Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Rio 2016: Smoke and Mirrors?

The 2016 Olympic Games are underway in the beautiful city of Rio De Janeiro. The first time that the Olympics have been held in South America. A great feather in the cap of a country rich in beauty, history and culture but drowning in political mismanagement, social injustice, and random crime. Currently, the country is without a president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached. It's been up to Michel Temer, the current interim president, to hold down the fort while the rest of the world arrives to the shores of Copacabana and Ipanema. And while the world is rediscovering the Bossa Nova classics of Antônio Carlos Jobim, which portrays a Brazil which no longer exists, or may never have existed, the proverbial Girl from Ipanema has to be careful that while walking on the beach she is not robbed, or worse kidnapped.

If your idea of Brazil is based on Marcel Camus's 1959 Oscar winning film Black Orpheus, which portrays favela life as an idyllic hub of samba culture, then you are in for a rude awakening. Forty percent of the crime in Rio happens in these hillside slums. Drug use is highly concentrated in these areas run by local gangs. Regular shoot-outs between drug lords, police and other criminals, as well as assorted illegal activities, lead to excessive murder rates which descend down the hill to the city of Rio. Higher rates occur in the favelas although, oftentimes, much crime goes unreported for fear of reprisals. Still, the favela is the place where much of Brazil's culture comes from, even though those who maintain its culture alive, favela dwellers, are marginalized. However, favela culture is alive and well, and to the percussive rhythms of the samba one can now add the hybrid musical forms such as funk carioca and hip hop. The favela might seem to be an isolated outpost, but  it is no stranger to influences from abroad, even though the majority of tourists avoid these hillside shanty towns which they can see in the near distance from their expensive hotels.

It is so interesting that the person chosen to mount the Rio games was Fernando Meirelles, Brazil's most famous contemporary movie director. His 2002 film City of God presented with gritty realism the current reality of favela life: the antithesis of Camus's film. By contrast, his concept for the opening ceremony was an abstract realization of Brazil's motto which adorns its green and yellow flag: "Ordem e Progresso" (order and progress). He presented a Brazil knowledgeable of its troubled past, but facing the future with a bright, rhythmic optimism. Smoke and mirrors? Perhaps, but what host country does not put its best foot forward when the eyes of the world are focused on it?

The Olympic flame, the traditional focus of the games, in many ways says it all, and it might be Meirelles's ironic comment on the whole Olympic experience. A relatively small cauldron of fire suspended in mid air (in contrast to the epic flame towers of past Olympics), and surrounded by dozens of revolving mirrors creating a kaleidoscopic blinding effect. Smoke and mirrors? Literally, yes! Long may it burn for the sixteen days that the world visits the shores of this country.

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