In the summer in which George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Bernard Attal’s new feature documentary Restless is a film with an obvious, added topical resonance, dealing with an unexplained act of police brutality.
In 2014, Geovane, a young Brazilian man living in the city of Salvador, was apprehended by the police. Although video camera footage shows his arrest, he was never seen again. His father wouldn’t let the case go. He started to investigate by himself.
French director Attal, who has been living in Brazil since 2005, used the disappearance as the starting point for his film Restless. He had read a story about Geovane in his local newspaper. The incident happened in the same week that Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, had been shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I was interested to see how two societies with a similar history as far as slavery is concerned, and as far as racism and discrimination, reacted differently. It started from there.”
Attal spent four years making the film. He followed Geovane’s father, waiting to see if the justice system would come to his aid. It didn’t.
Restless was due to be released in Brazil last month. “Of course, that didn’t happen,” the director refers to the way that COVID-19 has upended distribution plans for so many movies.
Geovane’s family were “very happy” that Attal was taking the time to tell their son’s story. Many other similar cases of killings and disappearances are simply not chronicled and can be forgotten as a result. “They are very emotionally attached to the film,” Attal says of Geovane’s relatives, who are taking part in the impact campaign around the film that Attal has been planning with the UK’s Doc Society.
In most stories about incidents like this, the tendency is to focus on the individual cops behind the violence. Attal wanted to go deeper. “It’s the system which is wrong and broken,” he suggests. “It’s not only the police system but the judicial system which does not react quickly enough…at the state level, the government here (in Brazil) and in the US, most of the time is going to want to protect the police force. It happens everywhere. Whether they’re a conservative government or a liberal government, they’re very afraid of strikes from the police and so they always side with the police force.”
Cases drag on, justice is rarely done. In Brazil now, the situation has grown even worse. President Bolsonaro has given new powers to the police and has tried to provide them with legal protection when they do use lethal force. Attal says that earlier this month he attended a rally for an 11-year-old boy shot by the cops because he was playing in the wrong place.
According to recent analysis by the New York Times, the police killed 1814 people in Rio last year, a huge number. Attal calculates police killings across the country as a whole are at 6000 – and the victims are almost always young black men from poor backgrounds. It is no coincidence, Attal believes, that the US and Brazil were the last two societies to abolish slavery.
French-born, Attal lived in the US for many years before moving to Brazil in 2005. He has directed several films since then including the short Dela that opened the celebrations for the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth in 2018. Restless is his first feature doc.
“I had the wrong impression about Brazil. I thought it was a harmonious country in terms of racism. It is not. It (the racism) is just more hidden, more subtle,” the director reflects on what he has learned since living in the country. When he moved to Brazil from the US, Attal was happy to be in a place in which there was no death penalty. “But there is a death penalty, de facto, on the streets,” he says of what he has witnessed.
Restless received some state funding but that was because the director applied before Bolsonaro was elected President. “At that time, there were national grants…but I wouldn’t get that money now.”
The plan now is to release the film in the autumn. In the meantime, he is working on a new project, Port City, about the port of Salvador, but acknowledges that it is getting more and more difficult to get new projects off the ground.
“Right now, most of the filmmakers are a little stunned because most of the grants are gone – so we have to figure out how to fund our future projects.”