Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Brazil is calling you. Will you answer?

Embratur, Brazil's national tourism board, is running an aggressive marketing campaign in New York City just as a less than flattering cinematic portrayal of Rio de Janeiro is hitting theaters. 

The government-sponsored campaign made its debut on New York City subways cars back in April, but I first noticed it at the starting line of the New York City Marathon on November 6th. Flying high above the Verazzano Bridge was a plane with a yellow banner trailing behind it that read in green lettering: Brazil is calling you. Run in Rio in 2012. "Yes, that's my next marathon," I thought to myself even before the gun had gone off. "Maybe I'll be living in Brazil by then."

And over the next few days, I noticed more propaganda around Manhattan with the same message. My friend sent me this picture of one of Embratur's advertisements on the Upper West Side, and I saw another ad from the same campaign in SoHo. 

The Friday after I ran the marathon was the New York premiere of the Brazilian film, "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," the sequel to a 2007 film bearing the same name. Both films portray Rio de Janeiro's special forces military police unit, BOPE, that runs anti-narcotic SWAT operations in the city's favelas, which have increasingly fallen under the rule of rival drug-trafficking gangs. While the first movie focuses on the day to day operations of BOPE and the stress it induces in the personal lives of its troops, the second film takes a step back and maps Rio's endemic violence to its corrupt municipal and State agencies and legislative bodies.

I saw the first "Elite Squad" in a theater in Brazil, holding one hand over my mouth and the other over my heart for the duration of the film. It was just that hard to watch. Still, I was anticipating the sequel's New York premiere, especially because the movie's director, José Padilha, would be hosting a question and answer session afterwards. 

"Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" is brilliant. By time the lights came up, I was filled with a potent mix of emotions that included disbelief, indignation, betrayal, and hopelessness. I had read articles from major Rio papers reporting on the actual violence and corruption which inspired much of the movie, but watching these events on the big screen contextualized them and made them real for me. I found myself questioning my dream of moving to Brazil. And from their questions, it seemed that other members of the audience were struggling with similar thoughts and emotions. 

From left to right: José Padilha, random adoring fan,
and yours truly, photo-bomber extraordinaire
Padilha stepped up to the front of the theater and fielded questions about the making of the film, its reception in Brazil, and his crew's working relationship, or lack there of, with the city of Rio and the ruling drug gangs. Padilha described a shoot for the first film during which he was summoned by the head trafficker of the favela only to be given tips on how to make a fighting scene more true to life. That story got a laugh, albeit a nervous one, from the audience.

One fellow's question to Padilha was particularly memorable. A young man introduced himself as Rio native, a Carioca, and proceeded to ask if Padilha had contemplated the impact his films would have on tourism. This man was obviously concerned about Rio's image abroad. 

I couldn't believe my ears. Did this man really think that Padilha should not have brought into plain public view the endemic corruption of Rio politics and the active efforts by those involved to exinguish the few working to govern honestly and ethically just to ensure a few hundred more tourists visit Rio each year? The gall. 

While the movie might dissuade a minority of prospective visitors, I seriously doubt it has had or will have a noticeable impact on Rio's tourism revenues. People would be foolish to change their World Cup and Olympic Games travel plans because of this film. 

I will admit, though, that spending two weeks enjoying beaches, visiting museums, and tasting local cuisine is much different than taking up residence in the same place and defaulting to local authorities to ensure the smooth and safe day to day operations of your city. Still, my own second thoughts about making that transition stem less from fear for my personal safety and more from a personal protest against injustice and corrupt government. 

Embratur's Brazil and Padilha's Brazil stand in stark opposition to one another. I fully understand neither portrayal is comprehensive, nor are they mutually exclusive, but the contrast leaves me with a funny feeling. 

Brazil is calling. It's been calling me for a number of years now. And at the moment, I'm not sure to what extent I want to answer. 

1 comment:

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