After winning the top prize (the Golden Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival, and coming from 5 sold out screenings at Tribeca, we were treated to an under the radar screening of Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha’s The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) at the Harvard Film Archive last night (5/5).
It had been over a year since I last had contact with Jose. He and I had been collaborating on a documentary film about anthropologists, inspired by a very controversial book “Darkness in El Dorado” that caused a near riot at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting the year it was published. The controversy involved perhaps the most widely studied indigenous group of people in the world, the Yanomamo of the Amazon. Our company (DER) happens to hold the copyright to the largest film record, starting from “first contact”, of those people.
I first met Jose here when his break through film, the documentary “Bus 174″ was screening at the Boston International Film Festival. That film was widely acclaimed, and for a documentary, had the rare honor of being picked up by a theatrical distributor, Think Film. At the time I hadn’t realized it (I don’t think Jose did either) this film has become the first in what he now says, will be a trilogy.
At Harvard last night, there was a line of people that had to be turned away from the theater. Standing room only. I spied Jose, wearing what looked like the same faded blue baseball cap he wore when he was shooting interviews in my living room a few years ago. He was leaning against the wall, waiting to be introduced. I waved at him, he came over and hugged me, whispering that he had met with someone in NY who had promised to give him the money to finish our film. I felt a wave of excitement, anticipation and gratitude that I was lucky enough to know one of the most brilliant, young filmmakers in the world today.
The audience understandably consisted of a large number of Brazilian students and academics. This was HARVARD after all. There was a loud din with the hum of Portuguese being spoken all around me. The film is subtitled. It has gotten a huge amount of press, in the NYTimes and everywhere it has screened so far. Jose is articulate, but says few words in the intro saving his incise intellect for the Q & A after.
The theater darkens and the total assault on our senses begins. The core of the film is about BOPE, an elite squad of police trained to the level of Navy Seals in our country. They are intended to counter the corruption and collaboration between the regular police and the drug lords in the favellas of Rio. The audio track is masterful as we feel sucked into the world of bullets and mayhem that epitomizes the “war on drugs”. There is blood, a lot of blood. There is torture that made me reflect immediately on Abu Ghraib. But above all there is moral ambiguity. The questions that ask who is responsible for all this when apparently none of the characters seem to be in control. None of them have what philosophers call “free will”. They are all trapped in a system that we can identify as “the State”.
Theoretically, we should find most of the characters in Jose’s film reprehensible, but we don’t. They are sympathetic, we feel for them, even as they kick and beat and twist plastic bags over the heads of the punks and thugs they are sent out to hunt down and destroy.
The film has been misconstrued as an “action film” in the manner of Bruce Willis. It is anything but. It is an ode to our elemental inhumanity, our powerlessness when the policies of governments create environments that we have to evolve to fit, in order to survive. It is a complex structure that rises to the highest level of “Art” with a capitol “A”.
By the end of the on-rushing two hours I was limp as a dish rag. Stunned, I sat in my seat wondering what to make of what I had seen. Two academics, (whose names and specialities I have forgotten) start the dialogue about the film with Jose. He is thoughtful and respectful of all reactions. He has heard it all by now. He tells how he originally started to make a documentary about this subject, an outgrowth of his work on BUS 174. But soon he realized he could get himself killed, following BOPE on their excursions into the slums. So, based on his many interviews with police and with the Bope, he constructed the narrative script for the film. Before it actually was released the Brazilian government and the cops sued him to prevent the film from screening, but the public had already seen pirated copies of the film and demanded it be shown. It was released, to wild acclaim, and the lawsuits seem to have faded away.
Jose is fearless. Like all greatest artists, he takes risks that no others dare to do. His intellect seems to be able to embrace far reaching ideas and weave them together in a coherent whole. The resulting work may be approached and perceived at many levels. For some, it may always remain simply an action film. For others, it is a meditation on what it means to be human.
Elite Squad is sceduled for theatrical release in this country in September 2008. Go see it if it appears in a theater near you.