In Rio’s biggest favela, one flashy project thrives while another fails

Left: Locals line up to buy tickets at a 3D movie theater in Rio's Complexo do Alemão neighborhood. Right: A nearby gondola has struggled to attract riders. (Julie Ruvolo)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The film “Basic Sanitation” is a 2007 Brazilian comedy about a small group of neighbors with a sewage problem who get together to ask the city for help. When the mayor’s office tells them there is no budget for basic sanitation projects, but there’s a $3,000 film grant available as part of a program to stimulate local film production, they decide to take the money and make a movie about the sewage problem.

Four years ago, some in Rio thought a version of this plotline was playing out in real life. In the city’s largest and poorest favela, Complexo do Alemão, the government built a 3D movie theater that many considered a luxury. It was one of dozens of expensive projects built in a construction frenzy ahead of Rio’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.

[Leia aqui esta matéria em português.]

Another high-profile project serving the same hilltop neighborhood was an aerial tram, or gondola, intended to connect Alemão’s 200,000 residents to the city below. Neither the theater nor the gondola were projects the residents asked for. In an assessment of community priorities conducted by a local nonprofit, improving sanitation ranked number one.

Four years later, basic sanitation remains a pressing problem in Alemão and an embarrassment for Rio — a recent investigation by the Associated Press found staggering fecal bacterial counts in waters where Olympic swimming and boating events will be held. Meanwhile, the gondola has proven to be an expensive flop. The system has attracted so few riders that its private operator has announced it won’t seek to renew its contract.

Yet the movie theater, known as CineCarioca Nova Brasilia, has emerged as a surprising success. Locals stand in long lines to buy discounted tickets and frequently fill up the 93-seat house. CineCarioca’s manager says ticket sales are running above projections and the theater turns a profit.

Brazilians have good reason to be cynical about big projects aimed at the urban poor. The popular expression para inglês ver, or “for the English to see,” essentially means a project that cloaks superficial change in the rhetoric of solving problems. Amidst the flurry of Olympic infrastructure upgrades, the interventions in Alemão serve as a case study to discern what was built for show, and what was built to last.

Fomenting demand

Often mistranslated as “slums,” favelas are informal communities that house almost a third of Rio’s 6.5 million residents. Complexo do Alemão is the largest of some 1,000 favelas scattered across the city, and is home to many more people than live in more famous neighborhoods such as Copacabana. In addition to holding the title of Rio’s single poorest neighborhood, Alemão has served as a near-constant backdrop to shootouts between military police and drug traffickers, gunfights that often spill civilian blood.

When “pacification” police took over control of Alemão from the traffickers in 2010, many residents hoped things would start to turn around. The city received huge sums of federal funding from a program known as PAC to improve infrastructure and social assistance programs, including $US300 million in Alemão alone.

In four years of operation, CineCarioca Nova Brasilia, the 3D movie theater in Complexo do Alemão, has sold more than 280,000 tickets. (Julie Ruvolo)

Then State of Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral decided to spend the bulk of the PAC funding, about US$105 million, on a gondola imported from France. (Some say Cabral was inspired by the international praise Medellin’s mayor received for installing aerial-tram service in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods.) In parallel, the city broke ground on the US$1.5 million movie theater, built alongside a community service center and neighborhood daycare.

Both interventions were introduced as projects for the people. At the gondola’s inauguration in 2011, President Dilma Rousseff said the project was a show of respect for Alemão’s residents, and deserved the “justifiable envy” of everyone else. At the theater’s inauguration the same year, Mayor Eduardo Paes struck a similar note. “It’s important for people to know that poor areas also deserve high-quality services,” the mayor said. “This is what we will always provide. High-quality service for everyone.”

I visited both projects a year later. I rode up and down the gondola on a Friday afternoon, securing an entire car to myself most portions of the ride. Despite free tickets for locals — visitors pay as much as 5 reais, or $US1.50 — not many people were actually riding. What’s more, there was a general sense of resentment at the huge sum of money that had been earmarked for favela upgrades and instead delivered a tourist attraction. “Close to half a billion reais,” David Amen, of the nonprofit Raizes em Moviemento, told me at the time. “How are you going to spend this money on social projects in Alemão without talking to the residents and letting them be heard?”

To my surprise, however, the movie theater was packed. While kids were putting on 3D glasses to watch the latest installment of the “Ice Age” animation series, I met with Sérgio Sá Leitão. At the time, Sá was president of RioFilme, a for-profit arm of the mayor’s office dedicated to developing the city’s film industry with private partnerships. Sá explained that RioFilme spent about US$20 million a year fomenting local production. Why not, he reasoned, also experiment with fomenting demand?

Under Sá’s leadership, RioFilme conducted a study on the availability of movie theaters to Rio residents. The study identified big pockets of the population, concentrated in the favelas, that had virtually no access to the movies — 91 percent of Alemão’s residents had never been to one. He launched CineCarioca, an ambitious project to build state-of-the-art movie theaters in neighborhoods with limited access to them.

Employees at CineCarioca Nova Brasilia are local residents. The complex also includes a community service center and a daycare. (Julie Ruvolo)

The one in Alemão’s was named “Knowledge Plaza.” Sá called it a “light in the shadows.” He was unapologetic in his conviction that movie theaters have the power to effect social and economic transformation in Rio’s poorest areas. He spoke poetically about the immeasurable impact of a “magical experience, of illusion, of fantasies, reflection, emotion, interaction” that was now available to people who have never had it.

Previously, the closest movie theater to Alemão was a few miles away in a shopping mall. The distance wasn’t the only thing putting it out of reach. The price of a movie ticket averages 17 reais in Rio — about US$5 — more than half a day’s pay at the minimum wage. There’s also an invisible class barrier: The malls are meant for people with the money to spend in them.

