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Brazil, the Film or: How I Learned to Live with the System...So Far

About eight minutes into Brazil--the movie, not the country--the camera slowly pans over a chaotic movement of people and paper in a frenetic scene driven by an equally frenetic score, remixes of the titular song “Aquarela do Brasil”. Dozens of men in suits, white shirts and black ties, shuffle an ungodly amount of paper. Later, we learn these men run part of the authoritarian government’s security apparatus for a future dystopian government.

Why bring up this cult classic sci fi film today? Because, midway through the film, one character asks another a question that could define the problem of terrorism in America. Since we launched On Violence two years ago, I had intended to find that piece of dialogue. Instead of just finding that scene on Youtube, though, I sat through the entire thing again. I’m glad I did.

For instance, that scene I just described isn’t just Gilliam’s attempt at satire. It is, I realized, a physical depiction of how the U.S. intelligence community works. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Top Secret America, in physical form.

Should one really expect the guy who co-directed Monty Python and The Holy Grail to give us penetrating/mature insights into political relationships? Turns out, yes. And his satire has only become more relevant since its release in 1985. (Which isn’t to say I am totally in love with Brazil; Terry Gilliam can really try the patience of his audience. Exhibit A: The scenes where two ladies try to outdo each other in plastic surgery, and one dissolves into goo.)

Here are four of the satirical insights that are more relevant now than they were in the 1980s.

1. Brazil’s future is all about information. Wait, the present is all about information. In the future, they don’t have a “Department of Homeland Security”, they have a “Ministry of Information, with a Department of “Information Retrieval”. It is hard to deny that, in the 21st century, information reigns supreme. Wikileaks, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and the Internet didn’t exist in the 1980s. The only difference between our present and the reality of Brazil is that we got rid of paper. Mostly.

2. Intelligence analysts connect a lot of dots not worth connecting. I thought of this analogy today during my morning coffee. If you give a little kid a Connect-the-Dots puzzle, and it has numbers to follow, it will pretty clearly make, say, a giraffe. But say you give a kid a grid with a thousand doubts in a random arrangement on the page. Well that same kid could probably still make a giraffe, though the underlying information--the dots--didn’t mean anything. The kid made the connection.

Brazil has this happen repeatedly. A concerned citizen demands the return of a wrongfully detained individual. Since she cares so much, and her constant harping for answers makes the government look bad, the security apparatus assumes she must have ulterior motives. Later, through happenstance, the government can connect her to the original suspect, even though she had never met him.

Does this happen to the U.S. intelligence community? Read the Guantanamo Files reporting by The New York Times, the McClatchy papers, NPR and The Guardian. You tell me.

3. Intelligence people get distracted easy. In Brazil, all the workers watch television as soon as the boss shuts the door. In America, intelligence people watch Fox News or football while at work.

4. With terrorism comes torture, which goes hand and hand with increased surveillance and extraordinary rendition. In Brazil, all of America’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism responses--admittedly at a level much higher than anything the U.S. government has attempted--make a cameo. A massive surveillance apparatus? Yep. Secret detentions? Yes. And the biggie, torture? You betcha, they euphemistically call it “information retrieval”. The biggest difference between the U.S. and the totalitarian government of Brazil is that the U.S. government has primarily focused on non-U.S. citizens. Still I find it interesting that as soon as the citizens of a country perceive an existential threat, the core rights of liberty disappear.

Oh, and that question I mentioned that was the entire reason I watched Brazil again? Tune in tomorrow for that.

two comments

“The biggest difference between the U.S. and the totalitarian government of Brazil is that the U.S. government has primarily focused on non-U.S. citizens.”

And what happens when a country’s own citizens become an existential threat or are at least perceived as one?


I love Brasil, Monty python knows how to do 1984.