‘Point Blank’ (‘A queima roupa’): Rio de Janeiro Review
This hard-hitting expose of police corruption in Brazil won the best documentary award at the recent Rio festival
It’s no secret that some factions of the Brazilian military and civil police are no angels, but Point Blank thrilling and disturbingly shows just how bad things are. Following the 1993 police shooting of 21 people in Vigario Geral, a Rio de Janeiro favela, the regional governor told the press “We need to know if they’re heroes or villains”, and Theresa Jessouroun’s raw, powerful documentary Point Blank settles the issue directly, fusing personal testimony, footage, and expert opinion into a compelling, sickening expose.
Brazilian release on October 16 should be followed by appearances at festivals wishing to show respect for a documentary whose very existence is testimony to the courage of those who made and participated in it.
As the details of the Vigario Geral massacre and the enquiry into it unfold, the viewer is drawn into the details of a dizzyingly complex back-and-forth narrative: in the hands of the right scriptwriter, even the twists of the first ten minutes of Point Blank could be drawn out into an entire series. But of course the whole point is that this is real. Jessouron’s film could be seen as a reminder for the worldwide audiences who have vicariously enjoyed Fernando Meirelles’ ground-breaking City of God -- a film seen by some in Brazil as dangerously poeticizing favela violence -- that real lives were, and are, at stake here.
The favela residents are victims of the double whammy of both drugs and police violence. Vigario Geral was the police’s response to the killing of four of their number by a drugs lord: things spiralled from there. But Jessouroun’s concern is not primarily to show that there was violence then: the message is that it’s still there now, and still going unpunished. The only thing that changes is that the stakes are getting higher. The film’s final section, after it has scrutinized several other favela killings down the years, is dedicated to the judge Patricia Acioli, assassinated in 2011 by the police force whose corruption she was investigating.
Broadly, Point Blank breaks down into three thematic sections. The first shows the human cost. Among other bereaved people, Vera Lucia Santos, whose faith in God is apparently boundless and unwavering, describes the positions in which she found the bodies of her entire family after Vigario Geral, with archive images tragically confirming her words. A single teardrop running down the face of hairdresser Alessandro, rendered hemiplegic by a police bullet, is equally graphic in its own way.
Then there is the sociology, as judges and lawyers seek to explain why it has to be this way. Broadly speaking, they agree that police violence is the legacy of the military dictatorship’s culture of torturing and abusing the poor. (As is also pointed out, the police stand to gain nothing by being honest.)
But perhaps the key testimony comes from Ivan Custodio Lima, the chatty army sergeant-hitman turned informant (or X-9, in Brazilian judicial parlance), his face half-hidden as he explains how, for example, the police would kill drugs dealers and take the spoils, both drugs and weapons, to sell them on to other dealers. The police claim that their motive is revenge (which is surprising enough itself), but the real reason is that the dealers aren’t repaying their debts. “I lived in a dangerous world”, Ivan drolly reflects: and he well knows, as do the police and the dealers alike, that there’s a big difference between knowing something and proving it. (Perhaps ingenuously, he offers the opinion that the six years he spent in jail weren’t enough.)
On the downside, Point Blank is absolutely one-sided, and fails to offer any counterbalancing opinion of the Rio police, were such opinion possible. (Apparently there do exist cops who refuse to take bribes, which in such a context amounts to passive resistance.) And while aesthetic criticism seems churlish given the urgency and significance of the material, the black and white slow-motion reconstructions are unnecessary and too redolent of sensationalist TV, especially given the remarkable quantity and quality of the real available footage.
The imagery is often stomach-churningly graphic, Jessouroun not shirking at showing the dead bodies piled up in these impoverished houses and streets. But such images are perhaps justified when you reflect that between 2007 and 2012, police violence in Brazil apparently led to 5,068 such bodies. If it comes, the change that Point Blank is seeking will be slow: at a screening of the film for police cadets in Rio in early October 2014, the commander of a military police academy asked the press to leave.
Production company: Kinofilmes, Urca Filmes
Director, screenwriter, producer: Theresa Jessouroun
Director of photography: Walter Carvalho, Bacco Andrade, Fabricio Tadeu
Editor: Ide Lacreta, Theresa Jessouroun
Composer: Tim Rescala