by Vera von Kreutzbruck
- Germany -
Even before Elite Squad was released commercially in October 2007, the hugely popular film about police violence and corruption in Rio de Janeiro was already a major success in Brazil. Eleven million Brazilians saw the film on pirated copies and almost 3 million spectators were drawn to the theatres. It will be released this month in the United States.
Adapted from a book by the same name, Elite Squad was written by the former National Secretary of Public Security in Brazil, Luiz Eduardo Soares (who is also an anthropologist), and two former elite squad officers, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel. Academy-Award nominated screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani (City of God), José Padilha and Rodrigo Pimentel wrote the script.The story has three major story arcs: the troubled family life of a special unit captain, the moral conflict of a rookie who is struggling with his career in law, and the bloody clashes in the favelas (Portuguese for slums) between the elite force and the drug dealers.
Brazil has been struggling with crime and violence in its streets for many years. According to a United Nations report published in May 2008, between 45,000 and 50,000 homicides are committed in this country every year.
Another alarming study released by Human Rights Watch in April of 2008, states that police violence is a serious problem in the country. Official figures reveal that the police killed 694 people in Rio in the first six months of 2007.
Tired of working in a bank, Padilha started making documentaries almost by chance. His circle of friends included several filmmakers who encouraged him to take the big step. His first foray into the film industry was as a producer for the documentary Charcoal People for the British director Nigel Noble, an Academy Award winner for his film Close Harmony (1981).
In 2002 he reached international fame for his documentary Ônibus 174 which won various awards and also received a nomination from the Director’s Guild of America. Last February, Padilha won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany for Elite Squad. The movie also was showcased this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, at the Seattle International Film Festival and at the Los Angeles Film festival.
I spoke with Padilha recently about Elite Squad.
Why did you choose violence as a topic for your film?
In Brazil, and in most of Latin America, there is a belief that violence is a result of misery. In other words, if there is a lot of misery, then there will be a lot of violence. But if you take a look at the statistics of the United Nations, you will see that there are cities with even more poverty like Lima or Bombay but they have less violence, less homicides. This means that there is no direct correlation between violence and misery, which is what most people think.
Why do you think that your movie has seen so much success?
Everyone is tired of violence because they have to deal with it on a daily basis.
Why is there so much violence in Rio de Janeiro?
In my first movie Ônibus 174, I tried to explain how the government generates violent criminals. It’s about a street kid who kidnaps a bus full of passengers. We see how the state tortures him, kills his friends and puts him in prison. In Elite Squad I focus on the same problem but from the police’s perspective. My interest lies in wanting to know why the police has become so violent, and again it is the state’s fault. The message of both movies is that we are doing this to ourselves.
The police have very low salaries and they are badly trained. It is a corrupt institution that functions under its own rules. And if a police officer violates the law, he is judged by police law, not by civil law.
Why does the police resort to violence to combat crime?
In Brazil the drug dealers control the favelas and they fight against each other to obtain control of territory. And the police in Rio had a workforce of 40,000 with low income. Instead of fighting against the drug dealers they sell them guns so that they kill each other.
The film is also about hypocrisy and lack of communication among the different sectors in society.
Exactly. In Rio, social classes are segregated, they do not communicate with each other. There is a lot of hypocrisy, especially among the middle and upper classes. We must understand that violence is something natural in Rio and we have to accept that we are doing to ourselves. This is not a consequence of a political process. We already had a communist governor, then a right-wing one and now a center leader and there always has been violence.
Describe the film’s main character.
Elite Squad is narrated from the point of view of Nascimento, a captain of the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE), but the true protagonist of the film is Matías, the young guy who wants to get into BOPE. Matías’ conflict lies in that he wants to fit in with various social groups at the same time, which is impossible because each sector has its own hypocrisy. The BOPE people hate the normal police and vice versa, and the BOPE people hate the students and the police hates the drug dealers.
Why did you choose to set the movie in 1997?
I chose the most absurd operation in the history of BOPE so that people could see clearly what we are doing to ourselves. The objective of this operation was to conduct a razzias (raid) in the favelas to kill all criminals so that John Paul II could sleep quietly without hearing any gunshots during his visit to Rio.
Are you implying that BOPE is an absurd institution?
Yes, the movie is narrated by a BOPE policeman, who believes that violence must be combated with violence. The protagonist’s narration is a rationalization of this ideology. But, on the other hand, he wants to leave BOPE. He suffers from panic attacks, but he does not allow a psychiatrist to help him and he has problems with his pregnant wife. That is why we divided the character in two dimensions: his discourse and his reality, which is another way of saying that these two things do not go together. You have this discourse but look what happens if you follow it.
Is BOPE less corrupt than the police or the drug dealers?
No, they are more corrupt in the broad sense of the word because they torture and kill people and this is shown in the film. People say that someone is corrupt if they accept bribes. However I think that their minds and souls are more corrupt because of what they do to other people.
But in the movie everyone is guilty of torture - the police, BOPE, the drug dealers.
It has slowly become part of their methodology. It started with the regular police, then passed to investigative police and later it arrived at BOPE. The Brazilian government is a government that accepts torture. If you observe the terrible conditions in the jails, that is also a form of torture. The jails are overpopulated with 40 inmates to a cell that was built for only four.
Is it true that in Brazil the people see BOPE policemen as heroes?
No, this affirmation is made under the premise that Brazilians cannot distinguish fiction from reality. For example, an American that watches The Godfather and likes Michael Corleone is not a gangster because we assume that he is making a distinction that he likes a fictional character. It is clear that Brazilians also make that distinction. The fact that the film was so successful in Brazil does not mean that Brazilians glorify captain Nascimento. They realize that he is suffering and that he is confused. I’ve been to debates in universities, in favelas and in private presentations with journalists - in all of these events I asked the attendees if they thought that BOPE policemen were heroes and no one said yes.
What is BOPE’s like today, over 10 years later?
Nowadays people say that things are different but only from the nominal point of view. BOPE has 400 employees, before they had 100. And of the 400, maybe 100 are honest. But the situation still continues to be the same.
Some critics have accused your movie of being fascist.
You have to be very ignorant to say that the movie is fascist. Those who say that do not know what fascism is because fascism is an organized political party with a political agenda for the whole country; it tries to control the state, the media and the educational system.
Do you think that the situation in Rio will change?
Violence is the natural result of the current state of things, which at the same time is the result of the rules of the game. [Two] things that can be done are to make sure the police is no longer a military force and to raise their salaries so that they are not tempted by corruption. I think we can change the rules.
- All photographs appear courtesy of the Berlinale International Film Festival.
About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.