez) short film on the story see:
For an excellent article on the recent protests in Brasil written by the same friend see: