One moment José Padilha was a little-known, if respected, documentary-maker. The next, he's made the most talked-about Brazilian film since City of God. Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) was a cause célèbre before even reaching cinemas: it was stolen from Padilha's Rio office and pirated to 11 million Brazilians. Now, its director is a hero to many of his fellow cariocas for shining a light on the drugs war that plagues their city.
But the film's graphic violence, and Padilha's decision to tell his story from the point of view of the police – who are shown to steal, torture and kill with impunity – has opened him to criticism. Just as the film was winning the Berlin Film Festival's coveted Golden Bear, one American critic dismissed it as "a recruitment film for fascist thugs".
Such contrasting reaction simply means "mission accomplished" for the bullish 40-year-old, whose aim – as with his documentary Bus 174, about a street kid-turned-bus hijacker – was to generate debate. "About 200 people a year are killed by cops in the US: in Rio, it's 1,200," he says. "I'm trying to say that by paying cops low wages, giving little training and forcing them to do risky jobs, the state creates corrupt and violent police."
Hollywood has noted this Latin Oliver Stone, signing Padilha to direct a film about terrorist activity in South America's tri-border region. But he is not about to abandon his roots, having already shot a documentary about hunger in Brazil. Nor will it concern him if he continues to ruffle feathers. "With Bus 174 everybody accused me of being a radical left-winger. Now, I'm a radical right-winger," he shrugs. "So I guess I'll never get elected."
'Elite Squad' is released on 8 AugustReuse content