For President Jair Bolsonaro, it may be “fiction and fantasy,” but for Hollywood, Brazil’s The Edge of Democracy is a contender for best documentary at the Oscars. It’s the latest in a spate of Brazilian films to receive international acclaim: At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, two Brazilian productions were lauded, Karim Anouz’s The Invisible Life and Kleber Mendonça’s Bacurau, which won the grand jury prize. Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother received the world audience award at Sundance in 2015, and several other films have made appearances in international and domestic festivals since.
For many filmmakers, such recognition reflects the growth of the industry itself and the job opportunities it creates at every skill level. But the president’s vow to rid cultural and educational institutions of “leftist” values is changing the game at the institutions charged with fostering cultural production.
A recent shuffle in Bolsonaro’s culture policy team raised questions over the priorities – and the creative freedom – for cultural production in the country. This month the now-former secretary Roberto Alvim announced new funding tools aimed at the “rebirth” of Brazilian art, “aligned” to the government’s “values” and “idea of conservativism“ in a video paraphrasing and emulating Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi regime’s top propagandist. After first praising his former secretary’s ideas, the president fired Alvim when public outcry called attention to the connection to Nazism. An actor and early Bolsonaro supporter, Regina Duarte, was then tapped as culture secretary.
Bolsonaro’s overhaul of Brazil’s cultural sector, however, started early. Days into his presidency, Bolsonaro abolished the Ministry of Culture, which he said was a waste of taxpayer money, downgrading the post to a secretariat. Professionals working in the sector were dispirited, but that was only the first step in a campaign to dismantle existing cultural institutions.
Brazil’s National Cinema Agency (ANCINE) had its 2020 funding for filmmakers slashed by over 40% while the president threatened to shut down the agency altogether if it didn’t accept a “content filter” to prevent productions that went against what he sees as family values. The president also declined to renew what’s known as the audiovisual law, a 1993 regulation allowing individuals to direct part of their owed income taxes to film or music productions previously approved by ANCINE.
“The audiovisual law’s renewal had been approved by Congress, and one day before the government went into recess, Bolsonaro vetoed it, leaving us in limbo,” Bianca de Felippes, a film and theatre producer based in Rio de Janeiro, told AQ.
Another fiscal incentive the president also described as “disgraceful”, the Rouanet law, had its tax-deductible contribution limit slashed from 60 million reais to 1 million reais. (After a backlash, the allowance was raised to 10 million but for musicals only. )
It’s not just the performing arts that are under pressure. In Sep. 2019, the president sent to Congress a bill to cut by 72% the budget for the National Institute for Historical Heritage (IPHAN). The Institute oversees Brazils’ colonial towns and buildings and has the power to approve or disapprove real estate or other projects in historical preservation areas.
“IPHAN has existed for over 80 years and has never been under siege like this,” one senior IPHAN official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told AQ. “It has survived military dictatorships, the transition to democracy, and major societal changes – but no government administration has dared question our autonomy and our mission until now.”
The administration says it wants more private sector support for the area, and some distance between the government and culture may be a positive thing, said Paulo Knauss, director of the National History Museum in Rio de Janeiro.
“While it is important for the government to incentivize cultural production,” Knauss told AQ, “culture itself must not be an extension of the government.” Knauss cited the revitalization of the São Paulo Art Museum, which was in large part due to actions taken by the private sector.
Still, critics say Bolsonaro is basing his cultural policies on ideological rather than technical or budgetary reasons. In early January, the president fired five top directors from Rio’s Casa de Ruy Barbosa Foundation, replacing them with political allies with no history of working in museums.
“He took away all the directors – the backbone of the museum – just because they don’t agree with him ideologically,” claimed De Felippes.
To lead the National Arts Foundation (Funarte) that supports music, visual and performing arts, the government tapped a conductor, Dante Mantovani, who said publicly that rock ‘n’ roll can lead to satanism, and that the Beatles were a soviet tool against capitalism.
As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised top government posts would be “chosen on technical credentials” and that he would prioritize economic growth and job creation over ideological quarrels. His reasoning for capping Rouanet law funding, for example, was that such funds were used at the expense of other areas of government. But cutting cultural funding may be counterproductive to Bolsonaro’s goal of stimulating the economy.
“The administration lacks an understanding that each cultural production brings along an enormous employment chain, going from the man selling popcorn in the street outside of the theater to the hotels renting out rooms when there’s a musical in town,” De Felippes told AQ.
A report by Fundação Getúlio Vargas shows that, between 1993 and 2018, projects financed with 31 billion reais in funds from tax waivers injected almost 50 billion reais into Brazil’s economy, and the funds raised by cultural producers never surpassed 0.5% of all tax waivers and subsidies combined.
There are signs Bolsonaro’s cultural policies are having an impact. There were fewer movie productions in Brazil in 2019 than 2018, according to ANCINE, bucking a nearly two-decade positive trend which began in the mid-1990s. And there are fears that a disruption of just a few years could do long-term damage.
“The success that we’re seeing today isn’t something that happened from night to day. It’s the result of years of hard work,” Andrea Alves, founder and owner of theater company Sarau Produções, told AQ. “If the chain of work is disrupted for one or two years, that could undo all the progress Brazil has been making in this area.”
De Felippes is a bit more optimistic. “At the end of the day, we will survive,” she said. “We survived previous regimes with fewer resources, so we will survive Bolsonaro.”
Manzali is an editorial intern for AQ