Elite Squad – A Slap in the Face for Society

Why did Elite Squad rock Brazil so much? Just why did this film about Brazil’s BOPE squad of police officers cause such a stir?

Kid Tattoo, a tattoo artist from the City of God favela, Rio de Janeiro, made a brief appearance in Elite Squad. He’s become so famous that he’s been invited to open a new shop in a middle-class district. “The DVD’s really made waves. Everybody knows me now”, he says, brimming with pride. In the film, the young man tattoos the ‘skull face’ emblem on an officer of the military police’s Elite Squad (BOPE).

When the popular Brazilian TV presenter Luciano Huck had his Rolex stolen, he jokingly exclaimed: “Call Captain Nascimento!”. He was referring to the police officer portrayed by Wagner Moura, who tortures and kills without a second thought. The BOPE are all the rage at the makeshift market stalls in the centre of
Rio. As well as the infamous pirate version of the film, you can even get your hands on Captain Nascimento action figures.

When Elite Squad debuted in cinemas across Rio and São Paulo in October 2007, the film had already been seen, copied, adored and attacked by people all across Brazil. It’s estimated that 1 million pirate DVDs were sold; the copies of these copies are incalculable.

In São Paulo, at Congonhas Airport, a taxi driver spotted me with a pirate copy of “Elite Squad 3″, an extremely violent, semi-professional documentary produced by the police themselves. He couldn’t resist: “Would you lend me your DVD so I can copy it? I promise to give it back. I’ll leave you my telephone number, my ID, whatever you want”.

A faithful reflection of today’s world, the Elite Squad phenomenon offers a short cut straight to the heart of Brazilian society. “After watching the film, I started to admire the BOPE. If imprisoning people isn’t doing the trick, why not kill them? I know that what he does is cruel, but criminals don’t think twice about shooting at you”, comes the almost playful reflection from friends Jessica, Fatima and Geisa, all locals from City of God, aged from 13 to 18.

“For me, the film is a brash critique of the police”, explains another local, Carlos Alberto da Silva, 36. “I prefer seeing the kids selling drugs than have the police barging in here the way they do. The worst thing about these films is that people like me who live in the favelas end up facing more discrimination than ever. It always seems like there are only cops and robbers here”.

Throughout Brazil many people see Captain Nascimento as a sad example of their social ills, whilst others see him as a saviour. An action film that has rallied people from diverse backgrounds, Elite Squad seems to have escaped the control of the very people who created it.

In an article written for the newspaper O Globo, one of the most important titles in the country, the film was denounced as fascist for justifying the actions of a killer police officer and for whipping the crowd into a frenzy at the festival during the torture scene, with people shouting “caveira” (the skull-emblem of the BOPE) at the end of the screening.

“The protagonist is a police officer who goes to see a psychiatrist because he’s suffering from panic attacks. The film, like the documentary Bus 174 (2002), doesn’t take a moralistic stance. When Bus 174 came out,
people said I was a Left-wing radical. Now are they going to turn around and call me a Right-wing radical?”, retorts the film’s director, José Padilha. In Bus 174 Padilha gave a voice to kidnapper Sandro do Nascimento, who took a busload of passengers hostage in Rio after an attempted robbery, killed a female passenger and was then killed himself by the police.

Padilha, Wagner Moura and producer Marcos Prado have reiterated in a mantra-like fashion that the film doesn’t reflect their opinions of the police nor of the role that drug users play in sustaining trafficking – another controversial aspect of the film. “This is the opinion of a BOPE officer. I spoke to a lot of policemen and I only reproduced what I heard”, insists Padilha. “If I put a thermometer in your mouth and you’ve got a fever, is it the thermometer’s fault?”. “The film is hyper-realistic, packaged almost like a documentary but, at the same time, it’s a typical contemporary action film. It ends up transforming the police officer, who starts off in crisis into a Rambo-type figure”, says lecturer Ivana Bentes. “In Elite Squad the viewer is held hostage by the captain’s ultra-conservative discourse”, she explains.

