Die Hölle über Berlin
There was an international outcry at the weekend over the Berlin Film Festival, which awarded its top prize, the Golden Bear, to TROPA DE ELITE. The film about a mission by a crack Rio de Janeiro commando team marks the feature film debut of Jose Padilha, who made BUS 174, a documentary that made my Top 10 back in 2003.
Padilha, helped by co-scriptwriter Braulio Montovani (who wrote CITY OF GOD, which also made my 2003 Top 10) topped a field that included PT Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Michel Gondry’s BE KIND REWIND, and highly-anticipated new films by masters Mike Leigh (HAPPY GO LUCKY), Hong Sang-soo (NIGHT AND DAY), Andrej Wajda (Oscar-nominated KATYN), Errol Morris (STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE) and others.
You’d think they’d awarded the prize to a fascist propaganda film …
Except that that exactly was the charge made. The film, scheduled to be released this year, already had done big box office in Brazil and unleashed a furious debate in that country — riddled with crime, corruption, gangs, drugs, criminal cops, corrupt cops and outgunned cops. The international reaction in Berlin was nasty, with the f-word being tossed around liked spaghetti in a cafeteria food fight, as already had happened in Brazil, (and I don’t mean the sexual f-word, I mean the political f-word: fascist).
Here is Jay Weissberg from Variety:
Brazil’s powerful military police are elevated to Rambo-style heroes in “The Elite Squad,” a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs. … Charges of fascism by pic’s critics aren’t merely knee-jerk liberal reactions, but an unimpeachable statement of fact.
Here is Andrew Grant aka FilmBrain under the headline “Berlinale Diary 3: Harvey [Weinstein]’s Right-Wing Victory:
Easily the worst film in competition, this ultra right-wing (bordering on fascist) police actioner set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro had nothing going for it, except for its pushy American distributor, Harvey Weinstein.
I should note also that others disagree, such as David Hudson and the first commenter at GreenCine Daily.
Now, there’s obviously massive limits to what I can say about a film I haven’t seen. TROPA DE ELITE might be a piece of crap, though given the makers’s previous work, I doubt it and have high expectations for the movie (which will be marketed in the US as THE ELITE SQUAD). But that’s for another day. For now, one can still judge the quality of the discourse surrounding the film without reference to the film itself. And on that score, and to the fascism charges, I say:
what the colorful … ??? what kind of third-rate politically-illiterate knee-jerk minds occupy the world of film criticism and film journalism … ???
As a general point, I pretty much tune out anyone who uses the f-word to refer to anything outside of pre-WW2 Europe. Like the other f-word, the political f-word has been degraded by promiscuity. As a term in contemporary discourse (i.e., separate from its value in the study of history or academic political philosophy), “fascism” is really nothing more than what Ayn Rand called an anti-concept¹: a term that doesn’t clarify thought but serves some other purpose contrary to clear thought — in this case, to anathematize and/or express the speaker’s disapproval and finer moral fibre. Or, as George Orwell put it, and in 1946 no less, “The word ‘Fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.”As for the charges of “glorifying police brutality” or “seductively portraying torture,” even if they are true of TROPA DE ELITE (I cannot yet judge), that still does not justify the f-word. The general point was also long ago rebutted by Orwell: “Fascism is often loosely equated with sadism, but nearly always by people who see nothing wrong in the most slavish worship of Stalin.” Update “Stalin” to Castro, Che Guevara, the Black Panthers, the PLO or just about any actually-existing self-styled “resistance” group, and Orwell’s point needs no other changing. But more importantly, neither police brutality nor torture are uniquely features of fascist regimes. They have been practiced by tyrannical (and sometimes not-so-tyrannical) regimes of every ideological stripe, in every era, under every claim of legitimacy. Using the word “fascist” on such a basis is just knee-jerking (or jerking other body parts).
But more specifically to TROPA DE ELITE … shouldn’t the prize and the filmmakers be causing people to rethink on at least a couple of person-related counts?
On the first count is the Berlin Jury head … Costa Gavras. Costa. Frickin. Gavras. The man who made Z, maybe the world’s most famous political thriller. The man who spent most of his life outside his native Greece because he made left-wing propaganda films. Who made other movies, MISSING and STATE OF SIEGE, critical of right-wing authoritarian governments in Latin America. Does it even pass the laugh test that **he,** of all the men in the world, would give the top prize at one of the world’s three most prestigious film festivals to a movie that as “an unimpeachable statement of fact” was an apologia for Latin American rightist tyranny? Does that even pass the laugh test? Grant acknowledges the anomaly, but blows it off, saying he was “just as puzzled” as ever.
Understand … I’m not saying Costa Gavras is infallible or arguing from his authority on the merits. Merely suggesting that if a film wins such esteem from him, “fascist propaganda” (or similar) should be the descriptor of last resort, not the first or even tenth.
