Nossa favela como ela é

Notícia das comunidades periféricas do Recife

The Princess in the Alleyway

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Changing the way the world sees the favelas of Brazil

Anyone who has seen movies about Rio de Janeiro or watched the news during the last Olympics knows about the favelas: poor, violent, terrifying… but people who live in these neighborhoods don’t recognize themselves in that image. FavelaNews, a movement of young filmmakers from the favelas of Recife, in Brazil’s poor northeast, wants people around the world to see the favela as we see it: a magical and beautiful place. 


Severina, a ten year old girl who lives in a narrow alley in a favela in Recife, Brazil, sees something completely different from the slums people see in movies and on TV. For her, life is a fairy tale of conflicts and romances between kingdoms and princes, where dragons might attack at any time and love is always just around the corner. 

Severina tells the story of her prince, Okado, a young break dancer who has been cast as a gangster in a nightly soap opera. Okado wants to present an honest portrait of a gangster on TV, so he interviews the drug dealers in his and in enemy favelas… only to find that the real godfather of crime, a corrupt police officer, wants no one asking questions in his territory. At the same time, he learns that the TV director doesn’t want a realistic gangster, but a cartoon ghetto villain. 

As these dragons besiege the alley and tensions rise between warring kingdoms, Severina sees only one way out: a legendary magical fiddle which promises to turn any fight into a dance. She sets out to steal the fiddle, even though it is in the hands of the gang leader from an enemy favela. 

Mixing documentary honesty with the innocence of a little girl, The Princess in the Alleyway shows the Brazilian favela like you have never seen it before.

The Directors

Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva was born in a peasant family that had lost its land in the south of Brazil, but she went to university on scholarship and then worked as a professional actress for many years; she rebelled against what everyone around her knew to be impossible for an impoverished girl. Later, working with Kurt Shaw — whose anger at the limited possibilities of a Harvard doctorate took him to the favelas of Brazil and Colombia — she developed methods to use theater and film to teach other marginalized children to disobey the impossible. 

Working with children in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, and Bolivia, they produced the world’s first feature fictional film made by ex-child soldiers, a telenovela by indigenous children that showed on Bolivian national TV, and an award winning hip-hop album where children from the favelas protest gang and police violence. Their work became the basis for a successful and groundbreaking new children’s policy of the Paraguayan government.

In addition to their artistic work, da Silva and Shaw have produced a dozen academic books, several children’s stories, and two novels about marginalized children. Together, they have won the United Nations/BMW Intercultural Innovation Award (2016), the UN Online Volunteering award (4 times), a Wenner Gren Fellowship (2007), the Harvard First Decade Award (2007), The Freedom to Create Youth Prize (2008, finalist 2011), and have been named to the GOOD 100, among others.

They live in Florianópolis, in the south of Brazil, with their seven year old daughter, Helena.

Directors' Statement

Half a dozen years ago, as we helped a group of kids from the favela of Arruda make a short film about the alleys where they lived, several of them pulled us toward an abandoned house. “This is the scary place. It’s where the werewolf lives,” a girl said. 

Her friend quickly added, “Right. The werewolf and the cops.” 

Though we had long worked in the favelas of Recife, that moment exposed something new: the way that kids used the tropes of fairy tales to understand the violent, difficult, and beautiful world that surrounded them. Severina, the heroine of The Princess in the Alleyway, tries to comprehend her world with the narrative tools she has at hand. 

Children’s life in the favela is filled with fantasy. Like any other kid with an internet connection or a TV, they watch Disney movies with their fairy tales cribbed from folklore. These kids also live amid the court of the maracatu: the ornate carnaval dance was created by Brazilian slaves to undermine the symbolic authority of the Portuguese crown, and now it fills the streets during festivals. Finally, their great-grandparents lived side by with the mythic Lampião and his motley band of vigilantes — a Robin Hood and his merry band from the desert backlands. Severina’s fantasies express the way that many kids in the favela see the world. 

Adults also fill in their confusion about favelas with fantasy. These adult myths, however, don’t come from fairy tales and carnival parades: they come from the nightly news, “true crime” shows, and movies like Elite Squad or City of God. These myths build prejudice against people from the favela and even define the way that slum residents see themselves. 

