Wiseman-like in its patient stillness and no frills style, lacking in overbearing soundtrack or any other potentially distracting enhancements, Maria Ramos’s Behave is a study of the Brazilian juvenile judicial system illuminated through both “fact” (all the adults, from judges to lawyers to prison guards to parents, are the real thing, filmed during court hearings and on visits to the correctional facility in Rio de Janeiro) and “fiction” (the accused involved in the cases are minors and cannot be filmed, thus Ramos ingeniously substitutes other children from the favelas to play their roles).
Beginning with a hearing presided over by Brazil’s no-nonsense answer to Judge Judy, a sympathetic male public defender to her left, a poker-faced female prosecutor to her right, Behave starts out innocently enough with a kid who’s stolen a bicycle. He doesn’t deny having done it—just that a gang member put him up to it. And he’s escaped from juvenile detention before. (His pained father explains that he’d run away because inmates had set another boy on fire.) As Ramos’ film unfolds, a pattern emerges of gang pressure (the next boy to face Judge Judy also blames a thug for forcing him to hold a man at gunpoint during a robbery), and of running away from detention. There are the two teenage girls charged with stealing a camera from a tourist—they have to have money to feed their kids after all!—and another who doesn’t want to be pardoned for her first-time offense if it means she has to return home. All these non-actors are wonderfully subdued, wise beyond their years, utterly connected to the words they speak. And those words—the onslaught of exposition in the hearings—are artfully balanced by Ramos’ unobtrusive camera at the Padre Severino Institute where those found guilty are taken. A lovely ebb and flow is achieved as Ramos cuts back and forth between court and lockup: a meticulously framed medium shot through bars as boys are delivered inside; the seedy cells where kids lean against graffitied walls and bare feet dangle from bunk beds. From the open, spacious, brightly lit correctional facility, surprisingly quiet, with its inmates lining up in formation, forced to put their heads down on the dining tables when finished eating, Ramos exposes us to a world more military camp than hardcore prison. She lets the shots linger after the kids leave the mess hall or their filthy cells, allowing the vast emptiness to loom large.
Never handheld, the stationary camera also deftly captures the poetry of monotony—from registration to humiliating strip searches to donning prison uniforms to shaving heads. Because these scenes are all told through exquisite composition, via images in lieu of words (save for the ever-present low hum of voices, like background flies), the cuts back to the verbal sequences are near jarring. A social worker checks on the facility’s living conditions. How do they sleep with so few mattresses? They don’t—and all the mattresses are crawling with rats besides. The judge hears a case in which a kid stabs his father to death in his sleep—a result, he claims, of years of abuse suffered by him and his mother. (Once again, no one is ever guilty. Or societal conditions are always implicated—everyone’s guilty it seems.) At a higher court, the prosecution recommends imprisonment since the boy’s alcoholic father represented “the Law,” thus the murderous act is dangerously symbolic. Nevertheless the judge grants him partial confinement. (“You were like King Solomon!” a public defender congratulates.)
When a kid—small in stature, doesn’t even know his birthday—is arrested for dealing cocaine, Judge Judy sends him to partial confinement so the dealers whose coke he lost won’t kill him. Case numbers flash by onscreen, superimposed over images of the freed delinquents doing daily activities (smoking cigs, nursing babies, wasting time). Ramos lets us in on the fates of the real kids: a girl goes to school and lives at home; most run away from partial confinement; a boy commits armed robbery and is sentenced to strict confinement; another is killed by three shots to the back. Alas, there is no such thing as a happy ending, but Ramos finishes on a humorous note. One teenager claims he escaped from detention in order to take care of his wife and kid. The judge releases him, laughing about his escape. He had been paroled at the time, and didn’t understand that he was due to be released the very next day.
The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16—30.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.