“Justice” is a documentary about the Brazilian court system that is clearly indebted to Frederick Wiseman’s brand of cinéma vérité, especially his 1973 “Juvenile Court.” Shown at the NY Human Rights Film Festival last year, it is now available from First Run/Icarus Films, a prime outlet for challenging documentaries.
While Wiseman’s films have a kind of Foucauldian insight into institutions as institutions, director Maria Ramos makes it clear that it is a class system that turns young people into criminals and that subjects them to a draconian legal system bent more on revenge than rehabilitation.
Ramos dramatizes the deep gulf between the judges and the judged by simply training her camera and microphone in the right direction. The judges tend to assume the worst about the accused young people in the courtroom before them. When a youth in a wheelchair charged with selling drugs asks to be put in a hospital since the crowded jail cell makes it impossible for him to go to the bathroom, she instructs him that he would need to be examined by a doctor first despite the obvious evidence of his disability.
One can understand anyone’s reluctance to be jailed in Brazil, let alone someone in a wheelchair. It is one of the most brutal and overcrowded systems in the world that spawns rebellions on a regular basis. The municipal jail seen in “Justice” is as crowded as a NYC subway car during rush hour. The inmates are literally elbow-to-elbow.
Another youth accused of drug-dealing is a frail looking youth of 18 who is the same size as a 12 year old. When he is finally released into the street after his day in court, you see him standing under a street-lamp waiting for a bus. The camera focuses on his swollen calves, clearly another symptom of his chronic health problems.
The main focus is on a youth who has been arrested for driving a stolen car borrowed from a friend that he has crashed into a tree. There is little question about his guilt since in sessions with his public defender, we learn that he has been a criminal from the age of 15 when he began selling drugs. Despite seeming barely capable of keeping himself afloat, he has impregnated his girl-friend who gives birth late in the film. She and his mother of course stand by him without having any prospects of him beating the rap or ultimately fulfilling his duties to his newborn daughter.
Like many Brazilian youth, he sold drugs because he had no other way to make a living. When cops discovered what he was up to, they did not arrest him. Instead they demanded payoffs or else they would arrest him. When he could not come up with the money, he found himself behind bars for the first time. Brazilian justice, like capitalist justice in general, has rules written and forced by the powerful against the powerless. Right and wrong is largely besides the point.
A sense of hopelessness is obviously what drives his mother to attend services at the Pentecostal Church in her ‘favela’. As the pastor whips his congregation into a frenzy, he keeps repeating the word “basta,” which means enough–as in enough of sin, enough of Satan, etc. In the very next scene, we see the judge who had given the youth in a wheelchair a hard time being sworn in for her new position on a high court. A fellow judge makes a speech in which the word “basta” keeps cropping up again, this time in reference to “enough of crime”, etc. Despite being somewhat obvious, the irony is devastating.
First Run/Icarus will also be releasing “Lula’s Brazil” this year, a documentary that according to their website argues that “Lula won an election in Brazil, but not a revolution, and as president he is sitting on top of a powder keg.”
That powder keg is obvious in “Justice”. At one point we see a judge at home in his comfortable apartment watching TV news coverage about gang violence, a phenomenon that his social class must regard as permanent as the tropical weather. Unfortunately Lula has done little since being in office to attack the structural flaws that breed youth crime in Brazil.
This month one of Brazil’s most powerful street gangs rose up against prison conditions:
A Brazilian gang kidnapped a television reporter and forced his station to broadcast a message Sunday demanding improvements in the state prison system.
The prison-based First Capital Command gang — better known by its Portuguese initials, PCC — has waged a war against the government in recent months, launching hundreds of attacks against government buildings and other properties throughout the state of Sao Paulo. The attacks began in protest of a plan to transfer gang leaders to a remote prison, but the gang’s message broadcast on Globo television early Sunday decried the prisons’ overall living conditions, health and legal services, and isolation policies.
“Brazil’s penal system is actually a human deposit, in which human beings are thrown as if they were animals,” the group stated in the video, which lasted more than three minutes…
During the message broadcast Sunday, a man identifying himself as a gang member explained that the kidnapping was the most effective way the group could get its message to the government of Sao Paulo and its citizens.
“The state has the obligation and the duty to provide a minimal standard of living conditions to the prisoners,” he stated. “We don’t want any advantages or anything else that is not within our rights.”
Considering their demand that the state has the obligation and the duty to provide a minimal standard of living conditions, one wonders who really belongs behind bars–those who make the laws or those who break them.