How this hugely successful film has impacted Rio’s poorest communities for better and for worse.

Cinema has long been inspiring fans to take pilgrimages to famous filming locations, whether it’s to see iconic sights from the classics – like the Amityville Horror house of Long Island or Sergio Leone’s film sets in the Spanish desert – or to take in the backdrops of modern movies like Matamara, the real verdant town featured as the Hobbit village in the Lord of the Rings movies. But these trips aren’t always confined to well-groomed suburbs, studio-built sets or peaceful villages; increasingly commonly, tourists are also paying for tours in less well-off locales made famous by the movies. In the last few decades, a resurgence of “slum tourism” – a practice born in Victorian London – has taken off, with cinema contributing its fair share to the growing numbers behind this ethically iffy travel phenomenon.

No films have done more to boost slum tourism than City of God, the Brazilian film first released in the US and UK fifteen years ago this month, and Slumdog Millionaire, which hit screens ten years ago this December. Both movies spend much of their runtime in particular “slums” – poorer neighborhoods usually characterised by overcrowding and poor living conditions. Through both narrative and aesthetical choices, these films imbue their impoverished settings with so much sensorial richness that the slum ends up figuring as a character in their own right. Audiences have lapped up these depictions with zeal, with thousands each year converting their armchair fascination into action by visiting these low-income locations as part of guided “slum tours”.

City of God earned four Oscar nominations and over $130m internationally, and with all this success, the favela exploded into the international moviegoer’s consciousness. With its entry came a new shift in Rio’s tourism industry: suddenly, the numbers of tourists wanting to embark on favela tour skyrocketed.

Favela tours had existed prior to the film’s release, but as Brazilian academic Bianca Freire-Medeiros (who specialises in favela tourism studies) has found, City of God’s darkly glamorous depiction of Rio’s favela has led to a huge increase in favela tour participation. In 2009, she interviewed tour operators in Rio to assess City of God’s role in the increase in favela tourism, and found that all interviewees agreed: the movie was “largely responsible” for the boom. “After the movie…Rio de Janeiro favelas became…hyped”, Leandro Firmino (who played the capricious Lil Zé in the film) told interviewers in a follow-up documentary to the movie, titled City of God: Ten Years Later. “It was a boom, no one expected it.” UK NGO Tourism Concern puts the number of tourists visiting Rocinha (the most tourist-friendly of Rio’s favelas) at around 40,000 visitors per year, making it the fourth most visited “attraction” in Rio. (Tourism Concern also found that the number of tourists visiting Mumbai’s Dharavi slum doubled after the release of Slumdog Millionaire, further proving that cinema can have a boosting effect on slum tourism.)

It’s not hard to understand why favela tourism took off post-2003 given the rip-roaring introduction audiences are given in City of God. Although we’re initially introduced to the titular favela as a neatly constructed, extra-urban settlement, this image soon changes to better reflect the modern favelas of the ’80s. At this point in the film, the favela has undergone a kind of urban metamorphosis, its neat homes mutating into single-storey shanty houses and rusting, crumbling tower blocks bustling with people. As the favela’s population expands onscreen, the petty crime we see in the film’s earlier scenes turn darker and more ubiquitous. Women are beaten, raped and killed by jealous men, drug-dealers pick each other off in crowded clubs, and innocent residents are caught up and gunned down in the streets. Oliver Twist-style bands of little kids – nicknamed the Runts – run riot and rob local businesses, while the favela’s ruling echelons wrestle for bloody domination of the drug scene over everyone’s heads. Kids maim and murder other kids with alarming frequency, conveying the idea that, in the favela’s condensed timeline of life, childhoods never last long, one way or another. Images like this are cut together with frenetic energy; breakneck-speed edits chop the film up and leave viewers disoriented and convinced that favela life is lived with an otherworldly, fever-pitch vivacity.

City presents Rio’s favelas as places in which life is lived fast and furiously, with the frisson of danger undercutting everything – born from murder, violence, drugs – being the key attraction. It is this characterisation of the film’s setting, so decadent in its treatment of cinematically thrilling social ills, that has inspired thousands of fans of the film to flock to the favelas.

