What happens when inconceivable and inaccessible wealth towers, almost mockingly, over and above those who live in some of the world’s worst poverty stricken conditions? Where the government and police forces are seen as corrupt and ruthless? Where the only way to reclaim power for yourself is to attack any and all who have more than you do? Well, you have yourself the makings of an all out war.
With the release of 2002’s City of God, Brazilian culture and cinema exploded into an expression of life and menace burdened by crime, drugs and guns. Stylistic, full on and immaculately shot, the film displayed a maturity in it’s ability to articulate and recreate the life inside one of the worlds most dangerous ghettos. It brought the discussion on the effects of poverty facing many Brazilians to a stunned mainstream audience and managed to blend visceral storytelling with gritty realism. Recently two other films have continued that legacy and each in their own way details the complex and violent social problems stemming from widespread corruption that have left a trail of chaos in South America’s largest country, where five per cent of the population controls over 95 per cent of the money.
At the heart of any discussion concerning poverty and violence is the issue of power, and its converse, powerlessness. The grim prospects for those living in abject poverty without access to health care, education or even food or water, scrambles the equation in regards to conventional behaviour. It’s all about survival, and often survival comes at the expense of other people, and far too often, from the barrel of a gun. Director Jason Kohn’s blazing documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) is a meticulously crafted exploration of a country full of contradictions.
Brimming with vivid cinematography, vibrant colours and throbbing music, it weaves together a series of seemingly disparate scenarios only to reveal the inextricable link between corrupt politicians, kidnapping victims and kidnappers as well as a plastic surgeon who makes his money reconstructing ears cut off by kidnappers. It’s a tangled, circular web, where those faced with a future of apparent hopelessness, reclaim power through violence, which in turn feeds a system that makes those in power more powerful.
Through interviews with a self confessing kidnapper, we are offered a sincere and honest glimpse of a man who at one turn is a butcher and a murderer, but who despite his accumulated wealth still lives in his home ghetto and uses the money he gets from drug dealing and kidnapping to pay for health care for his neighbours and school supplies for the children. Paradoxically, we are also afforded a brief interview with Senator Barbalho, a money laundering politician who is responsible for stealing over two billion dollars earmarked as aid money for one of Brazil’s poorest regions, yet who remains one of Brazil’s most powerful politicians. The film’s strength is in its ability to find the hidden links between these worlds, and to articulate the duality that exists behind both the words, and deeds of those who occupy roles in opposite worlds.
If Manda Bala exposes the complicated dichotomy that results from the extravagant divide between rich and poor, Jose Padilha’s highly controversial film Elite Squad has taken this relationship and made it tangible. Based on actual events and a book by Ex-BOPE (the Special Police Operations Battalion) officer Andre Batista, the film is a semi fictional re-enactment of the lives of members of Brazil’s highly elite Special Forces team of military trained, government sanctioned hit squad.
Called to enter into Brazil’s most notorious and dangerous favelas (slums), members of BOPE, recognizable by their insignia of a skull and two crossing handguns, are the final solution to the governments inability to deal with the violence and drug trade that exists throughout Brazil’s ghettos. The film is as shocking as it is detailed and frank, and has proven to be highly controversial in Brazil, where many inhabitants live in direct conflict to the actions taken by BOPE members.
Originally leaked even before the final cut was finished, it is estimated that 11 million people saw the film before its official release. The reactions of audiences has served to highlight a polarized society with the public split between those who condemn the film for its depiction of glorified violent justice by BOPE officers, and those who see the film as empowering representation of the drastic measures needed to heal the wounds of the country’s bleeding streets. It’s this polarization that translates as an interesting aspect to the film as the story is told through the eyes of one particular officer.
And for all the violence and contradictory emotion the film presents, it formulates a powerful indictment that draws the seemingly inconsequential middle class into the equation. As we follow the characters, it becomes undeniable that the removed middle class play a large part in the demand for drugs. They buy the drugs sold by the dealers, who are in turn killed by BOPE squad; the drug dealers get more guns, and kill more police officers. It again comes down as a murky and complicated chain of inter-related scenarios that continue to spiral in on themselves, effecting the entire psyche and conscience of a nation.
Both films highlight a deeply troubling and shocking problem that is being played out in real life, everyday. But these dialectics and conflicts are by no means unique to Brazil. What becomes ultimately important is the question of empathy. Recognizing that there are two sides to each story isn’t enough. Instead, if progress is to be made anywhere in the world, it comes down to the ability to project ourselves into the stories being told around the world. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. One person’s drug dealer is another communities godfather. If we ever hope to move past the violence and hatred that continually leaves a body count and generates more fear than solutions, then we must begin to examine, openly and honestly, the effects of our own behaviour. What would you do to survive?
(Manda Bala recently played at VIFF 2007, and should be released in 2008, Elite Squad is currently easily available on the internet)