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When Are Films Political? Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

When Are Films Political? Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

I sat down with Jose Padilha recently in L.A. and we discussed this very good film, his career and, mostly, Brazilian politics and how police, government, gang and favela events are reflected and analyzed in his 3 feature length films.  There are the documentary Bus 174, the narrative Elite Squad 1 and the latest of his feature drama films Elite Squad:The Enemy Within.

Jose was born and raised in Rio to a prominent business family with interests in the wildly popular Brazil soccer business as well as the newspaper business.  The family enabled the super star team Flamengo’s stadium to be built.

While i

n school, Jose studied physics and mathematics and after school he went to work in a bank. After a time doing this he became depressed and began to think about making films.

He was related to the famed Brazilian playwright and journalist, Nelson Rodriguez whose sons, Nelson Jr. and Joffre, were making films of their dad’s plays. Jose went on the set and became hooked on filmmaking as a career.

He left the bank and began making documentary films. His first significant film experience was working with Marco Prado, a photojournalist turned film director, working on his documentary about the primitive peoples called Caruveiros in the Amazon who were jungle forest despoilers and charcoal makers for the steel industry, calling upon NYU filmmaker Nigel Noble to come and help them.  Nigel ended up joining them for a year during the making of the film, bringing along soundman Peter Mueller.  The resulting feature documentary The Charcoal People (2000) went to Sundance Film Festival.  

“I also was called up by and subsequently met with Jonathan Demme in New York.  This whole experience making and then showing this documentary was Film School for me.”

Jose proceeded to produce and direct several documentaries but it was his feature length documentary Bus 174 that kickstarted his career.  It won an Emmy, received the Peabody Award, and was bought and shown by HBO, BBC, Arte. The film was a documentary about a petty criminal street kid named Nascimento.  He hijacks a city commuter bus and the incident then is broadcast live on TV and eventually this kid is murdered by Rio police also known as “Elite Squad”.

“My hero in the subsequent 2 dramatic films, ‘Elite Squad’ 1 and 2, is also named Nascimento. This is for areason. The three  films then, the documentary and the 2 subsequent dramatic films, comprise a trilogy.”

Elite Squad 1 went on to win the coveted Golden Bear Award in the Berlinale Film Festival. E

lite Squad 2, the current Brazil submission for nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, opened internationally this year in Sundance and was the opening film in Berlinale’s Panorama section.  In 2010 it became the highest grossing film ever in Brazil, earning over U.S. $70 million, outdistancing previous high grosser Avatar.

“My three films are about the same thing. Urban violence in Rio.  I describe this as a very polemical problem.  Here’s why …. Rio has a population of about 6 million people.  Compared to U.S., which has a population of over 300 million, in Rio each year there are about 800 police killings.  The U.S. has maybe 400 per year.  The arguments about this problem and what to do about it go like this:

The left attributes this to what they call social differences.  In other words the poverty in the 1,700 favelas (poor neighborhoods) in Rio leads to violence and thus police repression.  But this ignores the fact that in a city like Lima, Peru there is much worse poverty and much less social violence and criminality.

The right wing likes to say that all we need to stamp out crime is more police, more repression and crackdowns and more highly armed and this violent police.  The fact is that every time they, the  government and the police, crack down on the favelas, the violence only increases.

So my take on this, and what I tried to portray and get across in my three films, my Rio trilogy about Rio street violence and the cops, is that Brazil and Rio current state policies are what creates the problem and the violent criminals!

This is because of:

-violent schools

-mismanagement of practically all social institutions

-petty criminals turned into violent criminals because of police violence, criminality and incompetence

So in my Bus 174 we see that the state produces criminals, it manufactures them.  In my Elite Squad 1 we see how the state produces corrupt and violent cops.  And then in ‘Elite Squad’ 2 we try to analyze and show how and why the Brazil and Rio state behaves this way. That is why my hero in all 3 films of this cycle is named Nascimento, to indicate the continuity of the problem I am presenting.”

We then discussed a bit the problem of Rio crime and the upcoming Olympic games.  Jose feels it will not be a problem.  He illustrated by discussing an ongoing police program called “Clean Slums” in Rio.  They, the police, with much publicity well in advance, focus on one of the many hundreds of slum locations with a “pacifying police presence”.  The “big guns with many arms” leave in advance of the crackdown and thus the crackdown seldom encounters any serious opposition and sticks to petty criminals and small crime always with big success.  Then they, the police, leave, and the gangsters return and things go back to normal.  He thinks that similar policies will keep things quiet in Rio during the Olympics.

Director’s statement:

When I directed the first Elite Squad a few years ago, most people knew me as the director of the 2002 documentary, Bus 174. Much to my great surprise, the film was a box office smash despite the fact that over 11 million of my countrymen had watched the film on bootleg videos before it even reached a single theater.

In a way, Bus 174 and Elite Squad have the same premise, in that they both try to show how the State contributes to urban violence by mismanaging institutions that should curb it–including the prison system, reformatories for petty criminals, and the several police departments.

ES: TEW builds on this same theme, but this time, from a point much closer to the decision and policymakers. In this film, I didn’t try to simply produce pure entertainment, but to approach a theme that is dear to me without turning away from the plot, taking the spectators’ eyes off the action, or pausing for reflection. I tried to make a movie that doesn’t make moral inferences for the spectator, that doesn’t tell him what to think and when to think, and that doesn’t contain deliberately constructed pauses to do so. I tried to make a movie that fights urban violence through its dramaturgy, and not with metaphors or intellectualized statements. I don’t believe this is necessarily the best kind of cinema, or the only cinema possible. I just think it is  appropriate  to the screenplay we wrote,  for which our  objective was to generate restlessness among the audience, to provide it with an experience that turns into reflection after the movie and not just during its projection.

