ELITE SQUAD: The Enemy Within is the second in writer/director Jose Padilha's intricate and operatic crime duology, about the turmoil and extreme violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, between the police and gangs, who are interminably locked in battle. The most profitable film in Brazilian box office history, outgrossing even the megahit Avatar, Elite Squad is in limited release in US theaters now, so check those listings!
Jose was cool enough to sit down with us one early Sunday morning a few weeks back, while attending Fantastic Fest, to talk about Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, and what life is like on the tumultuous streets of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Read on, and enjoy.
SCREENANARCHY - Well let's jump right into the deep end. What problems are you addressing politically, and what is the film saying in a philosophical sense about those problems?JOSE - Right. Well if you go to Rio de Janeiro, it's a beautiful city. You've probably seen postcards if you haven't been there. Beautiful beaches, a great environment and everything...but, if you look at the numbers of the violence in Rio, they are huge. You've seen some of it in films like City Of God, for instance, which allows you to see the drug trade and how gangs control large areas of the slums, or favela as we say in Portuguese. Every year the police in Rio kill between eight hundred to a thousand people, and that's an absurd number. In comparison, in the US police kill about two-hundred fifty people, and the US has roughly three- hundred million inhabitants. Rio de Jenaro has seven million, yet every year the police kill (again) eight-hundred to a thousand people. Why is that? Elite Squad is about that. It is about what makes our cops so violent. What is it that makes Rio so violent? What is the process that is going on that is generating this ongoing war? If you are a tourist, and you go to Rio, you'll have a great time and never see this happen. But it is. So the film takes you those places.
SCREENANARCHY - Was there ever any real danger making Elite Squad? You hear the stories about the making of Oliver Stone's Salvador, where people were seriously hurt, or even the recent horror film The Dead which filmed in Africa against harsh political conditions.
JOSE - Well, here's the thing. I have made two films about the subject matter. Elite Squad focuses on the police. It focuses on one specific policeman, Captain Nascimento, and it tells the story of the violence in Rio through the eyes of this policeman. So the film is about what it's like to being a policeman in such an environment. It's totally different than being a policeman in New York, or Los Angeles, or anywhere in the US. I think Elite Squad shows what it's like for Rio policeman who go to war everyday. I have a metaphor which I use to explain this: The usual American film about war, ok, is going to be about a soldier who gets drafted and goes to war for six-months or a year, and then he comes home and see's he cannot adjust. So you have the drama of him coming back, and him not being able to get used to the day to day life he had before, due to the war experience. The policeman in Rio, they go to war every night. They go into the slums, and it is a war. With machine-guns, and grenades, with shoot-out's and people dying. Then in the morning, they go home and take their kids to school. SO it's like an American film, but you have to adjust on a day to day basis. So that breeds very violent cops, that is what the film is about.
When the film opened in Brazil, and Rio, the police were not happy, because, you know, we showed what they do in the slums. So, we got sued by a lot of cops, like eighteen lawsuits coming from the police about the film coming out, and they tried to keep the film from opening. But luckily we won the lawsuits, and Elite Squad opened. The worst thing that happened was to me was, because I had the help of cops while I was writing the script, the police commander of Rio tried to get me to give him the name of the cops that helped, and I said "No. I am not going to do that". So, they threatened to arrest me. (laughs) It was funny man, in the newspaper the Chief said if I didn't give him the names and positions of who helped me, he was going to come to my house and get (arrest) me. But the film was so popular in Rio, and Brazil, that the Governor of the State felt it would be bad for him politically if that happened. So he stepped in and said "No no no. You are not arresting the filmmaker. He does not have to give names." and that's the kind of thing that happened to me. I don't think I was in danger of being killed or anything like that, that doesn't happen in Rio. First of all I am a known filmmaker, and also my film is very general. It doesn't talk about one specific group within the police, and there are several of those, or one specific gang of drug dealers. It talks about police and drug dealers in general, I'm not hitting anyone particular.
SCREENANARCHY - Elite Squad is not a black and white film so to speak, the character of Matias I think illustrates that. In the first film he is much more gentile, and in the second he is much more a reactionary, and aggressive. As one of the writers, which of the characters most reflects your personal POV on the situations being shown in Elite Squad?JOSE - I think when you look at violence in Rio, or anywhere, there are basically two different perspectives. One is the left wing, which says "where there is poverty there is violence." and it all having to do with class differences. That the violence in Rio is because there are very few rich people, a lot of poor people.
Then there is the right wing which says "violence takes place because repression is not good enough, the laws are not strict enough, the police are not assertive enough". The problem with both views is that they are wrong. If you look at Rio, the numbers that measure poverty, and compare them with the numbers in New Delhi, you are going to find there is more poverty in New Delhi. Yet Rio is much more violent. There is no simple, direct connection between poverty and violence. There are other things one needs to take into account.
Every time Rio tried to enforce stricter laws and hired more aggressive police the violence went up, up instead of down.
My approach with Elite Squad is "OK, so...what is going on? If the left- wing is wrong, and the right-wing is wrong, why is it that Rio has so much violence? My take is that there is a process, that is very efficient, of converting poverty to violence, and that process is run by the state itself. Because the state mismanages the way it treats street kids, small time criminals, because it deals with them with amazing violence. They put them in overcrowded jails, they beat the kids up, and by doing that the state creates a lot of very violent criminals. On the other hand the state also mismanages the police. It pays them a very low wage, puts them in the situations you'll see in Elite Squad, where it is war every day. There is a lot of corruption in the police organization. So the state is creating violent cops and violent criminals, and they meet on the streets, and we get the numbers we have. My perspective on it it this, try to forget about the left and right, forget Leninism and Marxism, and let's look at what is happening in a very pragmatic way.
I think the best way to understand is to put yourself in the place of a cop, an honest cop, yet a violent cop, who is trying to deal with this situation. I wrote Elite Squad with Bráulio Mantovani (City Of God), and Rodrigo Pimentel (the book "Elite da Tropa"). Pimentel was a captain in the elite squad in Rio. He lived that reality for ten years. He sat down with us to write everyday for two years. We made a film from his point of view.
For a full unabridged version of this interview, where Jose also talks about the up-coming Robocop remake he is helming, and his previous work in documentaries, listen to the next episode of THE NIGHT CREW
Be sure to check those local listings too, and read Ryland Aldrich's review fpr ScreenAnarchy HERE