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Social Constructions of the Favela Part 2: Glorification of War and Violence

This is the second article in a four-part series on the social construction of favelas and the potential of favela tourism to break down negative stereotypes.

The first article of this series established how stereotypes and the decontextualization of social issues in films can perpetuate social exclusion in reality. This second article highlights how films can also contribute to the legitimization of repressive violence by state actors.

In the article, “The Militarization of Urban Marginality: Lessons from the Brazilian Metropolis,” sociologist Loïc Wacquant argues that the constant search for an internal enemy (drug traffickers in the favelas) provides an explanation for the militarization of urban marginality and its urban war logic. The constant separation between ‘us’ (residents of the asfalto) and ‘them’ (favela residents)—whether in daily life, media or cinematic language—fuels the culture of fear in which favela residents as a whole are seen as the internal enemy, rather than only the drug traffickers.

Urban war logic amid structural corruption

Films such as City of God (2002), City of Men (2007), Elite Squad (2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) illustrate ‘the favela’ as an extremely disorganized place in which urban space is dominated by male protagonists and the violence that rules their lives. This chaos is emphasized by the fast-paced style of filming, the rapid cuts between shots and samba, rap and rock soundtracks, and the pace of editing, as is illustrated by the Elite Squad trailer below.

Despite the depiction of favelas as disorganized places, the films do show a certain amount of organization among the gangs, varying from the processes and hierarchies of the drug business (in City of God), to the organization of a turf war (in City of Men), to the violence orchestrated by gang members (in Elite Squad). These visuals serve to legitimize the notion that law-enforcement and government forces must fight against these ‘organized’ groups through extreme repression. The portrayal of conflict and violence in favelas in the Elite Squad series associates the favela with war zones, fueling the culture of fear through discourse about ‘the enemy.’

Rio’s urban war logic is reinforced in the Elite Squad films by the narrator and BOPE captain Nascimento’s use of words like “war,” “terror,” and “the enemy.” It is also reinforced by the filmmakers’ choice to position the camera in helicopters when BOPE raids the favela. This associates the story with footage of wars in Vietnam or Iraq, and at the same time maintains distance between the film’s viewers and the action on the ground, ignoring the negative impact on innocent bystanders living in these areas.

City of Men and City of God do touch subtly upon police and political corruption. In City of Men, a gang walks down to the beach and the gang leader, Madrugadão, says: “tell the police we are coming through.” In City of God, the narration explains how the drug business works and says “the police receive their part and don’t make any trouble.” However, both films show a “rotten apple” perspective in which specific actors are blamed rather than showing systemic and structural corruption in government and policing.

The Elite Squad series examines the corrupt system more in-depth. Regarding the Military Police, scenes show police officers selling weapons to traffickers and law-enforcement groups forming militia groups, which are vigilante or off-duty groups of cops. Regarding the Civil Police, the film shows how the police move dead bodies to other districts in order to keep the homicide statistics lower, to avoid having to do investigations. Colonel Íbis Silva Pereira, Chief of the Office of the General Command of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro, clarifies that:

“Unfortunately it is true what happens in the films. The fiction comes very close to reality… If you think in terms of war, of how government policies and police actions approach the favelas, [corruption] is understandable and expected and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

Elite Squad 2’s narration explicitly explains the role of militias in favelas:

“Each favela is more than just a place to sell drugs. Favelados like cable TV, drink water, get online, cook with gas, take out loans, and need their local transportation. Every favela is a huge market of purchases and sales. [Militia leader] Rocha figured out that taxing the whole favela instead of only drug dealers would give him much more—all in name of defending the favela from trafficking.”

The narrator then explains how politicians are involved too: “In Brazil, elections are businesses and votes are the most valuable commodity in the favelas. Soon the governor realized the militia expanded the governor’s constituency.”

Despite this valuable analysis, the film also emphasizes local gangs and the favela as a problem and source of corruption, which legitimizes BOPE’s battle against local gangs instead of questioning police brutality.

The glamorization of BOPE

Whereas City of God shows a certain glamorization of poverty, the Elite Squad series glamorizes BOPE, as the elite squad that fights violently against society’s ‘enemy.’ BOPE is portrayed as an uncorrupted division of the Military Police, fighting both traffickers and corrupt officers. Distinctions of this elite division from the ‘regular’ Military Police are made through the use of symbols: the black uniforms, the abundant visual of BOPE’s emblem featuring a skull and two crossed pistols, the BOPE anthem as soundtrack, and the officers who sing the anthem and shout “Skulls!” This image of an uncorrupted squad, in a country where corruption among the Military Police was a public secret, contributes to the legitimization of brutal forces despite the prohibition of torture by law.

Colonel Íbis points out that to understand this glamorization: “You can’t ignore Brazil’s obsession with repression in which policies of safety are centered around war and confrontation. These policies have been reduced to simple police action in which violence has always been a valid rule, a dialogue in society. And thus these police actions are only based on violent police confrontations stimulated by a warrior cult.”

The film further builds sympathy for BOPE through insight in Captain Nascimento’s life in which he struggles to keep his family together and by showing his small house that contains old furniture. This image provides the viewer with the idea that Nascimento makes these sacrifices to fight for a bigger cause: saving society. And according to criminologist Thiago Araujo’s analysis of the film, these images support the argument that “it is not the rich who kill people from the favela.”

Many Brazilians living outside favelas support BOPE. However, only inhabitants of favelas are forced to cope with BOPE practices. And although BOPE was established during the military regime as a ‘protector of the state,’ only to be employed in specific situations like hostage crises and extreme situations in favelas, nowadays they are used to combat many situations in the favelas, influencing daily lives of favela residents. Juan*, resident of favela Chapéu-Mangueira, recounted: “I taught my daughter at a young age: if you see the men in black uniforms, go home! They only come in to kill, they’re bad news. I lost 12 friends in BOPE killings, most of whom were innocent people.”

