When I announced I was off to Rio de Janeiro to film Welcome To Rio for several months, the reaction of my friends and family was a universal cry: “You lucky b——!”
“But look out for the favelas. They’re crazily violent.”
Favelas are the flipside of the Rio legend, the city’s infamous slums whose residents have forever been characterised by the 2002 feature film, City Of God, as a pack of smoked-out teenagers pointing their guns in our faces.
That’s why the favelas were exactly where I was going. Because the Welcome To… approach is to venture into rough, crooked places to discover what lies beyond clichéd stories.
Favelas are the epicentre of Rio’s street culture and dancer Breguete lives in Complexo do Lins
From the moment I set foot in the favelas, I fell in love with them.
I’ve rarely been anywhere in the world that’s so instantly welcoming.
Kids would come dancing after me asking cheerily whether I’d been born in the snow – was that why my skin was so white and I was sweating so much?
The only argument I ever had in a favela was with Rocky – the hero of episode one – over who was going to pay for two enormous roast chickens he insisted on feeding us an hour after we’d had breakfast.
They were elevenses, favela-style, typical of the generosity you find there.
King of the stairs: Rocky and his grandson on his famous delivery tricycle “The Vascomobile”
Of course, the warnings aren’t based on fairy tales.
Many favelas are under the control of drug traffickers, who always kept their distance from us, muttering jokes no doubt at our expense.
Our problem was that we had to find a way to film them – because you could only appreciate the courage of our characters once you saw that they maintain their good humour in a landscape of street stalls selling crack 24 hours a day.
After six months, we still hadn’t got permission from the drug traffickers to film.
Drug traffickers relax on the street of a favela in Rio
For our last attempt, I picked a favela where the guns were plentiful but where we’d already passed days waiting for the boss to give the OK.
That day, our luck was in: he was throwing a barbecue and, lulled by sun and beer, in genial humour.
“You’ve got 10 minutes,” he said. “But if you film anyone’s faces, you’re in trouble.”
I’ll never forget the tension of those 10 minutes.
Just 10 minutes to get the vital shots of the series in the centre of a circle of curious teenage gunmen.
Ten minutes and 24 seconds later, we turned off our cameras. I was a wreck.
We went to thank the boss. He fixed me with a piercing stare.
This was it, I thought. He’d changed his mind, he wanted us to destroy the footage. Worse yet, he wanted to destroy us.
Sweating, I bowed my head before his gaze.
“You look hot,” he said. “Bring this guy a beer.”
That’s the spirit of the favelas, summed up in one of their famous sayings: Estamos Juntos. We’re in it, together.
This blog post was first published on the BBC website on 27 May 2014 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/posts/Welcome-To-Rio
Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.