Filmmaker Matheus Dafi on Capturing Brazil’s Passinho Dancers
Lightning-quick steps. Twists at the waist. These are some of the characteristics of Brazil’s passinho dance style, which first erupted from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 2000s.
An unchoreographed, improvisational dance that’s soundtracked by baile funk, it combines elements of Brazilian dance styles – such as samba and frevo – with US hip-hop moves like breaking.
For the youths living within the favelas, passinho is more than just a dance but more of a way of life. The dance has a culture built around it – a culture which has become the focus of a short film created by Jonangelo Molinari and Matheus Dafi.
Titled Brazil’s Passinho Dancers, the short film clocks in at just under two minutes – enough to capture the fast-paced moves of its subjects. A premiere of the film took place at Undercurrents last week (8 September) at London’s Corsica Studios. The event is the first of a new series created by Trippin, designed to examine how the cross-pollination of cultures has formed new moving images, genres and ideas.
To understand the context of the film more, we interviewed filmmaker and producer Matheus Dafi, who grew up in Rio de Janeiro and has a personal ties to passinho culture. Below, he walks us through the ideas behind the short film, the culture surrounding it and what passinho means to the youths of the favelas.
Where are you right now and what’s around you?
I'm sitting in a restaurant, just finished a shoot and there are a lot of people talking all at once. They seem happy, enjoying their lunch and I'm hungry, waiting for my food to arrive.
Can you tell me more about yourself? Where were you born, where have you lived and when did you pursue cinematography?
I'm 29 years old. I was born in São João de Meriti in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro, a suburb that became popularly known as the ‘Ant Hill of the Americas’ due to its high population density per square metre in Latin America. I've been working since I was 12 and had 18 different jobs (the most random ones you can imagine) before getting the opportunity to dedicate myself to filmmaking.
When I was 13, my cousin invited me to work at a movie rental store back when VHS tapes were still a thing, and I hated it. That is until I figured out a way to watch movies for free when he wasn't around. That's when the idea of making films started brewing in my head. When I entered college, I stumbled upon the visual anthropology laboratory where I got a chance to delve into the world of documentaries. When I moved to a different city, I got involved in music production, which opened up various avenues for me to meet incredible Brazilian artists and musicians. However, it was only at the age of 23 that I got my first camera. My intention was to film all the artists and musicians who captivated my attention.
Since then, my sole purpose has been to contribute to the promotion of popular culture, always emphasising music, my first and true love. From then on, this initiative has resulted in a series of recordings of Brazilian bands and artists, as well as concerts and documentaries on the subject. These are moments when existence begins to make some sense.
Do you have a personal connection with passinho?
I lived in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro for a long time. I grew up near funk parties, where people lived the nightlife intensely – almost as a form of catharsis. The passinho dance style originated from there in the early 2000s. When I was a teenager, I was more interested in rock, punk rock and anarchy. Everywhere I lived, there was always a lot of funk music playing and I hated it. Time passed and I moved to the capital of Rio de Janeiro. It was there that I realised there was no symbol more rebellious than Rio's funk music in Brazil. I started to become interested in the young kids who would twist their ankles practising the passinho dance moves. It was only then that I realised the time I had wasted and went after these folks. It's funny to say this because they were always there, right beside me – neighbours, friends and relatives. The roots took a while to sprout, but they bore fruit.
Do you have a personal connection with the favelas?
My entire family hails from Rio de Janeiro's favelas and suburbs, both on my father's and mother's sides.
What’s the significance of passinho dancing to Brazil and the favelas?
The dance of Rio de Janeiro's passinho funk is much more than just dance movements; it represents a rich cultural expression deeply rooted in the Rio communities, especially in the favelas. This unique form of expression embodies the creativity, energy and vitality of the youth residing in these areas.
Passinho was born in the favelas, often among young people facing significant economic and social challenges. For many of them, passinho offers an opportunity to stand out and feel empowered. This dance allows them to showcase their talents and passion for dance, often overcoming socioeconomic obstacles that could limit their prospects.
Furthermore, the passinho culture also plays a significant role in reducing violence in the favelas. It provides a positive alternative for young people, steering them away from involvement in criminal activities while promoting community cohesion and mutual respect.
Passinho serves as a powerful form of cultural representation, taking the world's stage with the rich artistic traditions emerging from Brazilian favelas. It helps combat negative stereotypes and promotes Brazil's cultural diversity. Such is the cultural importance of passinho that it has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Rio de Janeiro – a significant milestone.
Moreover, the success and popularity of Rio's passinho funk has transcended national borders, projecting messages and influences from Brazilian favelas worldwide. This international projection demonstrates the global impact of this art form, which goes beyond dance, inspiring people worldwide and elevating favela culture to a globally recognised level.
How did this film come about and why did you decide to work on a project about passinho dancers?
I received an invitation from my friend and director Jonangelo Molinari, who mentioned that he was coming to Brazil to film funk dancers. I had previously made a documentary about Rio's funk music for Brasil Brasileiro, and he really liked it. We decided to collaborate and create something new that could visually represent the concept.
How did you approach the casting?
The cast is a group of friends who have a project called Oz Crias, consisting of Pablinho Fantástico, WB Negão, Diogo Breguete and Yuri Misterpassista. They are a real phenomenon in the Rio de Janeiro funk scene. I met them in 2021, and from that point on they became my friends. When Jonangelo proposed filming funk dancers, I thought of them.
Where did you film this and why did you choose the locations you did?
The shooting happened in the Rocinha favela, one of the largest favelas in the entire world. The favela is synonymous with funk, and funk is synonymous with the favela. Additionally, it's where Pablinho Fantástico lives. He kindly offered his mother's house to set up the equipment and carry out the recordings.
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
The favela is enormous and we only had one day for recording. Having to capture everything in such a short amount of time was definitely the biggest challenge we faced.
Is there a moment that stands out to you during the filming of Brazil’s Passinho Dancers?
The most significant moment for me during the shooting was when Jonangelo, who is a director from London, visited the Rocinha favela and told me that the favela was safer than he had imagined. These stereotypes of favelas being marked by violence have reinforced prejudice and discrimination against its residents for many decades. Today, thanks to funk music, many barriers of prejudice are being broken down and demystified. Many people from outside are becoming motivated to get to know the favelas better, thanks to funk.
What’s next for you?
Jonangelo is coming back here in October. He should stay at my house along with another friend of ours, Luiza Herdy. We want to continue with the film and have more days of recording with more dancers and locations. The sky's the limit.