Questioning of Lula is sign of Brazilian maturity

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police.

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police. (AFP photo)

This column was printed in Arab News on March 6, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians awoke on Friday morning to the breaking news that the Federal Police and tax inspectors were parked outside the home of former President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo. This was the beginning of the 24th phase in the months-long “Car Wash” investigation into massive corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Lula was being taken into custody for questioning whether he wanted to go or not.

Soon supporters and critics of the former president had gathered outside his home, arguing and pushing each other. The police were quickly called in to take control of the situation, as Lula was questioned for nearly four hours at an office of the Federal Police at Congonhas Airport.

Lula took three lawyers with him and a federal congressman of his Workers’ Party. When it was over, he went to the headquarters of his party and gave an angry speech, railing against the excessive use of police intimidation and devolving into his usual accusations of the rich not being able to accept that a once poor man such as himself had made it to the presidency of the nation. It was the classic leftist class struggle spiel of the rich versus the poor.

Lula ruled Brazil for two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and now the current President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, has ruled Brazil from 2011 until now. While no one denies that the Workers’ Party helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty and gave them many new rights, the corruption of the politicians from this party has been so all-encompassing that practically no aspect of Brazilian life seems to have escaped its taint.
The “Car Wash” investigation, which is being led by the federal judge Sergio Moro, has found that top Petrobras officials were involved in a massive corruption, kickback and overpricing scheme that has involved a handful of the country’s major construction and engineering firms. These firms have been accused of funneling money gained from Petrobras to a host of politicians in illegal payments, including Lula. Even President Dilma’s 2010 election campaign fund has been linked to dirty money from construction companies.

Moro has been handing down reduced sentences, called “delacoes premiadas” in Portuguese, to get prime suspects to cooperate with investigators and spill the beans about all they know. The latest person to do so was Sen. Delcidio Amaral, the former head of the ruling party in the Senate. He was arrested late last year and just released a few weeks ago after he agreed to squeal on his co-conspirators.

Joao Santana, Lula and Dilma’s main election campaign strategist, and his wife were recently arrested after it was discovered that $7.5 million in tainted money had been paid to him by construction companies.

To top all of this off, Brazil is going through a severe economic recession. Its GDP shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, its worst performance since 1990, inflation is at 10.67 percent and unemployment is around 8 percent.

All of this has deeply polarized the Brazilian electorate, with most of the poorer Brazilians still supporting the Worker’s Party, while more educated and well-off Brazilians are fed-up with a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Having been one of the most popular presidents that Brazil has seen in modern times, Lula for a long time believed he was untouchable. The relentless investigation by Moro and the Federal Police has shown otherwise.

So far the independence of the investigators has been maintained despite alleged attempts by various ministers to get some of the accused off the hook. Hopefully the investigations will continue. This shows that Brazil has become a mature democracy where no one is above the law.

‘Federal’ fails to make plausible link between drug traffickers and politicians

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

THE new Brazilian film “Federal” by Erik de Castro, that opened nationwide on more than 70 screens across Brazil on Oct. 29, is a labor of love that had been percolating in the head of its director since he was 16 in 1987.

Twenty-three years later and after several rewrites at the Sundance Institute in the US, “Federal” has finally made it to the big screen. It is the story of a small group of federal and civil police officers in Brasilia who are hot on the trail of international drug trafficker Carlos ‘Beque’ Batista (Eduardo Dussek). Led by a serious yet affable Vital (Carlos Alberto Riccelli), the group includes a young and idealistic federal agent Dani (Selton Mello), a street cop called Lua (Cesario Augusto) and a feisty federal agent named Rocha (Christovam Neto).

De Castro is wildly ambitious in trying to set out telling a story that will illustrate how drug dealers are linked to corrupt politicians in high places, but he fails to paint a convincing picture. Instead, he has produced an interesting look into the lives of policemen, some good others corrupt, in their daily fight against the menace of drugs.

The opening scenes of policemen looking over the body of a murdered drug dealer in the garden of a posh house could have been filmed anywhere in Brazil, but soon De Castro has policemen chasing after another suspect in the satellite city of Ceilandia in an action sequence that involves the traditional dance/martial art that originated with Brazilian slaves called “capoeira”.

