Televising The Drug War

GettyImages_107190581_jpg_470x276_q85 Lilia M. Schwarcz over at the NYRB blog:

[T]he drug war in Rio does not explain the rapid spread of the public fear that has become a central theme in national and international depictions of the country. Movies such as News from a Personal War (João Salles, 1999), Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998), City of God (Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 movie based on Paulo Lins’s 1997 book), and the recent Elite Squad 1 and 2 (José Padilha, 2007 and 2010)—the latter, by the way, has become the biggest box-office success in the history of Brazilian cinema—have had an impact both at home and abroad, and have ensured that the subject of violence is never far from the lips of Brazilians. The more recent movies, in particular, which seem to be produced as quickly as TV series, seek to shock audiences with their graphic depictions of turf wars between drug gangs in the favelas, places ordinary Brazilians would not imagine visiting.

These movies, each with their own aesthetic of violence, are immediately exported, disseminating a feeling of fear and terror that fires the foreign imagination and troubles the local population. For those wishing to get a bit closer to the ground, there is a growing industry of “favela tours” that promise visitors the “thrill” of going into a real favela and finding out what life is like there and experiencing the danger first-hand—all in precise, measured doses, of course.

There is also the endless TV coverage of the chaos in the favelas. In recent days, we have been confronted with a veritable avalanche of images of the anti-drug offensive, a 24/7 reality show, with audiences glued to their front-row seats in their living-rooms, ignoring the evidence of the relatively peaceful streets outside. While Rio’s northern zone was experiencing something like a military invasion, in the south, life went on as normal, apart from hotels and restaurants, whose doors remained cautiously shut—just in case.

Most of this reality show leaves no room for nuance or interpretation: the good guys are on one side and the bandits on the other. I’m not defending drug-trafficking or the violence practiced by its participants—it is certainly true that gang warfare and the wars between the police and the traffickers have become an increasingly worrying and invasive part of everyday life in our major cities. But the prevailing black-and-white logic—according to which the drug trade is exclusive to favela life and doesn’t have implications for the police, politicians, or the population as a whole—is nonsense. It is now clear that drug-trafficking has been as omnipresent among certain corrupt police squads as it has in the favelas.

The trouble is that the ugly reality lives right next door; this is particularly ironic given a long history in Rio of attempts to segregate the poor from the rich.