Wesley Pentz is better known as Diplo. And he’s better known as a DJ who’s worked with M.I.A., who co-wrote “Paper Planes,” who’s toured with Justice and who brought baile funk to the mainstream masses with a series of nasty-good party-making mixes. But with “Favela on Blast,” which had its premiere at SXSW last month, Diplo’s now also a filmmaker, collaborating with Brazilian co-director Leandro HBL on a documentary about the world from which baile funk comes. “Favela on Blast” goes deep into the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro, whirling through interviews with producers and DJs to street-level party footage to dance numbers, a pulsating document of both life in the marginalized economic sidelines and of a vibrant and unique music scene.
Where’d “Favela on Blast” start?
The idea [was] for it to be another bootleg street DVD, really simple — it just became a big project. I got into it because I was traveling to Brazil as a DJ and I was into the music that was playing. This scene was really interesting because there had been no documentation of it. It was strictly ghetto. Even in Brazil, people from other cities besides Rio didn’t know what was going on. You see films like “City of God,” favela films, but you never see this — this is what’s happening now. No one was profiling it, but there was such a romance about the favela… There was a film back in the day called “Style Wars,” it was a documentary about hip-hop. Have you seen it?
I haven’t, but I’ve heard about it, sure.
Henry Chalfant did it, he’s a subway photographer. He wasn’t a hip-hop guy, but he just loved the subculture, so he created a documentary. It’s kind of a bible — a lot of kids are like, I love rap and hip-hop, and to figure out the roots, you watch that movie. I wanted to make something like that about funk music.
And what was was your involvement in this film?
The film started as a video clip I did for one of my songs, we shot on 16mm in the favelas on the rooftops, just dancing scenes. It was amazing. It was super easy. We did it in a weekend. I was like, shit, we can do this, we can make a whole movie in two weekends. [laughs]
My partner Leandro was working in the film industry [in Brazil], and he was my direct relationship there. I’d gone down a year before the film started just to hang out with the people, so I had strong connections there. You don’t just go to the favelas and shoot. My first day off the airplane, I hooked up with the biggest DJ because we were with The Fader magazine and he’s like “You want to see funk? Come with me.” We went to this radio show, ended up in like 20 favelas, guns, drugs everywhere — I’m like, what am I doing here? I was 24, it was my first trip after college, I’d quit my job as a school teacher to try and do some shit with my life and make music. There were a lot of weird moments in the three years [we spent making the film]. Some of our main characters died. People go missing. We had a party where we had to actually pay the police to not bother us and pay the gangsters to not show up.
Once I started the film, I just kept pouring a little bit of my money into it. I had a show in Shanghai, so I went and bought the Sony Z1UK on the black market for $2000. I’m not a filmmaker, so I didn’t have time allotted. I didn’t know what a schedule is like. I didn’t know that we had to keep rewriting a screenplay for a documentary. I thought we just go with cameras and woo, we got a film. We ended up with 100 hours of shit we had to watch. [laughs] We spent a year editing it. We finished around October properly, and I went down to Brazil to do the sound mix.