A history of violence

Elite Squad, the latest film about Rio’s favelas, fails to raise the real issues around police bruta

Elite Squad is the latest in a catalogue of Brazilian films about violence in Rio de Janeiro, the city of paradise lost. Captain Nascimento, the anti-hero - or hero, depending on your point of view - is an officer in the Battalion of Special Police Operations (Bope), a commando unit that targets the gangs which control Rio's favelas, or shanty towns. The opening scenes of a wild firefight at a "funk" party, when a pay-off by drug traffickers to police goes wrong, set the pace for an action film that has become one of the most successful in the history of Brazilian cinema. Prior to its release, a leaked DVD version was being sold on every street corner in Rio. Its popularity is rooted in the everyday experiences of millions of the city's residents, for whom guns and death are a familiar background to life.

Cinema audiences around the world were introduced to the violence of Rio's favelas by the hugely successful City of God (2002), which received four Academy Award nominations. While City of God is told from the point of view of a favela resident and ends in the early 1980s, Elite Squad is set in 1997, and presents the story through the eyes of the police. With its explicit torture scenes, it is one of the first films to show Brazilian police brutality close up.

The film's director, José Padilha, previously made the documentary Bus 174. This traced the background of Sandro, a petty criminal who became famous when live TV captured his failed robbery-turned-siege, which ended in the deaths of himself and an innocent hostage. Padilha has said that, with Elite Squad, he wanted to move on from Bus 174 and show audiences the reality of policing in order to create better understanding of the mechanisms of violence in Rio. Perhaps he assumed that the film would provoke serious debate about how crime in Rio is being tackled.

In fact, in some quarters, the reception for the film has been disturbing. While most people in Rio support neither the human rights abuses committed by city police nor police corruption, there are many who see such excesses as acceptable, or even necessary. Some audience members even applauded the torture scenes. Overnight, Captain Nascimento and Wagner Moura, the actor who plays him, became celebrities in Brazil: footballers made Bope sniper salutes to celebrate goals, and dental-floss bikinis showing the unit's skull-and-dagger symbol went on sale. The Bope was hailed as the solution to Rio's problems and applications to join the unit have soared.

I have some personal experience of the Bope, having worked with a cultural organisation called AfroReggae in Rio's favelas since 2005. At the end of 2006 we were asked to help resolve a situation in a giant complex of favelas, a city within the city called Complexo do Alemão, where 200,000 people live and where we have set up a cultural centre. The Bope had been inside the favela for three weeks in pursuit of a drug trafficker who had fled there after shooting another trafficker dead.

Unable to get close to the gang, the Bope was taking out its frustration on the innocent. It cut off phone lines and electricity supplies and was beating residents. Businesses in the favela were losing money. In desperation, unable to work or send their children to school, residents were planning to go down to the "asphalt" (the city proper) to hijack and burn buses, historically a last resort of choice.

With the help of local leaders, we managed to get a group of human rights lawyers into the community before this happened. After a meeting with more than a hundred residents, we walked down to the main street of the favela under a light rain. As it was getting dark, some of the drug traffickers the Bope was hoping to find, including one of Rio's most wanted, emerged from an alleyway. For 20 minutes we discussed the police operation with them while, no more than a quarter of a mile away, the Bope let off occasional gunshots. A week later, after a meeting that publicised its human rights abuses, it left the community, having made no arrests and no seizures of drugs or weapons.

This is an example of how the Bope actually operates. In neglected areas awash with drugs and guns (both of which come from outside) and where there is little access to decent education, housing or health care, it often behaves like one more gang lording it over the vulnerable.

Elite Squad does not raise such issues. Instead, it compares Captain Nascimento and his colleagues favourably with the ordinary police force, which it shows extorting bribes and "protection money" from local businesses. Brazilian audiences have been willing to accept the characters' extreme violence because they are shown to be struggling against corruption.

This public response is typical, and worrying, in a country that has a tendency to try to address the very serious problem of violence by applying more violence. During 2007 the police alone killed 1,330 people, the evidence suggesting that most of these were summary executions. The conflict that is portrayed as cops and robbers in Elite Squad is, in reality, a battle between groups in dispute over resources and income in the poorest areas of the city. It is the absence of government that creates the conditions for making Rio one of the most violent cities in the world. The conflict between police and drug traffickers serves the purpose of keeping the impoverished population of more than two million favela residents in its place.

Elite Squad may appeal to audiences as a rip-roaring action film, but it cannot claim to raise the real questions which might help Rio overcome its urban conflict. It does not offer solutions, and the fetishisation of violence and championing of human rights abuses that its release provoked are certainly not a source of hope.

"Elite Squad" is released on 8 August.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games