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.