The Princess in the Alleyway defies prejudice and myth not simply by presenting a “truer” representation of the favela, or even by showing the way that some people in the favela see themselves. Instead, it challenges fantasy with fantasy, showing the importance of the stories we tell and asking us to take responsibility for them.

The Cast

Jenifer Cibele da Silva (Severina) was ten years old when she was cast as the lead and title character of The Princess in the Alleyway. She lives with her grandmother in the favela of Cidade de Deus, where she does theater and film classes.

Ellan Barreto (Okado) started to breakdance when he was a little boy, and eventually became one of the best dancers in South America. His work a a rapper has won him the Freedom to Create Youth Award as the most important young artist working for human rights in the world (2008) and he has given shows in Austria, Italy, and Argentina as well as Brasil. He lives in the favela of Arruda, in the same alley where the movie was filmed. He is a reporter at FavelaNews.

Caroline Belut (Cila) grew up largely on the street, helping her father to recycle trash. An after-school program gave her a chance at acting, where she found her calling and her passion. She now organizes a theater troop in her favela, Coque.

Cidicley Ferreira (Matuto) grew up in the favela of Arruda, where much of The Princess in the Alleyway was filmed. As a boy, he breakdanced in Ellan Barreto’s group, but then he moved onto football (he almost made it to a pro team) and drug dealing, before he straightened his life out several years ago.

Walter da Matta (Galego) is one of the few professional actors on the cast; he has long worked on the stage in Recife, though never as a character as villainous as Galego. He also works as a artist, and his work with recycled materials is famous in the city.

Nicole da Silva (Ana) lives in the favela of Cidade de Deus with her mother, father, and many brothers and sisters. She has long dreamed of being a professional actress.

Denis Gomes (Marquinhos) is a renowned breakdancer and tattoo artist, as well as a leader in the hip-hop movement of Recife. He lives in the favela of Jordão, in the south of Recife.

Vinícius Barros (Marcelo) is the only other actor on the cast who did not grow up in the favela. From the State of Mato Grosso, he came to Pernambuco in order to study theater at the Federal University.

Adriano Silva (Gleivson) is the child of a family forced to leave the countryside for the city before he was born. As a small kid, he and his mother went from door to door in rich neighborhoods, asking for food or work. He became a folk dancer, then went on to law school, which he is finishing this year. He also works as a reporter at FavelaNews.

The Crew

Marcelo Lacerda (Director of Photography) is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. His work has appeared in Vice and many other international magazines, and his documentary Menino Aranha has won awards around Brazil.

Yane Mendes (First Camera) grew up in the favela of Totó in the west of Recife. She trained in photography and video at the Oi Kabum school and now works as a reporter at FavelaNews.

Natália Corrêa (Second Câmera) grow a small city in the interior of Bahia, but she came to Recife to study journalism. She works as a reporter at FavelaNews.

Lucas Caminha (Director of Sound) studied cinema and has specialized in sound, working on the films of Kléber Mendonça Filho. His directorial début, Catimbau, is a reflection on sound, music, and place.

Pedro Macedo (Microphone) is a sound technician. He had never stepped foot in the favelas before making the movie, but he found new friends and purpose there.

Katherine Pimentel (Microphone) made a documentary about FavelaNews for her college, and then offered to help with sound. She also plays a small role as the daughter of the rich family.

Douglas Ventura (Assistant to the Producer) is a breakdancer and dance teacher from the favela of Agua Fria. He also worked as a microphonist on several scenes.

José da Silva (Second Assistant to the Producer) lives in the same alley where The Princess in the Alleyway was filmed, and became so enthusiastic that he offered to help with crowd control, food, and the daily chores of the movie. He is twelve years old.

Cidicley Ferreira (Assistant to the Directors) plays the role of Matuto in the film, but he also knows everyone in the favela of Arruda, which made him essential to getting permission to film, quieting the people who lived in the alleys, and helping other actors to get the most from their performances.

Roderick Fonseca (Composer) is from Rio Grande do Norte, several hours north of Recife. A professional musician, he has worked in Germany as well as Brazil. His band, Café do Vento, created an avant-garde mix of classical music with the folk traditions of the Brazilian countryside. He plays the role of Severina’s father in the movie.

An Interview with the Directors

The Princess is in the Alleyway is a fairy tale set in the favela. That’s not a common association. Why did you make the film this way?

