Brazil’s 2011 plan to rid the gargantuan Rio de Janeiro favela Rocinha of drug traffickers in advance of the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming Olympic games goes awry when one family’s very public protest of their disappeared patriarch goes global in first-time filmmaker Dan Jackson’s “In the Shadow of the Hill.” Winner of the Documentary Australia Foundation Award at the recently-wrapped Sydney Film Festival, the impressionistic yet resonant work is a natural for social justice-themed events and non-fiction sidebars.
At first, the elite yet now-notorious elite squad known as BOPE is cautiously welcomed in the slum, having cleared out much of the criminal element without a shot being fired. It might have seemed a good idea on paper, but human nature being what it is the authorities end up policing the favela with an iron fist and remorseless demeanor (the cops’ notorious methods were dramatized in the popular 2007 feature “The Elite Squad” and its sequel “The Enemy Within”).
When images of 43-year-old bricklayer Amarildo de Souza being led away in handcuffs by the police are revealed and the man seemingly disappears from the local “pacification base” (read: police precinct), his family takes to the streets with an increasingly high-profile protest movement under the rubric “Where is Amarildo?”.
Along the way, Australian first-timer Jackson, who lived in the favela on and off for the total of a year, follows civil rights lawyer Joao Tancredo’s work to represent victims and their families, outspoken favela theatre director Aurelio Mesquita as he attempts to mount an interactive, non-professional version of the Passion of the Christ that criticizes authority, and other locals with stories to tell.
The police force itself remains a looming yet largely silent presence throughout. The only officer who speaks on record is the stern, muscular commander Major Edston Santos, who was present the night Amarildo was detained but claims he was released without incident. When justice finally comes, and come it does, the victory, in the face of the enormity of the problem at large, is satisfying but bittersweet.
Less a hard-hitting investigation and more an impressionistic look at a vibrant yet intimidating part of Rio that is well off the tourist track, the film has a leisurely structure that relies perhaps too much on establishing shots, impressionistic soft focus treatments of flashing police lights and time-lapse photography. Yet there is a tangible intimacy to the film that holds interest, as the poor but proud participants stake a rousing claim for equality as a pushback to the criminalization of their poverty. “The favela,” says one, “is a consequence of one’s need to survive.”
Originally published in Variety