Warrior culture

Studies on the ‘culture of fear’ have pointed out that ‘the violent’ attracts the popular fascination of many. The popularity of these films in Brazil can be attributed to Brazil’s ideology of repression and a culture of violence connected to a culture of fear.

The narrator’s words in Elite Squad—“violence should be fought with violence”—can be considered as a reflection on how the majority of Brazil’s society thinks, according to sociologist Vera Batista.

Colonel Íbis explains that a certain warrior hero cult started to unfold after the 1990s, when urban violence was most prominent. Although Rio’s Catholic protector is officially Saint Sebastian, unofficially, people celebrate Saint George the warrior as protector of the city. In a country with such a high level of mistrust towards the police on such a high level, Colonel Íbis explains who joins the police force and why:

“Although many people [from the favela] won’t express their desire, for fear of retaliation by drug traffickers, most of the police officers are Afro-Brazilians from the suburbs and favelas who see this is their ticket to a higher class. In addition to that, it’s the same indoctrination as during the dictatorship: saving society from the hands of an enemy, then the external enemy [communism] and now the internal enemy [drug trafficking].”

Colonel Íbis continues:

“It’s about being visible, either as a hero of the traffickers or hero of the police department. Sadly, the answer is that these deaths don’t matter, the profile is the same for criminals and officers: young black people. And they simply don’t matter. It is a continuation of a slave society because this wouldn’t be happening if all the playboys from the South Zone were officers and got killed.”

This sense of invisibility nurtures the war against drugs, as people do not only join forces to protect the city or earn money but also to be someone. After the film Elite Squad came out, Colonel Íbis noticed an increase of interest in becoming BOPE officers among his students. He calls this ‘Bopelarization’ as a result of the film functioning as a recruitment advertisement and propaganda for Brazil’s enemy discourse. He says that out of 320 of his students, one-third wanted to join BOPE purely based on what they saw in the film. Colonel Íbis sadly acknowledges that “Elite Squad was able to capture the young public as a result of this warrior cult.”

Film theorist Nicole Rafter explains in her book Criminology Goes to the Movies that on the one hand, such films criticize some aspects of society and, on the other hand, they offer solace by showing triumph over corruption and brutality. Rio residents’ acceptance of a culture of violence and the glamorization of BOPE was particularly visible when people applauded in the cinemas during the film’s torture scenes, according to Colonel Íbis who visited several cinemas in different areas of town.

According to criminologist Thiago Araujo, at carnival in 2008 after Elite Squad‘s release, the BOPE outfit was the most sold costume of that year. “Many middle and upper class people were dressed in BOPE outfits, singing the anthem non-stop and shouting ‘Skulls!'”

Favela resident reactions

Although opinions about these films vary from person to person, several of the favela residents interviewed for this study expressed similar ideas. They find it a pity that the films only highlight the ‘darker’ negative side of favelas, whereas favelas are clearly not primarily about criminal culture. Although they believe that some representations of criminality in the favela are reconstructed fairly, they are disappointed that this has become the global image of favelas. Mary, a restaurant owner in Cantagaloreflects: “they present our lives, despite us not giving our approval for it, but you can’t fight the industry, can you?”

Diogo, a restaurant owner in Babilôniastates that the films are a starting point for the image of favelas but that it is up to people to come into the favela and develop their own opinion.

A member of the highly successful social theater project Nós do Morro in Vidigal, Creo Kellab played a small role as a gang leader in the TV show City of Men. For him, films about favelas used to be important because they transmitted daily life in favelas to people outside favelas. It was good to get favelas on the global map in order to talk about issues. However, after a while he believes it became an addiction for Brazil to emphasize gang-related issues in favelas and focus on their negative side.

Luca, born and raised in Chapéu-Mangueira and studying pedagogy, shares this opinion, saying: “the films portray a specific frame by one director about the criminal culture that occurs in the favela but the favela is not exclusively this picture!”

Finally, Cantagalo resident, Thiago, explains why many favela residents remain calm despite their disappointment with the films’ focus: “we are always portrayed in a bad light, one or two movies more won’t kill us… I know how we really are and we just help each other in the community as much as we can!”

The interviewed favela residents were overall more positive about the Elite Squad series than City of God or City of Men. Rocinha resident Maria points out that “at least in Elite Squad police brutality and a corrupt government coming into the favelas and making false promises is the focus, rather than only gang-related issues.”

Conclusion

The popularization and glorification of BOPE among upper and middle class Brazilians illustrates that films can be seen as cultural projects that promote an understanding of societal issues through the ideology of dominant society. Due to Brazil’s culture of fear and violence, these films serve to legitimize extreme violence and repression by law enforcement. The films feed into the already existing enemy discourse in Brazil as they dehumanize the favelas through drug trafficking and war zone imagery, which implicitly supports the argument that violence is a necessary evil to combat the enemy, simplistically viewed as ‘the favela.’

This is the second article in a four-part series on the social construction of favelas and the potential of favela tourism to break down negative stereotypes.

Phie van Rompu, M.A., graduated in Global Criminology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She researches state-organized crime, (de)criminalization, resistance and drug-related issues. This RioOnWatch series is based on her Masters research. 

*Some names have been changed.


Full Series: Social Constructions of the Favela through Films and Tourism

Part 1: Stereotypes in Popular Films
Part 2: Glorification of War and Violence
Part 3: Favela Tourism as Resistance
Part 4: Tourist Perceptions Before and After Favela Tours