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This weekend we’re watching: An innovative doccie on anti-cop sentiment and the broken police system

Montoya in traffic. Image: Supplied

‘A Cop Movie’ is a Mexican documentary that plays with your expectations of what’s real to explore the perception of police and the corrupt systems they operate in.

In many places, maybe even most places, the sound of a police siren scares people just as often as it reassures, and in countries like South Africa, which suffered so many years of an oppressive regime, trust in the police force has not recovered, nor has it been earned.

How are South Africans supposed to have faith in the police when National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole has just been suspended and his predecessors include the likes of Jackie Selebi, who was put away for corruption, and Riah Phiyega, under whose incompetent watch the Marikana miners were massacred?

Given the incidents of humiliation, brutality, home invasions and murder of civilians that we saw in the early days of lockdown, or the ongoing symbiotic relationship between the police and gangsters, the gun-running and protection rackets, it seems perfectly logical that we mistrust the police. 

What’s unfortunate is that those rare few officers who resist the corruption of the system and put their lives on the line to protect us, also suffer our mistrust and prejudice (over and above the dangers and stresses of being a good police officer).

“A Cop Movie” film poster. Image: Supplied

Una película de policías (A Cop Movie) opens with a woman’s voice imitating a police siren. It’s eerie, entrancing and quite lifelike, but the deep breath she takes before she starts and the low sound she makes at the end seem inappropriately satirical. 

Cut to the spooky interior of a police vehicle cruising unlit alleys. The scanner blares with myriad problems – a woman being followed on her motorbike, a fire, a kidnapping, a truck accident. The unseen female police officer in the car responds to a distress call of a woman going into labour. With no available ambulances, she is forced to go in alone and deliver the baby herself, but despite doing everything she can she is still faced with hostility. 

Her name is Teresa, and she tells us that she wasn’t given any first aid training at the academy. The police scanner chattering away in the background of this first scene imparts a sense of the dark and dangerous situations that cops face each day, situations they’re often not prepared for. 

Teresa. Image: Supplied

It’s a slow start but given a front seat to an unfolding emergency, we are immediately roped into the tension. The film initially presents as a gritty documentary, the camera careful not to impede Teresa’s work, but as the tension rises it becomes noticeable that nobody is interacting with the cameraman. The footage appears real except that amid all the urgency, the close-ups are perfectly focused and the zoom shots are well composed… is this a documentary or not? 

Soon there are scenes that are clearly staged, in which Teresa narrates re-enacted anecdotes, but it’s still not obvious which parts of the film are real and which are fabricated. Adding to the confusion, the film is produced by a company called “Noficción”, which literally translates to non-fiction. Director Alonso Ruizpalacios is messing with your interpretation of what you’re watching by fiddling with the dials of reality. 

Ruizpalacios strikes a careful balance of tone, which is mostly serious, but occasionally so impish that one becomes suspicious about what his agenda actually is. He invites us to sympathise with those good cops who make tremendous sacrifices for the benefit of others, but he also has a sense of humour about the public’s historic disdain for the fuzz, and is honest about their faults.

Image: Supplied

The opening credits scene plays with a montage of black-and-white photos showcasing all the worst police stereotypes – violent cops in riot gear beating protesters and firing tear gas, gluttonous cops wolfing down pastries, lazy cops sleeping on the job, and one particularly fun pic of a self-satisfied copper making off with a box of goodies. 

Teresa tells anecdotes corroborating these stereotypes, especially those of endemic corruption, but we also see civilians punish her unjustly for her mere association with the force. If people see her eating on the streets, they make snide comments like “enjoy”, implying that she’s just another “gluttonous pig”. 

We’re introduced to another cop who goes by Montoya, who gets shunned by old school friends because of his job and passive-aggressively woken up by strangers on the subway who insinuate that he’s lazy even if he’s off duty. Teresa and Montoya really are expected not to eat or sleep like human beings. 

Montoya on the floor. Image: Supplied

Montoya puts up with all sorts of abuse from civilians in fear of gang retaliation. In one quirky, uncomfortable scene, he stands stoney-faced while random flamboyant characters tease and harass him at a gay pride parade.

As a female officer, Teresa has to put up with systemic sexual harassment within the department, as well as disrespect from civilians, family and colleagues who don’t take her seriously.

Ruizpalacios devotes a lot of time to the mundane minor inconveniences Teresa and Montoya experience daily – a pen running out of ink or the squad car’s battery going flat – and this breaks the tough façade of authority. Interviews with the often vulnerable people who choose to become police officers do even more to atomise our perception of the force into the human units it comprises.

Says Teresa in the film: “There are all types of folks in the police. Just as there are lots of good cops with good intentions, who go out to fulfil their duties by the book, there are also lots of cops who are crooked, or who didn’t have a trade in their civilian life and saw the advantages of being a cop.” 

This investigation into the ways police abuse their power and the ways in which they are mistreated and misunderstood is accompanied by a jazzy, foot-tapping score that initially seems at odds with the severity of the content. The stylisation becomes stronger and stronger, reaching a comedic climax with a vibrant chase scene that could be straight out of a cop comedy like The Heat or Hot Fuzz

Montoya. Image: Supplied

And then suddenly, everything you’ve seen is turned on its head again. You might say A Cop Movie is a documentary about a mockumentary, or a fictional reinvention of a non-fictional story, but you would be just off the mark, and you won’t know exactly what you’re watching until the big reveal an hour in.

The tone, focus and format of the film are extremely erratic. You get the best of both worlds – the composition and poetic potency of fiction as well as the sense of importance imbued by non-fiction. It’s exciting and innovative, but it is also risky, and the stretching and weaving of the fabric of reality and fiction will likely be confusing and off-putting to some viewers. 

Fictional or not, A Cop Movie is effective as an exposé of the broken police system, and sensitive to moral ambiguity. It’s a dual character study of well-meaning cops in an unforgiving society so corrupt that it is almost impossible to avoid coercion into the darkness. DM/ML 

A Cop Movie is available in South Africa on Netflix. Available with English subtitles and Spanish audio descriptions
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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