Football game at Jardim São Marcos favela, Cubatão adjacent to the Fosfertil fertiliser factory.

You know you’ve arrived by the chemical smell, but it used to be worse, much worse. An hour’s drive from São Paulo, Cubatão used to be Brazil’s dirty little secret. Host to 24 industries including oil, steel and fertilizers, the city used to be dubbed “The Valley of Death”. The heavy smog trapped by the jungle-clad valleys made the city one of the world’s most polluted places.

Now many of the factories have cleaned up their act and are in the process of transformation. The mangrove swamps are cleaner and the Scarlet Ibis, vibrant against the lush jungle, is flourishing again.

Cubatão defies easy description as the perimeter fences of the factories push against the rainforest on one side and favellas (shanty towns) on the other. Cubatão is a rich city with a poor population, the favella inhabitants being in large part economic migrants.

The favellas have developed around the factories, along the inlets and along the motorway construction roads, the massive arteries feeding the relentless hunger of Cubatão, piercing the surrounding hills and flying above the heads of improvised houses below. These favellas appear to be in such a state of flux they are known by their altitude only.

Fear is ubiquitous for the foreigner in Cubatão. Fear of the air, fear of the water or fear of violence. The outsider must come to their own conclusion. Like Johannesburg, Hiroshima or Chernobyl, the name Cubatão has a weighted meaning that has little or nothing to do with the lives of the local people. A city with such a strong stereotype is almost bound to delight.

In another sense, Cubatão is a city wide manifestation of gambiarra, the Brazilian talent and admiration of making do and improvisation. Plywood and timber form the houses of the fishermen’s village. At the samba school, slit cola bottles are made curvaceous under candle flame and painted as flowers for the carnival floats. Even the very location of houses constructed under a flyover or next to a factory demonstrates this spirit of inventiveness.

Many of the local people often display a total mastery of the body and beat: the drumming of the samba school, the silky shuffle of samba beats danced in flip flops or bare feet on a concrete floor, the kite flying or the astonishing acrobatics of Capoeira (a martial art symbolic of freedom against domination, with roots in Brazil’s historical slave culture).

The surprise came after a couple of weeks living here. Raw nature set against mankind’s machines for sustaining the industrial world can be simultaneously beautiful and disconcerting. At times when the forest-clad hills and the factory smoke merge with the clouds and the light illuminates both the chimney stack and cloud, it is hard to know if it’s creation or Armageddon one is witnessing.

Quintin Lake visited Cubatão as part of the crew of the film “Cubatão” by Rubens Azevedo.

A full gallery of documentary photographs can be seen here and making of photographs from the film here