3%: Brazilian dystopia in the dictatorship legacy

Official Netflix poster for 3 Porcento.

Official Netflix poster for 3 Porcento.

“3 Porcento” is the name of the first Brazilian original Netflix production that premiered this week. The full season can already be streamed on Netflix, in eight episodes of forty minutes each that I rushed through in one night, and some more moderate viewers marathoned in the span of three or four days. The second season has already been confirmed.

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Quick Overview

Genre: Dystopian Sci-fi.
Acting: 9/10, one point down because the leading actress is bland as stale bread.
Visuals: 9/10, beautifully constructed, great use of a thing budget.
Writing and plot construction: 7/10, overall excellent dialogues, some flaky plot points.
Originality: 6/10, it’s everything the Hunger Games wishes it could be but overall it’s nothing new within the genre.

Female characters: Numerous and varied though all cis and able-bodied, three out of six main characters are women, secondary characters include older women and bigger women. Generally well constructed and steering away from common clichés. There aren’t many relationships between women though, and definitely not any close friendships.
Racial diversity: Overall good. Main characters are evenly split among white and black characters, secondary and background characters include people of indigenous and Asian descent.
LGBT representation: None in the first season. There are no homophobic/transphobic moments, but no characters have been shown to be LGBT so far.
Disability representation: The leading disabled character, Fernando, is played by an able-bodied actor. Despite this, his characterization and arc are, in my opinion, an excellent deconstruction of some common tropes around disabled characters.

Warnings: Graphic violence. Graphic torture. Not very graphic child death. Not very graphic but explicit suicide. Fernando receives numerous ableist agressions across the show. A woman is violently assaulted by a group of various men in a setting that could be triggering for rape survivors.


Now, let’s jump into the review…

Michele, Bruna and other young people in dirty clothes, looking up.

Michele, Bruna and other young people in dirty clothes, looking up.

The plot of the show isn’t anything new. There is the “Continent” (Amazonian Brazil, also known as “this side”) and there’s “Offshore” (a vaguely described place in the ocean that the people refer to as “the other side”); and young people have only one chance, when they turn 20, to pass a test and become part of the 3% of the population that is allowed to live in the idyllic Offshore.

All the classic elements of the genre can be found within the first couple episodes: a cult-like belief in the System, the Continent’s inhumane levels of poverty starkly compared to Offshore’s advanced technology, a system of individual identification that is embedded into people’s bodies, evil agents of the Totalitarian Government wearing monochromatic suits with an identical marker on their shoulders.

The thing is, “3 Porcento” doesn’t make an effort to break the mold of the Dystopian Totalitarian Regime narrative. Instead, it focuses in taking a trope that’s been done over and over again by white gringxs and mixing it with the very real experiences that Brazil (and all of Latin America) has internalized as part of our cultural trauma.

Yes, “3 Porcento” is everything “The Hunger Games” wishes it could be but, first and foremost, “The Hunger Games” (like many similar stories in the genre) is more than a little inspired in the military dictatorships that scarred Latin America and many other “Third World” countries. That’s why it shouldn’t be a surprise that “3 Porcento” feels more real, more raw and way more authentic than most of the similar narratives spawned by white USAmerican creators: “3 Porcento” is, as much as a work of science-fiction, an autobiographical story of a country that can’t allow itself the luxury of forgetting its past.

It’s no wonder that the test that every young person has to go through to prove that they are physically, mentally and, most importantly, ideologically aligned with the ideal of citizen that should inhabit the Offshore is called “The Process”. Operation Condor, the CIA’s plan to destabilize populist governments and replace them with USA-approved military regimes across Latin America, is the reason why Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and Argentina all were under the rule of oppressive totalitarian governments around the same time. In Argentina, the military dictatorship called itself “Process of National Reorganization”, and is to this day referred to by many as simply “The Process”.

Similar callbacks to the realities of the dictatorship are spread across the show, with dissidents (“The Cause”) shown to be tortured in the exact same way that CIA-trained agents of Brazil’s dictatorship used on their victims; and a widespread public ignorance about what happens to those who don’t make it out of the Process that instantly reminded me of the way Argentinians talk about the Desaparecidos (“the Vanished”, the word used to refer to the over 30 thousand people who were kidnapped and/or murdered during the last military regime in Argentina).


Vague spoilers ahead

The Good Parts

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Michele, Bruna, Fernando and other young people in clean uniforms, walking across a white room.

The feeling of authenticity that I mentioned is really one of the things that makes the series, and it’s not just in how close to home the story feels. Unlike most dystopian narratives (and most media, really) makes me snap out of any suspension of disbelief the moment they put a fabricated crowd of mostly white extras with one or two brown faces, but “3 Porcento” didn’t do this at all. It’s only realistic, since Brazil has the biggest black population outside of Africa in the world, that a good part of the cast would be black and brown, but Latin American media is still struggling to actually acknowledge our continent’s racial diversity.