Since its Brazilian release, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within has become the most popular film of all time in South America (out-grossing even Avatar).  Currently, according to Box Office Mojo, it has earned $63,003,035 worldwide.  Not a sequel to the original Elite Squad so much as a reinvention, this stunning, intense action/drama is a perfect amalgamation of the best parts of The Departed, City of God, and The Wire.

Having come from the documentary world, both Marcos (producer Prado) and I like to bring as much realism to the screen as possible. That said, working on the narrative side brought about luxuries we never enjoyed before. A special effects team, with heavyweight names such as Bruno Van Zeebroeck (Transformers) William Boggs (Spiderman) and Keith Woulard (The Curios Case of Benjamin Button, Independence Day and Forrest Gump) were imported to the set of our movie to offer big-screen realism to the film’s look, feel and vibe, and to make the action sequences as thrilling and intense as possible.

The Bangu 1 penitentiary was rebuilt in great detail in a 1,000 square-meter studio. Master make-up artist Martin Trujillo crafted charred bodies. Cameras were hung from ropes for greater closeness to the action, adding a new dimension to Lula Carvalho’s already striking cinematography.  An entire floor of a building in downtown Rio was transformed into the headquarters of the State’s Public Security Office, and intense research – headed by consultants Rodrigo Pimentel, state representative Marcelo
Freixo and the police precinct captained by police-chief Cláudio Ferraz – was conducted for almost two years before the screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani and myself could even take shape.

We then financed the film using a groundbreaking option to sell shares of the project directly to private investors,  and executed a totally independent distribution and self-release of the film, without intermediaries (and with the backing of Globo Filmes). Our hope was that Elite Squad:  The Enemy Withinwould perhaps herald a new way to produce and distribute cinema in Brazil- and across the world.

-José Padilha

The first Elite Squad film was a hit in Brazil- but barely made it to theaters.  Thanks to a leak of the
finished film from a post-production house, the highly anticipated film hit the streets as a bootleg DVD
months ahead of its theatrical release.  A survey commission found that well over 11 million Brazilians
had already seen the film when it finally hit theaters months earlier than anticipated, the release date
having been moved up as far as possible in an effort to combat the impact of the piracy.

Additionally, fearing the impact of the film, the real life BOPE sued to stop the release, claiming that the
film unfairly portrayed them as ultra-violent and lacking integrity.  This put the filmmakers in a very
difficult position, with piracy on one end and lawsuits on the other.

Despite all of these factors, the film was a hit the moment it hit screens.  And the impact didn’t stop
when the audience walked out of the theater.  The film is widely credited for having prompted a fierce
debate in Rio about the war on drugs and drug legalization, the Brazilian prison system, and the tactics
that the police, militias, gangs and drug runners had been using.  In the process, Captain Nascimento
became one of the most iconic figures of Brazilian cinema.

So when it came time to make the sequel, the filmmakers were determined not to let history repeat
itself.  They undertook strict measures to prevent any leaks, ranging from printing the script in red ink
(to prevent photocopying) to engaging military policemen to guard the film… even going so far as to
contain all post-production and editing in a secure location, accessible only to four people and with no
access to the internet.

The measures paid off as Elite Squad: The Enemy Within began smashing box office records.  
Nearly 1.5 million Brazilians came out on opening weekend see the film (on 695 screens, that’s over
2,000 people per screen on opening weekend), giving it the biggest opening weekend for a homegrown
film in the history of Brazil.  After nine more weeks, ES: TEW became Brazil’s highest grossing film of
all time, trampling the grosses of recent box office champion AVATAR (and without the benefit of
inflated 3-D ticket prices).

All of this was done without a traditional theatrical distributor.  Convinced of the potential of the film, and
having retained full ownership of their rights, Zazen Produções hired a distribution executive and a
handful of staff and self-released ES: TEW themselves.  The healthy box office returns have inspired
Zazen and Padilha to continue releasing films, working directly with Brazil’s best actors, writers, and
directors to ensure that filmmakers get a bigger piece of the box office pie.

Just as its predecessor did, ES: TEW has ruffled the feathers of some very important people.  While the
film is fictional, the fact is that the questions raises are the same questions some of the younger, more
idealistic (and arguably less corrupt) politicians and pundits have been asking for years.  Who is really
benefiting from the crime and drugs that have plagued Rio for years, and how many people have the
incentive to make sure the flow of cash and product keeps going?

These questions that are not just relevant in Rio, or Brazil, or South America.  The ideas and questions
raised in ES: TEW are bigger than one country, and so, from an American perspective, one has to
wonder- will we ever have an American Captain Nascimento?  And what would we think of him?

Elite Squad:The Enemy Within
Director:José Padilha
Brazil submission for nominee for Academy Award Best Foreign Film 2011
International Sales – Bonnie Voland. IM Global
U.S. Distribution – New Video (DVD), Theatrical Dylan Marchetti, Variance for US theatrical and Flatiron Film Company


Fantastic Fest review, the film “genuinely lives up to the hype”.

Hollywood Reporter, Sundance film “festival’s most purely entertaining movies, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, also happens to be the most successful Brazilian movie in history.”


Screen International

Associated Press:  Brazilian police take over Rio’s biggest slum

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