Pastor Dione dos Santos

It took Dancing with the Devil’s co-producers, Tom Phillips and Douglas Engle, over 18 months to convince the documentary’s main characters to allow the cameras into their lives.

The story began in early 2007 when Tom, a Rio-based foreign correspondent, met Pastor Dione dos Santos while researching a story on the evangelical revolution sweeping through the slums of South America’s largest country.

Fascinated and intrigued by his controversial pastoral work with Rio’s drug traffickers, Tom continued to visit the preacher, now accompanied by his colleague, the American photographer Douglas Engle.

Neither journalist was a stranger to documenting the complex and hidden realities of Rio’s slums but they soon realized that Pastor Dione provided a passport into a world that had never been properly reported and that only a handful of outsiders had ever seen.

Inside the slums they started spending time with some of Rio’s most wanted men, among them Juarez Mendes da Silva, a charismatic but notoriously violent 27-year-old gang leader, better known as Spiderman. They encountered the impromptu trials held by the local drug lords to sentence those who broke their rules. And they followed Pastor Dione’s unconventional attempts to reduce the violence that plagued his slum; preaching to the traffickers, negotiating with them, and even dragging terrified teenage boys away from the gangsters and back to his church, their trousers caked in excrement and their hands trembling.

In late 2007, Tom met the Oscar-winning filmmaker Jon Blair who was in Brazil working on another project. On hearing about Pastor Dione’s work from Tom, Jon’s reaction was immediate: “You’ve got something amazingly special there and it would make a fantastic story if you really can deliver the access.”

In the slums

Several months later, with part of the money coming from broadcasters Channel 4 and Arte France, and with Jon’s own production company, Jon Blair Films, funding the balance of the half million dollar budget, Dancing with the Devil was born.

Working in Rio’s slums, virtually autonomous territories where ‘justice’ is administered from the barrel of an assault rifle, is always an unpredictable business, and the shoot of Dancing with the Devil was no different.

When the film’s first treatment was written it included plans to film the life of a drug boss known as ‘The Player’. However shortly before filming began he was killed by the police so at short notice Tom and Douglas persuaded his best friend, Spiderman, to become the focus of the film.

Even with the blessing of the gang leaders in Pastor Dione’s part of town, it was clear that making a documentary in such volatile surroundings was not going to be easy. As a precaution they engaged Alan Roberto Lima, himself once a drug trafficker but now a lieutenant of Pastor Dione, as their driver and security man. If anyone wanted to mess with the crew they would have to get past the not insubstantial mass that was Alan and it was pretty clear from early on that it would be more than anyone’s life was worth to take that sort of risk.

Spiderman and Dione

Over 6 weeks in September/October 2008 the 5-man crew took to living amongst Rio’s traffickers and their families, focusing particularly on the relationship between Pastor Dione and Spiderman as the preacher sought to lure away his protégé from drug trafficking.

The team accompanied Spiderman as he patrolled the shadowy back streets of Coreia and followed Dione on his weekly, late night preaching missions into the slums.

Spiderman made no secret of his violent exploits; his dog, Bloodsucker, was said to have been responsible for five homicides. But he was also keen to show his work to improve the community and to explain why he had chosen a life of crime. On one occasion, in the dead of night, he pulled up outside a local police station to berate the city’s military police force. He accused them of taking bribes with one hand and betraying the traffickers with the other.

THE DRUG SQUAD

From the outset Jon’s ambition for the film was to portray both sides of Rio’s bloody drug war so he and Tom also negotiated access to a unit of the civil police elite drug squad, the DCOD. Over an expensive lunch of exquisite mixed barbecue and alcohol at a smart restaurant chosen by Inspector Leonardo “GI Joe” Torres, but paid for by Jon, Torres and his unit sized up the two film-makers.

They apparently passed muster as the outcome of the lunch was a promise of total co-operation from the unit. As with their access to the gangsters who had never been filmed openly before, the access that Torres and his unit were agreeing to had never previously been given to any film crew.

As a result, throughout the shoot the team found themselves crossing the battle lines virtually on a daily basis, taking care that one side never quite knew what they were doing with the other. On one occasion when they had been on a huge police operation with Torres and his unit into one of Rio’s 1000 or so favelas, their picture appeared on the front page of the city’s main tabloid and they thought their gang access might well be blown. In fact Spiderman and his cohorts were impressed that they had been on the frontline under fire and wanted to know how they might acquire the crew’s ballistic helmets and bullet proof vests which were of a much higher quality than anything available to even the police, let alone the drug traffickers!

THE SHOOT

Rarely was the shoot relaxing. On one occasion a building next to the crew came under fire and a civil policeman was killed. During another late-night shoot part of the team found themselves locked inside Spiderman’s car as he demonstrated hand-brake turns at 120km/h.

Six adrenaline-packed weeks later the crew emerged unharmed; nine months on from the shoot many of the characters featured in the film have been less fortunate.

As with many wars, Rio’s drug conflict is often painted in primary colours. The police are shown alternately as brave heroes or violent killers, men who trample on human rights as they seek to contain the city’s drug traffickers. The traffickers, meanwhile, are shown as brutal, one-dimensional executioners, semi-dictators who are universally hated by those who live under their regimes.

With unprecedented access to both sides of the conflict Dancing with the Devil seeks to portray a more complex reality, showing up-close and personal for the first time the lives of those on the frontline of this battle. Who are these men? What drives them? And what, ultimately, will become of them?

The film is a unique window into the secretive world of the South American drug trade and the story of a courageous preacher prepared to dance with the Devil as he seeks to serve his God.