This piece was published on October 21, 2019 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.
“Indianara,” a Brazilian documentary about transgender activist, ends in tears. After tireless work trying to initiate social change and help improve the conditions of LGBTQ+ citizens of Brazil, the country elected a far right-government led by populist candidate Jair Bolsanaro. “Indianara” is one of the four Brazilian movies that recently played at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal.
It is also representative of the kind of film that might be under threat under the new government of Brazil. As the country shifts to the right politically, the film industry finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Films that subvert the regime's ideology are already running into roadblocks. While the film industry has been thriving internationally, garnering awards and acclaim, its future is uncertain.
Bolsanaro was elected in October 2018, but his nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise for years now. With little information available in English language sources, the question of Brazil's cinematic future is a mystery outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Yet, the ramifications of Bolsanaro's actions are of international importance.
A glance at the most critically acclaimed films, playing at the Nouveau Cinema, reveals a Brazil in upheaval:
“The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão,” Brazil's entry for the Best International Feature Film, is based on a novel that begins in 1950. It's the lush story of two sisters, separated by their father's conservative values, who yearn to reconnect but are unable to. With mythic invocations of Euridice and Orpheus, the film is a melancholic examination of the Fourth Brazilian Republic, leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état. The political situation remains in the background, unveiled through radio programs and insinuated changes, but the values of the society having profound and often disastrous effects on the two sister's ability to live their lives. Rather than be rich in nostalgia, the film laments the characters failed promise as repressive social conditions hamper them.
“Divino Amor,” set in the not-so-distant future, represents Brazil in a world where Carnivale has been replaced by The Festival of Supreme Love. In this dystopian future, the Brazilian government puts on a front of being a secular bureaucratic system, but it just barely conceals its real values and influences, as the country has transformed into a barely-veiled theocracy. It's hard not to think of Bolsanaro's political slogan (his version of "Make America Great Again") "Brazil above everything, God above all." Centered on a profoundly religious civil servant, Joana, the film is a desperate and sometimes wickedly funny portrait of divine providence. As the film hits on its surprising climax, the film takes a shift as Joana becomes increasingly aware that the religiosity of her community is not rooted in strong belief, as much as it has become a way to control and surveil people. While potentially touched by a divine miracle, Joana is ostracized and humiliated, abandoned by the religion she loved so dearly.
The critically acclaimed “Bacurau” is a violent and subversive film about a small village in Northern Brazil that suddenly finds itself wiped off the map. Cut off from the rest of the world; outsiders invade the village; an unpopular campaigning governor, southern tourists and the animal trophy-ists after the Greatest Game of all. Of the moment, the film derives tensions between the rural and isolated communities and the outside forces that view them as disposable. With echoes of Brazil's violent past, within the film, it becomes clear that the more powerful hierarchical forces have underestimated the revolutionary spirit of their targets. “Bacurau” is about resistance as much as it is a portrayal of the cyclical intergenerational trauma of Brazil's violent history. “Bacurau” feels like a movie on the precipice of gearing up for a new fight, as vulnerable communities find themselves (once again) forced to take up arms to defend their lives and their land.
Among the best films of the year, they represent a fraction of the groundbreaking films coming out of the country. Zoé Protat, director of programming at the FNC, said that the programming team was drawn to the strength of the film's artistry but also their political integrity. They are films that represent that display a love-hate relationship with their country,
These three films are financed by Ancine, the Brazilian agency that funds and promotes the Brazilian film industry. In the lead up to more significant changes, the agency has been publicly attacked by the government. The director and president of the organization, Christian de Castro, was removed by court order in August, part of a more significant trend of changes happening since March. Brazil's Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra said that the new Ancine director would have a conservative profile, "just like the current government." As bureaucrats investigate the inner-workings of the agency, the money is frozen, not just for production but travel as well.
At the Festival du nouveau cinema, they say they did try to invite guests from Brazil but struggled in their dealings with Ancine. Protat suggested this isn't a new problem, but an ongoing frustration. Even under former leadership, the inner-workings of Ancine were opaque and complex, she says. But the situation only seems to be getting worse.
In Lisbon, one of the biggest and political documentary festivals starts this week. Since 2002, Doclisboa has been a boundary-pushing festival. Three weeks ago, it received news that the guests they invited from Brazil will no longer be able to attend because of Ancine. Earlier in the year, festivals like Indie Lisboa and Queer Lisboa made a point of featuring and highlighting Brazilian cinema in solidarity, but the situation has escalated. The team from DocLisboa decided, three weeks before the opening of their Festival, to restructure their programming.
"We will never be a neutral film festival," explained one of the Festival's programmers, Miguel Ribeiro, over Skype. They could not bring over the filmmakers on such short notice, but the Festival responded on September 23rd, by releasing an official statement about the situation:
It's clear that there is an agenda for the elimination of diversity and freedom, aiming at a form of art that is, at its core, popular and democratic: cinema.
In Brazil, a dictatorship is being installed – several principals of the rule of law are being explicitly violated. Given this, it's impossible to remain neutral.
In program changes, they included a showcase of the films of Eduardo Coutinho, a political documentary filmmaker well-known in Brazil. They will present “Chico: Artista Brasileiro,” directed by Miguel Faria Jr., a film suppressed in Uruguay and “Portraits of Identification,” by Anita Leandro, a portrait of the political prisoners taken during Brazil's military dictatorship with the testimony of survivors. There are also public debates on topics like "Can one be neutral?" addressing media neutrality. Several other Brazilian films are also featured in the programming, treating a variety of important social questions and movements.
