At the edge of the Jacarepagua Lagoon in Rio’s Favela Vila Autódromo, three brothers stand, arms around each other. One holds an emergency flare high above his head, like a torch. He stares straight ahead as the flame burns down to the end. It takes a whole minute.
In the closing shot of his short film, Olympic Favela, Marc Ohrem-Leclef’s camera remains transfixed on the three figures. Their intensity is mesmerizing; it’s almost enough to keep the eye from noticing what’s unfolding in Rio behind them, in late 2015: construction cranes completing the final structures in the Olympic Village. Demolition squads progress through the brothers’ favela, tearing apart their homes and their community.
Ohrem-Leclef began documenting the destruction of Rio’s favelas in advance of the 2016 Olympic Games in 2011, two years after the Brazilian city was announced as the host. In the photographs and film that compose Olympic Favela, Ohrem-Leclef captures the effects of the city-mandated evictions in 14 of Rio’s slum neighborhoods, which number over 1,000 in total. As many as 20,000 families have been relocated from the favelas.
Working with the Brazilian-American NGO Catalytic Communities, Ohrem-Leclef sought out those houses designated for removal by Rio’s housing authority, Secretaria Municipal de Habitação. Spray-painted eviction codes—denoted by the letters “SMH”—are visible on the buildings Ohrem-Leclef photographed.
As early as 2009, the Brazilian government began removing favela residents to newly constructed public-housing complexes on the outskirts of Rio. Called Minha Casa Minha Vida (MCMV, or, “My House, My Life,” in English), the developments were intended for families earning less than R$5,000 per month. Priority was given to those earning less than R$1,600 per month; the majority of favela residents fall into that category. A lump sum of R$34 billion ($17.55 billion USD) from the Brazilian infrastructure-development program financed the construction of approximately 3 million units. The relocation process in Rio has been ongoing; days before the Olympics began, the city was still evicting favela residents.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Rio city officials claim Vila Autódromo, which borders the Olympic Village, was the only favela explicitly cleared as a result of the games; nearly all of the neighborhood’s 825 families were removed to MCMV. A statement from the Rio government also denies that the Olympics factored in to the rest of the evictions. From the Rio Prefeitura report:
The resettlement of families…occurs mainly to guarantee the physical integrity of the population submitted to some type of landsliding risk, areas subject to floods and houses in precarious conditions, whether due to insalubrity or ruins.
But seeing how soon the evictions followed on the heels of Rio’s confirmation as the Olympic host city, “you question what the real motives are,” Ohrem-Leclef says. The evicted residents of Vila Autódromo will never be able to return. The land was cleared to open up access to Olympic Park during the Games, and will subsequently be redeveloped into luxury condominiums.
Rio’s favelas are woven into the fabric of the city center, where they have existed for over a hundred years. The neighborhoods grew and developed organically; residents established shops and networks of community-based amenities like childcare.
“When you go to Minha Casa Minha Vida, you realize how terribly the units are built,” Ohrem-Leclef says. They sprung up at the periphery of the city, where space was available, but people who were relocated told Ohrem-Leclef that they felt the move was an attempt on the part of the city government to hide favela residents from the public eye. “We know why they needed us out. They have other plans for this place, and they don’t want poor people around anymore,” said Vila Autódromo resident Iranis Cadede da Silva in The Los Angeles Times.
People removed to MCMV told Ohrem-Leclef that the public-housing complex imposed arbitrary restrictions on them: they weren’t allowed out after a certain hour, and loud noises and music were forbidden. Speaking with a woman forced from Vila Autódromo in 2012, Ohrem-Leclef asked her what she missed the most about her life in the favela.
The one word that came to her was liberdade: freedom.
A spirit of resistance and pride grew in the favelas as evictions continued. The government offered compensation for residents to leave the favelas, but many protested, saying their connection to the neighborhood runs deeper than money. One 20-year resident of Vila Autódromo told TIME: “When we got here, we had nothing. We developed this land…This home is everything to me.”
Ohrem-Leclef’s work on Olympic Favela evolved in response to these protests. He approached residents with an idea: to photograph them holding a flare high above their heads, in a symbol of strength recognizable from the iconography of the Arab Spring to the Olympic Games themselves. The people in the favelas agreed immediately, Ohrem-Leclef says. “They felt that they were being shown in a moment of representation, not victimization,” he adds. The three brothers at the edge of the lagoon, where their father, a fisherman, made his living, held on to their home in Vila Autódromo for as long as they could. They were forced out at the end of last year, and split up across three housing complexes.
The Olympics have a dark legacy of forced evictions. In preparation for the 2008 Games, Beijing removed 1.5 million people from their homes. “The way the Olympic system is set up doesn’t give cities enough time to transform. The International Olympic Committee rewards grandiose plans that are not usually doable,” says Ohrem-Leclef, who had read about the evictions in Beijing, and traveled to Rio upon seeing the pattern unfold again. “People are being displaced for this thing that’s sold to us as an event that unifies people.”
The strength of the residents in Ohrem-Leclef’s photographs, staking a claim to their land, is a reminder of this injustice. “The favelas were people’s homes,” Ohrem-Leclef says. “No one should be forced away from that.”