Jose Padilha’s “Garapa” – 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Jose Padilha creates a devastating and depressing observation of hunger in Brazilian cities and outskirts in the documentary “Garapa.” Leaving behind his usual tales of the Rio favelas in “Bus 174” and his Berlin Golden Bear-winning “Elite Squad,” Padilha puts a human face on the often numbing statistics of world hunger by showing us the day-to-day struggle of three families. Padilha filmed the families—who live in urban and rural areas—over several weeks, and the result is a haunting and unforgettable experience that immerses us in the intimate details of the harsh existence of these people. The film is also a potent indictment on the utter failure of Brazil’s agricultural policies to combat hunger among its populace.

The title of the film refers to a mixture of sugar and water that is often the only nourishment that the children receive, a cheap concoction that while temporarily relieving hunger pangs, results in severe malnutrition and painful toothaches from the sugar rotting their teeth. The sores and distended bellies of their children, as well as the shockingly unsanitary conditions in which the families live, are examined in extreme close-up.

Padilha shoots the film in raw, grainy 16-millimeter which evokes 1960’s cinema verité as well as American Depression-era photography by artists such as Dorothea Lange. There is no voiceover or music, only ambient sounds such as the wind blowing across arid landscapes. These aesthetic choices can make the viewer feel uncomfortable – Padilha has been quoted as saying that “I’m asking people to see a film they won’t enjoy.” He also refuses to indulge in standard documentary techniques as presenting talking heads or using authoritative narration.

Padilha is also remarkably nuanced in his examination of the people he depicts. Although governmental incompetence and neglect are the main culprits of this situation, he shows us that the film’s subjects also contribute to their own dire circumstances. For example, one man has a penchant for spending his money drinking and chasing women instead of taking care of his family, while one woman refuses to use birth control despite her very large family and scant resources. However, it could also be argued that these personal failures are a symptom of the extreme impoverishment they must endure, which leads them to pursue any distraction they can find.

“Garapa” is experiential cinema in the best sense. It gives the audience a sense of how extreme poverty truly feels, rather than through the comforting distance of a lecture or fancy presentation.

“Garapa” screens on May 2 at the Tribeca Film Festival.