Rita: When the media looks at urban slums in Brazil, it always sees and shows violence. That’s the frame of even the best-intentioned movies about the favelas, and we don’t even need to mention the horrible way that “true-crime” shows that infest our TV represent people who live in the favela. 

Kurt: Ten years ago, we showed a movie in City of God, the favela in Rio de Janeiro that gave the name to Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 film. Many extras from that movie were in the audience, and our Q&A session quickly turned to what life was really like there. One of the cast members said, “If you look at every individual event in the movie, each one is true. But put twenty years of violence all together in two hours, and the impression you get is it is all guns all the time, and that isn’t the way we live. The movie is series of true events that, put together, become a lie.” Violence exists in the favela, but that’s not the way most people live their day to day lives.

Rita: So what we wanted to show was how people — girls, in particular — experience their lives in the favela. How they interpret it, understand it. And when we see the way they associate werewolves and police officer, dragons and drug kingpins… well, the rest of the movie flowed out. It’s also important to show that the violence in the favela isn’t a natural part of the favela. It comes from the outside. The government has allowed these slums to become a free trade zone for drugs, so they are basically a place where rich men sell drugs to other rich men through intermediaries who live in the favela. And those intermediaries, the young drug dealers, are the ones who die.

Kurt: And who establish the identity of the favela for everyone to see. That’s what we were trying to undermine.

Rita: We want to define the favela through the wealth of its art and creativity, not through violence.

How was it to work with actors who had never been on screen before?

Rita: The casting was fascinating: the film inspired interest from professional actors, students, and many young people from the favela. As we began to watch the screen tests, we saw that the actors who acted least were always the most powerful on camera.  Many talented actors tried out for the part of Matuto, the conflicted gangster-dancer from the Kingdom of There, but in the end we chose a young man with no acting experience, but who had lived the life… and had gotten out of it.

Kurt: We’ve worked in the favelas of Recife for fifteen years, but you have to be humble when you are there: the actors know this world better than we do, and they have studied every minor detail of people around them since they were little. We accepted the fact that the actors knew their characters better than we did: they knew how they talked, how they moved, how they responded to many different contexts. Perhaps the biggest challenge was not to direct them.

Rita: And because we had a lot of people on the set, some of them wanted to give instructions. “Do it like this, like that…” But that’s not the way we direct. The challenge was to give the actors the courage to bring out something that we didn’t even know existed.

Kurt: The actors didn’t memorize their lines; we had a script, but no illusions that we could write in the way that people of the favelas speak. The actors read the script, we talked about which beats were essential in each scene, and then we filmed.

Rita: They used their own linguistic and moral universe to represent their characters.

Is it hard to make a film in the favelas?

Kurt: Crime and violence were never an issue. We always knew we were safe and well received.

Rita: The challenge was the noise, the confusion. The alleys of a favela are people’s yards; it’s a space somewhere between public and private, and we had to respect that we invading that space. But we found ways to quiet things down when we rolled the cameras…

Kurt: Cid was essential in that.

Rita: Right. Cidicley, who plays Matuto, seems to know everyone, and he had the charm to get a house builder to turn off an electric saw or to convince a drinking party to stop their singing for a bit.

Kurt: We got amazing solidarity from people, especially families in Cidade de Deus and in the Poop-in-the-Mud alley. (Yep, that is the real name of the place). They let us film in their houses, do makeup on their porches, film out of their windows… it was fantastic. There is no way we could have made a movie on this kind of budget without that kind of help.

Can you tell any stories to explain how that community support worked? 

Kurt: Cidade de Deus is probably the hardest place we filmed. It is a fantastic community, and Yane, one of the cinematographers, runs a film workshop for kids there every week, so it a neighborhood we know and love. But there are so many kids there, and they are so excited… and they really don’t know how to be quiet on a film set.

Rita: So we put them on camera. In real life, they are there all the time, so why should we pretend that’s not true? The wonderful clip in the second scene, when a boy imitates the xaxado dancers, that was spontaneous. It’s a beautiful expression of the relationship between local artists and kids in the favela.

Kurt: I think it was Orson Welles who said that a cinema director is nothing but a person who presides over accidents. Filming in the favela gave a lot of chances for that.

Rita: It also happened outside of the favela. The women’s Maracatu in Nazaré da Mata, where we filmed the fantasy scenes, was so excited to participate. We were working in a place we had never been before and we had only a day for all of the fantasy scenes, so they they connected us with that old plantation house, introduced us to the people who work on the farm, and made the last scenes so powerful.

