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Day 57: Barra da Tijuca

Michael Palin - BrazilOn an ordinary day, almost anywhere in Brazil, there will be a television set tuned to a soap opera. Whether it be in hospital or hotel, airport or filling station, shop or café, churrascaria, lanchonete, or any one of a hundred million homes, the country will be watching itself in the painstakingly crafted parallel worlds of what their creators call telenovelas. There are three running concurrently, enthralling the nation and in the process earning unimaginable amounts of money for their production company, Rede Globo, known to all as Globo. Launched by Roberto Marinho in 1965, the privately owned company is now the fourth-largest broad- casting organization in the world.

The stories that have the nation in their grip are all produced in studios close to the booming suburb south and west of Rio called Barra da Tijuca, otherwise known as the Miami of the South. This morning, as we wind our way slowly along a busy coast road, the comparison doesn't do Miami any favours. Free of many of the planning restrictions of central Rio, and boosted by news that the 2016 Olympics will be sited here, tower blocks, stacked high with expensive apartments, are mushrooming all over Barra.

We turn off the main road and up into the wooded hills to an area called Jacarepaguá, which has an airport named after the founder of Globo, and which has given its name to Projac, the massive, multi-studio production complex from which Brazil's telenovelas are rolled out. After the hectic highways out of Rio there's a certain tranquillity up here. Over lunch at a smart, woody, studio restaurant, with the trees outside scattering sunlit shadows on the tables, I meet my host for the afternoon, a real-life soap star called Carolina Ferraz. She's in her early forties, and wears a pair of red-framed dark glasses and long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She has fine, regular features and the elfin build of a latter-day Audrey Hepburn. And, like Hepburn, Carolina began life as a ballet dancer before becoming an actor, and now a regular on the telenovela circuit.

We go on a buggy round to one of the sets of her latest hit, Avenida Brasil. It's a well-run production line, Carolina tells me, but they're expected to work hard. Which means putting in a ten- to twelve-hour shift, shooting an average of thirty to forty set-ups a day.

'It's like shooting a movie a week.'

We drive into the make-believe world of Avenida Brasil, passing behind houses, churches, whole shopping arcades, propped up with iron supports, before emerging into the centre of an utterly convincing run-down bairro.

'I'm a rich character. This is a poor area,' says Carolina, by way of introduction, adding tantalizingly, 'I'm going to lose everything and live here.'

The streets and buildings on the lot are labyrinthine enough to give a powerful sense of reality to this mocked-up world. Cars cruise back and forth convincingly and an army of extras, some eighty or ninety, Carolina estimates, are in position at various parts of the action, like characters in a fairy story awaiting the prince's kiss to bring them to life. The director, a tall young man with a boyish look and a lick of hair across his forehead, sits in a darkened room off the main street, watching a bank of monitors and issuing his instructions through an old-fashioned hand-held microphone. He's one of four directors working simultaneously on different parts of the story.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 57: Barra da Tijuca
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Barra da Tijuca
  • Book page no: 243

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