Without wishing to over-generalise, the French philosopher of cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that thought begins when action ends. Or, more specifically, when we are no longer capable of action.
He says this because actions typically are defined as being things that we do automatically. We might decide to do something, even in a split second. But the action itself is automatic. What happens between actions is thought; and the more intense one’s thoughts are, perhaps the less action one will carry out.
In Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil/Netherlands/USA/Argentina, 2007), Deleuze’s name is specifically crossed out on a blackboard at the beginning of a scene in which one of the young cops who will become a key part of the Elite Squad, Matias (André Ramiro), chooses which contemporary theorist/philosopher he and his classmates will do projects on.
The moment is perhaps coincidental, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek visual gag – probably missed by most viewers – made at the expense of film theorists. Namely, those who sit around thinking about film rather than actually going out there and making films.
Nonetheless, if Padilha and his collaborators want to rub one in the eye of film theorists and others whose ‘sitting around thinking’ is perceived as useless to society, this raises some interesting questions.
For, in not being a theorist but in going out there and making a film instead, Padilha becomes a man of action. And this act of filmmaking is suitable for a film that, seemingly, endorses, or at the very least explores, the call for, precisely, action in response to the critical condition of society.
That is, Trope de Elite – as well as its sequel Trope de Elite 2 – O Enemigo Agora É Outro/Elite Squad 2 (José Padilha, Brazil, 2010) – seems to support the efforts of Capitão Nascimento (Wagner Moura) not to sit back and think but to take action. And by ‘taking action,’ I mean enact a zero tolerance policy on drugs and gang violence in the favelas (and elsewhere) of Rio de Janeiro.
There is also a moment at the end of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010) in which a title card appears saying words to the effect that he who sits around refusing to act is doomed, both physically and spiritually. That is, the film, which features a father, Champion (Youssouf Djaoro), who does nothing while Chad and his family fall apart, suggests that ethically, perhaps even morally, the time to act is nigh – and that, again, sitting around thinking has done nothing to stem the tide of exploitation (Champion looks after a swimming pool in a Western-style hotel) and inequality that continues to sweep our planet.
While Tropa de Elite verges on the reactionary in its condemnation of Rio gangs and its support for the misunderstood nature of the militaristic squad that it depicts (that is, the film seemingly endorses state violence towards its transgressive citizens), Un homme qui crie seems to call for the awakening of a more revolutionary spirit that will not take state-authorised exploitation sitting, or lying, down.
However, while Tropa de Elite (and its sequel) and Un homme qui crie seem to espouse slightly different political outlooks, both seem to present a call to arms.
And, as we have seen from global south to global north, from student movements in Chile and the UK to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, both film(maker)s – from Brazil and Chad – seem to have their finger on the global pulse. That is, now people are starting to act – be they oppositional or reactionary forces endeavouring through violence to put down whatever insurrections they encounter.
Although the world is perhaps calling out for a (quite general) definition of what precisely constitutes violence in order to get a better legal handle on what is going on, if nothing else, my point here is slightly different.
My point is that I have not decided how to act yet – and I may never do. I am still thinking about all of this – and, indeed, finding it ever harder to think about the ‘state of the world’ precisely because it is so complex (and brought to me by global media networks). I may know where my allegiances lie in principle, but I am still a coward, scared that I will do ‘the wrong’ thing (because I am still waylaid by notions of right and wrong, even though I think beyond good and evil).
On 24 June 1963, John F Kennedy misattributed his words to Dante when he said in Bonn that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of moral crisis’ (Dante said in canto 3 of the Inferno that those who were neither for nor against God were in a special region near the mouth of hell; Kennedy was on a roll at the time, though, since two days later he told West Berliners that he was a donut).
