Tag Archives: corrupt cops

La Zona (2007)

“When my son grows up , how will I explain why we live behind a wall?”

Transport a Shirley Jackson story to modern-day Mexico and you have La Zona, a 2007 film from director Rodrigo Plá. The film opens in the beautiful clean streets of an affluent community as neatly dressed, uniformed school children march off to a private school. The camera pans through the immaculate streets and across the enormous homes and well-manicured lawns. A veritable paradise? And then the camera pans to huge walls topped with barbed wire and security cameras. Beyond the walls we see a vast sea of poverty and squalor–dilapidated, ramshackle homes and mountains of trash. These opening scenes of this  affluent, secured housing are powerfully constructed and yet at the same time, nothing is overdone.

Those living inside La Zona appear to share common concerns and similar values, and they have the money to buy the sort of lifestyle they want in order to raise their children and live securely. La Zona is protected–not just by walls, barbed wire and security cameras–but also by a team of security officers led by Gerardo (Carlos Bardem). La Zona, set in Mexico City, screams segregation with the lucky few on one side of the wall with the much less fortunate on the other, and with such a striking contrast in material comfort within just a few feet, of course, the inevitable happens, and one night during a freak storm, a billboard collapses and three young men climb into La Zona to steal….

The next day, Comandate Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) arrives at the gates of La Zona after complaints of gunshots. His questions are met with disdain and an offer of “50 pesos” to away. Enraged and humiliated, Rigoberto is determined to continue the investigation–even though he gets signals to let it drop. As events play out, the residents of La Zona are defiant and in blatant violation of legal and moral law. Meanwhile Rigoberto ploughs ahead with his investigation even though he butts heads with his ‘superiors.’ 

The rest of the film concerns what happened the night of the break-in, but also, and much more significantly how the residents react. Following the break-in, rumours explode and paranoia reigns, and the servants of La Zona families are subject to extra scrutiny. One scene shows an ad-hoc posse of teenage boys within the gated community hunting for a crook. Armed with golf clubs and even a harpoon gun, the boys swarm over the beautiful golf course and into a wooded gully. There’s so much space, and again off in the distance, outside of the walls, we see a hillside crowded with shacks–no space, nothing green–just squalor and poverty. Holding special emergency committee meetings in which the majority rule, the more aggressive members of La Zona dominate over those who are ambivalent or unwilling to take a moral stand. Ultimately, we see a series of moral mis-steps with either people too weak to stand up and voice their opinion, or people barreled over in a system so corrupt that everything can be bought for a price.

One of the main characters is teenager Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the film’s moral centre, and in one scene, Alejandro’s father, Daniel (Daniel Giménez Cacho) explains to his son why he chose to live in La Zona and how he lost his faith in the Mexican justice system. Exactly why Alejandro choses to defy his father (and his values) and stand apart from his peers is unclear. In spite of this slight flaw, the film works very well indeed, and the final result is a film that asks some important questions about the right to security, the ability of the rich and powerful to command special dispensations, and once those dispensations are granted, just how far should they extend?

Director Matt Ehling made a short documentary film a few years ago about gated communities called Forbidden City, and one of the points the film makes is that gated communities are a sign of “increasing polarisation” between the rich and the poor. Mexico has the largest number of gated communities in the world, and some, like La Zona, are completely autonomous with their own electricity and water systems. Crime will always be one major argument for gated communities. With kidnappings on the rise in Mexico, at least one company offers sub-dermal transmitter implantation. Wealthy families are, of course, targets, and so it’s probably logical that the wealthy band together and pool resources in order to establish a safe environment. (I’ll add here that it’s not just the wealthy who are kidnapped–I read one case of a child of a shepherd who was killed by injected bleach when his parents failed to come up with the ransom).  The plethora of gated communities springing up worldwide is a symptom of a malfunctioning society, the ever-expanding gaps between the very rich and the very poor,  and the failure of state mechanisms which are, in theory, supposed to provide protection. In La Zona, we see a group of wealthy people attempting to establish a utopian community–a community which is occupied by people with similar social positions, values and wealth. Having established the community they desire, they operate it with a manual of by-laws, and when a showdown occurs, they feel justified in exacting punishment. It’s at this point that some residents reject La Zona (in their evaluation, it’s no longer a utopian community), and others return happily to the established status quo.

La Zona is an entry in Caroline and Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.


Filed under Mexican

Coup de Torchon (1981)

“I’ve got no choice. First, I’m underpaid; second, my wife takes all my money;and third, fining you is practically a civic duty.”

In the French film Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Jim Thompson’s noir novel Pop. 1280 is transposed from the rural American South to French West Africa. And here the film becomes a blistering critique of the corrosive nature of colonialism. You can draw your own conclusions about the connection between the American South and colonialism, but the bottom line is that the film works.

