This week’s prison riots in Amazonas and Roraima state left 95 dead and 184 prisoners at large, the worst prison massacre in Brazil’s history since Carandiru in 1992. Brazil’s prisons are notorious for their overcrowded, unsanitary, and violent living quarters. With over 622,000 prisoners, Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world. Yet those who haven’t passed through the system often have no idea how unlivable, how violent the conditions actually are. These eight Brazilian prison movies and documentaries, while shot for the big screen, offer an idea of the lives – and loves – of those behind bars. And, for those looking to settle in for a movie over the weekend, nearly all of these are available to watch in their entirety on YouTube.
Nominated as one of Brazil’s best 100 movies of all time, Carandiru shows the ins and outs of the São Prison leading up to the historical massacre of 1992. The 2-hour long movie is based off the book “Carandiru Station,” written by a prison doctor during an AIDS prevention project. The movie version goes in and out of inmates’ lives before landing in prison. Viewers see the guards’ inhumane treatment that led to the prison riots, as well as the historical decision to send state troops in to the penitentiary, killing 111 inmates.
O Prisioneiro da Grade de Ferro (2012)
“The Iron Cage Prisoner” is a documentary shot in Carandiru prison at the same time as the feature film. A cinema team taught 20 prisoners how to operate a camera, who then captured 170 hours of film over 7 months. The documentary team condensed the footage into two hours of interviews, self-portraits, and b-roll of the prisoners’ daily lives. These are the last images ever filmed in Carandiru; the state tore down the prison the following year.
Salve Geral (2009)
“Salve Geral” dramatizes the events behind bars that led to the PCC’s decision to declare war on São Paulo authorities in 2006. The film focuses on the story of one mother who became involved with the PCC in order to help her son, imprisoned with the gang’s top leadership.
Última Parada 174 (2008)
Brazil’s pick in the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, “Última Parada 174,” is a true-life story of one homeless boy who shocked the country when he hijacked a bus in Rio de Janeiro on live television in 2000. The film follows the boy throughout his life, from witnessing the assassination of his mother as a young boy to surviving the 1993 Candelária massacre when Rio’s military police senselessly murdered 8 homeless youth while they slept under the downtown church steps. The movie also portrays the boy’s teenage years in juvenile prison, revealing the violent conditioning experienced by incarcerated Brazilian youth.
Another prison flick on Brazil’s top 100 list, “Stomach” follows Raimundo Nonato, a Brazilian migrant to the big city of São Paulo where he trains to become a chef. The movie goes back in forth between Nonato’s culinary inspirations in a corner bar, an Italian restaurant, and in prison. While locked up, he teaches his fellow inmates to make magic out of otherwise inedible prison ingredients – can anybody say “ants?” But to find out how exactly this talented chef ends up in prison, you’ll have to give it a watch.
Querô is the son of a prostitute who died when he was a baby and left him to be raised in the brothel. Querô ends up in Brazil’s violent juvenile corrections system after committing a series of small crimes. In and out of the system, he refuses to bend to the discipline of the authorities nor the gang leaders. The film stars a young Maxwell Nascimento, who won best actor in the 2006 Brasilia Film Festival.
A Gente (2014)
“A Gente,” Brazilian slang for “we” that plays off the word in Portuguese for “guard”. The director, Aly Muritiba, received a degree in cinema after seven years as a prison guard in the Casa de Custódia of São José dos Pinhais, in the state of Paraná. “A Gente” is the third installment of a trilogy of short films portraying the “universe of extreme dehumanization” of Brazil’s prisons from the perspective of the prisoners, their families, and the guards.
Cativas – Presas Pelo Coração (2016)
“Captive – Prisoners of the Heart” is a documentary following three Brazilian women in love with men behind bars. The film follows the women as they prepare for their visits to prison and impatiently await love letters.