One of my go-to films with my high school students, especially if I don’t have anything planned but want to stay somewhat educational, is the documentary Favela Rising. It follows the rise of the AfroReggae movement, which uses music and dance to draw kids away from a life of servitude to the various drug lords that rule the immensely poor slums of Brazil. It’s a great film that, while being subtitled, manages to grab ahold of their attention through a combination of awesome music, drug references, and violence. The fact that it teaches them about a different country and nonviolent political activism is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been using it for years now and it’s only been recently that I’ve noticed more and more kids checking out almost immediately, seemingly unwilling to even give the film a shot. “Favela, right, I know that shit already. It’s the map from Call of Duty. Whatever, that map sucks.”
That beautiful moment where you expose a fresh young mind to a new idea, something they had no clue even existed, is gone. They’ve already made the lasting connections that will guide the vast majority of their thoughts for the foreseeable future. Favela, to them, means Call of Duty or, more recently, Max Payne. It’s been defined as an annoying level in a video game. Usually, by the end of the film I can get them to change their mind a bit, but what about all the kids who don’t catch the Brazil episode of No Reservations or spend their free time watching foreign movies like City of God?
For them a favela will never be more than a place where you kill brown people who are part of the drug trade; where other people close their windows when you walk by, terrified about what might happen.
That’s what the favela levels in both Modern Warfare 2 and Max Payne 3 are: glorified shooting galleries. People pop out from behind windows or crouch behind railings on roofs. It’s about as close as you can get to Hogan’s Alley in the modern day. It’s getting to the point where, should we see more favela levels appearing in games, they might end up as infamous as deserted sniper-town segments.
Shitty gameplay isn’t the only issue though: it’s the associations kids are making while they trudge through the levels that are my concern. Much like the actual favelas, the civilians in these levels are implicit in the nefarious deeds of whatever enemy you’re chasing through the cramped streets. Innocents shutter their windows or duck into alleyways, ignoring you. Enemies shoot at you from inside apartments that, it can only be assumed, aren’t all owned by the local drug kingpin. It’s almost as if everyone is against you, nobody wearing uniforms and often coming at you with improvised weapons.
You aren’t fighting an army, you’re fighting the bottom scrapings of the “meatshield” barrel. These are the rank and file members of the community desperate to get in good with the various crime bosses. They’re coming out of the walls to kill you, the heroic American soldier or rogue agent. It’s Vietnam all over again, except without the larger social context to put it in. Kids (and adults) know what Vietnam was now, we’re taught all about the issues at play there, shown the different sides of the issue. We’re not getting that with Brazil, not by a long shot.
For example, the kids who are being raised on the Modern Warfare version of a favela probably aren’t being explicitly (which is, hate to say it, often the only way to get through to a teenager who just wants to blow some fools away) shown the crippling poverty and rampant police corruption that drives those very same faceless troopers to the drug armies. They don’t see the peaceful civilian movements like Afro-Reggae that are attempting to provide kids with an alternative to violence. They just see the harried woman shutting her window as they pass by or the guys who rob Max Payne of all his possessions while insulting him in Portuguese.
Sure, you can say it’s realistic, but that’s beside the point. Right now, against all odds, people in the favelas are fighting a tide of indifference and fear. Movements like Afro-Reggae are struggling to get people to stand up against the drug lords invading their neighborhoods, fighting to take back their homes and businesses from the idea that the only way to be successful is to become just another gun for hire. There’s an amazing scene in Favela Rising where Anderson Sa, the focus of the documentary and the face of Afro-Reggae, is talking with some young boys about their goals in life. They talk about wanting to become hardcore, about robbing and power and violence. He tries to tell them that real power comes from education, but they simply ignore him. In some ways, their fate is sealed, just like the fate of their fathers: to live and die by the gun. They know this because nobody has told them otherwise. Consider what playing a game like Modern Warfare 2 or Max Payne 3 must be like for them?
When Max Payne arrives and starts waxing philosophic about the social issues facing Brazil it might seem, on the surface, that he’s addressing it all. Sure, he’s bringing up the problem, but he’s committing a classic mistake, one that’s haunted the developing world for centuries: he’s applying his own lens to a situation that he can never hope to understand. His commentary never asks those he’s pitying to speak for themselves, thus furthering their position as the lowest of the low. In postcolonial theory those occupying the lowest rung, who lack even a voice to speak, are called the subaltern. Gayatri Spivak, a well known philosopher and theorist in the field, argued that one of the issues that the subaltern face is only being able to express themselves using Western modes of thought, that even when given an opportunity to speak they cannot use their own voice.
In essence, when Max Payne 3 attempts to confront the social issues facing the citizens of the favela, it’s just reinforcing all the issues they already face. It’s a problem that can’t be explained by the self-same fat white tourist that Max Payne is. He’s simply reinforcing his dominance in the power structure by deigning to determine what the situation is without even attempting to ask those around him to help. They’re nothing more than fodder for his overblown sense of social justice as well as his gun. By proxy, my students do the same. They’ve suddenly inserted themselves into a centuries long political conflict simply by picking up a controller.
Once this image is in place, it sticks. By the time my students get to me and it’s time to expose them to what the favelas are really like, what the struggles of their subaltern residents are, they’ve already got their own idea formed. When they see a shot in Favela Rising of a guy with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, they see a target, someone they’ve already killed hundreds of times over. A few years ago, they might’ve paused for a moment, astonished and shocked. Not anymore.
Now it’s just another shitty level.