It’s 1938, and the world is on the brink of WWII. While at first the spectre of war appears to be a daunting prospect for the French characters stuck in this West African outpost, as the plot spins out, it becomes clear that the prospect of imminent war is really a matter of slow bubbling excitement because it represents a shift in the doldrums and a heightened connection with the outside world. By the end of the film, war has been declared and within minutes blacks are rounded up at gunpoint as an almost carnival atmosphere is unleashed within the white power structure.

The protagonist of Coup De Torchon is the middle-aged, flabby, sweaty Chief of Police Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret). Stuck in some African town for eons, Cordier has gone to pot–physically and morally. Whereas in most regions of the planet, being the Chief of Police is a position of some importance, Cordier is regarded by the other displaced Westerners with scorn, and he’s treated just marginally better than the blacks. From the minute Cordier gets up, his days are an endless humiliation–beginning with his nasty wife Huguette Cordier (played with housewifely slovenliness by Stephane Audran) and her so-called ‘brother’ Nono (Eddy Mitchell). Blatantly cuckolded in his own home, things don’t get better when Cordier steps out the front door. Whether he’s treated like a janitor by the wealthy Vanderbrouck (Michel Beaune) who pisses in the public toilet right underneath the Chief of Police’s window, or whether Cordier is the butt of jokes made by the local pimps, he leads a miserable life. But in order to swallow these humiliations, Cordier pretends they aren’t happening. So when he sees his wife cuddling, kissing and fondling her ‘brother,’ Cordier resorts to petty acts, and he tries to pass off the pimps’ rudeness as friendly fun, but Cordier’s humiliations at the hands of the white population escalate until he finally asks for advice from a fellow policeman.

Cordier takes the advice to heart and begins eliminating his enemies, fabricating stories or circumstances about their deaths, and as the Chief of Police, he’s in a perfect position to exact revenge and cover up his crimes.

It’s difficult to identify with the lengths Cordier goes to swallow his pride and accept the humiliations shoved down his throat on a daily basis. Perhaps the most egregious of these humiliations are those he suffers from his wife, but then again Cordier has a mistress to console himself with, the spunky, married Rose Mercaillau (Isabelle Huppert). Cordier is basically a coward at heart and even allows his mistress to be beaten in public by her husband rather than openly challenge him. And as is typical with Cordier, he is comfortable only with sneakily attacking rather than challenging and confronting. Ultimately acts of brutality do not give Cordier courage.

The native blacks in the film wisely stay out of the way of the white people as much as possible, and the areas in which the whites and the blacks merge is often violent and explosive with the Africans on the receiving end of the erratic behaviour of the whites. A couple of scenes indicate that the social behaviour of the French offers a degree of entertainment for the native blacks–albeit if watched safely from a distance. While Cordier can hardly be described as a defender of the blacks by any means, his speeches indicate that too many years in the colonies have left him incapable of making a moral decision, and that colonialism has eroded away any standards of good and evil he possessed.

While the film from director Bertrand Tavernier gives no hint about Cordier’s standards of behaviour in his pre-Africa years, nonetheless statements dropped by Cordier indicate that his sense of morality has been scrambled by the things he’s seen in Africa:

“At first it is horrible. But then you start to think about starving kids, little girls sold into slavery, women whose sex is sewn up… God created murder out of pure kindness. Murder is nothing compared to those horrors. ”

Cordier latches on to the new, idealistic, female teacher who arrives in town to teach the natives to speak French, and while he observes that this is a noble mission, he sardonically notes that she will enable the black children “to read their daddy’s name on French war memorials.” While Cordier finds the teacher admirable, it’s not long before she too is disgusted with him for his lack of moral courage.

There is the sense that far from home, the French characters act in a fashion that would not be acceptable on their home turf and that Cordier is ultimately influenced by those around him. Vanderbrouck, for example, wouldn’t be pissing in a roofless toilet if he lived in Paris and Madame Cordier might be more mindful of her neighbours if she was stuck in a small French town. The pimps wouldn’t intimidate the Chief of Police, and they certainly wouldn’t take potshots at bodies if they saw them floating by in the Seine. These actions are all indications of the general breakdown of society and indeed Cordier indicates this at one point while acknowledging that his standards have slipped:

“Grammar gets rusty like everything else if you don’t use it. And in Africa the same goes for good and evil. What’s good? What’s evil? Nobody knows. It’s not much use here. So it gets rusty too. Must be the climate. ”

And with the general breakdown of society corrupted by colonialism, crimes become–as Cordier notes–collective and confused:

“I try to save the innocent but there aren’t any. All crimes are collective. We contribute to each other’s crimes. We all shot your brother. And maybe I did a bit more than my share. ”

Ultimately Coup de Torchon is an examination of the erosion of moral courage through the corrosive insidious presence of colonialism. Most of the film’s characters lack moral courage and no longer speak out against what is morally wrong. They all turn a blind eye to one egregious situation or another–with Cordier as an extreme example. He’s the low man on the totem pole while ironically he is the one who is supposed to be enforcing laws as they impact behavior in the French colony. Lacking moral courage, and unable to identify wrong from right, good from evil, Cordier begins his cowardly path of revenge but simply misses the point that revenge isn’t what’s needed: it’s moral courage that’s glaringly absent.