There are, however, serious ethical issues to be considered before embarking on favela or slum tours. Firstly, it has to be recognised that the real favela differs greatly from the ‘reel’ version. Although City is loosely based on a real first-hand account of life in a favela in the ’80s, it is not a documentary — this is something that should be obvious given the film’s hyperbolic approach to style and narrative. Nevertheless, studies have reported some tourists’ motivations for taking favela tours as being for much the same reasons as they take rollercoaster rides: they expect an adrenaline-fuelled thrill. Tour operators have described some tourists as coming to the favela expecting to see bloodshed and crime, suggesting some favela visitors do anticipate being thrilled in much the same ways they are while watching the film.

While some tour companies (like Mumbai’s Reality Tours and Rio’s Favela Tour) are committed to affirming the dignity of the people who live in the slums they visit — forbidding photographs and encouraging positive cultural exchange — other operators adopt a hands-off approach, permitting a kind of feedback loop that validates tourists’ problematic assumptions about the places they’re visiting. This is where the charge of perverse voyeurism is usually levelled: at the image of tourists (usually white and Western) undertaking tours of poorer, largely non-white neighborhoods for pure entertainment. The concept of slum tourism in general has been the subject of fierce debates for this reason, with another criticism being that they act as a conduit through which tourists can feel better about their lives (the term “poverty porn” is particularly emblematic here).

Companies that don’t challenge the above assumptions are likely to be run by outside actors, rather than favela-dwellers themselves (as Favela Tour is), and thus will probably take a similarly detached and uninterested approach to improving the communities they tour, too. Tourism Concern describes favela-dwellers as feeling exploited by such companies, who use the favela as a profit-making means without putting any money back in to the favela (whether through employing local guides, promoting local vendors or funding community projects).

At an average tour cost of $30 and around 40,000 annual visitors, tours of Rocinha alone should be bringing in over $1m a year, at least part of which should be channelled back into the communities who passively make tour companies their money in the first place. While solely for-profit operators have no motivation to change the status quo, ethical tour companies run by residents will usually re-invest a significant portion of their profits into community schemes like schools, nurseries and training opportunities, thereby positively influencing the lives of favela residents. In 2014, Tourism Concern reported that one such company existed in Rocinha; at the time of writing, I found at least three, which indicates a positive shift (hopefully on the demand side as much as the supply).

For their part, filmmakers and studios must also be mindful of the legacies they leave behind once the crew has packed up their equipment and flown home. Controversy broke a few years ago over the amount of money paid to Slumdog‘s young slum-dwelling actors. Similar grievances about pay from City cast members were aired in Ten Years Later, which revealed that the film has had complex repercussions on the lives of its stars: some now enjoy healthy creative careers, while others work poorly-paid menial jobs. In the cases of both films, the actors’ feelings of having been exploited is understandable; City made over $130m internationally, while Slumdog‘s box office takings were closer to the $400m mark. (In response to the Slumdog complaints, director Danny Boyle reaffirmed his commitment to providing for the actors in question via the Jai Ho Trust, which funds housing and education for two of the film’s young stars.)

When films enjoy unexpected financial success off the back of actors who live in poor communities, substantial retrospective remuneration should be made to cast members accordingly. There are, however, even bigger issues at play. Both Slumdog and City present depoliticised images of slums to the extent that they become part of the furniture: in City‘s case, the high mortality rates, poor living conditions and pervading economic disparities seen in the film are presented as being, simply, a fact of life. While artistic license permits this, it doesn’t alleviate the responsibility of studios and filmmakers to leave behind sustainable schemes that will work to enact real change for the benefit of the community in question as a whole. To this end, the makers of City set up Cinema Nosso, a film school that works with schools local to the City of God favela and offers practical and theoretical workshops on subjects like animation and human rights. Cinema Nosso has reportedly worked with 3,500 students, held over 150 workshops, and produced over 150 short movies, proving that movies like City can leave behind meaningful, positive legacies for the communities they film amongst.

If cinema can convince audiences to visit places they might never have considered before, then it is a powerful thing, and particularly so in the examples of low-income settings like Rio’s favelas and Mumbai’s slums. But just as filmmakers who film in low-income neighborhoods have a responsibility to ensure they pass on positive change for these communities after filming wraps, so too must tourists and movie fans be mindful of the legacy they leave. City of God‘s success has left a complex, still-changing legacy for favelas and their inhabitants, but both its purposely positive and unintentionally negative by-products offer important, constructive lessons for future filmmakers.