Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) is José Padilha’s first fiction feature-length after his critically acclaimed documentary Ónibus 174 (Bus 174, 2002). Acquired by The Weinstein Co. for distribution in the US, the film was a huge success and cultural phenomenon in Brazil, where it is said it was watched by more than 10 million people before its release in theaters – all in pirated DVDs. This is a powerful film with brilliant cinematography by Lula Carvalho (O Ceu de Seuly - Love for Sale, 2006, and son of cinematographer Walter Carvalho), an extremely sharp sound supervised by Alessandro Laroca (Cidade de Deus – City of God, 2002), great music by Pedro Bromfman and a tight but smooth editing job by Daniel Rezende (Oscar nominated for City of God, also editor for The Year My Parents Went On Vacation, one of the best picks for the past Tribeca Festival in 2007.)
What is ground breaking about Elite Squad is that it is told through a cop’s point of view. Corruption, hypocrisy and social justice take a role over the action in this in-your-face story of a very complex society where everything falls into a grey zone flooded with personal interests, socio-political networks and a lot of violence. Padilha wrote the script with Bráulio Mantovani (City of God) and Rodrigo Pimentel, a military cop himself for eleven years (five of these as a captain in an elite squad). The film is based in the book Elite da Tropa, by Pimentel, Luiz Eduardo Soares and André Batista. A few months ago, Elite Squad won one of the most important awards in the film world: the Golden Bear at Berlinale.
Extraordinarily performed by Wagner Moura (Captain Nascimento), Caio Junqueira (Neto) and André Ramiro (Matias), this is a film as direct as José Padilha’s answers during our interview. With a smile and a friendly, positive attitude, Padliha received me at the Tribeca Filmmaker’s Lounge and answered all the questions right to the point. He was getting ready for more interviews in a hectic agenda that includes being part of the Jury too. In any case, compared with shooting a film about police in the favelas, doing press is surely a kind of a well-deserved vacation for Padilha, as he shared with us.
Pablo Goldbarg: Did you have to make a compromise with drug-dealers, in order to work in their territories, much like NGOs do?
José Padilha: The only way you can film in a favela in Brazil is talking to the drug-dealers. There is no other way. They control the favela. Everything that goes on in this land that has drug-dealers in it, it has to go through the dealers. Every single favela has an association of people living there, so instead of going through the drug-dealers, we went through the associations, because we didn’t want to have to deal with the dealers. But we know that once we cut up a deal with the association, the association is cutting up a deal with the drug-dealers. At least that’s what we thought. But then, in the middle of the shoot the dealers hijacked a car with four crew members and all the guns we used. The crew members were released after an hour, but the guns were stolen and the police went up to the location, so we had to stop shooting for two weeks. We didn’t cut a deal directly with the drug-dealers; and it proved to be the wrong thing to do.
P.G.: How did you convince the police institutions they were fairly portrayed in the script? How did you get their blessings or permits?
J.P.: The police institutions were fairly portrayed, but I never gave them the scripts, if I had, there wouldn’t be a movie. We only got the permit to shoot after several months through the Governor, because we threatened him to go to the press, and that would be a scandal, because Brazil has free speech. So, the Governor made the police give us the permit to shoot. After the film was finished, copies were stolen, and the police saw the movie before it opened, and they sued us, they tried to prevent the film from opening if we didn’t edit the torture scenes and killings in the favelas. So, the police hate us because the film portrayed them fairly (laughs.)
P.G.: What did you get the most after this film: friends or enemies?
J.P.: I got a lot of friends, even in the police. People who collaborated with the movie are interested in showing how things are, and they want to make the statement that things need to change. Those are my friends. My enemies... I don’t know where the hell they are. I don’t talk to them, I don’t call them up. From my perspective, I didn’t make any enemies. Maybe from the perspective of somebody else, I’m an enemy. I don’t even think about this.
P.G.: Is it possible to deal with the violence in the favelas without violating human rights?
J.P.: Yes, of course it is. The movie I’ve made has a protagonist who believes that violence can be controlled by violence. He believes that you can sort of violently force somebody not to be violent. It’s a kind of what America decided to do with Iraq: let’s go in and violently make the Iraqi government not to be violent. And you see what you get, right? The movie is basically a statement against that proposition, the idea that violence can be controlled by violence. This proposition not only destroys the lives of many innocent people but it also destroys the lives of those who believe in it. So, the protagonist who believes in that is suffering from post-traumatic stress and panic syndromes, he wants to leave the unit he has always lived for, his wife and kids don’t want to be with him... and we don’t make this up; this is true. This is what we found in all the research: most cops that abide by those violent behaviors end up fucked up. I mean, they end up with serious psychological problems. So, there is a way to deal with violence, and that’s by taking education to the favelas, trying to give people a chance to have jobs. That’s the right way to do it. That’s the only way to do it.
