Feature Documentary Reviews

Right Now I Want to Scream: Police and Army Killings in Rio – The Brazil Haiti Connection (2020) – 5 stars

Directors: Cahal McLaughlin & Siobhan Wills

Running time:  1hr 2mins

The use of words to describe the varied forms of violence that humans inflict on other humans is often politically charged and, therefore, contentious. A case in point, has been the outgoing Trump administration’s characterisation of the Chinese government’s repression of the Uighur population of Xinjiang as ‘genocide.’

Several of the speakers in Right Now I Want to Scream: Police and Army Killings in Rio – The Brazil Haiti Connection – a finely crafted but awkwardly titled documentary – make the case that its subject, the systemic extra-judicial killing of poor, black, children and young men by the Brazilian police and military in the slums of Rio is indeed genocide. But, hey, what’s going on here – isn’t Brazil on the right side of history – a society that has made the transition from military rule to liberal democracy? Disturbingly, McLaughlin and Wills, the film’s co-directors, assemble a body of evidence to demonstrate that the Brazilian state is at present, waging war against a significant number of its own citizens.

There is a clear link between the increasing military role in the policing of the favelas (poor areas on the peripheries of Rio and other big cities with uncertain property rights) and what the UK media would call the ‘populist’ turn in Brazilian politics. After watching Right Now I Want to Scream, I concluded that it is probably best to describe the changes as a descent into fascism rather than populism. Intriguingly, a key strand in the film, is that the directors identify the Brazilian military’s involvement in the UN’s peacekeeping and supposedly humanitarian effort in Haiti (acronymised as MINUSTAH) supposedly on the side of good governance as a training ground to hone its soldiers’ skills in how to murderously repress a marginalised section of its own population.  

The format the directors use is primarily talking heads. Mercifully, there is no grand narrative commentary where the narrator intimates what we should think; the directors allow the protagonists to make their voices heard and build their case. In the first section, we are introduced to Ana Paula Oliveira, the co-founder of Mothers of Manguinhos. Ana’s son was murdered by the police and the work of the group is to campaign for justice and for an accountable police force. Manguinhos is the particular Rio favela where the film is set. We meet several of the mothers in the group who describe in harrowing detail the deaths of their sons and daughters and the effect of the murders on themselves and their families.

In a profoundly moving scene, Oliveira shows us a memorial plaque that the Mothers raised money for, it records the names of all those killed by the police in Manguinhos; poignantly the mason updates it annually in May. We get the views of members of civil society groups and of lawyers supportive of the group. We also meet a woman police officer, Janaina De Assis Matos, from a remarkable organisation called ‘the Movement of Anti-Fascist Police Officers’. The thing that you will notice during these sequences is that the Mothers are black, and the various representatives of civil society are almost entirely white, excepting the anti-fascist policewoman who is black – a seismic fault line in Brazilian society is laid bare.

In between the talking heads which are mainly filmed on the edge of the pitch where the Mothers play football (we see them in their team kit), the directors show us scenes of favela street life. As a backdrop there are frequent murals of explosive colour. The directors do not reference this, but many of the images portray Marielle Franco, from the neighbouring favela of Mare. Marielle was a celebrated city councillor, a feminist and LGBT+ activist, who was assassinated by members of a fascist militia, the men convicted were known associates of the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro. The voices of the Mothers give us an insight into the psychological damage of the war in the favelas.

We have all, through the pandemic, experienced the traumas of lockdown – but the people of Manguinhos have been living through frequent lockdowns for several years at great emotional cost. When the military is mounting an ‘operation’, a euphemism for a sweep of the area using helicopter gunships and armoured cars, everyone has to stay inside for their own safety. Anyone on the street is liable to be shot as a suspected gang member and drug dealer. Matos, the police officer, outlines the ideology that has been instilled in her colleagues through their military training – that you are not a real cop if you are not prepared to beat and shoot and that the black inhabitants of the favela do not count as human beings.

This is the ideology that enables the police to shoot at random from their helicopters – the people down below are all criminal scum. We hear from one of the Mothers how her 14-year-old daughter in school uniform was shot from a police helicopter. We learn from one of the lawyers of how the legislative process has been manipulated to give the police’s shoot on sight tactic legal sanction – the Orwellian sounding Law 13491 which gives the military control over operations and excludes the public defender’s office from accessing complaints. The men in uniform are the law.

As to the genocide question, the ideological basis is always to dehumanise the target group and as the Mothers’ testimonies bear out that this is indeed in place. The ability to kill black people with impunity shooting from helicopters circling above the city is something Trump and the Proud Boys, for the time being, can only dream about. For anyone who is involved in the Black Lives Matter movement or supported the protests last summer, Right Now I Want to Scream will be essential viewing.

