Brazilian film sparks debate on police violence

A movie still from "Elite Squad."
A movie still from "Elite Squad." Courtesy Tropa De Elite / MCT

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A much-anticipated film detailing the world of Rio's slum wars has sparked a fierce debate here over how far police should go in a city plagued by violent crime.

It's also marked a new low in Brazil's fight against another form of crime: Pirated copies of "Elite Squad" have been widely available for weeks before it's released Oct. 12 and many people already have seen it, making for unusually well-informed discussions about a movie that hasn't been released.

"Everyone I know has already seen the movie on pirated copies, and it's started a debate," said Tatiane Abril, a university student.

The film, co-produced by Harvey Weinstein, the former head of Miramax studios, depicts the training and controversial methods used by Rio de Janeiro state's crack anti-gang police unit, which was charged with taming the city before Pope John Paul II's visit in 1997.

The film, which will make its U.S. debut Jan. 12, shows state police selling weapons to the gangs they're battling, embezzling money and quickly executing gang leaders they capture. It's based on a 2005 book written by two former members of the unit.

"What you see on the screen is just a third of what really happens," said federal legislator Marina Maggessi, who headed the state's anti-narcotics police until last year. "The reality is, in fact, much worse."

Over the past year, state police have been charged with everything from leaking information to drug dealers to unleashing a massacre on the city's outskirts in 2005 that killed 29 people. Last week, 52 officers from a single battalion were arrested on suspicion of drug dealing.

The problem has grown so bad that the state has set up a 420-person jail exclusively for police charged with crimes and it's almost at capacity, according to news reports.

The enthusiastic public response to the film since its premiere Sept. 21 — especially to scenes of police torture and killing — has raised alarms.

At a public screening Thursday at the offices of the newspaper O Globo, audiences laughed and whooped as police rampaged through a slum, hitting bystanders with machine-gun fire and suffocating suspected gang members with plastic bags in between action-hero wisecracks.

An editorial in the country's most widely read newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, said the film "banalizes and glamorizes torture" and treats the elite squad as "an island of technical and moral excellence." Other critics have called the film everything from cynical to fascist.

"People are applauding torture and murder, and don't think about the fact that this could happen to them," Maggessi said. "No one would want these police in their neighborhoods."

The film's director, Jose Padilha, said he'd only tried to show the social forces that drove police to commit crimes in the line of duty, and he called accusations that he was justifying torture "stupidity."

Padilha said he told the same story from the opposite perspective in his first film, the 2002 documentary "Bus 174," which describes the violent life of a former street child who took a bus full of passengers hostage in 2000.

"How do police see people and why do police act like they do? Why do police torture? Why do police kill?" Padilha asked. "I tried to show the rules of society behind this point of view."

For Abril, the college student who attended the screening Thursday, the movie showed a reality that everyone in Rio lives with but is still shocked to see on the big screen. She said she didn't think the film glamorized the city's drug violence.

"That's something we need in this city," she said of the debate surrounding the film. "People need to talk about what's happening to us."


The film's Web site.

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