Signs of Life on the Rubbish Heap – Independent

In Brazil’s shanty towns, often the only way to survive is to sell trash, drugs and even your own body. Not exactly the stuff of art? Think again, says Nick Thorpe

FABIANA, a 15-year-old street gang leader with an unnerving talent for punching people unconscious, is losing the plot. She has just entered her family’s one-room shack to find her father with a woman who is not her mother.

“What are you doing?” she roars into his face, her fists already bunched. “Where is my mother?” She grabs his shoulder, hurls obscenities at his mistress, and the three of them wrestle frantically to the sound of her screaming, almost feral in its intensity.

For a moment, looking at Fabiana’s contorted face, I wonder if she is going to throw her gibbering, useless father through the wall, but then she runs out of breath, the tension breaks, and the air is filled with rapturous applause.

The cramped shack dissolves, and Fabiana, falling panting to the floor, finds herself back in the rehearsal room of a Brazilian women’s day centre. She grins a tired, one-toothed grin as a tall blonde Englishman steps out from among an audience of her teenage friends.

“Wonderful!” says the man, smiling as her as he picks up the startled girl who was playing the part of the father. “Now we just need to channel that energy a little!”

It’s been a month since theatre director Jeremy Weller arrived in Brazil’s North Eastern city of Recife, intent on recruiting talented street kids to star in a proposed film version of their own tough lives. Today’s drama workshop is proof that his protégés are beginning to understand the Weller method: stop acting out your experiences and simply live them for your audience.

It’s an undeniably controversial approach. In his adopted home city of Edinburgh, the 42-year-old director is both acclaimed and reviled for his string of award-winning Festival Fringe productions in which homeless people (Glad, 1990), young offenders (Bad, 1991), women with mental health problems (Mad, 1992) and even alleged war criminals (Soldiers, 1998) have hurled their own stories at shell-shocked middle-class audiences.

Some proclaim him a ground-breaking genius, others accuse him of voyeurism, of feeding on others’ pain. He’s aware that his latest project – featuring vulnerable kids who sell trash, drugs and their own bodies on the streets – is unlikely to pacify the critics much.

“I’m very careful not to open up things I can’t deal with,” he says pre-emptively, well used to the charge of emotional exploitation. “Fabiana, for example, has an amazing, raw energy about her, but I won’t ask her to explore anything she doesn’t want to.”

In fact, Fabiana has just lost her brother in a drugs killing, so a workshop about a family feud is relatively gentle way of exploring dark feelings without looking directly at their source. However, staff psychologists working at the day centre don’t rule out the possibility that drama – perhaps even a role in the film – may help the young girls face down their demons in more direct form. They seem to trust Weller.

Ana Vasconcelos, director of the centre, asks only that we should not refer to the girls as child prostitutes. “They are simply survivors,” she says. “They may be raped by neighbours, brothers, fathers, and they learn to think of themselves as prostitutes. But we teach them to reject that role, regain their self-esteem. And as they dramatise their lives you see them become more powerful.”

Vasconcelos is the real reason Weller is here. It is her extraordinary story that will form the hub of the film. A former actress and model, she was living a comfortable married life as a real estate lawyer in Rio until the late eighties, when a diagnosis of terminal cancer changed everything. “It made my life seem meaningless, because I couldn’t think of one beautiful thing I had done for humanity,” she recalls now. “So I made a kind of contract with God. I said: “Let me live, and I promise I will take care of those who need it.”

Without waiting for an answer, she left her job, moved north to her birthplace of Recife, and began to work with the street children. Her marriage broke up in the resulting chaos, yet her divine contract seemed to hold: two years after her diagnosis, a puzzled doctor pronounced her cancer-free.

More than a decade later, her reason for living – literally – remains the Casa de Passagem, or House of Passage, the name she gave to her now internationally-recognised flagship project staffed by trained social workers and psychiatrists, where girls from the streets and favelas come to a place to talk about their traumas, recover their dignity, and now, apparently, star in films.

Weller won’t actually be casting until he returns to Brazil this autumn, when he plans to set up base in the midst of the Big Trash favela – a rubbish dump shanty town run by drug lords – and begin filming in December. Funding has yet to be secured, but BBC Films and Scottish Screen are both actively interested in his script. Ana’s role will be one of the few taken by a professional actress. “I’m always attracted to people like Ana, who seem to be out of step with time,” says Weller. “These idealists who sacrifice themselves for others, who are by all pragmatic criteria considered insane. I have to hunt down these people, find out about them, see what makes them tick, because they are our future.”

So what makes Weller tick? His own background is rather less affluent than his chipper public school accent would suggest. In fact he left school at 16 to train as a machine tool apprentice, after a peripatetic childhood on the run from debt collectors. Yet four years later, through a combination of chance, talent and determination, he won a place studying art alongside contemporaries like Damien Hirst at Goldsmiths. “What it all showed me was that we can change our roles in life,” says Weller, who soon moved from performance art into theatre. “And that’s what I’m doing in my work – trying to help people shift their roles. The middle class audiences who like art also make the decisions about society. These are the people we need to speak to.”

This need to shake, disturb and hector his audiences runs through all Weller’s shows, not least his other current collaboration with the Mothers Against Drugs – the feisty Glaswegian campaigners who drove the dealers from the notorious Cranhill housing scheme following the 1998 death of a 13-year-old boy from a heroin overdose. After workshops with Weller, the hard-line mothers will launch themselves at the polite theatre-going liberals of Glasgow towards the end of the year. He’s tapped similar veins of anger with gangs in Harlem, KLA soldiers in Kosovo, and Aborigines in Australia.

Yet if Weller seems fascinated by darkness, it is at least partly his own darkness. In 1989, he was called to identify the body of his 29-year-old, pregnant sister Caroline, who had been beaten and strangled by her estranged husband. “I think the world basically divides into those who know about death and those who don’t,” he says. “I live with that moment every day of my life, and it drives me.”

Today at the Casa, that moment becomes a bridge into the violent lives of others. “Did you know someone murdered my sister?” says Weller to Fabiana, who has been talking tearfully with a therapist about her brother’s death. Fabiana looks sceptical but interested. A bond is made.

“People seem to seem me as this middle class guy playing with horror,” explains Weller later, “but the horror is not the point – it’s what comes out of the horror. I see my art as taking something that’s tough and hard and dirty and transforming it into something beautiful. It’s a kind of alchemy.”

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