Brazilian Cinema: From Fire to Ashes
Talent Press, a section of Talents Buenos Aires, is a theoretical and practical program created for South American critics, writers, programmers, and journalists who reflect on new forms of cinema. Initiated by Berlinale Talents in collaboration with FIPRESCI and the Goethe-Institut, annual Talent Press programs and alumni network meetings are held in five cities around the world. For more details please visit http://talentpress.org/.
Mariángela Martínez Restrepo
Programmer / Talent Press TsBsAs
Latin America Film/Critic Curator
We know the stories from the sixties and seventies. Films were prohibited, mutilated, their prints stolen from cinematheques, secretly burnt and lost forever. Filmmakers were arrested and tortured without proof of any crime, or were compelled to exile. Actors were chased by the army and forced to go underground for decades. Policemen invaded university classrooms to harass professors for screening films. Officially, but especially unofficially, the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964 – 1985) had confiscated part of our history and violently persecuted filmmakers through active censorship. Most of the violence was perpetrated in the shadows, far away from the public eye. As we see in Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (1984), power had to find justification elsewhere: the absurd yet sophisticated reasons given by the authorities to interrupt the shooting of Cabra Marcado para Morrer in 1964 and chase the crew, right after the military coup, included accusations about the filmmakers’ involvement with the Cuban and Soviet governments, lying about the use of the film to train local workers for guerrilla warfare, spreading a calculated rumor about an arsenal of heavy weaponry hidden at the filming location, and so on.
What we are experiencing now in Brazil has the same purpose of confiscating our history, suffocating freedom of thought, and destroying the work of our artists, but the rhetoric and the tactics are extremely different. Today, power does not need to hide in order to practice censorship. In 2019, ideological falsification, preposterous ignorance, and violent persecution are happening in front of cameras day after day in Brazil. “If it can’t have a filter, we’ll close Ancine [Brazilian Film Agency], or privatize it”. These were the words said by former army captain and acting president Jair Bolsonaro on July 19 to TV network cameras. A month later, during a live Facebook transmission, he perversely added: “If the Ancine team had no term positions, I would have beheaded everyone by now.”
This kind of terrorist language is typical for a man obsessed with killing, a man who said that the problem with the Brazilian military dictatorship was that it had not killed enough people. It is the kind of rhetoric used by a man who praised a notorious torturer while giving his vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a woman who was brutally persecuted in prison because she fought for democracy in Brazil. What’s new about Bolsonaro is his personal crusade against Ancine and Brazilian cinema. The Brazilian Film Agency was created in 2001, under Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s presidency — even before the left-wing administration of President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva — with the purpose of regulating an unequal audiovisual market and fostering Brazilian film production. It wasn’t until this current decade, though, that the first meaningful results of this policy began to appear. After years and years of hard work, joint efforts of previous governments, artists, producers, and civil society have achieved new legislation, including the creation of a huge national fund with self-generating resources, financing new projects of all kinds, and promoting diversity and regionalization. Since then, production has increased exponentially. Today, the audiovisual sector in Brazil is responsible for more than 300,000 jobs and generates more income in taxes than tourism in the whole country. It’s responsible for 0.46% of the country’s GDP (that’s more than the pharmaceutical or the automobile industries). More importantly, facing unsolved historical inequalities, our cinema was starting to become a vivid expression of our country’s diversity, representing the potential of our artists in a more democratic way and creating a solid body of increasingly powerful artwork.
In 2019, everything is under fire. The destruction began in January, when the Ministry of Culture was dissolved. In the following months, Ancine was practically shut down, allegedly because of accountability issues. The fact is: even projects already approved in public, democratic competitions, with part of the budget available to set the production in motion, were interrupted. The historical irony: 2019 has so far been an absolute milestone for Brazilian cinema in terms of international recognition, with unprecedented outcomes in major film festivals around the world. At Cannes, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau and Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão won major awards. Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever earned three awards at Locarno. No less than 12 films were in Berlinale, including three that were awarded. There were films in the main competition sections at Sundance and Rotterdam, and two Brazilian co-productions at Venice. There were awards at IndieLisboa and Visions du Réel. The list is exhaustive. It is already possible to say that Brazilian cinema has not reached such international acclaim since the days of Cinema Novo in the sixties. And yet, every film producer in Brazil now has no clue about what to do next in the face of current circumstances.
