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Review: 'In the Shadow of the Hill' gives a voice to Brazil's favelas Special

Posted Apr 28, 2016 by Michael Thomas
'In the Shadow of the Hill' feels like it should be some kind of Orwellian fiction — it details a place where police make residents feel less safe all in the name of "pacification."
Favela residents ask  Where is Amarildo?  in the new documentary  In the Shadow of the Hill
Favela residents ask "Where is Amarildo?" in the new documentary 'In the Shadow of the Hill'
Hot Docs
But in Brazil — specifically the largest slum, or favela, called Rocinha — this is a horrifying truth. As this new documentary — directed by Australia's Dan Jackson — explains right off the top, 38,000 people disappeared from Brazil's slums between 2007 and 2013.
In the Shadow of the Hill is constructed like a novel in some ways — it has a clear prologue, dramatic rising and falling of tension, and even somewhat of a happy ending. But the journey to that ending is all kinds of disturbing. The documentary is especially timely given Brazil's current political crisis and disastrous lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The first 10 minutes or so quickly catch up viewers unfamiliar with the dynamics of Brazil's slums and their dominance by drug traffickers. A wonderfully edited sequence begins showing the vibrant people who make up Rocinha, accompanied by festive music, before the mood quickly turns sour as its problems with drug traffickers are explained. To deal with the crisis, Brazil sends its military police, the infamous BOPE, to "pacify" the slums controlled by traffickers. Problem is, the police seem to kill and "disappear" residents indiscriminately.
The documentary has two purposes: illustrating the outcry and rallying around a missing favela resident named Amarildo, and breaking stereotypes of favela residents as people who will never achieve anything in life.
The former permeates the entire documentary; during the "pacification," Amarildo is taken away by the BOPE. That's the last anyone ever hears of him, and his family and friends organize rallies and try to get to the bottom of what happened under the command of the sinister Major Edson, Though Amarildo is just one of thousands of favela residents "disappeared" by police, "Where is Amarildo?" becomes a rallying cry for all of Brazil's social classes, right up to the upper classes who march in the streets.
Also compelling, however, are characters like Aurelio and Maria Clara, two Rocinha residents who go on to transcend the "confinement" of their home. Aurelio organizes a politically charged play called "Via Sacra" while Maria Clara makes waves as a healer thanks to her medicinal herbs, only to have a building she owns completely destroyed by the government. She quickly changes gears and becomes Lady Passionfruit, beloved across Brazil and even across the world.
It's frustrating to see the extent of police corruption and the way those in the favelas — especially those who happen to black — are treated, but as the film moves on, it shows the country's citizens acting in unison and actually achieving some justice. The ending is hopeful for the future, though there's no way Jackson could have known of the political scandal that is unfolding as this documentary sees its world premiere.
In the Shadow of the Hill is playing May 1, 2 and 6 at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto. See previous Hot Docs 2016 coverage here.