Rio de Janeiro isn't all caipirinhas, samba carioca, and women in dental floss thongs playing beach volleyball. Despite the many attractions that make it a must-visit location, Brazil's second largest city also has an undeniable dark side: rampant street violence between drug gangs and cops, some of whom are corrupt and working with the criminals.
The body-dropping is so bad that director José Padilha, who was born in Rio, dedicated an impressive trilogy of movies to exploring how corruption and systemic mismanagement leads to the bloodshed. The first, 2002's Bus 174, is a documentary that tries to understand what drove a young impoverished man to hijack a bus full of hostages on June 12, 2000. Padilha's first fictional film, the wildly successful Elite Squad (2007), starring Wagner Moura, focused on the forces that lead to corruption amongst police on the street level. His much-anticipated sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), which hit U.S. theaters Friday, goes higher up still, to the crooked politicians that set the stage for deadly clashes between citizens on both side of the law scraping to get by.
Complex spoke to Padilha recently about how his cinematic criticism of politicians and law enforcement affects his work, the difficulties of shooting in Rio's drug-gang- and militia-run slums, and how he sees the RoboCop remake, which he is currently developing for 2013 release.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
At the beginning of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, you note that this is a fictional story though it may resemble actual events. Were there specific scandals you were drawing from?
I was drawing from advice given to me by my lawyer. [Laughs.] No, it’s true. A lot of the things in the movie are real. The basic plot is real. The movie opens with a rebellion inside a jail in which one group of drug dealers want to kill another group, and they are aided by corrupt policemen. That happened. Then the movie shows, in jail, a leader who stays between the police and the drug dealers during the rebellion, and who then gets elected a legislator in the state. That also happened. That legislator starts to investigate the militias and tries to make the congress investigate them, but they can’t until a journalist is tortured by the militias. That also happened. So I would say most of it is true. [Laughs.]
Do politicians and police make your life difficult because you’re making films that examine their corruption in Brazil?
There are, of course, push-backs. My production company started in 1997. We have been sued I think 18 times, all by cops. So of course, all the BOPE [Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or Special Police Operations Battalion] officials sue us because they say that it portrays them in a bad way, so yeah, you have drawbacks by doing that, but we won all the lawsuits, because it’s basically true what we say. It's like an egg: If you want to make an omelet you’ve got to break the eggs.
But I have to say that, with Elite Squad 2, I thought there was gonna be a lot of fighting back from the political side of things and it didn’t happen because the movie became very, very popular very fast and I think that the popularity of the movie helped us. It sold more than 11 million tickets, and if you are a politician you don’t want to go against that kind of movie. I feel that the audience has spared us the trouble.
[Filming] Elite Squad, I had a lot of problems, like shootouts as we were shooting and crew members hijacked by drug lords.
You show some of that in the film, the way popular opinion affects the way that politicians come down on an issue.
Absolutely, and that’s not only true of Brazil, eh? [Laughs.] That’s true everywhere.
Both Elite Squad movies were filmed in the slums of Rio. What is the politics of shooting in favelas?
Every single movie that has been shot in a favela involves talking to the local community leaders, and the local community leaders have their own problems. So if you are shooting in a slum, in a favela that’s controlled by drug dealers, and you go to the local community leaders, and for sure they have to talk to the drug dealers themselves so you can be there. It’s impossible. It would be a total lie to say that there’s no such thing going on. It’s true of Elite Squad, it’s true of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, it’s true of City of God, it’s true of any movie that’s shot in this land.
Elite Squad 2 is an interesting case because in Elite Squad I was dealing with the relationship between the police and the drug gangs, so I decided to shoot in slums that were controlled by drug dealers, the real place, right? In Elite Squad 2, we’re dealing with the militias, so I shot in slums controlled by militias. I tried to make that a realistic assessment of the situation, mostly for the local audience, because they know the slums.
Elite Squad, I had a lot of problems, like shootouts as we were shooting, and crew members hijacked by drug lords, and so on. Nothing like this happened with Elite Squad 2. The militias are run by the police, and the police.... The drug dealers, they are more volatile than the police and the mafia, you see? The mafia…they don’t go crazy. They don’t act because they snorted a lot of cocaine today. It’s not like this that they operate. And so that’s why I think it was easier. Also, they never read the script, so they didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Now I’m not so sure I could shoot on their turf. [Laughs.] Probably not.
Did the fact that the first film was so popular help with support from the people in the neighborhoods where you were filming? Were they excited to have their neighborhood featured?
It totally helped. It also helped with the authorities. In the first Elite Squad, I could never get a permit. In order for me to shoot in this land, I had to threaten the government and say that I would go to the press and call them censors. In Elite Squad 2, I would ask and I would get. When you see a scene in Elite Squad 2 that is in the headquarters of the police, it’s the real headquarters of the police. You see a scene in the state congress and it’s in the real state congress. So the popularity of this film and the fact that all the public wanted to see the sequel—it was clear in the Internet—sort of like motivated the politicians and the local communities to help us make the film. Of course the politicians thought we were making another version of the first movie; they never saw it coming the way it did. Now my life is a little harder, as far as permits!
Piracy was a big issue for Elite Squad and you took measures to stem it with the sequel. What do you think the rampant piracy says about Brazil?