At CineCarioca, Alemão residents could see the magic of blockbusters, indie flicks and festival premieres, all for the accessible price of 4.50 reais, or close to a dollar. CineCarioca averaged an occupancy rate greater than 50 percent, which is very good by industry standards. A second CineCarioca theater seating 480 was inaugurated in 2012 in Meier, another underserved, working-class neighborhood. Plans were laid to transform seven defunct theaters in Rio’s poor north and west zones into CineCarioca theaters at a planned budget of about $US8.5 million — a rounding error in the larger scheme of city upgrades underway.

Diverging fates

But then the national economy nose-dived into recession, triggering abrupt cutbacks on public spending and rising unemployment. Alemão’s pacification program failed, and last month the ex-commander of the program was fired for taking bribes from traffickers. This year, the community descended back into 100 days of uninterrupted armed conflict, including one bloody day in April when police killed five residents, including a ten-year-old boy.

The gondola is in its fourth year of operation by SuperVia, a private transportation company that manages Rio’s railways and was awarded the rights to operate the gondola without a bidding process. Despite the free rides, less than a third of the local population has signed up to use it. Ticket revenues — mainly from tourists — cover only 10 percent of the gondola’s operating costs. While SuperVia has pocketed a mere US$3.8 million in revenue in the last four years, the company also has pushed off ten times that amount in operational costs back to the government.

“The fact that locals were not consulted, although their needs were well-articulated, is revealing of the real objective of the Alemão gondola,” says Juliana Barbassa, a former AP journalist and author of a new book unpacking the frenetic volume of Rio’s mega-events upgrades. “The real goal is not to remedy some need, but to transfer public money into private hands.” The heads of several companies holding contracts to build Olympic venues have been arrested and charged with paying bribes to win these lucrative deals — including the CEO of Odebrecht, the company responsible for the Alemão gondola.

The gondola system serving Complexo do Alemão struggles to attract riders, even though locals can ride for free. (Julie Ruvolo)

The return of violence to Alemão has the gondola on life support. After years of flagging ridership, the risk of getting hit by a stray bullet while floating over a de-facto war zone pushed ridership below one-third of its 30,000 daily passenger capacity. Community news outlet Papo Reto reported that one of the stations was hit by stray bullets on August 6. When SuperVia announced that it would not seek to renew its contract to operate the gondola, Rio’s State Secretary of Transportation admitted that the city never had the illusion the project would be financially sustainable. Still, he maintained the project’s value as a “great social and mobility investment.”

During a break in the violence in July, I returned to Alemão to find out whether the movie theater was headed toward the same fate as the gondola: a big inauguration, followed by a trickling supply of public money until the doors finally closed; a politician’s admission it was never built to last; a community left with the visible reminders of money wasted but still no solution to their sewage problem.

It wasn’t. The building looks a little worse for wear than two years ago, but inside it was packed with kids eating bags of popcorn, the walls lined with fresh movie posters. I arrived just in time for the matinee premiere of a new Brazilian film called “Carousel.”

Upstairs, I sat down with Wellington Cardoso, the general manager of CineCarioca, and one of the very first employees, all of whom are local residents. I asked him how things have been going. “Business has been good,” he said, stopping every few sentences to respond to people yelling up the stairs or calling his phone. In four years of operation, CineCarioca sold more than 280,000 tickets. Even at the discounted prices, the theater makes money, Cardoso said. However, the resurgence of police violence has him and his colleagues worried — about their own safety, about attracting people to the theater. He fell silent.

I asked Cardoso if projects like the gondola and movie theater aren’t superfluous in a community torn apart by violence and desperate for basic services. He conceded that the gondola was ridiculous: “It’s painful to know something cost that much — it’s hard to even have a notion of how big of a number that is. For half a billion reais, we could have paved the streets, brought in basic sanitation.”

A second CineCarioca movie theater opened in a working-class area called Meier, but plans to build more theaters in underserved neighborhoods are on hold. (Julie Ruvolo)

But Cardoso was undeterred in his defense of the movie theater. “It’s the 21st century,” he told me, “and there are kids here who didn’t have access to 3D because it was too expensive.” In four years, CineCarioca’s ticket prices haven’t gone up, and the theater opens up two free sessions a day to local schools so kids can see movies for free. “Movies help you dream,” Cardoso said. “Imagine, all over Brazil, how many people would benefit in terms of access to culture?”

There’s little risk of the CineCarioca project closing, at least as long as it remains profitable — a private company, Planet Cinemas, operates the theater independently of public financing. However, the big plans to add new theaters in other underserved areas of Rio appear unlikely in the current budget environment.

I slipped in for the last thirty minutes of Carousel. It’s a kid’s flick about a bunch of summer campers who foil a plot by an evil developer and his bumbling sidekick to poison the camp’s lake and destroy the childrens’ dreams to build a factory. It’s fiction, but again, not so far-fetched in Brazil. The kids behind me debated the length of time the developer’s sidekick could be sent to prison.

“I think every single community should have a movie theater like this,” Cardoso concluded. “Movies are a tool to give people access to culture. And with access to culture, we’re going to think new things, and break down paradigms that were created a long time ago.”

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Julie Ruvolo is a freelance writer and editor of Riochromatic, a collection of photo essays on Rio culture.   Full bio


  • A movie theater built in the city’s largest favela is profitable, while a gondola system serving the neighborhood struggles to attract riders.
  • Research showed that 91 percent of the neighborhood’s residents had never been to the movies. 
  • Movie tickets at the theater cost a third of the price in upscale parts of Rio and the theater offers two free sessions a day for school kids.

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