Interview with José Padilha

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within – sequel to the controversial Elite Squad film – elevated José Padilha to one of the major players in Latin American cinema, and has even given him a route to Hollywood – where he has now started work on directing Robocop 3. After the word-of-mouth success of Elite Squad – which found it’s way to many Brazilian home via pirate DVD – Elite Squad: The Enemy Within went onto become the biggest-selling Brazilian film of all time, with over 11 million Brazilians seeing the film. It is now being released in the UK on DVD and so we decided the time was right to talk to Padilha about the controversy of the first Elite Squad and the success of it’s sequel The Enemy Within, as well as find out about his new – and quite exciting – upcoming projects.

At the beginning of The Enemy Within it states that the film is not a true story but is based on real events. How much of the film is based on reality?

Well, quite a lot of it actually. The film creates a story – a dramatic, fictional story – that ties together several true events by putting some fictional characters in those events but also taking inspiration for those characters from real life characters. So to give one example, there was a rebellion in a Rio de Janeiro jail in which one drug dealer took over the jail with the help of the corrupt policemen and caretakers, to kill another drug dealer. It’s also true that a guy who works for an NGO was called to go to the jail to be an intermediary between the prisoners and the police and then BOPE was on the outside. This guy, the NGO leader – again true – ran for state legislator and got elected. Also true that he started an investigation about the militia but couldn’t make it official because it was politically anti-governmental. It’s also true that journalists were tortured by militia men and then the press demanded an investigation which took place and several people were arrested and congressmen were indicted and so on.

Do you find it much more liberating working within a fictional film rather than documentaries, where it’s impossible for you to change the story?

In a certain sense, a fictional movie is liberating because you don’t have the constraints of reality so you can pretty much take the story wherever you want it go. It’s one thing to make a documentary like Bus174 where the film has been scripted for you by real-life events. You can choose how to tell the story, you can do flash backs, but you can’t change the real-life events. In a fictional movie you have freedom to take the story where you like so it is liberating in that sense but in another sense it’s not. But, a fictional movie is a very expensive endeavour, that involves a lot of equipment, a lot of people, the set is huge compared to a documentary set, so you’re also sort of tied up by the constraints of the shooting, you have to shoot what you have to shoot at that time otherwise you’ll go over budget. So I would say that a fictional movie is liberating when you’re writing the script. After you write the script it’s no longer that liberating!

I suppose the other problem could be the extra criticism you can receive for making an original film where you decide the story and viewpoint. Is this something that ever bothers you?

Not really. First of all, Elite Squad, the first movie, got some criticism. The Enemy Within got no criticism. It was unanimously accepted and actually it buried the previous criticism in a sense because it shed light over the first two movies that I did, Elite Squad and Bus 174. The criticism is very interesting in Brazil because Brazil is left-wing, the culture in Brazil is Marxist. This is for a very simple reason; Brazil has been a right-wing dictatorship; you know we were actually ruled by generals up to the 80s, people forget that. So because there were right-wing generals, the intellectuals naturally became left-wing, Marxist. Now if you are a Marxist intellectual the hero of your movies is pretty much defined by your ideology, the Marxist hero is someone who has been excluded by society, he’s someone who’s striking in a factory, he’s a political dissident or something like that. You cannot have a cop as a protagonist of a Marxist movie. In fact, Elite Squad is the first Brazilian film ever to have a cop as a protagonist which is pretty much insane because all over the world, in England, in the US, in Germany, in France, there have been tonnes of movies with cops as the protagonist. The first one in Brazil came out in 2007.

So, maybe the criticism came because people didn’t really understand this new type of protagonist…

I think that the criticism that I got for Elite Squad was because I made a cop the protagonist of a movie, then tried to explain why a cop is violent and gave a violent cop a humanist dimension, which they do have; violent cops are also humans and there are reasons why they become violent of course. But doing this is not accepted by a Marxist background culture, unless they understand it properly, and they didn’t. Well, some did, some didn’t, so there was a huge polemic. The funny thing about this polemic is we ended up winning the Golden Bear and Costa-Gravas of all people gave it to me. [Costa-Gravas is a famous left-wing filmmaker]. It was a crazy polemic which really helped the movie and then really helped The Enemy Within.

Was it then a conscious decision to have this balance in the new film with two main characters and the son in the middle?