Ribeiro had been following the developing story of Brazil's cinematic future since the election of Bolsonaro last fall. He helped outline the variety of changes and conditions in Brazil, most of which rarely make it to the English language media. Under the shroud of mere bureaucratic changes and language, it becomes clear that artists are under threat of restriction and silence, while government-sanctioned art will increasingly be in service of propaganda for the current leadership.
Understanding the situation in Brazil is only further complicated by its complex and contradictory media empire. Ribeiro suggests a documentary film by Pablo López Guelli, “Our Flag Will Never Be Red,” that is playing at the festival. A harsh indictment of a media controlled by oligarchs, the film makes a passionate case against the dominant fraudulent bent of the mainstream Brazilian media cycle.
Bolsanaro has come out and said that he wants to impose "cultural filters" on film production; in other words, censorship. The choice is absolute; follow newly imposed filters or the government "will privatize or extinguish [Ancine]," he said. Specific films like the 2011 movie about a sex worker, “Bruna Surfistinha,” were singled out as the types of films that would no longer receive government support. Many of the other targets, in line with Bolsanaro's political platform, include drug-use, feminism, LGBTQ+ communities and indigenous people.
In late July, The Brazilian Cinematheque, located in São Paulo, was placed under military and political control. Brazil's audiovisual history is in the hands of bureaucrats who plan to use the archives as a platform to promote Brazilian values. One of the first projects set by the new leadership is a showcase of Brazil's military achievements. The new direction, however, denies that the institution has taken a more conservative perspective.
One of the films playing at DocLisboa, “Chico: Artista Brasileiro,” was meant to open a festival in Uruguay. The film, which depicts the life of singer Chico Buarque, who was a revolutionary voice against the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. The film, initially released in 2015, was pulled from the Festival after pressure from the Brazilian Embassy in Uruguay.
Buarque, who is still alive, was also recently awarded the Camões Prize for Literature, the highest award for the written arts in the Portuguese world. Bolsanaro has expressed his displeasure with the choice and refuses to sign the award. While Buarque has received his prize money from Brazil, the symbolic gesture of Bolsanaro's opposition still resonates. "Bolsanaro refusing to sign is like a second Camões Prize for me," Buarque responded in O Globo.
Other filmmakers have come forward saying they've been facing problems with the new Ancine leadership. Last month, the producers of the film “Marighella,” directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge, announced that the film's premiere, scheduled for November 20th, had to be cancelled as they were unable to fulfill new demands by Ancine. The film, which depicts the life of Carlos Marighella, a politician and guerilla fighter who resisted against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1960s, also faced violence during its production. Some believe that the film is being censored by "obstructionism."
This is just the tip of the iceberg and as these changes are rarely direct, it's difficult to assume intent. But, taking those incidents in the context of other actions against the arts, it becomes worrying. Step by step, the industry is being dismantled and rebuilt in service of the propagandistic forces of the government. The message, though often weighed down in bureaucratic language is clear: Ancine needs to bend to the will of the government or be eliminated.
For their September issue, the Cahiers du Cinema, featured “Bacurau” as their cover story with the headline, "Bolsanaro's Brazil," and three articles devoted to the cinema in Brazil. In an interview from Cannes earlier this year, one of “Bacurau”'s co-directors Kleber Mendoca Filho spoke on the conditions of working in Brazil under Bolsonaro and the importance of using art as a tool of resistance. He said;
Today, under the extreme right-wing politics of Bolsonaro, the situation has become so absurd that we need to reaffirm things like "Education is important," and "all people need to be treated equally." Conversations have become so extreme, absurd and explicit. Cinema, music, literature need to listen to what's happening, or else it gives the impression that it's deaf.
Later in the same issue, in the article "Le cinéma Brésilien à l'ère de Bolsonaro" (“Brazilian cinema in the age of Bolsonaro”), the author Ariel Schweitzer discusses with a Brazilian critic the state of cinema. "Is it possible," writes Schweitzer, "that when a country is suffering, it's cinema can thrive?" To which Brazilian critic for Folha de S. Paulo, the country's largest daily newspaper, Inácio Araújo answers, "That's perhaps true in some cases, but when a country goes bad, its cinema risks to go very badly as well."
The article in Cahiers suggests more censorship and budgetary cuts are to come. It's not just films and filmmakers under threats, but festivals as well: this will only further close off the industry from outside involvement and discussion. While there are privatized industries that can continue to fund films within Brazil, without government support, productions will face increased pressures from the point of financing to distribution.
While right now the Brazilian cinema seems to be thriving, that might not be the case for much longer. The situation is changing from one day to the next, and the prognosis looks worse and worse.
Ribeiro notes that the situation in cinema in Brazil is part of a small part of a worrying trend in the country, one that targets vulnerable members of society. "We talk about cinema to talk about everything else," he says. By limiting the movement of filmmakers, it prevents their ability to criticize conditions and changes within Brazilian society publicly. Restricting films, in most cases, works to restrict speech as well.
When we talk about cinema, we are talking about everything. We are talking about a government that restricts the arts, movement and freedom of expression. As we see, the Brazilian government violently acting against its people, cinema, as a tool for empathy and resistance, is being restricted.
As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility. Bringing awareness, but also understanding that what is happening in Brazil is happening elsewhere. Far-right parties are gaining power across the globe, and film industries dependent on government funding and support are being threatened by campaigns and movements that seek to silence them. These policies that seek to repress the arts are interconnected with systems that seek to restrict dissonant voices that are critical of the government's dangerous and dehumanizing policies.
What is happening in Brazil is not a unique case; in different forms, it can happen anywhere.
All translations from French done by Justine Smith.
Special assistance in translating Portuguese by Francisco Peres.