In Brazil it’s very widespread. What happened with Elite Squad was, three months before I opened it in theaters, somebody stole a DVD from a company that was subtitling the cut of the movie, and it just caught on. It became sort of the thing—everybody had to see it. It made the cover of all the newspapers and the magazines, even before it opened. That was really hurtful to me at the time. And it also was strange, because as a businessman I was losing a lot of money, but as a director, on the other hand, I said, "Gee, people love my movie." It was sort of a contradictory feeling.
But having said that, of course, piracy is something that has to be fought. People who sell pirate DVDs don’t pay taxes. By not paying taxes, they have lower costs, so they put other people out of business if they are legitimate. Piracy in Brazil has to do with corruption of the police, which never arrest the people who are selling the movies. So piracy is clearly a bad thing, not only with movies but in software and other things. Nowadays, because of the Internet, piracy has become very widespread, and it demands different ideas on how to fight it.
You took some interesting measures to protect your sequel.
With Elite Squad 2, we were so afraid of piracy that we did this movie the old fashioned way; we never did a digital process. Everything was made on film, because, you know, if you don’t go digital, then there’s no piracy. And even the screenings of the movie, even though we opened this movie to almost a thousand screens, there was no digital copy. Everything was 35mm. So it was a little insane, and not very cost efficient, but it paid off because we sold a huge number of tickets, more than 11 million tickets, and we beat Avatar on gross—it’s the biggest grossing movie ever in South America.
The other thing was, we didn’t have a distribution company. My partner and I self-distributed this movie from our garage basically. We hired this old time distributor of Brazilian movies and we said, “We’re gonna self-distribute this film but it’s not gonna be a small self-distribution. It’s gonna be a huge thing because we think this is gonna be a blockbuster. How do we do that?” He said, “Well, you got a room?” I said, “I’ve got a garage.” So he said, “Let’s get a table in here and let’s put a computer system in here. Let’s put four guys, Let’s make the prints.” We just created a distribution company in our offices to put this movie out, and the distribution company is still there, it works, it’s now doing it’s own thing. [Laughs.] It’s funny.
The politicians thought we were making another version of the first movie; they never saw [my criticism of political corruption] coming the way it did. Now my life is a little harder, as far as permits!
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within was selected to be Brazil’s official submission to the Academy Awards. What are the concerns for Brazilian films coming to the U.S.?
Every film in every culture has certain elements that translate and certain elements that do not. It’s true of Brazilian movies, it’s true of American movies, French movies and German movies. Usually when the Brazilian Academy chose a Brazilian entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, they tried to second guess what the Academy members would say. They wouldn’t really go for what they thought was the best movie, they would go for what they thought was the movie that has the better chance [of winning] with the Academy.
This year, they sort of said, “We’re not gonna do this anymore. We’re gonna go with the movie that had the biggest impact in our own culture and send that movie out because it shows our country and our culture the way it is. Even though it has a lot of specific Brazilian things in it, we’re gonna send it to the Academy and see how it works.” That’s gonna be an interesting thing to find out. I suppose we are now in different times, when cultural barriers are much smaller, with the Internet and all. So I think the movie will translate, but you know, there are so many great movies in that pool that you never know. The chance is very small for any one of them; there are 62 great films trying to get into five spots.
With this trilogy of urban violence in Rio finished, are you done with the theme?
I think I’ve talked about violence in Rio as far as I can see it. I think I’ve done the job that I set out to do, which was to try to represent the process that generates the violence in Rio in a way that anybody can understand, being didactic about this actually, to organize the complex social processes that go on in a way that people understand cause and effect.
In Bus 174, I looked at a street kid basically who’s become very violent inside a bus, and I flashed back and I showed how the state has treated this street kid violently throughout his life, and so what I’m saying is, how the state mishandles small-time criminals and street kids creates violent criminals in the long run. In Elite Squad, I talk about how the state, by mismanaging the police and paying low wages, by training poorly, by selecting poorly and so on, creates corrupt and violent cops. And so when you look at Bus 174 and Elite Squad, you see that the violent criminals and the corrupt and violent cops that the state creates meet each other on the streets, no wonder we have a lot of violence. With Elite Squad 2, I ask, Why is the state doing that? And then I have to talk about the corruption on the political level and how that affects the way that police is managed and how the militia votes for politicians and so on. That I think completes the picture, so there’s nothing else for me to say, as far as urban violence goes in Rio.
What are you interested in addressing next?
Well, in Brazil, I have a project Mensalão, which means, like, mental bribery. It talks about corruption in politics in general by looking at the scandal that happened in the first Rousseff government, in which the President’s party was paying wages for congressmen to vote certain ways, buying votes, bribery basically, in a very organized and comprehensive way. I want to make that because it talks about an endemic problem in my country that we have to deal with, which is corruption and the way corruption and politics are tied together.
Your very exciting U.S. project is the remake of Robocop. Was the sci-fi world one that you were excited to get into?
Absolutely. I think that the concept of Robocop is brilliant. Regardless of the first film, which is great, by the way, the concept of replacing a human being with a robot, it sticks to me on so many levels. First, there’s the question of why. Why do you want to totally control the behavior of a human being? So that opens a huge avenue for social commentary, which you see in the first Robocop movie. You also talk about, when does someone lose their humanity to a corporation? That's a big thematic issue in Robocop. And finally, Robocop allows you to discuss a very ancient but also modern philosophical problem, the Mind-Body Problem, which is, can robots be conscious? What is it that generates consciousness? What is consciousness? And in Robocop you replace parts of a human being with robot parts, and so, what does that do with the person, with the individual? Those are things that I am very interested by, so I’m excited to be working on that.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)