Diary of a Guerilla Filmmaker: Part One

“The battleground was set.”

Filmmaker Jason O’Hara being treated by medics on July 13, 2014 / photo courtesy of Midia Ninja Collective

July 13, 2014, Rio de Janeiro.
The Argentine and German football squads are preparing to face off in the FIFA World Cup finals. Mostly international tourists will be attending today’s match while the majority of Brazilians will watch from television screens outside. But some Brazilians won’t be watching the game at all; instead they’re taking to the streets to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to protest. It is not mere opportunism that brings them to the streets, seeking to capitalise on all the attention garnered by the Cup. Their grievances are very much tied to the international spectacle and the social legacy it will leave in this country. When the circus leaves town, it is Brazilians who will bear the brunt of the hangover, sifting through the trash to recover all the discarded beer cans after the party.

Donning a Canadian military gas mask and bright yellow Activist helmet from Mountain Equipment Co-op, I am in the eye of the storm, the Saens Peña square, one mile from the iconic Maracanã Stadium and ground zero for today’s protest. I am in Rio continuing production on my first feature-length documentary about forced evictions in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Police have quarantined activists and media alike, using the same kettling tactic we saw police using in Toronto during the G20, when I was in the streets shooting my first short documentary, Demur. No one is permitted to enter the square and no one may leave. The memory card in my camera fills up and I press myself against a wall to change it. A line of military police are running by and one swings his baton my way, an indication to all successive police in line that I must be one of the terrorists they have been looking for and I am soon taking blows from all sides. I drop to the floor, batons continuing to crash down on me. One of the officers rips off the GoPro camera affixed to my helmet, and another swoops in for the final blow, a swift boot to the chops. As I am whisked away to the hospital in an ambulance, I cannot help but ask myself: How on earth did I end up here?

The answer to that is a long story.


“My Own Home,” an image taken by a youth participatory photographer / photo by Cassia Silva de Almeida Santos, Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil

It is 2010, and I’m returning to Brazil, a country I fell in love with after living in the cities of Recife and Belo Horizonte between 2006 and 2008. I am in Rio to co-present a film I co-directed with Canadian documentary filmmaker Tom Radford, Cities Crossing Borders. Rio is hosting the 5th UN Habitat World Urban Forum. We have been invited to present our feature-length film, and show a 20-minute version at the opening ceremonies on nine large screens before 8,000 guests gathered from around the globe, including Brazil’s President Lula and several other heads of state. We have a captive audience and are pleased for the opportunity to set the tone for the week’s prestigious event with our hard-hitting film about the crises facing megacities, the supposed focus of the event.

As the room fills up and the film’s opening sequence rolls, the cheery samba music that has been serenading the arrival of delegates all morning never fades, and our film plays start-to-finish as a silent slideshow. This was no technical glitch: it is evident that the “tone” of our piece was not in keeping with the festive atmosphere event organisers were trying to construct in a bombastic fashion. Our silenced film was a mere prelude to the extensive song-and-dance that would follow, a full-on “Carnaval” procession mounted to welcome all the international delegates to the so-called “marvellous city” of Rio. This was my first experience with censorship in Brazil but it would not be my last.

Angry and disappointed, we exited the Lula event and walked across the street to the parallel gathering being organised by Brazilian civil society, the World Social Forum. It was a revelation to be there. While not much of a sports fan, I must admit my affinity for the World Cup and Olympics, perhaps duped by all the rhetoric of FIFA’s (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) “beautiful game” and the values of the Olympic charter. My naïve appreciation for these events was quickly undermined by everything I heard at the forum. Despite the stereotype that all Brazilians are crazy about football, the ones I met were deeply concerned about the potential social impacts of these events, particularly in Rio, where the two mega-spectacles would be hosted back to back in 2014 and 2016.

The Brazilians told me that when FIFA and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) come to town, a “state of exception” is imposed: a legal framework that temporarily suspends the rule of law and strangles civil liberties such as the right to free movement and protest. Since 2010, thousands of families have been forcefully displaced, despite unambiguous international laws prohibiting such displacement. The “state of exception” is justified by the expediency needed to prepare for the World Cup and the Olympics, time-sensitive events that cannot be jeopardized by the potential delays of due legal process.

