Olympic opening ceremony was done on the cheap but it was heartfelt and dazzling

Fernando Meirelles, probably best known for the Oscar-nominated film City of God, pulled off something remarkable on a budget about one-fifth of Londons

Phew! It really was all right on the night. No thats not fair. It was much better than all right. Ive been going back and forth to Brazil for the past five years and I was watching the opening ceremony with bated breath.

Congratulations to the remarkable film director, Fernando Meirelles, probably best known for the Oscar-nominated film, City of God, set in Rios slums. He pulled off something quite remarkable with this spectacular show, on a budget that seemed to shrink every day. It combined his dazzling cinematic skills with some extraordinary choreography and lighting displays, and a strong narrative thread that explained Brazils complex history to the outside world.

We all know the reputation Brazil has for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. But the monumental political and economic chaos now ravaging the country has led to an unprecedented identity crisis. This has triggered the release of countless toxins, genetically close to those of the Brexit and Trump debates, into most Brazilian homes. Families are split and not talking following the impeachment proceedings against the leftwing president Dilma Rousseff. Angry fires are raging on social media and any sense of functioning government has come to a standstill.

And then theres the money. The Chinese spent about 50m on their opening ceremony. Londons budget was about half that, but Meirelles had less than 5m. The acting governor of Rio, Francisco Dornelles, declared the state bankrupt a month ago. Had the federal government not met the urgent appeal of the acting state governor for a 750m handout, the lights might never have been turned on in the Maracan on Friday evening.

The idea of an opening ceremony on the cheap might sound like a gimmick to foreign audiences, but at home the message went down well. There is much suffering in Brazil at the moment, with schools and hospitals closing and police and fire officers going unpaid. But necessity proved the mother of invention as it so often does in Brazil. Meirelles and his team were forced to hunt for costumes at the countrys equivalent of Primark and in charity shops.

But you wouldnt have known it. The costumes were samba-bright and carnival-glittery. And the props that looked so sophisticated included tin foil, huge plastic bands and cardboard boxes. As every actor will tell you, its amazing what you can achieve with good lighting.

And the lighting was phenomenal. In Meirelless succinct but dramatic take on Brazilian history, we saw the great Amazonian and Atlantic forests rise with a combination of green lasers and digital projection, an appropriately magical representation. Whereas Danny Boyle produced a theatrical spectacular with expensive props, Meireilles relied on his cinematic skills to overcome the budgetary challenges.

When I talk about a book Ive written on a Rio drug lord, I always start with a short explanation of Brazils modern history. One fact that always surprises people is to learn that 10 times as many slaves, more than 5 million in total, were brought to Brazil than to the United States and the Caribbean. And that Brazil boasts the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Both of these huge population movements featured in the show. Meirelless representation of Brazils successive waves of immigration was utterly beautiful, using dance, circus skills and puppetry.

And the wow factor continued with his remarkable 3D projections, used to demonstrate the growth of Brazils megacities So Paulo and, in particular, Rio one of the fastest and most higgledy-piggledy urbanisations in the world. And so to the favelas, where 20% of Rios seven million people live, most without sewage and some basic services. There is a mythology about Brazils rainbow nation. But the social and economic reality tells a different story. The elite is largely white (the interim government is entirely white and male) and the poor are largely black.

Meirelles made a point of stressing how central black culture is to Brazil with the use of parcours and passinho, the breakdancing craze to emerge from the favelas.

When he was casting City of God, he chose not to use professional actors but selected kids from the slums working with a famous theatre group, Ns do Morro, which has trained and developed street kids for 30 years. Dance and music are two of the few activities in the slums that can compete with the drugs trade for the youngsters attention.

There is nothing better than watching overweight middle-aged white males trying to get on down. I especially enjoyed watching some of the stuffed shirts from the International Olympic Committee going through some awkward motions when the whole stadium erupted into a party.

Some critics complained that the ceremonys environmental message was heavy-handed. As the guardians of the Amazon, I think Brazilians have every right to alert us to the looming catastrophe of climate change.

And naturally Meirelles, using a combination of film, graphics and poetry, did it in a manner that was both appropriate and effective. Having just returned from the Amazon last week, I can testify that the illegal logging and burning of the forest continues apace. This is a matter of international urgency and deserves to be aired in a forum like this.

The show also included an appeal for unity which was important and heartfelt. All Brazilians watching are aware of how much pain a prolonged recession and a gargantuan corruption scandal at the state oil company, Petrobras, have inflicted on their society. Both of these have played a role in the many protests that have been bubbling in Rio around the Games.

But more than the recession and corruption affair, it is the impact of the political crisis which Meirelles was so concerned to counter. Originally, Dilma Rousseff should have taken pride of place as head of state at the ceremony. But she has been suspended, awaiting a vote on her impeachment later this month. In her place sat her erstwhile vice-president and now bitterest rival, the interim leader Michel Temer.

Notwithstanding Meirelless hopes that Brazilians can maybe start to overcome the deep wounds inflicted during the past two years, when Temer announced the Games were open, there was some forceful booing around the stadium. The opening ceremony has been a great start, but it could still be a long two weeks.

Misha Glenny is the author of Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, (Vintage paperback).

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/commentisfree/2016/aug/06/opening-ceremony-cheap-heartfelt-dazzling

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