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Filed under France, Isabelle Huppert

The Elite Squad (2007)


Elite Squad DVDCapitao Nascimento (Wagner Moura)–a veteran of the BPOE (Special Police Operation Battalion) narrates the violently, explosive Brazilian film The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite). When the film begins, the Captain is under a lot of pressure, and he’s beginning to lose his nerve for the everyday violent confrontations with criminals, drug dealers and crooked police officers. Against the backdrop story of the Pope’s impending visit, Nascimento must find a replacement due to his imminent reassignment to the training of new recruits. There are two candidates for the post: the impulsive Neto (Caio Junqueira) and the studious, serious Matias (Andre Ramiro).

Many Brazilian crime films focus on the seamy criminal life in this poverty-stricken country. The Elite Squad focuses on police corruption, and since the film is based on the memoirs of a former BPOE officer, there’s some amazing information here. Just watch the endless scenes of police corruption, and you will find yourself wondering how this country will ever pull itself out of the mire of poverty and crime. In some scenes, police fight over bribery turf, with several groups of officers strong-arming the same business owners, and in other scenes, police squad cars are stripped by officers who make a lucrative living selling the stolen car parts on the side.

The Elite Squad is a non-linear narrative, and the film begins with new police recruits Neto and Matias in the middle of a horrendous firefight. Then the film goes back to 6 months earlier to explain how these two men found themselves cornered under fire in the middle of a ghetto. This part of the story comprises the first half of the film. The second half of the film depicts Neto and Matias attending BPOE training and Nascimento’s selection of his replacement.

I found the first half of the film with its exploration of social issues riveting. One sub-theme, for example, is how the rich do-gooder kids pride themselves on their open mindedness and superior civic responsibilities etc and yet actively contribute to the drug trade. The second half of the film seems to be fairly standard fare and a glorification of the fascistic BPOE. The BOPE training camp makes GI Jane look like a holiday camp for sissies in comparison. Still if you are interested in Brazilian film and want to see Brazilian police corruption in its glory, then The Elite Squad  is well worth catching. The scenes detailing police corruption, the scams and how they work the system–including the fiddling of the murder statistics were phenomenal. From director Jose Padilla.

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Filed under Brazil, Crime

Knife in the Head (1978)

 “I am … Nobody.”

knifeThe German film Knife in the Head (Messer Im Kopf) from director Reinhard Hauff is one of a handful of films created to reflect and question society in post-Red Army Faction Germany. Knife in the Head is the story of a perfectly innocent German citizen who becomes caught up in the state machine when he’s erroneously identified as a terrorist. Deemed guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he’s framed in order to justify police brutality.

The film concerns bio-geneticist Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) who’s separated from his wife Anna (Angela Winkler). When the film begins Hoffman tries to contact Anna, and when that doesn’t work, he drives over to one of her frequent haunts–a youth center on Jacobi Strasse. But just as Hoffman arrives, the police raid the building. Hoffman, anxious about Anna, ignores police orders to stay out of the building, and he runs inside. He’s ordered to stop. He turns, and he’s shot in the head. Barely alive, he’s taken to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Hoffman survives, but his survival brings a host of problems. Hoffman faces years of physical rehabilitation. Paralyzed on his right side, he’s also lost a great deal of his memory. He has to relearn speech and is incapable of the simplest acts of self-care; he even has to be taught how to feed himself. The official police version of events is that Hoffman stabbed a policeman who then shot him in self-defense. Meanwhile, the police, convinced that Hoffman is a terrorist, post a 24-hour watch in the hospital, and decide he’s “faking” his injuries. His estranged wife, Anna feels a moral obligation to Hoffman, yet she’s in another relationship with the confrontational Volker (Heinz Hoenig).

The media has a field day with the story, and at first it’s reported that Hoffman just has a few “knocks on the head,” while the policeman’s superficial stab wound is reported as near fatal. Soon the papers (a not-so-subtle criticism of the Springer Press) carry stories about “Berthold Hoffman’s Double Life,” and his reputation is utterly destroyed. A great deal of the film follows Hoffman’s painstakingly slow recovery in the hospital. Unable to defend himself–partly because at first he can’t speak, and partly because he suffers from memory loss–the police build a case against him and want to haul him off to a prison hospital. One huge problem with the official version of events is that there’s no knife to back up the story against Hoffman. And this is where the film’s title comes in–the knife–is a figment of the imagination, and it exists only in someone’s head.

