Throughout the 18-minute runtime of “Ballet and Bullets: Dancing Out of the Favela,” the camera often moves as smoothly as the young ballerinas pictured on screen. Then, without warning, a flurry of gunfire shatters the air. Ballet students and filmmakers alike are sent running into corners to seek shelter as the camera shudders with each step.
It is a harsh reminder of the documentary’s violence-filled setting that exists beyond the practice space of the favela ballerinas.
“It really tells the story in five seconds,” said co-director and Pulitzer Center grantee Frederick Bernas during his Talks @ Pulitzer event on September 4, 2019. “ And it’s such a powerful moment.”
“Ballet and Bullets” documents a ballet teacher and her students in the Alemão favela complex of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tuany Nascimento is the 23-year-old instructor who leads the ballet project known as “Na Ponta dos Pes” (On Tiptoes) for the young ballerina hopefuls in her neighborhood.
Bernas and co-director Rayan Hindi produced the film for VICE with support from the Pulitzer Center. Over the course of two reporting trips in 2015 and 2017, the filmmakers recorded the story of the favela ballet students and their dreams to fund a new practice space, safe from random violence that can occur in the community.
Around 40 viewers gathered on that Wednesday evening at the Pulitzer Center for a screening of the documentary short, followed by a discussion with Bernas.
Pulitzer Center Outreach Coordinator Holly Piepenburg served as moderator for the beginning of the Q&A, which started with a question about the film’s origin. Bernas was raised by two musician parents and has had a longstanding appreciation for the arts, which drew him to the idea of the ballet project.
“I’ve always believed pretty deeply in the power of culture to transform situations,” he told the audience. “I’m really interested in stories which shine a light on a social or political issue through a cultural lens.”
Massive thanks to the lovely @pulitzercenter team for hosting me last night! Such a pleasure to meet everyone and chat with the audience about “Ballet & Bullets” – making this film would not have been possible without your support. https://t.co/W37xfPfZTR— Frederick Bernas (@frederickbernas) September 5, 2019
For “Ballet and Bullets,” dance would be the lens to show the resiliency and spirit of the young ballerinas, despite the worry of gunfire. “It’s the most you could ever hope for as a filmmaker and journalist in terms of people that you meet,” Bernas said.
The students’ passion for the project is made clear through the film. “What I like doing most in the world is dancing,” says Mariana, one of the ballet students. “I don’t feel different to other girls. I feel important.”
Thais, another ballerina-hopeful of the favela is inspired by Nascimento’s instruction: “I dream about a day when I’m a ballet teacher,” she says. “I believe it will be a better future for me.”
The film often shows the girls traveling in groups to class to find comfort and safety in numbers. The Alemão favela complex often experiences the type of shootout shown in the film, which creates an erratic practice schedule for the students.
“The real danger is getting caught in the crossfire.” @frederickbernas answers questions on his powerful @pulitzercenter sponsored short documentary about young ballerinas living amidst rampant gang violence and police brutality in Brazil’s roughest favela #balletandbullets pic.twitter.com/7qoGyGQHdh— Katie Brown (@earthexaminer) September 4, 2019
“There have been times when I’ve had to cancel training because of shootouts between police, gangs and drug traffickers,” Nascimento says during one interview.
Bernas answered audience questions regarding danger in the favela, noting that most violence comes from the conflict between police and drug gangs. “The real danger is getting caught in the crossfire,” he said.
Construction of the favela’s new community center is nearly complete, according to Bernas. The film’s crowdfunding campaign fulfilled its fundraising efforts in one week and went on to nearly double the intended amount of 5,000 GBP. The film’s credits show Nascimento and her students joyously clearing the land of weeds to make room for the future community center.
“They will leave here as people who are able to transform their lives,” Nascimento says near the film’s end. “ And they won’t be afraid to say they’re from the favela because they were nurtured by it.”
At the end of the Wednesday evening discussion, Bernas noted the impact of his Pulitzer Center funding.
“It [the documentary] wouldn’t have happened without their [Pulitzer Center’s] support,” he said. “It’s really amazing to be here today and to actually meet the people who gave us that helping hand at such a crucial time.”
Donations to “Na Ponta des Pes” can be made here. Watch the documentary short "Ballet and Bullets: Dancing out of the Favela" here.