But while I fear that there is some truth in Kennedy’s words, and that – impossibly – we will perhaps endure the return of some absolute standard of good and/or evil against which the decision not to fight will make us more lousy than those who fight for it, I also feel that I want to remain partisan regarding my neutrality. Even when I act, my actions are my own; my neutrality is my action, whatever hatred it might elicit from others (should it last forever; who knows when I shall reach my crisis point and emerge, grenade in hand, to man the barricades).
This scares me; I suffer anxiety that I am not ‘occupying’ – and on the whole can only see reasons not to join either side.
On the surface, the film might fit into the ‘reactionary’ camp of Tropa de Elite in that the film examines with some sympathy (by which I mean, ironically enough, neutrality) the life of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), himself an über-macho member of an Israeli ‘elite squad’ that deals with Palestinian terrorists.
Yaron struts around with his shades on, consistently doing push ups, pull ups and finding any excuse to exert his alpha status, even over his fellow squad members, whom he high fives and hugs in a fashion that, to avoid the ‘on steroids’ cliché of crap film journalism, is like Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) injected with the super-juice that they pump into the much-more-interesting-when-scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, USA, 2011).
Yaron is a seemingly loving husband, but he is also under investigation for killing a Palestinian child and old man during a raid (something that the team decides to blame on a guy in their squad who has a brain tumor and who is likely therefore to die, or arouse sympathy), and he may possibly fool around with, and most certainly flirts with, a 15-year old waitress in a bar.
Yaron eventually comes up against a group of young terrorists – not from Palestine, however, but from Israel. These terrorists, whom director Lapid said at the Film Festival were inspired by his reading about the Baader Meinhof group, believe that the rich are too rich and that the poor are too poor – and that ‘it’s time for the poor to get rich and for the rich to get dying.’
As a result, they take hostage two billionaires, together with the wife and daughter of one of them. In what is perhaps the most naïve and inept piece of terrorism ever seen on film (though surely not in real life), the group of upper middle class Israeli revolutionaries take their hostages to the basement of the hotel where the kidnapping took place. There, they allow men purporting to be ‘press photographers’ into the room, even though they never asked for these men to come (of course, they are police photographers after intel). And – behold/spoilers – the anti-terrorist squad arrives and does its job.
In some senses, the utter naïveté of the ‘terrorists’ is astounding, heartbreaking and disturbing. In other senses, so is their conviction – their conviction that calling to the elite police squad outside that they too are being exploited will lead them to put down their weapons and demand for social justice themselves.
But their folly is not what consoles me in my neutrality. Rather, it is Yaron who – sort of – consoles me. Yaron shows nerves during this mission in a way that presumably is very uncharacteristic of him. Nonetheless, he enters into the room (another idiotic aspect of holding hostages in a basement: the counter-terrorist unit will turn out the lights and use night vision goggles, making you as terrorist utterly defenceless), and carries out his mission.
In doing so, he kills Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a young and in some respects ‘lost’ poor little rich girl, who gives Jane Fonda a run for her money in believing with conviction in her righteous quest to adjust the fact that Israel is dominated by hoarding rich while the poor work for less than minimum wage (Palestine is deliberately not even broached as a topic).
Looking down at her body, we see that Yaron is, perhaps, beginning to ‘crack’ – that his transition from action man to thinker is beginning to take place.
Don’t get me wrong: the price for Yaron’s ‘conversion’ is terrible and I am not saying that the lives of others is a worthy price for one person’s decision – after years of action – to pause for thought. However, while it seems as though the world is demanding an escalating level of action, Policeman in its own way seems to be suggesting a pause for thought.
And not just by Yaron, but perhaps also by the kids who wind up dead for their stupidity. Some more forethought, some more thought, on both sides, might possibly have avoided the bloodshed.
If Tropa de Elite seems to endorse the use of force to take out insurrectional elements of society, and if Un homme qui crie suggests that you are foolish not to take up arms in times of trouble, then Policeman perhaps suggests that trouble might be avoided if we all thought a bit more. If we looked and saw – saw deeply – rather than acted based upon superficial evidence.