The death was announced last week of Hector Babenko, the Argentine-born Brazilian film-maker. Best known perhaps for Kiss of the Spider Woman, possibly his most important film was Carandiru, a striking take on a Sao Paulo prison and the riots there which ended in the deaths of 111 inmates. Here’s the review I wrote for a prison charity magazine in 2004.
The ‘prison picture’ is a an old staple of cinema, usually offering a melodramatic, sentimentalised or extremely violent view of prison life that is often more concerned with audience pleasing than devotion to fact. Carandiru is all of these, but it also offers an astonishing glimpse into another country’s prison system. It is a fictionalised account of the events leading up to riots of 1992 in the state prison in Sao Paulo, in which 111 prisoners were slaughtered by state troopers, seen through the eyes of a doctor going in for the first time to run an Aids clinic inside.
To begin with the place can only be seen as a hell hole – squalid, dangerous and drug-fuelled, there is scarcely any officer presence there, but order, of a kind, is maintained by gangs. And yet order there is, and as we see more it becomes clear that there is a kind of self-regulating and almost tolerant society in there which does hold together and has many good points – prisoners organise themselves into working groups, run football teams, they choose their own cells and personalise them with many possessions so that some are little domestic palaces, studies or romantic love nests, (there are many transsexuals inside, and they often form partnerships, weddings even being performed). Babenko gives us splashes of intense colour and warmth for all these positives, contrasting with the dark and menacing austerity of most aspects of the regime.
But nowhere do the contrasts with the British prison system stand out so much as on Visits Day. The enormous prison yard is filled with beautifully shaded tables on which whole families eat elaborate picnics together which they have bought in, children hold a talent competition on a stage in the middle, prisoners walk hand in hand or dance with their sweethearts and wives or return to their cells for conjugal visits, ad hoc football is played between inmates and their sons and brothers, families with small children spend intimate times together in Dad’s cell… paradoxically this hell hole can produce a kind of paradise.
The price, of course, is the lack of security and therefore the accepted presence of drugs, and absence of any real control on violence – not a price one would want to pay, but still it is intriguing to look at a totally different take on imprisonment, and feel that perhaps our Northern European ways will always have something to learn from the most unlikely places.
Soon after this idyllic passage comes the ‘riot’, and its far bloodier putting down. Colours again flash and burn in a horrifying sequence that is both graphic and poetic and assaults the eyes and the emotions. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a stunning film full of ideas and images that stay with you for a long long time.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 2004