Brazil's Film Sector Up in Arms Over Jair Bolsonaro's Censorship Threat

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Jair Bolsonaro

The Brazilian president’s recent comments about shutting down federal film funding agency ANCINE sparked fears that the country's "movie industry is being dismantled."

Since Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated as Brazil's president in January, the former military officer turned right wing populist politician has been vocal in his attacks on what he deemed the country's overly liberal institutions. On Thursday, Bolsonaro set his sights on Brazil's film industry, with the president threatening to shut down Agência Nacional do Cinema (ANCINE), the federal film funding agency, if it refused to apply government-backed "filters" on the movies it invested in. 

Bolsonaro's comments came as he announced that ANCINE's offices would be moved from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's cultural center where the movie industry is concentrated, to Brasilia, the political capital. At the announcement event, Bolsonaro took aim at ANCINE's mission, adding that the agency should back projects that reflect "family values" and that films like the 2011 erotic drama Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl should not be funded.  

ANCINE has faced repeated criticism and threats from Bolsonaro's administration in recent months, but the president's outspoken comments last week sparked a visceral reaction from Brazil's film industry, with many leading figures pushing back against any increased government interference and censorship.

Eduardo Valente, Brazil’s representative to the Berlin International Film Festival and former director of the Brasilia Film Festival, told the The Hollywood Reporter that the recent developments are “a warning sign that Brazil’s movie industry is being dismantled.”

“It has always been very complex to navigate the Brazilian system of funding for entertainment, but now it has also become a lot more volatile,” Valente added.

Simoni de Mendonça, president of the Cinematographic Industry Union, expressed skepticism that Bolsonaro could make good on his threats but spoke of the dangers of "filters." "I’m not saying it’s impossible to end ANCINE … but there’s a whole legal process involved. It’s important to recognize that the idea of 'filters' is unacceptable,” he told the newspaper Estadão de São Paulo. 

Among the first to react to Bolsonaro's threats were politicians from Brazil's most powerful states. Sérgio Sá Leitão, São Paulo's secretary of culture and creative economy and an ex-director of ANCINE, criticized Bolsonaro forcefully, telling the newspaper Folha de São Paulo that the president was “creating morality tribunals to evaluate films is a sign of authoritarian governments.” 

ANCINE's fraught relations with Brazil's federal government pre-date Bolsonaro. In December, federal agents swept its offices in Rio de Janeiro, seizing computers after the agency was accused of lacking transparency in its fiscal reporting. Its Audiovisual Fund (FSA) was briefly frozen.

After the raids, the industry rallied behind ANCINE, arguing that the sector had seen steady profits and critical success. ANCINE is a keystone of the Brazilian film industry, with the agency backing several projects per year but also responsible for establishing and growing the filmmaking infrastructure in the country. In 2017, 158 locally made films were released in Brazil, compared to 30 in 2001, when ANCINE was established. According to the Institute of Economic Research at University of São Paulo, about 70 percent of movies produced in Brazil rely on public funding. 

“I don’t see how one can make cinema in Brazil without ANCINE,” producer Thiago Macêdo Correia of local production company Filmes de Plástico told The Hollywood Reporter. The company produced André Novais Oliveira's Long Way Home, which is currently streaming on Netflix Brazil.

Despite the raids, ANCINE resumed operations just as Brazilian movies were basking in the light of critical praise and awards at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Bacurau, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, and The Invisible Life of Eurydice Gusmão, directed by Karim Aïnouz, won prizes at Cannes, and both films are international co-productions partly funded by ANCINE. “There is a war going on in Brazil against artists,” Mendonça Filho said at Cannes when asked about ANCINE's troubles with the government. “We are fortunate to have state support left,” he added.

The threats to the future of ANCINE come as other sources of funding in Brazil's film industry are cut or removed altogether. State-level funding is ending in some of the biggest cities. The Association of São Paulo Filmmakers (APACI), notably, sent out a communiqué to filmmakers that the fund was being shut down in the middle of an application process — shortly before grantees were to be announced.

São Paulo filmmakers, including Fernardo Meirelles (City of GodThe Constant Gardener) and Anna Muylaert (The Second Mother) signed a protest letter last week. 

Moreover, private sector funding is also being squeezed or coming to an end. Petrobras, the country’s largest state-owned oil company, and the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), have both cut their funding for the arts sector, with Petrobras ending its financial support for the São Paulo International Film Festival, the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival and others. 

“It’s a huge setback, because Petrobras and BNDES represent about 70 percent of all the investment made via tax incentives,” Paulo Henrique Silva, vice president of the Brazilian Association of Critics, told THR

The loss of funding from BNDES is a potential body blow, with the bank having invested over 200 million reais ($50 million) in over 450 movies since 1995. It opened an application in 2018 to fund 22 films with nearly 15 million reais ($4 million), with a first-time-ever quota for indigenous, black Brazilian and transgender filmmakers. BNDES has announced that it will not cancel the funding promised last year, but no recipients have so far been announced.