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Funk, Favelas, and Foucault: Rio de Janeiro in José Padilha’s Tropa de Élite

February 5, 2020 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm

An instant sensation since its debut in October 2007, José Padilha's Elite Squad (Tropa de Élite) depicts theviolent confrontations of BOPE, the special operations battalion of the military police, with the drug and guntraffic in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The film is based in part upon the book Elite da Tropa, the hardboiledaccount by two former BOPE members, Andre Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, written in collaboration withanthropologist and former National Secretary of Public Security Luíz Eduardo Soares. It was adapted asfiction by Padilha (producer and director of Netflix’s Narcos) and City of God screenwriter BráulioMantovani. Yet even before its official screening and record-breaking box office returns, the film was alreadycontroversial on both sides of the political spectrum for its depictions of police corruption and brutality. Thefilm was not officially censored as had been threatened at one point, which would have had little effect in anycase, since according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), bootlegging andonline piracy of an earlier cut ensured the film had already been seen by an estimated 11.5 million peoplebefore it reached theaters.This presentation explores the impact of Elite Squad as a film representing Rio de Janeiro to itself over thepast dozen years. I locate the film in what is by now an all-too-familiar genre of the “war on drugs” in Rio—agenre that powerfully folds into a more longstanding discourse and still-older genre on life in the favelas. Ifurther contend Elite Squad transcends the somewhat romanticized cinematic style of its predecessors such asFernando Mereilles’ City of God (2002). The talk will briefly touch upon the filmic and musical subgenresthat helped to secure Elite Squad’s tremendous popularity, as well as the film's prominent foregrounding ofMichel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as an ideological master key to understanding the police and justicesystem's complicity with “perverse institutions.” While some film critics and ordinary Brazilians havelambasted the film as a paean to fascism, the film offers one of the most unflinching and nuanced portrayalsto date of the pervasiveness of corruption in Rio, defined here as a willingness to participate in in the drugtrade in one form or another. It also critiques the human costs that come from the highly unequal relationshipsbetween power and knowledge that continue to pervade Rio and Brazilian society-at-large.


Guest Speaker: Seth Jacobowitz

Seth Jacobowitz is Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures andAffiliate Faculty in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at Yale University. A trilingual scholar, he istranslator of the Edogawa Rampo Reader (Kurodahan Press, 2008) and author of Writing Technology inMeiji Japan: A Media History of Modern Japanese Literature and Visual Culture (Harvard Asia Center, 2015), which won the 2017 International Convention of Asia Scholars Book Prize in the Humanities. He is acurrent Fulbright Fellow to Brazil (summers 2019/2020), and has previously been Simon Visiting Professorat University of Manchester, Asakawa Fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo, an invited guest lecturer atYonsei University in Seoul, and frequent Visiting Researcher to the Center of Japanese Studies at theUniversity of São Paulo. His first field of specialization focused on the intersection of media and literature inlate nineteenth century Japan. His present research is for a book on the prewar Japanese immigration to Braziland the literature of Japanese overseas expansion. He is also translating from Portuguese to English FernandoMorais’ Corações Sujos (Dirty Hearts, 2000), an investigative account of the Japanese Brazilian communityduring and after WWII, for Palgrave MacMillan’s Latin American Studies Series, forthcoming in 2020. Inaddition, he is co-authoring a book on science and science fiction in prewar Japan with Professor Aaron W.Moore, Handa Chair of Japanese-Chinese Relations at the University of Edinburgh.


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Ignacio López-Calvo