This article first appeared in The Guardian, in July 2008.
Jose Padilha has been sued by the police and shot at by drug-dealers. He has been called a fascist ideologue and a communist provocateur. His film, The Elite Squad, has divided Brazil, inspiring a debate about police brutality that still rages, a year after pirate DVDs first showed up on the streets.
Brazil’s leading research firm estimates that twelve million people have watched the knock-off version, a more meaningful gauge of popularity than box office receipts in a country where only a small minority can afford a cinema ticket. In the same graphic, fast-moving style as City Of God, Padilha has sneaked a discourse on corruption and hypocrisy into the national consciousness.
It begins with a police raid on a party in one of Rio’s hillside shanty towns. Under a pounding baile funk beat, commandos with a skull and crossed pistols on their black berets creep into the favela. Teenagers wave machine-guns on the dancefloor. “In Rio de Janeiro, every cop has to make a choice,” says the voiceover. “He either turns dirty, keeps his mouth shut, or goes to war.”
When the shooting starts, it looks and sounds like an action movie. The pace is relentless, the body count high. You would never know it was meant to be a documentary. “Everything happened, every single scene,” says Padilha. “But the point is not that those are things that happened. They are things that happen every day. They torture and they kill. It’s a fact. This is how the system works.”
The film is based on the memoirs of two military policemen, Rodrigo Pimentel and Andre Batista, whose unit, BOPE, has a reputation for incorruptibility and extreme violence. Padilha initially set out to make a factual programme about this urban combat force, but discovered that although the men he interviewed were convinced their methods were justified, none of them would admit to killing kids on camera.
Elite Squad tells the story of Operation Holiness, when a BOPE squadron was charged with making a favela safe for the Pope to visit in 1997. It is both a blockbuster entertainment – the most expensive Brazilian movie ever made – and a sociological polemic, based on two years of detailed research.
Wagner Moura plays Captain Nascimento, an anti-hero in the Dirty Harry mould who suffocates gang members with a plastic bag until they bleed during interrogation, threatens to rape a teenager with a broom handle and casually orders the killing of a look-out when he’s finished questioning him. He is nervous, irritable and afraid of dying, but never questions the moral core of his mission.
“The character believes that he is doing the right thing,” Moura says. “He has integrity, he is not corrupt.” In two punishing months of training with former BOPE officers, he internalised the mindset. “I met a lot of guys who believe that they are doing a great job by killing drug-dealers. They were trained for that purpose, like dogs.”
When the rough cut leaked, a group of BOPE commanders sued to prevent the official release because it depicted their techniques too faithfully. “At several points in the film they do exactly what BOPE does,” says Tyndaro Menezes, who runs the investigative reporting unit at Globo TV. “They used to enter the favela in the gutters. These days, those ditches are full of booby-traps, because the gangs saw the movie and know that BOPE uses them.”
Padilha filmed in the favela where City Of Men was shot, cutting one deal with the gang which controls it and another with the police not to raid during filming. When cops reneged on that agreement, the crew were caught in a shoot-out. “One of the gaffers almost got killed,” says Padilha. “He was in the firing line and jumped into an open sewer. He was covered in shit but it was better than being shot.”
Soon afterwards, armed men stole a van load of fake weapons, thinking they were real, forcing the production to move from a favela run by drug-dealers to another ‘protected’ by a militia of corrupt policemen. As always, there was a pay-off to be made. Padilha admits that to get anything done in Rio “somewhere, somehow, someone will be bribed.”
The society that Elite Squad portrays could hardly be more rotten. Policemen swap guns for cocaine, politicians buy votes in brothels and students set up NGOs in the slums to get close to the drug-dealers. BOPE is the only hope, the antithesis of Rio’s venal, incompetent police force. The film’s critics, none of whom dispute that these social problems exist, argue that Nascimento’s unrepentant voiceover advocates an appalling, dangerously appealing solution.
Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for Rio’s main newspaper, O Globo, was the first to call Elite Squad fascist. When it won the Golden Bear for best motion picture at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Variety’s Jay Weissberg described it as “a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs.”
Naturally, the film-makers object. Moura asks: “Did people say Coppola was a fascist for creating Michael Corleone? It’s clear that we don’t think torture is OK, we don’t approve of the way Captain Nascimento behaves. We’re just showing how it is – and in reality, it’s actually worse.”
According to official statistics, more than six thousand people were murdered in Rio last year, most of them in the favelas. An ongoing war between the drug-dealers controlling Rocinha and Babilonia, where Elite Squad is set, keeps whole communities under curfew. This week, police shot a three-year-old boy in the head, after mistaking his mum’s car for a getaway vehicle.
These are unremarkable, everyday stories. Violence only reaches the front page when it spills into Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon, where Rio’s rich live in gated apartment blocks with private security. Many drive bullet-proof cars.
Viewed in this context, it is less surprising that Padilha’s indictment of Brazilian society was interpreted, by some, as a manifesto for repression. A poll by Veja magazine found that 53% considered Captain Nascimento a hero and 82% thought that drug-dealers who are tortured by police get what they deserve.
“When I watched the movie I thought: ‘fuck it, Nascimento is dangerous,’” Moura says. “We are so fucked up that lots of people think he can save us, because we live in a place where there is no security. I understand why he is seen as a hero.”
Despite its radically different aesthetic, Elite Squad is a companion piece to Padilha’s previous film, a documentary called Bus 174 which showed how poverty and institutional brutality turns small time thieves into violent criminals. It is no coincidence that the central character is called Nascimento, the same last name as Sandro, who held a bus full of passengers hostage, live on television, and was later killed by police.
Padilha believes that the actions of individuals are invariably dictated by the system, which in the case of Rio’s police force is so warped that the only rational thing for a new recruit to do is to find his own small corner of influence and avoid being killed by the guns his superiors have sold to the drug-dealers.
Elite Squad has great fun with the organisation’s Kafka-esque absurdities, showing policemen moving bodies from one district to another to massage crime statistics, using brand new patrol cars for spare parts and racing each other to collect bribes. “The institution is so corrupt and the knowledge of this is so widespread that it’s ridiculous to even try to argue with the movie,” Padilha says. “That’s why regular cops didn’t sue us.”
The film’s other, more controversial target is Rio’s privileged youth, specifically casual drug-users who don’t stop to consider the lethal chain of supply. Students at Padilha’s former university are portrayed as self-satisfied playboys, oblivious to the consequences of their actions until they are made aware of them in the most horrific way imaginable.
At times, the director’s voice can be heard in Nascimento’s narration. Adopting his righteous enforcer’s point of view enables him to shove complacent middle-class faces into a dead teenager’s chest, ripped open by a police bullet, screaming “you’re the one who killed him, you faggot.”
“The problem is that a lot of intellectuals and critics smoke a little joint before writing their review,” Padilha says. “So a guy like this has to look at the movie and deal with his own hypocrisy, but some people couldn’t do that. Labelling the movie fascist is a way to dismiss it.”
Soon after the film was released, Moura wrote an article in O Globo advocating the legalisation of marijuana, but although Elite Squad has been discussed in Congress, it is unlikely to change anything, because of the self-preserving logic of the system it describes.
Under the constitution, politicians are immune from criminal prosecution while they are in office. The current President, Lula da Silva, heads an administration riddled with scandal, but while the economy is strong, Brazilians shrug and support him. Even BOPE has become tainted, just as it is being lionised by sections of the press.
“What’s happened is people have become accustomed to the violence,” says Menezes. “They are so used to failures of the justice system, the lack of punishment for the rich, that it’s socially acceptable to commit crimes – they don’t even see it as crime. They demand less corruption, but they also want to drink, drive home and then bribe the policeman that stops them to forget about it.”