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“Brazilian cinema is international, versatile and contradictory”

Jonas Holmberg on the Brazilian focus at Göteborg Film Festival 2020

43:e festivalen
24 Jan -
3 Feb, 2020

Maybe Brazilian film has never been better than it is right now. Still, it risks being obliterated. This contradiction is the starting point for Göteborg Film Festival’s focus on Brazilian cinema, which is both a tribute to Brazilian film art and a manifestation of solidarity for those Brazilian filmmakers currently facing huge political pressure.

In January, Jair Bolsonaro took up office as president of Brazil. The right-wing ex-military views Brazilian filmmakers as enemies armed with cameras, and has been very clear about wanting to radically change Brazilian cinema. Either change it, or destroy it.

In July, Bolsonaro delivered a speech that struck like a bomb in the film world. He stated that the state would no longer fund “pornography”, and that Brazilian filmmakers should “defend family values” and “pay tribute to Brazilian heroes” instead. He announced that the Brazilian film institute Ancine’s headquarters would be moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, closer to political control. And unless Ancine agrees to introduce “filters”, the institution will be completely shut down. The demands on filters and the unreasonable rhetoric resulted in the minister of culture resigning, the funding of documentaries about Brazilian heroes (Bolsonaro-faithful football star Neymar and Bolsonaro himself) and large parts of the film industry becoming terrified, paranoid and unable to make long-term plans.

Bolsonaro’s attacks on free film art are coming at the same time as a boom in Brazilian cinema. Since the ‘cinema novo’ of the 1960s, Brazilian cinema has never been as successful as it is right now. In recent years, many Brazilian films have been praised at international film festivals – only this year several fine awards have been given to, among others, Kleber Mendonça Filhos and Juliano Dornelles Bacurau and Karim Ainouz The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão in Cannes, Maya Da-Rins The Fever in Locarno and Paxton Winters Pacified in San Sebastian.

The foundation of the new golden age of Brazilian cinema was laid during the early 2000s. That was the time when Ancine was founded and the president of the Labor Party, Lula da Silva, and his Minister of Culture, Polar Laureate Gilberto Gil, formulated a film policy strategy. Among other things, taxes on TV channels and mobile telephony enabled the financing of extensive film support and the regionalization of film policy, allowing for production to take place outside of the cultural centers of Rio and Sao Paulo. The result was a quantitative explosion (in 1992 three films were made in Brazil, in 2019 the number exceeded 300), an artistic firework and greater social diversity. New groups have been given the opportunity to make films, and social, ethnic and sexual minorities have been given cinematic interest in a whole new way.

Will Bolsonaro mean the end of all this? Maybe – if the ”Trump of the Tropics” has the energy and the skills to really carry out what he has promised. Then bankruptcies, talent drains and a flood of devout, evangelical films are likely to become the reality. But Bolsonaro promises more than he can carry out. So far everything is very uncertain, although self-censorship is always the first to spread. Most of the films that will premiere now have been funded and recorded before the president’s entry into power, and these are films that provide a critical and multifaceted picture of the Brazilian nation, its dreams, repression and its resistance movements.

Bacurau, in particular, has become a symbol of the ongoing cultural war. Kleber Mendonça Filhos and Juliano Dornelle’s allegorical neo-western has set audience records in Brazilian cinemas – partly because it is a fantastic film that exudes Leone and Tarantino, but also because it has become an act of resistance to buy a cinema ticket because of the debate surrounding it. One fan put it well on Twitter: “It should be mandatory to see Bacurau, especially if you are from Europe or the United States. You will understand who you are, who we are and what we meet. We are the people. We are the resistance.”

Bacurau takes place in the fictional small town of Bacurau in northeastern Brazil, in the poor region of Sertão, an area where support for Bolsonaro is low and a place that has inspired generations of artists in Brazilian cultural life. In addition to the purely geographical significance, the word has also acquired a near mythical meaning, where “sertão” stands for a kind of romantic remote backwater and something particularly “Brazilian”, in contrast to the efficient development of central resorts in the modern republic. The film’s dusty Bacurau is subject to strange events. Suddenly, it disappears from the maps. A corrupt politician’s touring campaign promises development in order to attract votes, but his jingle-accompanied public appearances are just the foreshadowing of a bigger threat soon to hit Bacurau. Residents are forced into resistance, and their community, care and respect for each others’ differences are effective weapons against external aggression. In this way, Bacurau has been interpreted as a metaphor for the situation of the Brazilian people. Along with films such as Eliza Capai’s activist protest documentary Your Turn and Maya Da-Rin’s poetic Amazon drama The Fever, it provides a multifaceted picture of a society’s conflicts, dreams and nightmares. Brazilian cinema is not a national political resistance movement that speaks with one voice. It is international, versatile and contradictory, but through its depictions of Brazilian society it captures both incredible reflections of the present and a strong hope for the future.

– Jonas Holmberg, artistic director of Göteborg Film Festival

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