Wagner Moura is astonished by this interpretation: “The film is seen through the eyes of Captain Nascimento. If people chose to see this point of view as something positive it’s not our responsibility”, he explains.

Anthropologist Alba Zaluar, from the Violence Research Group of the State University of Rio, without meaning to, ends up completing the actor’s rationale. “Research shows that the media produces films that reflect the way in which people think. The population tends to want to see things that reinforce the way in which they think, be it in films or in the press”, explains Alba. “I think it’s unfortunate that, exactly at this moment in time when there’s a real effort being made to improve the police force in Brazil, this film comes along and incites these kind of reactions”.

Michel Misse, from Rio’s Federal University, follows the trail left by the media to explain the repercussions of Elite Squad. For him, the media has tuned the public in to violence. “The visibility given to violence has reached record levels”, he explains. “The media, which needs to maintain its audience, edit reality; scandals and violence sell. The homicide rate in Copacabana is the same as in Switzerland, but it seems as if you’re under constant threat there. There’s a demand for incrimination here that contradicts all notions of democracy. The judicial system can’t keep up with the demand for punishment, so many people see civil rights as mechanisms that lead to impunity. Then, they seek out illegal solutions – that’s why people are calling on Captain Nacimento”.

The fact is that everyone wants Captain Nascimento to enforce the law when someone else is in the wrong. They wouldn’t want to face his wrath themselves. “The country is so hierarchical that people don’t think
that the same rules applied to one person should apply to them as well”, observes the academic. In the ghetto, however, people see things in a different light.

“I liked the film, but I don’t think it’s very realistic. I grew up in the ghetto and I know that a lot of innocent people are killed by the police. When the police enter the favela, I feel afraid”, says Marcelo Barbosa, 36.
Barbosa’s feelings reflect the statistics. For every police officer killed on duty during the first half of 2006, men in uniform gunned down 26 civilians. During the same period in 2007 the figure increased to 40. It seems that, as Commander-General of the Military Police Angelo Ubiratan put it, “society has already decided that the police need to be violent”.

Viewers were stirred up by the film to a startling extent. It’s calculated that 58% of all DVDs sold in Brazil are pirate copies, but Elite Squad proved, like no other film before it, the influence of this counterfeit market. The success of the pirate film that hit the streets before the final cut was such that even sequences have emerged on the black market. “People sometimes think that it’s a continuation of Elite Squad. But we only explain if people ask and we don’t give refunds”, explains stallholder Genival Barbosa, who works on Augusta Street in São Paulo.

Eduardo Coutinho, the most highly regarded documentary film maker in Brazil, has wound up on the black market thanks to his film Santa Marta: Two Weeks in the Slums, which was released in 1987 and touched on the violence that nowadays has taken on massive proportions. The film is being touted on the black market as “Elite Squad 2”.

Padilha is very upset by claims that pirating the film was all a publicity stunt. After it was revealed that director Fernando Meirelles said that he would have adored having the film pirated, Padilha reacted: “If he said that, then it’s easy. All he has to do is hand his film over to a street-peddler”. But the fact still remains: it was an amazing publicity stunt. No other Brazilian film over the past decade has made such an impact, and
without the support of the all-powerful media-machine, GloboFilmes. The giants behind the production are foreigners: brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, ex-chiefs of Miramax, and Argentinean Eduardo Constantini. They backed Elite Squad when it was still just a script. They were responsible for $2 million of the film’s R$10 million budget (making Elite Squad the most expensive Brazilian film ever). The money was well spent. In Brazil, the film was more popular and controversial than City of God. But how will Captain Nascimento fare outside of Brazil? Good guy or thug? Judging by the hubbub at the Berlinale and the bewildered British papers, the film will be a success here, but the audience won’t salute the captain.

by Ana Paula Souza

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