Meanwhile, Volker, who’s a seasoned adversary of the state, reasons that if Hoffman is going to be questioned while he’s incapacitated, he should be groomed for this. He argues: “you want the pigs to make him learn their version, or what?” Anna disagrees, but it’s perhaps Hoffman’s lawyer who takes the more reasonable approach. In this critically sensitive time period for Hoffman, Volker, in trying to spread the word about Hoffman, ends up creating further problems for Hoffman (makes me think of Jeff Luers). All of Hoffman’s life–his work, his education count for nothing as far as the state is concerned, and even though there’s a perfectly rational explanation for why Hoffman was at the Youth Centre, he’s labeled a terrorist and no one outside of Hoffman’s immediate circle questions this version of events.

Anna and Volker visit Hoffman in hospital, and it’s an awkward situation at best–even though Volker states Hoffman is “just a political case.” Each visit to Hoffman is preceded by a search, and here’s the dialogue from one scene:

Volker (to policeman at desk who is calling in to report visitors): What does Big Brother say? Am I a good guy or a bad guy? Check my bank account while you’re at it.

Policeman: No money for 2 years. Your social life is a front. Want to know more?

Volker: Yes

Policeman: You’ve got a police record. Didn’t finish high school. Arrested for disturbing the peace. Three illegal demonstrations this year. Drug abuse too, etc etc.

Volker: So I’m a good guy. How come you and brother aren’t wireless yet?

Policeman: Soon enough. Thanks to you and your friends.

Perhaps the greatest travesty against Hoffman, however, is that after ruining his life, his career, and his health, the police simply ‘move on’ leaving him destroyed. Their attention is now focused on someone else. Hoffman, who’s been an innocent bystander, a victim, and scripted as a terrorist by the police, the media and society, finally takes his fate into his own hands and seeks answers. In German with subtitles.

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Filed under German, Political/social films

La Sierra (2005)

Left, right and caught in the middle.

In the documentary La Sierra filmmakers Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez travel to Medellin, Colombia to record the lives of several of those connected to the violent turf wars taking place in one poverty-stricken barrio. In a civil conflict that has left over 30,000 people dead, a battle rages between left-wing guerrillas, the government and right-wing paramilitary groups. The town of La Sierra is divided between left wing guerillas and right wing paramilitaries. Neighbourhoods on the boundaries become battlegrounds as each side fights for control. The film concentrates on the lives of three young people who are connected to the right-wing paramilitary groups in La Sierra.

The three young people are: Edison, 22 who’s the paramilitary leader, 19-year-old Jesus–one of Edison’s followers, and 17-year-old Cielo whose brother and father were murdered by left-wing guerillas. Edison is the first to admit that there’s a certain glory to being a paramilitary leader, and he enjoys the status of some sort of rock star with the local girls, racking up lovers and leaving a trail of babies in his wake. Jesus, who lost a hand while making a grenade, doesn’t share Edison’s status, and there’s a sense of fatalism when he talks about the future. While he’d like to see his son grow up, the chances seem slim that this will happen. Cielo, who at 17 is a widow and a mother, scrambles to make a living so that she can visit her boyfriend in jail.

The filmmakers record events as Edison, Jesus, and Cielo navigate their way through police raids, gun battles, and death. The viewer should be warned that there are a couple of very graphic scenes–obviously this goes with the territory. Edison’s followers casually walk through the streets, openly carrying and shooting guns. The police occasionally raid La Sierra, but lookouts alert paramilitary forces, so that they have time to hide. Edison sees the police as thoroughly corrupt–people who “sell themselves to the highest bidder.” Meanwhile the older residents of the town express a range of feelings about the paramilitaries. One older man observes “we are in the hands of kids with guns,” while one woman expresses gratitude for the security the paramilitaries provide. As a social commentary, the film makes an excellent point regarding the global meltdown of society for the poor and disenfranchised.

One of the lingering questions I have about the film is where does the money come from? Edison and his followers have weapons, cell phones, walkie-talkies, and he even has a motorbike (not to mention the ample flow of white substance that disappears up nostrils). These material possessions stick out in the midst of the crushing poverty of the barrio. It’s not clear where the goodies come from, but the implication is that the narcotics trade funds these activities. But apart from that question, La Sierra provides some amazing footage, and the filmmakers really took some risks to create this film. In Spanish with subtitles.

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Filed under Documentary