Interview with José Padilha

He gets angry when the chat turns to “fascism.” But he knows a lot about the roots of violence in Rio. Why did his film cause such furore. JungleDrums talks to José Padilha, director of Elite Squad.

José Padilha also directed hard-hitting documentary Bus 174, exploring the makings of a criminal in Brazilian society, and produced the sensational Estamira, a film about a schizophrenic woman who lives in a garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro. But Elite Squad is a transcendental work. It made such an impact in Brazil that it’s even changed the way in which drugs traffickers treat the police in the favelas of Rio.

In this frank conversation with JungleDrums, the director talks about the Golden Bear award, the roots of urban violence and the praise and criticism he’s received since 2007. Tired of people drawing the wrong conclusions, he reveals that he feels very uncomfortable when people call Elite Squad “fascist”; the interview
was tense, but Padilha didn’t hold back.

City of God is still one of the best-known Brazilian films here in Europe and the press have compared Elite Squad to it.Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
Both films have certain things in common, but in other ways they’re very different. For starters, they deal with different subject matters. City of God is about the war waged between different gangs in a favela. It’s a film that looks at how the drugs trade came about and is almost exclusively centred on trafficking. Elite Squad takes place in the intersection between four different realities. One of these is the reality of the traffickers, the other is life for a conventional policeman, with their aggressive tactics and disrespect for human life, and, finally, the world of university students who take drugs. The film shows how these four very different realities interact with one another.

The way in which the two films were shot is totally different as well. My film was shot using hand-held cameras, which springs from my experience as a documentarist. Now both films share the theme that they deal with social problems without ever distancing the viewer. They both have unethical, misguided characters played by very charismatic actors who enable the public to empathise with the people they’re depicting: in the case of Elite Squad, it’s Captain Nascimento, and in City of God, it’s Lil’ Dice. And both films received the same sort of criticism for this approach here in Brazil. People claimed that Elite Squad encouraged a part of the population to look up to Captain Nascimento, and that City of God promoted drugs trafficking, encouraging children to copy Lil’ Dice.

Elite Squad is narrated from the point of view of the captain and is full of exhilarating music and action. Were you surprised that many people saw the film as a sympathetic portrayal of the BOPE (the Brazilian police’s elite squad)?
In reality, only a tiny minority of people said this. You have to completely not get the film to draw this kind of conclusion. The film shows very clearly the way in which the BOPE doesn’t try and hide this, it confronts the audience with the harsh reality of what really goes on. The BOPE processed the film, and tried to prohibit it from being exhibited in order to oblige us to cut all the scenes in the film where people are tortured or killed in the favelas. So the police and the BOPE obviously didn’t like it. They read the film as a criticism of their work. The jury at the Berlin Festival also saw it in the same light.

And what was your main aim when you made the film? Did you want to satirise the BOPE and their tactics?
The film isn’t a satire; it was a critique. The film is a harsh criticism of the actions of the authorities in Brazil, it continues what I started in Bus 174. Here we told the story of a violent criminal from his point of view. We showed how the State took a street kid, tortured him, put him in institutions that weren’t schools (they were concentration camps), put him in overcrowded prisons… the film shows how the State transformed a petty thief into a major criminal. Bus 174 poses the following question: “how are the powers that be responsible for the actions of this criminal?” Elite Squad is exactly the same thing, but seen from the other side of the law.

How does the State mould a character like Captain Nascimento, a violent policeman? And the film shows this very clearly. If you look at the film’s narrative structure, you see that it starts with Nascimento in crisis. He’s starting to realise that his method of containing violence in the favelas is incompatible with his family life and wants to leave the Elite Squad. What’s the whole drama behind the film? In order for him to be able to leave he has to train someone else to be just like him. Clearly, the film shows how this type of person is moulded by our society. Therefore it’s a harsh critique of the social consensus that helps create this type of police officer.

Has winning a Golden Bear changed the course of your career?
Yes. When you win something at a festival like Berlin, which is one of the biggest, it really promotes your work. That doesn’t mean that your film is necessarily better than all the others, it just means that the festival jury chose your film to symbolically draw people’s attention to it. This changes the international distribution of the film, and the reputations of the people that made it.

Do you disagree with the way in which the authorities in Rio deal with violence?
The current government’s policy is to openly confront favela dwellers. It’s a policy based on the BOPE. How many people did the police in Rio kill last year? One thousand two hundred. Just to give you a notion of the scale of the violence in Rio, in the United States, a country with 300 million inhabitants, last year the police killed 200 people.

What’s it like filming in a favela?
Filming in a favela is very difficult because you have to establish first that the don controlling the favela agrees to the shoot. And then you have to find out whether or not the police are going to invade the favela whilst you’re filming. We probably weren’t very efficient in either respect because the police tried to invade the favela at one point; there was a shoot out, and one of the crew almost took a bullet. And then a group of traffickers robbed one of our cars which was full of fake guns and had four members of the crew inside. The police ended up having to enter the favela again and we had to put off shooting. This was probably because we hadn’t talked to the traffickers first. We went to the local community representatives and the NGOs working in the favela, struck a deal with them and contracted a number of people from the favela to help with the filming, we even donated money to the community. But, naturally, we said that the community were in direct contact with the traffickers…

Who were you more scared of at the end of the day: the police or the traffickers?
I was more afraid of the traffickers because they use drugs and you never know just what might happen. As for the police, I felt it would be unlikely that they’d harm us during the shooting of the film because the repercussions in the press would be enormous. To be honest, the police didn’t want to give us authorisation to film at all. They started censoring the text and we said that the police weren’t qualified to evaluate film scripts. They have to authorise a film shoot based on other criteria, not the script. That led to a stand-off that lasted three months until we went to the governor of Rio and complained about the censorship, explaining that Brazil is a democracy and that we were entitled to freedom of speech. The governor took a political gamble, “should I be dubbed a censorer and have the press at my throat or should I let them film and then deal with the consequences?” He chose the latter. Thank God.

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