By Nacho Doce
Before I was able to experience a Sao Paulo favela firsthand, my knowledge of that world was mostly defined by a movie I saw only a few weeks earlier called “Linha de Passe,” or “Passing Line” in English. The title is a metaphor of the concept of teamwork, the imaginary line that connects players passing the ball in soccer. In the movie the players are the four brothers of a family, and the ball is life itself. What I took away from the movie about a slum family’s struggle to survive, was an idea of what it’s like to live on the edge of life, on the edge of a precipice.
That movie and a newspaper article about a social graffiti project in one of the city’s largest favelas ignited my curiosity, so I searched out and met founding members of the project named OPNI, a Portuguese acronym for “Unidentified Graffiti Artists.” OPNI was founded in 1997 by 20 youths in the city’s marginal slums with the goal of transforming the streets into an open-air gallery where the community can express its gripes. Of the original 20 only Cris, Val and Toddy are left after most were either arrested, abandoned the activity, or died from drug abuse.
To reach OPNI in the Vila Flavia favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo took me two hours by bus and train, the same time it takes for many of the slum’s mothers and daughters to travel to the city’s better-off neighborhoods where they clean homes for a living. That’s a four-hour round trip, every day.
At our first meeting, Cris, Val, and Toddy described the life of survival in the favela that I was searching to experience. Through urban art, capoeira and rap they give children an alternative to the world of crime and drugs. I had found the passing line.
During my first night in Vila Flavia, as I stood in the window smoking a cigarette, I began to collect mental statistics on cars driving by with music blasting. Of every ten cars, six were playing funk carioca, three rap, and one samba. I could even hear funk carioca coming from the cell phones of children walking past.