Now, I don’t buy anymore this thing of “I’m from the left”, “I’m from the right” and the only way to look at social processes is either you are a Marxist or you have a Marxist perspective or you’re a liberal in the sense of Friedrich Hayek or Adam Smith, and that’s just not it for me. It’s lost it’s meaning, and a lot of politics now is lip service, it’s politicians trying to get votes from certain segments of society. So what I did with The Enemy Within was I created a left-wing radical, that’s Fraga, and I put him against Nascimento, a right-wing policeman, in every single way I could. They have different ideologies, one is in the Government, another one is against the Government, but more so than anything, they share the same wife and they have the same kid that they’re both trying to educate. So, I’ve made them hate each other like crazy. But even so circumstances force them to work them together. They can only win, so to speak, if they get together and united to get the job done. And that’s the basic dramatic arc of the movie. And it came out of all the crazy politics surrounding the first film. It’s something that needs to happen in England and the US too, because if the democrats don’t work together we’re all going to be doomed!

How was the international reaction to the film, at festivals and so on?

We got almost an unanimous reaction to it, which is great of course, but I suppose I like arguments [referring to the arguments around the first film]. But, we got great reviews, and in Brazil and abroad we sold a gigantic number of tickets, and there was a lot of articles about the film. It’s like they finally understood, because in a sense I made three films to talk about an issue. I made Bus 174 which was praised by the left and attacked by the right. It was labelled as a communism movie trying to justify crimes committed by a street kid. That’s what the right wing said. And the left wing said “no”, they praised it. Then Elite Squad was the other way round, it was criticised by the left and praised by the right. And then I make a third movie and everybody gets it, it’s not left, it’s not right, it’s just how things work.

Were you surprised by the success of The Enemy Within?

I knew the movie was going to have an audience because of how popular the first movie was, but at the same time I made a movie that was less “pop” and more political than the first one. So I didn’t know. When I looked at it in the screening room I thought it’s going to sell four, maybe five, million tickets. But I never thought it was going to sell 11 and a half million tickets and it outdid Avatar and those kinds of things, that I never thought. But it opened so strongly that first weekend that we knew immediately after it opened that it was going to be a huge hit. It was a little surprise of sorts but it was a possibility.

You’ve been confirmed in the press as the director of Robocop 3. Is that your next project?

I’m working on Robocop and that’s my intention, that’s my next movie. I’m actually moving to Los Angeles tomorrow to start what we call “soft prep” and to meet different people and start casting and so on, and so I’m focusing on that movie.

Is it going to be strange working on a film that doesn’t deal with a Brazilian reality?

I make the movies that I like, the subject matters that I like. Because I live in Rio I am very close to the subject matter of Elite Squad and Bus 174 and The Enemy Within, it’s something that I got to know about, and that interested me a lot. But Robocop is also something that is of interest to me, as it deals with philosophical and social subject matters that are very important and that I’ve always liked, such as: what does it mean for a corporation to turn a man into a product? Another point that Robocop makes is: at what point do we lose our freedom when we become more and more automated, with technological implants and so on? Which is pretty much going to become a reality in the next 30 years, if not less. “What happens when wars are no longer fought by men but by drones? Can you blame a robot for a mistake or is the company that made the robot to blame? So all those issues are very interesting to me and all social issues that I love to talk about, but now it’s in the context of sci-fi, not reality-based.

With all these feature films, do you miss making investigative documentaries?

I don’t, because I still make documentaries. While I was making Elite Squad and The Enemy Within I was making two documentaries at the same time. I did a film called Garapa that opened in Berlin, and then I did another one with the BBC called Secrets of the Tribe that opened at Sundance. So I always have a documentary going on. You can do a documentary while you’re doing a feature film as documentaries are smaller and you don’t have a schedule and so on.

So does that mean you’re working on a documentary at the moment?

I do actually. It’s in the research phase, but I do. It’s about interest rates in Brazil. How come they’re so high? Who makes all the profits from this? Because we [Brazil] have the highest interest rates in the world. Our banks charge fantastic amounts of interest rates to their clients and companies and so on. The movie follows a guy who has a debt to a bank, actually it’s to several banks.

Interview by Russ Slater

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within will be released in the UK on December 26th and is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray

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