Almost undoubtedly, Brazil is the country with the largest public investment in community arts and culture. There are dozens of groups teaching video, hip-hop, graffiti, circus arts, carnival-related arts and digital media to youth from the favelas. In Rio alone, we visited five groups doing community arts, and between them we calculated there were roughly 500 kids from favelas this year alone learning video up to a semi-professional level.

By contrast, when we started Video Volunteers in India, there were only two other groups in the country running permanent programs in community video. So the difference in Brazil, where we recently launched, was amazing and wonderful to see.

Below I’ve collected some of our observations about Brazil, and listed a few of the inspiring moments and facts regarding Brazil’s community media that we learned during our month spent visiting the different groups. (I hope I’ve gotten all the facts correct, but please correct me if you see any mistakes in what I’ve written below; much of this information is from notes I took during fascinating discussions.)

Brazil’s Commitment to Community Media

The Brazilian government is committed to supporting community arts and culture. There is a three percent tax break for corporations that support the arts, and this only applies to the arts! The government created a “points of culture” program around the country, where they have invested in 150 community arts projects to the tune of R$150,000 (around $75,000) per year, for three years. Many of the media NGOs we visited were funded in this way. The singer Gilberto Gil is currently the minister for culture and, given that he’s one of the most revered celebrities in the country, this focuses citizens’ attention on the importance of the arts.

It makes sense that this level of investment would be happening in Brazil and not in countries where poverty is more prevalent. One of the major societal challenges in Brazil is to keep young kids from favelas out of gangs and drugs and violence. Speaking to them in the languages they understand and love — hip-hop, graffiti, video — is possibly the best strategy for reaching disaffected youth.

Susan Worcman, director of the Brazil Foundation, said this is because “artistic talent in Brazil is generally very high. We have a lot of creative people.” Driving around Sao Paulo seems to confirm this. The city is the graffiti capital of the world, and some artists from favelas have exhibited in major museums in Europe.

All over the city, as much in the hipster area of Villa Madelaina as in the favelas, you see incredible graffiti murals. It integrates the middle classes with the favelas in powerful ways. For instance, there was a community fresco program in Sao Paulo a few years ago, where kids from favelas worked with professional artists to create frescoes on the sides of buildings all over the city. All of the works included plaques reminding people that they were produced by slum kids.

The quality of community arts work is generally very high. Several NGO programs were started either by famous film directors (such as, Cinema Nosso which grew out of the film, City of God), TV producers (Instituto Criar in Sao Paulo, which was started by a Globo Executive) or musicians (such as Afro Reggae, which was started by a hip-hop artist).

As a result, community video work has been seen on TV, won awards, and one even resulted in a feature movie deal (“Cine Cufa,” though the project may now be on hold). For us, we’ve put less emphasis on how artistic a community film is and focus more on how it will inspire action. But because of their quality, these Brazilian films are more marketable to the mainstream.

Photography Class at Observatorio de Favelas

The purpose of most of the community media groups we met is to empower youth to fight stereotypes about the favelas that dominate Brazilian media. One great organization we visited is the urban planning organization Observatorio de Favelas. Its very name implies changing the point of reference of who is watching whom. It is about the favelas observing the rest of the city, and this is a very different way of doing urban planning. Instead of talking about the “city center” and “periphery areas,” they highlight areas of high and low public investment.

Portrayal of Favelas in the Media

It is clear after spending even a brief time in Brazil that the image presented of the favelas in the media is as sites of violence. They are never shown as the culturally and creatively rich areas they are. This creates real fear among the middle class population of Brazil.

The receptionist at our hotel begged us not to go to a certain area when we asked her for directions. Cab drivers refuse to take people to some places. The point of most of the community media we saw is to challenge the stereotypes and teach the kids to be critical of the media. (As a result, there is relatively little community media/journalism being done the way VV does it, where the purpose is to screen media back to communities.)

Arts and Culture vs. News and Information

Each country VV has worked in has a different outlook or way of using community media. In India, at least in terms of our work, media is a tool to empower people to take action; it is a tool to accelerate other social change efforts. In the U.S., the scene is much more about news and information, and how we can respond to the current crisis in journalism.

In other parts of South America, there is a very strong indigenous media scene that unites different tribes. In Brazil, the focus is definitely “community arts and culture.” It’s about community media as a right in itself, and as an educational tool. Most of the organizations we met were focused primarily on training, as opposed to the distribution of that content or its use.

Brazil Media Stats

We learned some interesting media and policy facts from our conversations with Flavio at Ashoka, Bia Barbosa at Intervoces, and John Prideaux, the Economist’s correspondent in Brazil. Newspaper readership in Brazil is extremely low compared to other countries. TV is by far the dominant information source in the country, and nearly everyone watches only one channel, Globo.

We saw for ourselves how media-watching habits seem much more unified in Brazil. A recent and very popular “telenovela” was a drama set in India, and everyone mentioned it to us. People were coming up to my Indian partner Stalin in the subway, giving him a Namaste bow and repeating “arre baba.” It’s just one of the ways you see these two incredibly strong emerging markets coming together through globalization.

Ninety percent of the country is reached by terrestrial TV, thanks mainly to the efforts of Globo. Very few people have cable or satellite TV. We asked Barbosa at Intervoces if media activists and community media organizations had tried to jointly create a TV channel, given that there is such a huge amount of content produced by community media groups. She said an impediment to this is the fact that terrestrial TV is the only option.

All of Brazil media is controlled by six families/companies, and there are no limits on cross ownership of media, or on how much of the audience one company can reach. Barbosa is fighting for the introduction of these limits, because as it stands corporations are able to heavily influence public opinion. Other policy efforts undertaken by media activists include:

  • The creation of independent public TV, a la BBC, which doesn’t currently exist. The government recently created an education channel, which did create more space for socially relevant media — but it is controlled by the government.
  • The increasing of diversity on television. Barbosa said that with so many community media groups and productions, the government should make space for programming that truly reflects the diversity of the country.
  • The liberalization of Internet laws. One upcoming fight will be to allow political parties to use the Internet to gain support. What Barack Obama’s did with the Internet would currently be illegal in Brazil.

There is clearly much more to learn about the movements in Brazil to reform and democratize the media, and these are just our first impressions.