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Joana, laying on the grass, smiling.

Because characters are always what makes a show, I gotta mention Joana. Joana is, without a doubt, the best character in “3 porcento”. Joana Coelho, played by actress Vaneza Oliveira, could carry the show by herself and there wouldn’t be a single dull moment. From her first moments on screen she is charismatic and intriguing, displaying a confidence that starkly contrasts with the rest of the characters’ fear and/or anxiety about the process, watching the people around her with eyes that show unquestionable intelligence even when she pretends not to care for the process.

She fakes indifference, but from the very first moment, it’s obvious that she understands the system better than even some of the people within it. She notices things that others miss (a character’s fake “registration”, one of the clues in their tests, which character she can play and who she can blackmail). She is, out of all the characters, the most complex and multidimensional of them all. Her moral system isn’t based on faux self-righteousness or a sense of “deserving” or “being owed” anything. She judges everyone harshly, but forgives others easier than she forgives herself and, though she’s not afraid or ashamed of doing what it needs to be done to survive, she’s got a deep seated sense of compassion that even characters who see themselves as “good” can’t match.

[A big, blatant spoiler:] If there was any doubt during the season that Joana was, by far, the best constructed and acted character in the show, the season finale leaves to margin for hesitation. Not only is she an exceptional character by herself, written and played masterfully, but she is a deconstruction of a genre archetype that I’m sick of seeing: Joana grabs the white savior trope and knocks it the fuck down.

What am I saying? During most of the season, Michele is presented as the lead of the show, and [another big spoiler] the revolutionary figure. She’s a spy for a rebel organization that infiltrated the system to get revenge for her brother, with a clear political affiliation and a blatant dislike for the process. Joana, on the other hand, is in to save her own skin and she doesn’t seem to care whether the system is unfair or not as long as she makes it out alive. That is, until the very end, when Michele’s belief in The Cause is utterly destroyed and Joana rejects the process, her opportunity for a life Offshore and a position at Ezekiel’s side.

The season closes with the two white rebels going Offshore (Rafael more convinced on his revolutionary ideals, Michele apparently turned to the Process’ side) as Joana and Fernando (the two black main characters) walk away from the building where the Process is held and back into the Continent, their fury at the system turning into joyful laughter. As they make it back into the favela, a group of fanatics talk loudly about the “founding couple” coming back to redeem the people, and Joana and Fernando walk past them with an air of hopefulness.

I can only hope that the writers are doing exactly what I think they are doing and Joana, with Fernando by her side, will be the revolutionary leaders of the next season.

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Joana and Fernando laughing together.

The characterizations, in general, are all masterfully crafted. Characters that start as simplistic takes on overdone tropes slowly reveal themselves to be much more than meets the eye, and that doesn’t happen only with Joana. All the mains (Michele, Fernando, Rafael, Ezekiel, Aline and even Marco) have complicated motivations, drives and backstories.There are no saints in this story, which is maybe the most realistic part of it all: there is no room for absolute morality in a fight for survival, and anyone who’s ever struggled with poverty will see these characters and realize that we could all be one of them.

The soundtrack is another beautiful element that adds to the organic construction of the show’s universe. I’m not very knowledgeable about music, but the percussions and voices of the opening theme and the show’s musicalization are breathtaking. I’d call it the best original Netflix soundtrack since The Get Down, but I’m sure those ignorant fuckheads over at Rolling Stone who said the Stranger Things soundtrack was good would disagree.


The Big Question Marks

While I overall feel like I get what the show is trying to do with each narrative and more or less can guess where the overall story is going and which parts of it I like and which parts I don’t, there are two characters that I still haven’t finished grasping.

Fernando was one of my favorite characters for most of the season, even if I have some issues with how he was portrayed (mainly, the fact that the actor isn’t actually a wheelchair user, which I’ll touch upon later). He is charismatic, smart and resilient, without turning him into an aspirational archetype like many disabled characters are in fiction. And yet…

First things first, I want to clarify that my commentary on Fernando as a portrayal of disability will inevitably be removed from the experience. I suffer from chronic pain, which is a completely different experience of that of paraplegic wheelchair users, so my opinion is mostly based on what I’ve learned from other people who are actually wheelchair users themselves and not how I would like to see myself represented. At risk of overstepping, I want to say that the portrayal of Fernando’s disability, his relationship with it and other people’s reactions to it seemed fairly respectful and realistic, and I would generally recommend this show as a good material to watch when looking for physically disabled characters. But…

How, in the name of God how was the Fernando/Michele arc necessary? The season starts showing us that the main reason why Fernando wants to get through the Process is because his father told him so, it slowly progresses to a point where he wants to do it for himself (not to be cured of his disability, not to satisfy his father, not to prove others wrong but for himself, because in the Offshore he can thrive) and then… then he falls in love with this girl who shows him some basic compassion and throws it all away for her. How does that make sense? What narrative purpose does it have?