In that same live Facebook transmission, after reading the synopsis of the upcoming series Afronte, about the local black LGBTQI+ community in Brasília, Bolsonaro threw away the papers in front of the camera and simply said: “another one bites the dust.” The justification? None. The violence of the gesture comes with no reason, as if, for his supporters, a film with that narrative focus was automatically unacceptable. Quote: “I don’t understand why we should support a series about black homosexuals.” In the following days, the Ministry of Citizenship announced the suspension of the call for TV-funding applications, which included that series, with a budget of R$ 70 million. Again, the irony: last January, “Afronte” (2017), the short film by Bruno Victor and Marcus Azevedo that inspired the series, was included in the program “Soul in the Eye,” a huge retrospective at the 48th edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, which presented four feature films and 24 short films by Brazilian black filmmakers, many of them supported by previous governments. The program was a beautiful example of the diversity, the freedom, and the aesthetic strength of contemporary Brazilian cinema.
Since day one in the sixties, the military dictatorship practiced censorship and persecution. Even they weren’t so narrow-minded and so blatantly moralistic. Now, calls for applications at the main public institutions all over Brazil have begun to include questions about “nudity” or “political and religious issues,” in a clear gesture of censorship. There have been reports about queer films that traveled the festival circuit last year having trouble with documents that would allow them to play in movie theaters, as well as on television and streaming services. And yet, the president, who is now personally attacking Brazilian cinema with moral excuses, is the same person who, in March, shared an explicit video on Twitter.
We’re used to this kind of daily, institutionalized schizophrenia. Among other reasons, because our recent cinema was able to portray the upcoming apocalypse before it happened in reality. When Bolsonaro says (on August 31) that the next president of the Brazilian Film Agency should be “someone with the Bible under his arm, callused knees and who knows 200 verses of the Bible”, we remember the dystopian worlds inhabited by the characters in Divine Love (Gabriel Mascaro, 2018), Sol Alegria (Tavinho Teixeira and Mariah Teixeira, 2018), Bacurau, or Tremor Iê (Elena Meirelles and Lívia de Paiva, 2019). These films have plunged us into the suffocating atmosphere of an over-policed, religiously fundamentalist, and oppressive country. The lethargy of the bodies in Adirley Queirós’s Once There Was Brasília (2017), the darkness of the nights in Ewerton Belico and Samuel Marotta’s Outer Edge (2018), the radiography of inner fascism in Tiago Mata Machado’s The Sleepwalkers (2018), and the enraged mob at the end of Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Good Manners (2017) all prepared us for the toxic sensory landscape we are now inhabiting.
This same Brazilian cinema has also given us the energy to resist. In Araby (João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, 2017), the mourning for a lost country is inseparable from the praise for the strength of our working people. In In the Heart of the World (Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins, 2019), the melancholy of a failed attempt to escape a ruined life cannot be disconnected from the beautiful melodies of everyday experience. In Ana Pi’s NoirBLUE (2017), the recognition of historical colonial wounds comes together with the vivid colors and the energetic dancing that announces a possible future world. The night in Tell This to Those Who Say We’ve Been Defeated (Aiano Bemfica, Camila Bastos, Cristiano Araújo, and Pedro Maia De Brito) is not full of terrors but of invention.
This is what Brazilian authorities cannot stand. While literally reducing the country to ashes, they are extinguishing the flames of a nascent cinema. The scene in Juliana Antunes’ Baronesa (2017) where the vivid joy of everyday life on the outskirts is abruptly interrupted by a loud shot that throws the camera down, tears up the film, and plunges us into the abyss of gravity. This is the aesthetic translation of what’s happening in Brazilian cinema right now. The strength, the energy, the diversity of a future country, full of promises, is being suffocated by the same colonial forces of the past. It feels as if we were living inside a loop of that scene. Brazilian cinema was starting a fire, but there’s no fire without air. The question we are facing now is: can we make the ashes burn?