The director, who is a native of Brasilia, filmed the entire movie on location in super-16mm that was later blown-up to 35mm. This shows. At the Parkshopping cinema that I watched “Federal” at, the screen was left with a blank space on either side, as the projected film did not fill up the screen entirely. The use of traditional film, instead of digital video, gives the film a cinematic feel that De Castro was aiming for. One reviewer of the film however complained that the scenes looked washed-out and monochromatic, compared to the sweeping and brighter shots of Brasilia’s famous skyline that the director scatters throughout the movie to constantly remind us just where this police thriller is taking place. I found his lighting to be very naturalistic, giving the film a realism that is often missing from other Brazilian films, especially those produced by Globo Filmes that tend to be super-glossy and perfect looking.

Unfortunately, the film’s acting and script deserve less praise. Some of the actors either overacted their parts, such as Michael Madsen as the American Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sam Gibson, or under-acted their parts such as Selton Mello did with Dani. Here the script is also very much to blame, with Madsen saying such clichéd things as: “Brazil has the best coffee in the world!” and “I’ve been in Brazil for several days now and I haven’t even fucked a Brazilian woman yet!” His forced hilarity was over the top and made me squirm in embarrassment. He came across as the stereotypical obnoxious American: Loud, tacky and over-confident.

On the other side of the spectrum, Melo played Dani so low-key that at times it seemed like he was on tranquilizers and sleep-walking his way through the story. Melo is a big star in Brazil, so having him in an independent and relatively low budget film like “Federal”, which was produced on a budget of R$5 million (approximately $2.9 million), is considered a coup of sorts. But not only is Dani moping throughout the movie, he also has an annoying conversation with Vital near the beginning of the film after he sees that a suspect has been tortured for hours by his civilian police colleagues.

“How can we justify this torture?” Dani asks Vital.
“I think that if I had been a policeman during the military dictatorship I would have joined the guerrillas and fought on their side,” he says, referring to the 1964-1985 period during which Brazil was under strict military control and Marxist guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped diplomats.

“This is our job, this is what we do as policemen,” Vital replies.

I felt like Dani needed a slap in the face from Vital, and a good tongue-lashing. While I’m sure the Federal Police is full of principled and honest agents, Dani’s constant whining and depression throughout the movie made one want someone in the film to suggest to him that maybe he wasn’t cut-out to be a federal agent after all!

Script problems aside, it is clear from seeing “Federal” and from talking with the director (see my interview with him in the next entry), that De Castro loves Brasilia and is trying to showcase the city in this film. I like the capital too but it would have been better if De Castro had been subtler in including shots of the city in the story.

For instance, twice in the film Dani is shown standing next to his motorcycle at the JK Bridge that links the Plano Piloto to the Lago Sul district of Brasilia. This is the most beautiful bridge in Brasilia, and one of the most unique in the world. Its graceful white arches stretching across the Paranoa Lake have become an iconic landmark of the capital. But we already know that Dani lives in a small apartment, which if you live here would know that the superquadras that house most apartments here are not really near the bridge. Which brings me to my point: The shots of the bridge seem gratuitous and do not appear as a convincing part of the narrative.

De Castro also finds it necessary to show us just how human each of our policemen are by showing that each one either has a vigorous sex life or not. At the cinema that I watched “Federal” at, I heard teenagers behind me groan in desperation at some of the protracted and rather explicit sex scenes, which seemed gratuitous and did not do much to advance the story.

I did not mind those scenes so much. What bothered me were the rather sketchy performances of the bad guys: The head of the NGO, Eliezer Gallo (Adriano Siri), who also funded a church (in which he hid a drug manufacturing lab in its basement) seemed to me like a flimsy caricature of shadowy power brokers in the capital. And the reverend of the church, played by Andre Amaro, was cartoonishly funny in the way he led prayers, raising his arms and uttering foolish words. It just made me laugh.

The point that “Federal” makes very well though is that Brazil has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The country has thousands of kilometers of extremely porous borders with Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Much of that border is in the Amazon jungle, and as such is very difficult to be policed effectively by Brazilian border guards. Just last week, Italian police announced they had seized several tons of cocaine that had been smuggled from Brazil into Italy by sea, hidden in a container of agricultural machines.

While De Castro succeeds in showing us just how corrupt or honest various anti-drug smuggling policemen can be, he utterly fails to paint a convincing picture of the relationship between international drug dealers and political leaders in Brasilia. Which is a shame really. Perhaps he can do that in “Federal 2”.

From left to right: Selton Mello as Dani and Carlos Alberto Riccelli (Vital), with Christovam Neto (Rocha) in the middle, and Cesario Augusto (Lua) behind him, in a scene from “Federal”.


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