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Elite Squad - José Padilha interview

Jose Padilha directs Elite Squad

Interview by Rob Carnevale

José Padilha talks about some of the difficulties he faced in making his award-winning film Elite Squad, which examines some of the brutal tactics employed by police officers in attempting to clean up the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

He gives us an insight into how the police attempted to prevent the release of the film in Brazil by even hauling him in for questioning and what happened when members of his film crew were hijacked by some of Rio’s gangs.

Q. Given the controversy it has caused I can’t imagine that Elite Squad was an easy film to make?
José Padilha: Well, initially I tried to do it as a documentary. I’d already make Bus 174, a documentary that depicts what happened in Rio de Janeiro on June 12, 2000, when a bus-load of people was taken hostage by an armed young man. That had policemen in it but it was basically about the criminals and how they became so violent. So, I was trying to make the same kind of movie from the police’s perspective. The idea was to ask: “What is the social context that generates the corrupt, violent cops we have in Rio?” I tried to interview some of the cops but wasn’t very successful and I quickly realised that if I tried to make a documentary on this subject I probably wouldn’t be alive to see it! [Laughs]. So, I then began researching it a different way and interviewed a lot of cops for background information. I spent two years interviewing them and researching the script. I then found an ex-cop, André Batista, to write the screenplay with me and Bráulio Mantovani, who wrote the screenplay for City Of God. We then used the data we’d collected for the film, which is based on two stories we thought related to reality.

But the producing of the movie had two further problems. Firstly, we were shooting on location and so had to deal with the police and drug dealers as we shot, which created a lot of dangerous situations. At one point, we had four members of our crew hijacked by drug dealers who wanted to steal the blank ammunition and guns we were using. They actually did and the police had to raid the location we were shooting in to try and get them back. Fortunately, the members of our crew were released but the shooting was stopped for two weeks. We almost went bankrupt. Then, just as we were finishing the film ready for release a pirate copy was stolen and made available and word about the film spread like a fever. We got sued by members of the Elite Squad because they thought the movie was derogatory towards them – and rightly so. But we won the law-suit.

Finally, one of the colonels in the police wanted me to give up the names of the people I’d interviewed so that he could punish them. He threatened to arrest me. But I was able to hold firm and was backed by the governor, who urged me to persevere. So, you could say it was quite a stressful ride to get the movie completed and I wouldn’t do it again because of the risks involved. But it was also well worth it. Everyone survived and my crew was fantastic.

Q. You set the film in 1997, before a visit by the Pope. Do you think the situation with the BOPE Elite Squad has improved since then, or got worse?
José Padilha: I think the situation is still the same now. During the past 20 years, we’ve had Communist governments, right wing governments and socialist governments but the underlying causes of the situation are still there. So, the film didn’t change anything and I don’t see it changing any time soon. My perspective on this is that the best way to understand it is to understand the rules of the game. If you want to understand the behaviour of poker players, you can only understand them if you learn the rules.

Likewise, if you want to understand why a cop or a drug dealer behaves the way they do, you have to know the rules of the social game they’re playing… the rules that have been written out in our society both historically and politically. So, you have to take into consideration some of the following facts. Cops in Brazil make between £300 and £200 a month; they operate inside a corrupt organisation; they’re badly trained and we ask that they engage in a war with heavily armed drug dealers. This all happens while we, the upper middle class, buy drugs and continue to finance the dealers themselves. So, it’s not surprising that we have the police we have, especially since our governors have failed to change these rules. Until they do, they [the cops] will stay the same.

Q. What would you like to see done?
José Padilha: In my opinion, we need to pay the police some decent wages, train them properly and educate them in human rights. Then, we have to either make drugs legal, to take away the profits for the dealers, or get schools and the government to create social programmes that will take kids away from the drug trade. We have to do all of these things. Then, the upper middle class has to realise that doing drugs isn’t fun and is feeding the process. Until we change the rules of the game, they will always remain the same.

Q. Did you expect the film to become so popular in Brazil [it was the country’s most popular movie in 2007] and to stir such a passionate debate?
José Padilha: In Brazil, it created a huge debate… I think it’s the most debated film ever in the history of the country. Is it going to transfer to other countries with the same intensity? I pretty much sense it is. When it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, it created a huge debate. In New York, the same thing happened. And here in the UK, I’m sensing the same thing is starting to happen. It does travel abroad because it touches on subjects and issues that are important for other people and audiences. If you’re in New York and buying marijuana, for instance, you’re probably not creating a lot of violence in New York itself, but you may well be in Colombia where the drugs have come from. So, we’re talking about a universal subject that has relevance for us all.

Q. How was winning the Golden Bear for best film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival?
José Padilha: It was quite amazing. It’s very hard to get into competition in Berlin in the first place because there are so many great films submitted each year. Just to be there was already a prize for us, so to win the Golden Bear was amazing. Every filmmaker who is in competition thinks they’re not going to win, unless they’re crazy, because there are so many big films and great directors. So, to be able to get the award was quite fantastic.

Q. I also understand that you’re in demand in Hollywood. Are you doing a film for Warner Brothers next?
José Padilha: Yes, I have a film being developed by Warner Bros that will explore the tri-border frontier between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It’s an area with a lot of smuggling, where drugs are planted and sold and there are a lot of criminal activities. It’s believed that they’re connected with the funding of terrorism, especially Hezbollah. So, we’re going to investigate that. The Weinsten company is also developing another project with me to direct that’s being written, once again, by Bráulio Mantovani, of City of God fame. It’s about ultimate fighting, or cage rage, and will encompass Brazilian jujitsu and that kind of fighting. It will be a little different from my previous work. And I’m also doing another Brazilian movie, which will be the final part of my trilogy that began with Bus 174 and Elite Squad. It’s about the politics and why the political system in Brazil generates the rules of the game we play and how it creates cops like Capitão Nascimento [from The Elite Squad] and street kids like Sandro [do Nascimento, from Bus 174]. It’s essentially the same story but told from the perspective of the politicians.

Q. Are you expecting more resistance?
José Padilha: [Laughs] Yes, they probably don’t want it, but they can’t stop it. We’ll find a way to get it made. And I’ll shoot it in Brazil.

Read our review of Elite Squad