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Brazilian film industry is booming, but vulnerable under president Bolsonaro

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Director Petra Costa’s (right) documentary The Edge of Democracy, which was up for an Oscar on Sunday, chronicles the events leading to Bolsonaro’s rise to power. On Monday, Bolsonaro’s office accused Costa of ‘slandering’ the country, and last month, the president himself denounced the movie as ‘rubbish’.

Brazilian film industry is booming, but vulnerable under president Bolsonaro

Brazilian cinema is having a moment: an Oscar nod, prizes at Cannes, an invitation to the Berlinale.

But filmmakers are also feeling vulnerable amid the boom, as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has declared a “culture war” and slashed state support for the industry.

Since the man dubbed the “Tropical Trump” took office in January 2019, directors, producers and actors have sounded the alarm over what they say are ideologically driven policies that threaten Brazilian cinema.

It is an industry that employs 300,000 people and projects the South American country’s soft power around the world.

“Artistically, we’re flourishing,” said Caetano Gotardo, co-director of All the Dead Ones, which is up for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival this month.

“We have commercial movies that are doing very well at the box office and arthouse films that are succeeding at festivals. But we have doubts about whether it will last.”

Gotardo’s movie, a French-Brazilian co-production, tells the story of two families, one black and one white, in the days after Brazil abolished slavery, in the late 19th century.

The filmmakers managed to wrap production before the current turbulence broke out, like their colleagues on Bacurau, by Kleber Mendonca, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival last year, and Invisible Life, by Karim Ainouz, which won the Un Certain Regard prize at the same event.

Bolsonaro has stayed notably silent as all those films have raked in accolades.

War on ‘leftist art’

His government has instead called for what his former culture secretary, Roberto Alvim, called a “culture war” to fight “leftist art” and promote “conservative values”.

The administration has been particularly aggressive in condemning the Brazilian film that was up for an Oscar on Sunday in the documentary category: The Edge of Democracy, by director Petra Costa, which chronicles the events leading to Bolsonaro’s rise to power.

On Monday, Bolsonaro’s office accused Costa of “slandering” the country, and last month, the president himself denounced the movie as “rubbish”.

Bolsonaro’s government has eliminated the culture ministry, making it a secretariat of the tourism ministry, and has cut funding for the arts from state-owned companies.

“The state has bigger priorities,” he said.

He has also threatened to shut the Brazilian Film Agency (Ancine), the government body responsible for the national cinema industry, if it does not “filter” the content of the movies it funds.

‘Disturbing’ times

Ancine’s budget for funding films, the Audiovisual Sector Fund, was slashed by more than 40 per cent this year.

“Bad decisions are harming” the industry, said Sara Silveira, a producer on “All the Dead Ones”, accusing Bolsonaro’s government of being “anti-culture”.

“This may be the most disturbing cultural moment in Brazilian history,” said Luiz Carlos Barreto, a longtime producer who used to negotiate with the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) so certain films deemed “subversive” by censors could be released.

Barreto, a 91-year-old veteran of Brazil’s “Cinema Novo” movement in the 1960s, said the Bolsonaro administration has updated the military regime’s strategy, installing a “system of prior censorship”.

“Instead of suppressing [a film], they simply put up a barrier so it never gets made,” he said.

Last year, the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival nearly had to be canceled after state oil company Petrobras slashed its funding.

“We have to fight to make the industry of culture, the creative economy . . . be seen as a pillar of the economy, which it is,” said the festival’s director, Ilda Santiago.

Bolsonaro is already on his fifth culture secretary. Alvim, the fourth, was forced to resign after he paraphrased a speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Many in the artistic community are hoping the new incumbent, actress and soap opera star Regina Duarte, will extend an olive branch.

Despite the difficulties, “we’re not going to stop making films, we’re not going to stop doing what we do”, said Santiago.

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