«Criminals in uniform, gainfully employed, took my son’s life», says a mother, mourning the death of a teenaged boy by the hands of Brazil‘s militarised police, to a crowd of other poor, black women at a public protest.
«If the state did not allow the police to kill, they would not. The state is to blame,» says another mother.
A father, on an incident that left five young men dead in a car riddled with bullet holes: «How do you explain more than 100 shots – and all the victims shot in the back?»
Police Killing – screening its international premiere at IDFA’s Frontlight section – is a forensically detailed condemnation of the thousands of unpunished deaths at the hands of the police recorded in Brazil’s megacity of Rio de Janeiro every year, by directors Natasha Leri and Lula Carvalho.
Opening with footage of a public prosecutor’s reconstruction of the killing of five young men – aged between 16 and 21– in Rio’s poor Costa Barros favela (Brazilian Portuguese for slum) in November 2015, Police Killing is structured like a lawyer’s brief; patiently piecing together the stories of a handful of horrific incidents among the 16,000 deaths caused by police actions in Rio over the past two decades.
«In case after case, it is clear that the police are trigger-happy goons who feel they can kill with impunity.»
Searing images from police bodycam and dashcam footage, mobile phone videos from witnesses and other sources, put viewers in the middle of fatal encounters, where the police shoot first and ask questions later – or make crude jokes about the limp and bloodied bodies of their victims.
The film is structured around the few cases that come to court, a public enquiry where police chiefs and politicians glibly dismiss the dead as low-life scum, and the public protestations of victims’ relatives.
It strives to give both sides of the story while being clear that its aim is to expose the injustices of a system that couldn’t care less about the lives of poor, black kids scraping a living in the favelas.
Just two per cent of recorded incidents (which include 1,124 deaths in 2017 and 154 in January 2018 alone) are investigated.
The rest are filed away and forgotten, under the bureaucratic excuse that justifies the killings as «resistance followed by death».
And yet, in case after case, it is clear that the police tasked with «pacifying» the favelas or waging a «war on drugs», are trigger-happy goons who feel they can kill with impunity.
This is graphically illustrated in footage filed by a heavily armed police SWAT-team that swoops in on a group of young alleged drug dealers, spraying automatic fire into the streets from above. They show no regard for proof or due process (let alone any evidence of return fire, despite the footage later showing rifles lying on tables above the bloodied corpses of two young men).
Eight officers charged with murder in the 2012 incident – after the footage surfaced on social media (posted by the men themselves) – were acquitted in 2017. The pilot of the helicopter all but shrugs when interviewed by the filmmakers after the case, saying: «Drug dealers, armed, were the only ones killed.»
«Police Killing makes use of music sparingly, preferring silence at times to reinforce its message.»
The limp body of a skinny teenager dressed in cheap shorts and flipflops seen in the footage being hauled away with blood draining from his body, elicits only cynical remarks from the black-clad uniformed killers.
It is this casual cynicism, the insouciance of men who put no value on the lives of poor, black teenagers, that is so profoundly depressing, even more so perhaps, than the tearful, angry, impassioned mothers of victims.
Mobile phone footage show three armed policemen standing over the body of a young alleged drug-dealer – a pool of blood spooling into a halo around him – discussing what to do, before placing a gun in his hand and firing off two shots to frame the dead boy as the aggressor.
And yet in court the officer blithely spins a tale worthy of a toddler caught with his hand in the candy jar, with a cock and bull story about finding a faulty gun and – to avoid its accidental discharge – putting it out of harms way.
«After all, the subject was already dead», he says.
In one case, where a conviction is achieved, the police dashcam footage and mobile phone video play a crucial role, where an officer who sprayed bullets at two teenagers goofing around with a mobile phone – killing one and seriously wounding the other – is sent down for 25 years.
The officer – a 22-year veteran of police and military service – «made a mistake», his defence lawyer says. He was scared. It was dark. He is a big guy who presents a big target.
«Drug dealers are skinny, lanky and fast runners», she adds. But the only shots fired are his and the kids mown down have no guns, no drugs and are demonstrably innocent.
Police Killing makes use of music sparingly, preferring silence at times to reinforce its message. It is a message that is hammered home in a litany of damning evidence that at times is overwhelming and a little too obsessive: some viewers may find the chapter and verse footage of legal citations, or courtroom arguments a bit too much. Trimming it by 10-15 minutes would do nothing to weaken this powerful cry for justice.