In a similar vein, and another indication of the bush-league political thought in the world of film criticism … what does it say about FilmBrain that he actually imagines Harvey Weinstein on the Right of the political spectrum. Does he actually *know* any right-wingers, anyone who might actually clue him in to what we think first-hand, rather than what gets constructed as Demon Other through hostile second-hand accounts handed down since Hofstadter? I severely doubt it, if he thinks Harvey Weinstein, who gives $1,500 to Democrats for every dollar he gives to Republicans, can have anything to do with any “right-wing victory”? But this is actually typical … in the film-criticism world, as part of bohemia, “right” doesn’t mean what it does in the world of actual US politics, or even Latin American politics. It’s simply another devil term, usually meaning “insufficiently left” or “not as left as me.” Or as a relative term in an understanding of the US political spectrum in which socialism is a mainstream position. This is also part of the reason for the promiscuous overuse of the f-word … if Harvey Weinstein can be called the Right, what word is left for, say, John McCain (much less me)?
Then there is Padilha himself. Here are some of his comments about the film and related issues, and they really, really REALLY don’t sound like someone who’d make a fascist propaganda film. Padilha says drugs should be legalized; calls the Brazilian police “very corrupt … very violent … the population hates the police and with very good reason“; calls Costa Gavras a hero; says “society cannot sustain itself if it fights violence with violence” (not exactly the Horst Wessel Lieb; and bellicism actually IS one of the defining features of fascism that distinguish it from many other forms of tyranny); and seriously said “we can stop sending a violent police force into the slums, and instead we can build a school there” (so much for “kill em all and let God sort em out”).
Again … I’m not saying Padilha is infallible either. Or even that the artist necessarily is the definitive interpreter of his work. Simply pointing out that this man doesn’t sound like the kind of person who would make fascist propaganda. (And believe me, I **know** apologists for rightist Latin American tyranny. I attend our reunion every year, in the same subway booth. I’ve never met Padilha at them.)
And most specifically, one thing rarely noted, in a way other than the “tacking off previous credits” mode, is that Padilha made BUS 174. It’s instructive, and not in a good way, that a man who says these things and a man who made BUS 174 even has to hear the political f-word. This is a film that went to the painstaking task, after Padilha already had access to some of the most sensational documentary footage ever obtained, of reconstructing the life and backstory of the criminal, a former Rio street child named Sandro Rosa do Nascimento. That went to the trouble of making a compelling human story of the man who committed one of Brazil’s most-famous crimes — a bus hijacking that gripped national TV like the OJ Simpson Bronco chase gripped Americans. The film’s most memorable sequence (it got Skandie points from me) was a camera trick that turned a Rio de Janeiro prison into a vision of hell worthy of Dante himself. I actually defended BUS 174 in a discussion against charges, and not from a fellow conservative, that the film made excuses for Sandro, which hardly suggests Padilha the Closet Tyrant. As I said about BUS 174:
Very early on, the film makes it clear that bus and car hijackings are not rare in Rio, but are generally handled extra-judicially in one (let it pass) or another (street justice) sense. But the media circus made both impossible. It forced police into doing *something.* But it paralyzed them from doing anything in particular, partly for fear of looking like “jackboot fascists” in the wake of investigations of police brutality, including the notorious Candelaria massacre of dozens of Rio street children, and partly from micromanagement at the highest levels of Brazilian politics. …
That combination of necessity and paralysis explains why the police botched this siege *in this specific way* and how Sandro met his fate *in this specific way.* …
And actually, that does sound rather like Padilha’s descriptions of TROPA DE ELITE and how it’s as critical of police corruption as of anything else. For example, Padilha says:
But the bulk of the audience who saw it and the critics who talked to me directly seemed to have grasped the film.
(The film) shows how the state turns the police into either corrupt police or police who don’t want to do anything, or violent police.
In other words, police brutality and paralysis both are the product of a corrupt system and an out-of-control violent society. Padilha’s description of TROPA suggests a continuity, in his own mind, between the unquestionably non-fascist (and actually criticized as too “bleeding-heart”) BUS 174. Again, BUS 174 is certainly neither definitive nor binding on TROPA, but surely reason enough to warn against knee-jerk applications of the f-word, no?
There’s one other thing to consider. TROPA DE ELITE was enormously popular in Brazil and one of the charges made against it was the reaction of the audiences. People cheered certain acts of police brutality and torture, ergo, the film pandered to fascist impulses. That is really not a wise argument to make, at least with respect to Brazil, to a populace that has to actually live with sky-high crime, drug and murder rates. “Heightening the contradictions” doesn’t work in democratic societies, nor does constructing effective law and order and the means to achieve that as “fascist” (see Nixon and McGovern). To put it crudely, if liberals and leftists, either by their action or their construction of political alternatives (the latter being more relevant to this case), force the choice before virtually any polity to be “fascism or anarchy,” or are perceived to be doing the same … the people will pick fascism every time. Learn from Germany in the 30s.
¹ … who wrote practically nothing else I find valuable.