I returned to Canada tremendously concerned for the fate of Brazil. I started researching past Olympics and World Cups and what I discovered was appalling. I learned about the role hosting the 2004 Olympics played in precipitating Greece’s successive debt crises, the thousands of poor displaced and relocated to in Canada, where the epic 1976 games, bid at a total price of $120 million, ended up costing $1.5 billion, leaving Montreal indebted for 30 years. (All this after the Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau famously declared, “The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.”)

A young girl attends an Independence Day military parad in Rio on September 7, 2012 / photo by Jason O’Hara

Wide-eyed idealism is not uncommon in the mega-events’ bid processes. Since 1976, the average cost overrun for the Olympics has exceeded 200 per cent. As event critic Helen Lenskyj so aptly summarizes: “These projects, massive in their scope and scale, cost many billions of public dollars and leave behind ambiguous legacies. Nearly every global mega-event has resulted in financial losses for the host, temporary cessation of democratic process, the production of militarized and exclusionary spaces, residential displacement and environmental degradation.”

Having lived in Brazil twice before and knowing what I did of the socio-political context in that country—a new democracy emerging from a totalitarian dictatorship with high levels of corruption in both the private and public sphere—I realised that the country was heading into a crisis. But I also knew that the pending social catastrophe was hardly a fait accompli; on the contrary, Brazilian civil society boasted some of the world’s most effective political organizers.

It is no coincidence the World Social Forum was born in Brazil, in Porto Alegre in 2001 under the guiding principle that “another world is possible.” Social movements from all corners of the globe gathered for the first time at what would become an annual international gathering. There were no leaders nor unifying ideology; in their place was vehement disagreement as to what that “possible other world” might look like. It was pure democracy in all of its messiness. Brazil is also home to the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), one of the world’s most successful and widely studied social movements, and to Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed asserted the democratic power of the world’s marginalized classes.

In Rio, many of Brazil’s marginalized people live in the favelas. Historically, the favelas emerged in marginal unliveable hillsides, public lands that were settled by rural migrants flooding to the city to provide the labour for Brazil’s industrial boom throughout the 20th century. Brazilian usucapio laws formalized squatters’ rights and allowed acquisition of land through unchallenged possession for a specified number of years (usually 10). After the decline of the dictatorship, which had lasted from the 1960s to the mid ’80s, in acknowledgement of the tremendous sacrifice made by the labouring class, favela residents’ right to housing was strengthened even further. A constitutional clause was passed that guaranteed land ownership as a fundamental right, and required that all land serve a social function. It’s this very same clause utilized by the MST that has been used to successfully reclaim lands from Brazil’s plutocracy. The clause is perhaps the world’s most progressive example of formal squatters’ rights guaranteed by a nation’s constitution.

Since the dictatorship lost power in the mid ’80s, populist elements in Brazilian civil society had been readying themselves for a showdown with the neo-liberals and oligarchies that ruled the nation. Under Lula, who started his political career with radical rhetoric but quickly became “establishment,” Brazil’s economy was booming with global capital flooding into the country, The push to cleanse Rio predated the World Cup, with the growing bourgeoisie desiring to take over the favelas, places for the poor, which were suddenly fancied by the wealthy as real estate speculation in surrounding neighbourhoods boomed.

With the mega-spectacles of the World Cup and the Olympics providing the opportunity that the opportunists had been waiting for, land was being seized and civil rights oppressed. The battleground was set for a series of confrontations. I knew that I needed to tell this story.

Click here for Part Two.
Click here for Part Three.
Click here for Part Four.

Jason O’Hara is head of Seven Generations, a Toronto-based documentary production company. His work as cinematographer and sound recorder has been featured on the CBC’s The Nature of Things and The Fifth Estate, TVO’s Why Poverty? series, in a number of theatrical documentaries, and on television news in Brazil, Venezuela and the U.S. O’Hara is currently in the final days of a crowdfunding campaign to complete State of Exception, a documentary about families facing forced evictions in Rio de Janeiro before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. O’Hara teaches documentary directing and production in Ryerson’s documentary media MFA programme. Jason Is currently in the final days of a crowdfunding campaign, seeking to raise a post-production budget to complete State of Exception.

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