McLaughlin and Wills expertly weave the stories together aided by excellent editing from Barbara Henkes. The filming is by McLaughlin and he has a great eye for the telling detail. He gives us some stunning shots of Manguinhos – the buildings have all the chaos and self-build quality of a Bronze Age settlement albeit with crazed masses of electricity cables strung from rooftop to rooftop. The ramshackle skyline of the favela is frequently contrasted with the gleaming high rises of downtown Rio to great effect.

One shot is simply of a bicycle resting against a doorway – the lighting gives the scene an extraordinary immanence that stayed with me long after watching the movie – a beautiful piece of cinema. What the filming around Manguinhos dramatically illustrates for us is government spending is mainly visible in the shiny new Toyota police cars that hurtle through the streets. The directors show us the fortified police station with its serried ranks of patrol cars. What was particularly striking for me was the unit’s crest prominently displayed over the gate – two crossed revolvers above the imperial Brazilian eagle – top marks for honesty, I suppose.

The film then moves on to Haiti to examine the relationship between the activities of the Brazilian military during MINUSTAH and the current war against black people in Rio. The directors use the same techniques with talking heads from Cite Soleil, the vast shanty town that was the focus of MINUSTAH’s ‘operations’, cut with footage of the Brazilian military as they move around the town in their sepulchral white UN logoed armoured cars. However, in this section the directors drive the narrative by insertion of captions with killer facts.

The captions inform us that five of the MINUSTAH generals, including Heleno the commander, are now in government overseeing the war against drugs/young black men in Brazil. We learn that in one ‘operation’ an arsenal of rifle bullets, grenade and even mortar rounds were used against Cite Soleil’s inhabitants and that the US Ambassador believed the estimate of twenty-five women and children left dead as result was ‘credible’. The filmmakers then insert to great effect footage of a Brazilian TV interview with Heleno who shows absolutely no remorse and notes that his use of lethal force was totally legal under the UN mandate as he could target anyone showing ‘hostile intent’ or was thought to have looted aid supplies – so that’s alright then. The final section of Right Now I Want to Scream teases out how, what is generally recognised amongst aid organisations as, one of the most disastrous, counter-productive peacekeeping operations ever mounted by the UN became the template for Brazil’s attempts to police the increasingly lawless areas of its own cities. The argument made by the talking heads is that Bolsonaro (an ex-army officer) and the military leadership at the heart of his government launched an offensive to criminalize the entire black underclass to legitimize the use of indiscriminate force in the favelas, as Heleno had similarly criminalized the benighted inhabitants of Cite Soleil.

Bruna Da Silva, one of the Mothers, succinctly summarises the situation to camera: ‘part of society applauds each dead body in the favela…they see it that way, so they do not lose their own privileges’. McLaughlin and Wills cut to a gruesome piece of TV news footage of Witzel, the Governor of Rio and his advisers, all naturally white men, flying in a helicopter high above Manguinhos; Witzel roars at the viewer: ‘Let’s end this banditry for ever’. Shooting indiscriminately from a helicopter into a neighbourhood in your own city would in most societies be regarded as a failure of policing and governance, but for Witzel encouraging his police to do so is a source of macho pride.

As the credits role and this being a community project there are many of them, the directors split the screen, one side has the credits, the other shows a woman with her back to us handbag on one arm heavy shopping bag on the other making her way down a steep stairway in the favela. One woman’s journey through a hard life of poverty. Such a simple shot but full of resonance and echoing the key message of Right Now I Want to Scream – that respect for each individual and for the human rights of each human being is the cornerstone of good governance.

Right Now I Want to Scream is not an easy film to watch – coming in at just over an hour the great majority of which is talking heads – but still it demands sustained concentration and engagement. McLaughlin and Wills are both senior academics from Ulster, who have worked to document the peace process in Northern Ireland. One of the key factors in that process was the emergence of a grassroots women’s movement and part of the argument of the filmmakers is that the Mothers are playing a similar role in Rio. Ranged against the turn to fascism in Brazil, there is a vibrant, heroic civil rights movement in need of international support which hopefully a wide distribution of this film will help gather together. To find out more about the work of the Mothers since the film was made and the impact of the pandemic on Manguinhos, check out this interview with Ana Paula.

1 comment

  1. Much appreciated, Tony. You have shown insight and empathy for the film’s representations of the mothers’ stories. We will pass this on to them in Rio. Best wishes, Cahal and Siobhan

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