April 7, 2022

A Cop Movie

Una película de policías represents a very modern form of documentary storytelling. Since 2012's The Act of Killing, which used reconstruction as a narrative and visual device in order to illustrate the brazenness of Indonesia's local gangsters-turned-heroes, it feels as if documentaries have been taking more risks. We're better off for it. During the first wave of lockdowns I sat down to watch Madeleine Sackler's It's A Hard Truth Ain't It. This film allowed prisoners at a high security LA prison to craft a narrative around their own stories, turning the subjects into the creators. I was struck by just how much I empathised for these men, whom originally I might have considered cold-blooded killers.

In A Cop Movie, released in 2021, the director Alonso Ruizpalacios uses a number of brilliantly rendered tools in order to tell his story of both the difficult and gruelling lives of his two protagonists, as well as the challenges faced by the police force in Mexico City today.

The film begins by feeling like a traditional live-action fiction, just with a narration from its two protagonists that occurs occasionally as voice-over, occasionally through dialogue voiced by the actors playing them. This technique works to immerse ourselves within the day-to-day realities of policing in Ciudad de Mexico, and also ease us into a difficult reality. Doubling as a buddy cop-love story, it's endearingly driven by idiosyncratic and tender recollections given to us by Teresa and Montoya.

Halfway through Ruizpalacios shifts gears, breaking the fourth wall not only with narration, but through exposing the audience to the artifice of the technique we had been accustomed to. We realise these people are actors on a set. That they can go get a cup of coffee and a snack in between takes. These comforts are something the movie then delves into, revealing that it put lead actors Monica Del Carmen and Raul Briones through 6 months of police training in the lead up to the shoot. Their reflections during this process are recorded in smartphone video diaries.

We begin to understand realities of the police force in Mexico City: that 6 months is not a long enough time to train people for a life patrolling the streets in a city with a high violent crime rate; That most recruits are disproportionately from indigenous backgrounds; That of the female police recruits, 90% are single mothers when they enter the force; That low wages and 'charges' placed upon officers when they come in for work, mean that taking bribes and demanding cash for looking the other way is the only way for the average copper to make a living.

The film contains multiple beautiful and touching moments, as well as those of sadness. The opening, involving the non-medically trained Teresa helping a young woman give birth after paramedics don't turn up in time, is an incredible poetic introduction to the trials of being part of an under-staffed and under-trained system. The scene in which actress Monica Del Carmen is on patrol and meets a girl who has just suffered a beating from her father and has been sex-trafficked by her mother is particularly powerful, especially when she is then admonished by her patrol-partner for showing weakness by crying in public.

Personally, I went into the movie suspicious of the police force presented here. Like many pre-conceived expectations, I found them crumbling throughout the movie. The police presented here are people, as one officer tells Raul Briones, some whom are good, some of whom are bad, just like civilians. They're often from poorer backgrounds and need a stable job, however dangerous, to survive. Many do sincerely go in wanting to make a difference, perhaps because it was in the family, or because they want to live in a safer society. What becomes apparent, especially after an incident near the end of the film, is that corruption and vindictiveness run much of the workings of upper law enforcement. If you have the power and can pay, you can get away with a lot. It's tough to take, especially when it discourages honest officers - those who one would want to be protecting the community. In this, perhaps, we can find parallels in many police departments around the world: well-intentioned people not adequately trained, asked to make difficult decisions, and led by those who often allow power to corrupt, even when they should be the last to fall.

As an audience member, I am always struck at the ability of skilled craftsmen and women to shift my opinions and empathise with a new group of people. As a filmmaker, the film speaks to the power of adapting a multitude of cinematographic and storytelling techniques into a seamless story-serving piece. It also speaks to the importance ofrisk taking, and the support of risk-taking artists, in our business. Ruizpalacios' risks, as well as the actors and crew involved in this film, paid off. We are all better off for it.

More Work
February 19, 2024

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