Gold medal winner is just one hero in Rio’s tough City of God

Bruno Rafael and Sergio Leal are making a documentary about their home neighborhood, Cidade de Deus, or City of God, in western Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Sergio Leal remembers having to lie his way in to his first job as a bank clerk in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

“I had to put a different address on my application,” said the local activist, writer and filmmaker known to everyone around here as DJ TR. “I said I lived in a nearby middle-class neighborhood, because if I had put Cidade de Deus on there, nobody would have hired me.”

Rio’s Cidade de Deus, or City of God, community has been synonymous with crime and poverty since long before a 2002 movie with the area's name blasted its problems onto screens worldwide. But, this week, the neighborhood hit TVs for a different reason: One of its own, 24-year-old judo champion Rafaela Silva, won Brazil its first gold medal of the Rio Summer Olympics.

Silva’s story is remarkable. She’s gay and black and from one of the toughest neighborhoods in a tough city.

After she was disqualified from the 2012 London Olympics for an illegal hold, Silva faced torrents of racist abuse online. Yet she fought on, refining her strength and her skills, until hoisting the Olympic gold on Monday.

Leal agrees that Silva’s story is important. But he says she is just one of hundreds of impressive and inspiring people who call Cidade de Deus home. Leal should know. He and local promoter and filmmaker Bruno Rafael have spent the last few months making a documentary about Cidade de Deus, which was founded in 1960.

“We’re trying to show a City of God that for 50 years has been striving to escape the crime pages and enter the culture pages, the sport pages, the social pages of the newspapers,” Leal said.

Leal and Rafael have struggled to make their movie.

They don’t have their own equipment, so have to rely on loans from a local university or volunteers with their own cameras and lights. But they said they’ve tracked down some fascinating characters, from local rapper MV Bill to 81-year-old Giuseppe Badolato, who was the architect of the original Cidade de Deus housing project.

Their goal is to show how everyday people can achieve the remarkable, whether in sports, music, art, dance or another creative medium. Cidade de Deus is a hard place to grow up, they said, but the community's icons have shown there are ways to thrive despite the difficult circumstances.

Silva is just one of those icons. Another is MV Bill, who is now an award-winning author as well as a rapper. He also founded a nonprofit group aimed at bringing favela youth out of the drug trade and into more positive pursuits.

Their film also features neighborhood hero Thiago “Marreta” Santos, who has risen to the highest ranks of Brazil’s mixed martial arts scene. Santos, like other local sportsmen and women, may not have achieved Silva’s fame yet, but Leal said that’s not the point.

“It’s obvious that Rafaela and Marreta are icons, but we’re not sitting here waiting for them to win medals or trophies for them to become our icons,” Leal said. “The fact that they’ve used sports to better themselves, to find a new way of life, already reflects well for every one of us here, especially the children.”

And Leal says finding a new way of life is vitally important in a community rife with violent crime. Just last month, a day of violence in Cidade de Deus left a 34-year-old woman dead with a bullet to the face. Another resident was also shot and injured, and drug dealers attacked the local police station.

“Just one less statistic, one less obituary in the newspapers, is already a huge victory for the people here,” he says.

Rafael said it’s about time people learned about the positive aspects of the neighborhood he calls home. And that’s what his movie is all about.

“The message we have, for the United States, and for the world, is that there are serious people here. There are intelligent people here, people committed to social change,” he said. “And we’re not all about violence. We live for sport, we live for culture.”  

Check out the Facebook page for "50 Years in the City of God" here.

Will you support The World?

There is no paywall on the story you just read because a community of dedicated listeners and readers have contributed to keep the global news you rely on free and accessible for all. Will you join the 314 donors who’ve stepped up to support The World? From now until Dec. 31, your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 match. Donate today to double your impact and keep The World free and accessible.