Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

FILM-BRAZIL: Elite Unit – Heroes or Anti-Heroes?

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 12 2007 (IPS) - The recently released film “Tropa de Elite” (Elite Squad) has sparked unprecedented debate in Brazil about the role and actions of the security forces as they combat drug trafficking mafias in shantytowns.

While some regard it as an apologia for police brutality, others argue that the movie merely shows the reality of the fight against the drug trade, with its good and bad sides.

“Tropa de Elite”, directed by José Padilha, explores the inner workings of the Rio de Janeiro Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE), whose methods have frequently drawn fire from human rights groups.

More pirated versions of this film were in circulation than of any other movie in the history of Brazilian filmmaking, even before it was released in theatres on Oct. 5.

The story is told from the point of view of a member of the battalion, in his daily combat against drug traffickers in the “favelas” (shantytowns).

While it portrays the BOPE troops as knights in shining armour compared to the “corrupt” military police, it also shows them torturing detainees to extract confessions, and cold-bloodedly executing suspected drug traffickers in the favelas without a qualm.

It is precisely this straightforward and apparently uncritical approach which makes some people uncomfortable about the film. Arnaldo Bloch, a columnist for the newspaper O Globo, described its message as “fascist.”

Bloch, who defied the initial wave of commendations for the movie’s cinematographic technique, said the film becomes a mouthpiece for the BOPE’s own vision of itself, portraying the characters as heroes, and justifying what he called, with irony, “minor slip-ups” like torture and summary executions.

For his part, sociologist Ignacio Cano, of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), talking about the book the film is based on, said he found it “rather disturbing, because sometimes it isn’t clear whether the tone is critical, condescending, or simply descriptive in the face of various atrocities.”

Cano, who also teaches social sciences at the UERJ, hadn’t yet seen the film, which was premiered before a select audience at the opening of the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival in mid-September.

The book, “Elite da Tropa”, was written by anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, a former national secretary of public security who also held the equivalent post in Rio de Janeiro state, and two former BOPE captains, Andre Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel.

Pimentel is also co-producer and co-screenwriter for the film.

Padilha directed the 2002 documentary “Bus 174” about a city bus hijacked with hostages aboard in the vicinity of the Botanical Gardens, which ended with the deaths of the hijacker and a woman hostage.

Initially the director was going to make “Tropa de Elite” a documentary, but thought better of it when he discovered that no member of the police would dare go into details on camera about combating drug trafficking, which many in Brazil call an “urban war”.

What most disturbs Cano and human rights activists are reports of film audiences’ reactions. People applaud and cheer en masse at the scenes showing the execution of a trafficker, or torture.

Some shout “Caveirao!” (big skull), the name given in the favelas to the BOPE’s armoured patrol cars, which carry the battalion’s logo, a skull pierced by a dagger.

“The shouts of ‘Caveirao!’ and the cheers for scenes of torture do not surprise me. They fit the present concept of a war between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ at a time when many people are willing for any and every measure to be taken against their ‘enemies’,” said Cano.

According to the sociologist, the BOPE symbolically represents the idea of the “incorruptible cop,” the “warrior” who kills to defend his people.

“I think the BOPE is, in fact, less corrupt than the other forces, but it’s not squeaky-clean. They, too, get their financial rewards. For example, it costs more to hire a BOPE police officer for private security work than an ordinary policeman,” he said.

BOPE members describe themselves as the most effective urban warriors in the world, and that appears to be the vision of them in the book that is the basis for the movie, Cano said.

“The book leaves room for the interpretation that they are heroes fighting on behalf of society. The ‘Rambo’ phenomenon, that vision that U.S. movies have of the guy who breaks the law in order to save society, is very similar,” he said.

It portrays “going beyond the law itself to save society in an emergency situation,” a focus that Cano would have preferred to be more clearly critical, rather than just a straightforward account.

“From a marketing point of view, it leaves the door open for the book to be read by everyone: those who support the brutality as well as those who criticise it,” he pointed out.

But officials in the state of Rio de Janeiro do not share that view.

José Mário Beltrame, secretary of security, and Rio de Janeiro Governor Sérgio Cabral said the picture was “excellent.” Cabral added that the film “faithfully portrays the public security problems we face.”

But the movie, which shows a police officer shooting a drug trafficker in the head, and suspects tortured to extract confessions, caused concern among some members of BOPE, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent it from being screened.

Actor Wagner Moura, who plays the lead role as Captain Nascimento, was also concerned that some people in the audience look on his character as a hero.

“I wonder how a Swedish audience would react to this movie. I don’t think they would see those torturer policemen as heroes, any more than many people who have seen it here do,” he said in an article he wrote for O Globo.

But Moura reacts angrily to critics who say the film is deliberately “fascist.”

“In my opinion, ‘Tropa de Elite’ contributes to what’s most important at a time of crisis: open debate, the antithesis of fascism,” he wrote.

Film critics, on the other hand, pointed a finger at the cosy relationship shown between drug traffickers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the favelas. These, according to the police in the movie, are guilty by omission or commission of being accessories to the criminals, as are the upper and middle classes for consuming drugs.

This worries Cano, who sees this interpretation as reaffirming the views of those who brand human rights activists with similar stereotypes.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International often criticise the violent methods employed by BOPE when they drive into the favelas and shoot at innocent targets from their notorious caveiraos.

Interviewed by IPS, a resident in La Rocinha, the most populous favela in Rio de Janeiro, said that he has no intention of going to see the movie, “because we know better than any one else what the BOPE is like.”

“We had to close a school run by an NGO because it was always being caught in the cross-fire. The caveirao would arrive and would shoot at the school, as well,” said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of police reprisals.

A boy in the same favela told much the same story about the BOPE: “Santa Claus sometimes doesn’t come to the favela at Christmastime because he doesn’t like to be shot at. He only comes when the sky is completely clear” of police helicopters, and the roads of caveiraos.

“I want to get away from this place, because sometimes the helicopters aim at us and they can kill us,” he said.

Although there are no reliable figures for the number of innocent people killed, nor of deaths for which the BOPE is responsible, the official bulletins of the Institute of Public Security in Rio de Janeiro acknowledge some 1,000 deaths a year in what are described as shoot-outs between the police and criminals.

In contrast, official statistics register 150 deaths a year among the military police.

Cano clarified that, of these deaths in the police ranks, only 20 occur in actual conflicts with armed criminals. Most occur off-duty or out of uniform, in personal disputes, or on moonlighting jobs such as private security work.

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