Rio fest organizers hope to raise profile


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- For nearly a decade, the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival has focused on raising its international profile while remaining firmly committed to giving something back to the community.

For many residents living in Rio's low-income districts and project housing complexes known as favelas, cinemas do not exist or are simply too expensive. So each year, the festival offers free screenings in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Brazil has 2,100-plus screens, but as Columbia Tristar GM Rodrigo Saturnino points out, most multiplexes are built in middle- and upper-class areas.

"The problem is that most theaters in Brazil are in shopping malls, and many working-class neighborhoods are not ideal areas to build malls," he said.

For this year's edition, which wrapped Oct. 4, one neighborhood where the festival projected open-air screenings is the notoriously dangerous Mare favela. There, organizers placed a large mobile screen in the middle of a courtyard where turf wars can erupt on any given night. Yet on these special evenings, rival gangs set their differences aside so that everyone can enjoy the free movies.

Ilda Santiago, who has directed the annual event since it began nine years ago, noted that the festival continues to place strong emphasis on making its market and seminars more attractive for industry executives, while at the same time it has expanded its offering of social projects, particularly for residents who can't afford to fork out $4 for a movie ticket.

"You're talking about an audience that normally doesn't get anything, so whenever they are given something, they are so happy," she said.

Organizers boast that Rio has become Latin America's largest film festival. This year, 300 pictures unspooled, drawing about 250,000 spectators. Santiago said the festival is Rio's third-biggest event of the year after Carnival and New Year's Eve festivities.

Next year, when it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Santiago says it's likely that the festival will have an open-air screening of "Another Love Story," a Romeo and Juliet-themed musical filmed in the Mare favela.

In addition to the free screenings, the festival also has workshops and seminars in working-class communities. Local directors, writers and technicians explain their crafts so that people far removed from the inner workings of the industry can develop a greater appreciation for the filmmaking process.

Rio is a city of extremes. Most visitors attending the festival understandably show reluctance to venture into the slums to determine whether such films as "Another Love Story" or Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" accurately portray violence in the favelas. Instead, they stay in expensive hotels and wine and dine in restaurants that line the three-mile stretch of Copacabana Beach.

Yet rich or poor, for two weeks out of the year, everyone in the city has access to Brazilian cinema.