I am thrilled that Fernando and Joana end the season together and that everything points to them being the revolutionary figures of Season 2, but the way they chose to do it still leaves me baffled.

I am absolutely delighted to have a disabled character with lines like “I don’t want to be cured, I finally got to a point where I never dreamed of walking again and now I don’t want it” and “I never wanted their pity”, and I am really happy with the way the narrative condemns other characters’ ableism, but the whole Fernando/Michele arc left me confused and lost, waiting for a resolution that never happened. I can only hope that Season 2 will resolve these questions in a more satisfying way.

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Four images of Aline in different scenes.

Aline was, without a doubt, one of the of the most intriguing characters. Viviane Porto is an amazing actress, projecting incredible strength and charisma even as Aline plays coy around the Process, always alluring and beautiful. She is a manipulator, with her own agenda outside of what anyone expects of her, including the audience. And that left me incredibly annoyed, because I’m the kind of viewer who wants to know.

Is she a completely amoral and ruthless politician who just wants power or is she kinder and better than anyone else in the Process and wants to change it from within? Did she see a chance and take it or had she been planning her “coup” attempt from a long time before the plot started? What is going to happen to her? I have absolutely no idea, and it bothers me so much.

Of course, that is the purpose of the character, but I can’t finish forming an opinion on her characterization and whether I like where her story is going or not, because I honestly have no idea. But, for sure, I am infinitely excited to see how it all unfolds in season two.


The Bad Parts

The first big, unquestionable bad thing about the show is the fact that Fernando is not actually played by a disabled actor. Michel Gomes, an able bodied man, is “cripping up” for the role, and that immediately strains any attempt at good representation.

I’m gonna get a bit educational here, and go into the issues of disability representation. According to studies, able-bodied actors play 95% of disabled characters on television. There are few exceptions, like paraplegic actor paraplegic Daryl Mitchell on “NCIS: New Orleans” and actor with cerebral palsy RJ Mitte in “Breaking Bad”, as well as some of the wheelchair-using actresses is “Push Girls”, but they are a rarity (and here are some other examples).

Given that the representation of disabled people is already incredibly small in television, the fact that most of these very few roles go to abled actors creates a lack of opportunity for disabled actors. This is especially insulting to disabled communities, since able-bodied actors are infinitely awarded for their “realistic” portrayals of disability while disabled actors can’t even get jobs. As this article puts it:

The able-bodied narrative on this topic focuses on how “convincing” the performances of able-bodied actors are when they play disabled characters. To many in the disabled community, whether an able-bodied actor is convincing to other able-bodied people when playing a disabled person is immaterial. The ugly spectacle of it is fundamentally offensive.

Sure, Fernando was a great character and his arc dealt very well with disability, but… surely there has to be at least one wheelchair-using actor in the entirety of Brazil who was up for the role, right?

Fernando, shot from the back, on his wheelchair.

Fernando, shot from the back, on his wheelchair.

The other thing that annoyed me to no end was how the show kept trying to make me sympathize with evil white people. I was extremely happy when one of the main white characters was revealed to be a piece of shit, but I feel like the rest of them got way kinder treatment than they deserved.

There was an entire episode dedicated to Ezequiel –the Process Boss™– and his dead wife, over forty minutes of trying to humanize a man whose life is dedicated to the torture of young people for the sake of an authoritarian regime. I spent the episode alternating between my twitter timeline and rolling my eyes at the screen, absolutely annoyed at the cheap, lousy attempt to make me sympathize with a fascist.

Then there was Michele. Michele, the white lead of the series. Michele, one of the two white revolutionaries inside the Process (by the way, all the revolutionaries we see during the season are white). Michele, the white girl whose story begins with the death of her black best friend. Michele, who thinks herself morally superior to all of the people around her. Michele, who is without a doubt the most boring and uninteresting character in the show, and who gets almost half of the screentime.

The show could have been infinitely better if Joana and Fernando had been the leads from the very first episode, and Michele had been relegated to a side character helping prop up their narrative. As it is, the season has a myriad of scenes that were wasted on her and could have been better spent on any of her co-stars.

Final verdict

Strong 8/10. Entertaining, with amazing cinematography and a refreshing take on the genre. Let’s just hope that season two dares to break further away from the constraints of dystopian clichés.

A poster for the show.

A poster for the show.

Gif credit: (1) (2) (3) (4)

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