Ethno-biographical works, fictionalized installations or simply works that break down the wall between documentary and fiction? The tools used by the Morrinho Project, in Rio de Janeiro, catalyze and bring new meaning, through audiovisual language, to the imaginary of its surrounding community.
Morrinho Project. Photo: Cirlan Oliveira
Morrinho Project. Photo: Chico Serra
A model constructed at the top of the Pereirão community, in the Laranjeiras district in Rio de Janeiro’s southern zone, marked the beginnings of TV Morrinho. The project was launched in 2001 amidst renovation promoting the digital through audiovisual media, with a focus on breaking free of models embodied in traditional media in order to shape the narratives of marginalized groups. The approximately 5-minute videos reproduce the day to day of the favela in a lucid, humorous manner, that is particularly inventive and representative of the local atmosphere. Completely filmed in the 450-square-meter model under open skies, a mimetic representation of the favela, Lego dolls “live” as avatars of the types of humans moving around the real world of Pereirão.
Contrary to other projects democratizing the audiovisual, that penetrate communities from the outside, the language of Morrinho has existed, as a game, since 1998. Cirlan Souza de Oliveira says that Pereirão used to be one of the city’s most dangerous favelas. In order to steer clear of the traffic, the 14-year-old adolescent and his 8-year old brother, Maycon, started building a miniature favela in their backyard. The game attracted more kids. His neighbor, Ranieri, wanted to take part, brought five other neighbors with him and soon the group of eight founding “architects” of Morrinho had formed.
The visual effect of the model is impressive. Colorful bricks climb up the slope of an embankment lined with jackfruit trees through its alleys and sloping streets, houses, samba school, daycare, small shop, drug house, and soccer court. The dolls, animated by the gestures and voices of the kids playing, are vibrant characters who don’t mince words. There’s Lego-drug-trafficker expanding his territory; there’s Lego-DJ playing beats at a funk party; there’s Lego-student heading to school; and even Lego-Saci punishing those who steal candy from children.
The art direction is at its best in the details. In the video A piscina do Peri (Peri’s Pool), the dolls swim in a margarine tub. In Bicicletada no Morrinho (Bicycling in the Morrinho), a Lego-cyclist is run over by the armed security forces of the Batallion of Special Police Operations (the Bope), headquartered adjacent to Pereirão. A doll of former president Michel Temer is kidnapped in A guerrilha na esplanada (Guerilla Warfare on the Esplanade). Lego-revolutionary fighters demand “good jobs, a good education, and public transportation with air conditioning.” In A Revolta dos bonecos (The Revolt of the Dolls), the metalanguage dominates: Lego dolls discover that the guys are going to travel to an exhibition, again, without them, and they complain about injustice. What follows is a discussion about the authorship of collective art work.
The rules are just as rigorous in the game as they are in the video scenes. Moves outside of reality are forbidden. “It’s not a superhero game,” Cirlan reminds us. Flying, jumping higher than a hand, or running faster than a car are vetoed actions. There is a judge who tracks your every move, so he can enforce the rules of Morrinho.
Outside of the favela, Morrinho used to be unknown. While covering a war between rival factions, however, reporters from a sensationalist newspaper in Rio de Janeiro discovered the model. The article, published in 1999, insinuated that drug traffickers were using the miniature to plan escape routes. But the art world welcomed the discovery of the boys. Over the following two years, Cirlan attended art classes given by the NGO Recuperar-te (Restore yourself), administered by the sculptor Sergio Cesar, known for his favela scenes made out of cardboard.
The artistic potential of the models
The metamorphosis of the game into audiovisual language occurred in 2001. The filming of the documentary Morrinho, Deus sabe tudo, mas não é X-9 (Morrinho, God Knows Everything but He’s Not an Informant) by Fábio Galvão and Markão Oliveira was accompanied by a video workshop and an awareness program about the model’s artistic, political and social potential. The free-flowing vivacity of the make-believe game in the model was brought to the audiovisual production of Morrinho.
It is difficult to confine these works to a genre. We can think of them as ethnobiographical documentary works. Reversing the production process, we find traces of documentaries that are fictionalized and vice-versa. Looking more closely, we see the wall separating documentary and fiction dismantling. No matter the angle, however, what arises is a set of narrative processes that catalyzes the imaginary of the community in a very specific way and gives it new meaning in audiovisual language.
It didn’t take long for the Morrinho Project to become a reference to urban art. The “architects” of Pereirão started getting hired to build replicas of the model in spaces from display windows, such as at the Rio Design Center, in 2002, to the Museum of Art in Rio (MAR), in 2013. They administer workshops and exhibit in Europe, in the United States and in South America. In 2007, they were invited to exhibit a model in the gardens at the 52nd Venice Art Biennale. That same year, the video O saci no Morrinho (Saci in Morrinho) won best film award at the Festival Visões Periféricas (Views from the Periphery Festival), in Rio. Acadêmicos do Morrinho (Academics from Morrinho) won the “Curta o curta” award at the International Shorts Festival in São Paulo. And for six months Nickelodeon exhibited four videos that were made for the TV channel.
Anna Azevedo is a journalist, artist and curator interested in the intersection between cinema and the visual arts.
Translated from Portuguese by Sara Hanaburgh