P.G.: Beyond the amazing portray of Nascimento, the transformation of Neto and Matias is a key element in the film. Can you talk about the work you did with the actors? Did you use any acting coaching like Sergio Machado did with Maria Fatima Toledo in Cidade Baixa - Lower City?
J.P.: I had like 120 actors in my movie. Many, many characters. It’s impossible for a director to handle this alone. What I did was separating the actors in groups: regular police men, elite squads, students, etc. For the actors who played regular or corrupted cops, I brought cops to train with them. Elite squad actors were trained with real elite squads. Supervising them was Fatima Toledo, an acting coach who worked also in City of God and Cidade Baixa, and myself. We would go with the different groups and rehearse with the actors and the real people to make the film feel realistic; that was the goal. Furthermore, I didn’t give the screenplay to the actors, I mean I took the dialogue out. So, they had the script but they didn’t know the lines. They had to learn to improvise, and we did this for three months, then we shot the movie. It’s a cool way to do it.
P.G.: Do you think action and entertaining films are the only way to get a good distribution of Latin American films in the U.S.?
J.P.: No, I don’t. I don’t see my movie as an action movie. I worked on it and I thought about it as a social critique of Brazilian society, but we had action in there. We have scenes that had energy in it, and it’s a way to get an audience. How good it is to make a very intellectual, sophisticated, slow paced detached movie about society that nobody goes to see? It doesn’t do any good. I believe there is a way to do serious social critique, and at the same time make movies that will have an audience. This is what we tried to do with Elite Squad, and this is what I think Latin American filmmakers at good at it. Actually, we have a tradition of doing engaging movies. Not only Latin American but also other foreign filmmakers are good at it, like [Greek] Costa-Gavras in Missing (1982). I think South American filmmakers should make movies primarily for their own audiences, because if their audiences go to the theaters, the movie will pick up distribution outside.
P.G.: Do you feel some kind of responsibility as a filmmaker and a mass communicator about social issues? What’s the difference between using documentary and fiction to pursue your goals?
J.P.: Even my fictional work, which is Elite Squad, has a documentary flavor. It’s meant to portray a reality as it is. You can ask anybody in Brazil and they will tell you that reality is very similar in the movie. We did a lot of research, interviews with cops, psychiatrists, to get reality into the script. So, as far as representing reality, you can do it with documentaries, but you can also do it with fictional movies. When they work out, they reach a larger audience than documentaries. A movie like City of God is strongly based in reality. It’s a fictional movie but it also reveals to you how the drug-dealing business started off, as well as a documentary does. But they can do the same thing, basically, which is bring up debate on social issues if they aim to portray reality. I don’t make a distinction there, but I do realize that fiction movies get to a broader audience.
P.G.: Is there any hope in Latin America to finish corruption beyond the use of extreme violence?
J.P.: I’m now working on my third movie, which I’m going to call Corruptology. It states the logic of politicians and politics in Latin America. Why politicians are so corrupt, and how the corruption at highest levels spreads out to the whole society and ends up generating the kind of violence you see in my previous two movies and others. I’m writing it with a sociologist in Brazil. I think there is a way to solve this, but it’s not an easy way, and it’s going take a while. I think South America is in a slow process towards a stronger democratic society, a fairer society. We don’t have it yet, but we’ll get there... we’ll get there.
P.G.: You were part of an intense training camp, your crew was kidnapped, your props stolen… yet you made a great film. What’s next? Do you think you could handle a romantic comedy?
J.P.: [laughs] Can I handle it? Well, I don’t know. I don’t think like this. I just do the story that I wan to do. If at some point I’m running at a romantic story that I do believe it’s important, I’m gonna try to do it. Then we’ll find out whether I can do it or not (laughs.) I wouldn’t refrain myself of trying to do it, nor a science fiction movie, or a comedy, or a movie for kids. I’ll do the movie that I have in my heart. This is what I want to say next through this language of filmmaking, and whatever it’s I’ll go for it. Maybe it’s a romantic comedy, or a cartoon! I like cartoons, I see a lot of them with my kid, so maybe one day I’m going to do a cartoon...
P.G.: I’ll definitely watch it...
(Written for Remezcla)