INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR MONIKA TREUT
You have visited
Projeto Uerê several times in the last 15 years. Why was it important for you to document the work of Yvonne Bezerra de Mello again?
My film WARRIOR OF LIGHT was made in 2001 and portrayed Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, the founder of the project and the beginnings of their work. The film is still shown and sometimes people make the criticism that
Projeto Uerê is too dependent on its founder. They say that if Yvonne Bezerra de Mello got sick or left the project, it would not be able to survive. This has always annoyed me because over the years I could see the project growing and positioning itself more and more professionally: all the teachers and the other staff are well-trained and paid fair wages. So a sustainable structure has developed. The second reason for revisiting the project was that I was repeatedly asked what has become of the children that were portrayed in WARRIOR OF LIGHT - a question that is also very important to me.
Since the project has become very large – about 430 children are now cared for – it is almost impossible to follow the lives of the children after they have completed their training there. Many have left the favela of Maré without leaving an address. In many favelas there are no addresses in the conventional sense. Through research on social media platforms I finally managed to find all the kids we portrayed 15 years ago. In ZONA NORTE we now re-encounter them and find out that they now have jobs, they are healthy and confident and have a roof over their heads. That alone is a huge achievement, which was made possible by their education in Projeto Uerê. Particularly interesting is the fact that they now as young women are very affectionate with their own children and try to give them the attention that they themselves never received from their parents.
The project has been professionalized pedagogically. Can you briefly summarize the special method that Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has developed?
The most important point is the incorporation of insights from trauma psychology into the teaching methods. Children who had traumatic experiences have problems connecting their short-term-memory with long-term-memory. This is the reason why they have problems with learning. To re-establish the connection their memory is trained in the classroom. Every day the kids are encouraged to report on their day, their most recent experiences, to stabilize the connection between long-term and short-term memory. A second important point is that the children are encouraged again and again to understand that they are not stupid, that they possess many talents and abilities. Sports, especially Capoeira, and music play an important role. For some time they have been offered violin lessons.
Playful learning is very important: the learning material is mixed and often presented as a game so that they enjoy learning. It should be noted that all the children in Uerê also attend state-funded schools, which, unfortunately, are badly organized in Brazil because the teachers are poorly-paid and the classes are too large and thus the children cannot overcome their learning difficulties. That is quite different in Projeto Uerê. There is a lot of knowledge about each child. The teachers and the staff take good personal care of each child. The staff also try to find out which children can be further supported and can go on to private schools. The costs for private schools are paid for by private or corporate donors.
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has written a profound book about the individual steps of their method. The book was published in Brazil in 2010. It would be wonderful if this book could be translated into other languages because the method can not only help children in Brazil but also traumatized children around the world. In Germany we are experiencing the problems with refugee kids from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They are eager to learn but certainly their experiences of war and crisis need to be taken into account and worked on. In this context, Yvonne's book, in which she summarizes her experiences of 30 years of working with street and slum children, is an excellent foundation.
A further aspect of the professionalization is the financing of the project. How is it organized?
The project finances itself solely by donations. They come from international and Brazilian private donors as well as from some foundations and companies. It requires a lot of work behind the scenes to keep the sponsors and to provide them with material.
How difficult is it for the project – considering to the civil-war-like conditions in the favelas – to offer the children a safe space?
Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of the favelas the image of soldiers in the streets, their fingers on the trigger of their machine guns, has become commonplace. There are shootouts between drug gangs - which are still inside the favela, because they did not get scared away by the military – and the soldiers, who are afraid because they are not familiar with the favela. That’s a dangerous mix. There have been situations where the military and drug gangs were fighting right at the doors of Projeto Uerê. The children have practised for such an eventuality and know that they have to throw themselves on the floor. The walls are not very thick, so that the bullets can go through. But of course the kids cannot be fully protected. Many people have been killed in the favelas. Such incidents are usually not solved, because the lives of slum-dwellers hardly count and the police does little investigating: <<>stray bullets are usually cited as the cause of death. Many children are injured while playing on the streets. That's just the sad reality.
How dangerous was the filming for you?
There was a situation in which our driver refused to stop. The military had just begun to move and I wanted to shoot the commotion. Our driver was upset when we got out of the car. In retrospect, I realized that he was right, because it was very dangerous. At any moment a gunfight could have started and we would have been right in the middle. We had official permission to film the military because we tried to interview one of their representatives. It took a while but we managed. By then we were cleared as an official foreign team.
Overall in the favela, we were relatively safe, because every day when we passed the entrance of the favela the military announced us by radioing all units. The drug dealers also knew about us. They are anyway very attentive and register immediately when strangers intrude into their territory. We had to ask the young guys who sit at the roadside and work for drug gangs to give us shooting permissions in a particular area. Altough once we got trapped in a very narrow part of the favela, turned at a corner and suddenly we had two drug dealers in front of the camera. Fortunately we were lucky and the situation did not escalate. Ironically, it was more dangerous in the rich southern zone of the city: on the last day of shooting we were attacked by a crackhead in Flamengo Park. He pointed his gun at us and we quickly handed him our mobile phones and backpacks. Sadly, every inhabitant of Rio is used to this kind of experience.
Yvonne Bezerra de Mello has often been attacked for her work in Brazil. How has she managed to finally be recognized?
Brazil has realized that there is a shortage of skilled workers and has searched for the reasons. There are big problems in the public schools. Especially in poor regions of Brazil the schools are poorly equipped and the children can hardly overcome their difficulties with learning. Yvonne has prominently represented her project over so many years: she has given interviews and has written articles and finally gained a lot of respect. It was finally noted that the work of Projeto Uerê has succeeded. Principals of state-funded schools came to Yvonne to ask for help. So it happened that a few years ago the mayor of Rio commissioned Yvonne to educate public-school teachers in the state of Rio. Later, she was also invited to teach in other areas of Brazil as far as the Amazon region. Yvonne also won several awards in Rio for the best social project. Projeto Uerê’s achievements are now recognized. This does not mean that Yvonne is loved by the so-called elite, but it has been recognized that her work makes a huge difference in educating children in areas of crisis.
How are the Olympic Games affecting Rio?
The Olympics have a devastating impact on Rio. The inhabitants of Rio were originally predominantly in favour of the games – they were promised a lot of advantages. For example, that public transport, especially the bus and the subway systems, were to be expanded. Greater Rio has a chaotic transport situation: the few major roads are constantly choked by massive traffic jams. So far, the improvement of public transport has not yet taken place. Many residents were evicted from their neighborhoods where sports facilities were built. Some favelas were brutally torn down in the face of the enduring protest of their residents. In the favela Vila Autódromo, which has now been completely destroyed, residents stayed there to the bitter end. But ultimately everything was nuked. Even the middle class suffers. Meanwhile, rents are so high that even the middle class can no longer afford apartments in central Rio. Real-estate speculation sky-rocketed. The only winners are speculators and construction companies. The majority of the population gains very little from the Olympics.
In the film, scientist Christopher Gaffney explains that Brazilian society also has a positive, subversive way to deal with the outcome of this situation?
Yes, it is amazing that in spite of the repression and the harsh living conditions, especially in the favelas of Rio, there are many projects that work with great warmth and great commitment. In particular, Projeto Uerê gives us hope that eventually things will turn for the better.
THE QUESTIONS WERE ASKED BY DORIS BANDHOLD.