Kurt: Rita had written the battle scene, and that played out more or less as we planned. The conclusion was just supposed to be that the four main characters would walk off into the sunset together.

Rita: Until we saw that there was a white horse on the farm.

Kurt: So we put Okado on the white horse… and it was terrible. Denis (who plays the young gangster Marquinhos) joked that he could do it much better: imagine that, a breakdancer from one of the poorest favelas in Brazil and he leapt on that horse like a cowboy from a 1950s western. 

Rita: Until that moment, we had sort of assumed that Okado, invading Rio de Janeiro, was the Lampião Cromado of the Portuguese title. But when Denis got on the horse, all of the threads came together: the “gangster” who stays in the favela to protect his community really follows the inheritance of the social bandit.

How much money did it take to make the movie?

Kurt: A little less than US$20,000.

Rita: We could only do it because we had so much support from the community. There is a wonderful quote from Glauber Rocha, the great Brazilian filmmaker, that “all you need to make a movie is a camera in your hand and an idea in your head,” and we put that idea to the test.

What are the movies that most influenced you as you made The Princess in the Alleyway?

Kurt: It would be great to say we were watching obscure, erudite movies, but for me The Princess Bride was the constant reference.

Rita: Lisbela e o Prisioneiro, the plays of Ariano Suassuna. The regional comedies of Brazil’s northeast. And then there is the whole tradition of participatory filmmaking, which is very common in Brazil, and where I think that someone like Jean Rouch is a genius.

Kurt: We wanted to make a movie that made sense for a audience in the favela, so while the process of filmmaking was deeply experimental, the narrative form is really very straightforward. 

What does the film mean to you?

Kurt: When we started, we want people to think about the ambiguity of the social bandit, how that figure is connected to the gang wars in contemporary favelas.

Rita: But the real message is the form of the story: that people from the favela have the creativity to resist violence — from gangs and the police — and to make things of beauty.

You chose to have dance stand in for the traditional gun battles of a gangster movie. Where did that idea come from?

Rita: In Brazil, there is a long tradition of war turning into art. Capoeira dancing is pretty well known around the world, and it started off as a martial art that slaves practiced in secret as a way to plan revolution and flight from slavery; today, it is an esthetic competition. The Maracatu, which plays such an important role in The Princess in the Beco, has the same history: fifty or sixty years ago, the spears they carry weren’t just ornamental. People in one maracatu used them to battle others. Even today, gang wars have an esthetic element: young men will prove their valor by going into the rival favela and singing insulting funk lyrics.

Kurt:It isn’t that different from fencing, which already has a long cinematic pedigree. In one of our academic books on the favelas of Recife, we present our hope that these funk wars can also be transformed into esthetic competitions, following in the tradition of maracatu and capoeira.


You two are not traditional filmmakers.

Kurt: Hardly. Rita has a PhD in anthropology and I dropped out of grad school in philosophy and classical languages. Both of us became activists for street kids and people from the favela long before we thought about making a feature film.

Rita: We decided to make The Princess in the Alleyway because we had seen just how nefarious the presentation of the favela in the media is, how the images they see in movies and true crime shows transform good kids into teenage bandits. Like our FavelaNews project, where young journalists from the favela use the internet to tell other stories about people from the slums, The Princess in the Alleyway is part ofbattle against this image of the favela.

What are the movies that most influenced you as you made The Princess in the Alleyway?

Kurt: It would be great to say we were watching obscure, erudite movies, but for me The Princess Bride was the constant reference.

Rita: Lisbela e o Prisioneiro, the plays of Ariano Suassuna. The regional comedies of Brazil’s northeast. And then there is the whole tradition of participatory filmmaking, which is very common in Brazil, and where I think that someone like Jean Rouch is a genius.

Kurt: We wanted to make a movie that made sense for an audience in the favela, so while the process of filmmaking was deeply experimental, the narrative is really very straightforward. 

What does the film mean to you?

Kurt: When we started, we wanted people to think about the ambiguity of the gang leaders, how that figure is connected to the the history of Robin Hoods in the Brazilian backlands…

Rita: But the real message is the form of the story: that people from the favela have the courage to resist violence from gangs and the police, and the courage to make things of beauty.