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When Brazilian director José Padilha’s Elite Squad premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, the critics’ knives were out in full force. (“A recruitment film for fascist thugs,” shrieked the normally-restrained Variety.) Then it went on to win the fest’s coveted Golden Bear. Now Tribeca gets its shot at Elite Squad, which tells the story of two friends from Rio’s hopelessly corrupt police force who join a highly-disciplined, ideologically pure commando force devoted to violently rooting out drug dealers from the slums. And its director (no fascist demagogue, as best as we can tell) is happy to handle another round of controversy. Vulture sat down with Padilha, who is in town to present his film and — take that, critics! — serve on the Tribeca documentary jury.
Did you anticipate the kind of controversy your film would provoke?
Yes. People can’t stand it when you deal with issues of race and class, and also sometimes the church, and you give a perspective that flushes out hypocrisy. For example, when you say to people who do drugs: “You’re financing a heavily armed drug dealer. Don’t act as if you have nothing to with the problem of violence in Brazil, because you do.” That confronts them in a way they’re not used to. So if you’re that guy who likes to do a joint now and then and has to review this film for a newspaper, how are you supposed to take this? Either you look back and deal with your hypocrisy, or you dismiss it.
We understand that the film started out as a documentary.
Yes, it did. It was meant to complement my earlier documentary Bus 174, which was about how street kids and small time criminals become amazingly violent — and how the state makes them so by mistreating them in several different ways. And Elite Squad is about how cops become extremely corrupted and violent — and how the state does that, by mismanaging the police. They’re two sides of the same coin. After about one week of working on the documentary, I realized I wouldn’t be able to do it. The cops wouldn’t let me shoot it.
Do you regret that?
I don’t regret it at all, because controversy means debate, which brings awareness, and that’s good. Bus 174 also generated a lot of heated debate. After that film, I was labeled by some people as a communist, because they thought I was justifying the behavior of this guy on this bus. With Elite Squad, some people thought I was justifying the behavior of violent cops — so this time they called me a radical right-winger. I am none of these things.
Your film is premiering right around the time of the Sean Bell verdict here in New York. Has anyone made the connection?
I did get a question about it at one of the screenings. The question is whether the violence happens systematically, which is what happens in Brazil. I don’t think you have the same thing here. In New York, you don’t have eleven murders a day. Last year, in Rio alone, the police officially killed more than 1200 people, out of a city of eight million. There’s no comparison.
Will you ever go back to documentaries?
I am editing one right now, that I expect to be ready to submit to festivals within a month. When I shot it, two years ago, people told me that I was making a movie about something that was going to be solved, that it wasn’t worth bothering with. It’s a documentary about hunger. [Laughs.]
Would you ever consider going back and making the documentary that eventually became Elite Squad?
How can I make a movie about the violence of the police if the police aren’t going to let me film it? Besides, it’s too risky. I have a four year old kid who needs his daddy. Michael Moore would be dead within a week if he came to Brazil and tried to do the kind of shit he does here. –Bilge Ebiri