Monday, November 05, 2007

"Tropa de Elite" and Public Attitudes towards Police Violence in Brazil

For the past few weeks, the Brazilian film "Tropa de Elite", a movie about the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) of Rio's police, has dominated the theaters, the media, and popular discussion. The movie, based on a former member of BOPE's memoirs, focuses on BOPE's involvement in the favelas, allegedly trying to show how the police fuel the favela violence as well. It was so controversial and eagerly awaited that you could buy a pirated copy of the movie in July, three months before the movie hit the theaters (which, to my knowledge, is pretty much unprecedented).

Director Jose Padilha (director/writer of the excellent "Bus 174" has claimed that the point of "Tropa da Elite" is to show BOPE's complicity in spurring unnecessary violence (including torture and executions) in the favelas. While I have reason to believe that may have been his goal, society in Brazil doesn't seem to be getting the point. Instead of more realistically showing how unnecessarily violent the police in the favelas are, people are walking out of the theaters viewing the police as heroes. Many of the standard middle- and upper-class notions of life and crime in the favelas (based on nothing of reality, but rather of images from the extremely-biased media and their own class-fears) are praising the police. As the article points out, children are wanting to join BOPE. Instead of having a "Trainspotting" effect (show drug-use realistically to reveal the horrors of heroin), it seems to be having the opposite - viewers are praising the police and becoming even more entrenched in their belief that, as one individual claims, "a good criminal is a dead one," and that any measure of violence is justified in killing "criminals".

I have no doubt that a decent part of the onus falls on Padilha himself. First of all, as I said, the story is based on the memoirs of ex-BOPE officer Rodrigo Pimentel (who had a hand in the screenplay), and, for obvious reasons, makes the protagonist (portaryed by Wagner Moura) come off looking pretty good. Additionally, it's no secret that the middle- and upper-classes in Rio (and Brazil more largely) have an irrational fear of the favelas, with a notion that they are inhabited only by lazy people and crazed druglords who are waging a war on society (not very close to reality, suffice to say). These sectors need no help in trying to justify police violence against favelados. The fact that Padilha tries to "let the story tell itself" and have his audience decide isn't good enough. This approach only logically leads (and has led) to the middle-classes reifying their belief in the value of violence against the poor. Padilha himself has seemed genuinely mystified that people are viewing the police so positively in his film, and he may be sincere. But that doesn't remove from him some of the responsibility for the fact that a society that he knows quite well has read exactly what they wanted to read into his film - that he didn't exactly say, "Police violence like this is bad", whose explicitness seems perhaps silly to a foreigner's eye, still leaves some burden on him.

Nonetheless, it just shows how far from reality the middle- and upper-classes in Brazil are, and how far we have to go for social equality here. When children who live in the favelas "play" torture based on what they have seen (putting plastic bags over each other's heads, mimicking a mechanism the police use in which you suffocate until your nose bleeds, and then they question you), the violence is clearly lopsided. This is not to excuse drug lords in the favelas; they, too, are a source of violence in Brazil. But until the police stop getting a carte blanche from society for their use of torture and indiscriminate murder, films like "Tropa de Elite" will do more harm than good.