How Jair Bolsonaro’s Election Could Reshape Brazil's Cultural Landscape

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Jair Bolsonaro

From censorship to reductions in government support for the film sector, insiders prepare for upheaval in Latin America’s biggest entertainment market: ‘It will be uncertain times for people that produce culture in Brazil’

Within a week after far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election in Brazil on Oct. 28, concerns about the future of the country’s entertainment sector became a major talking point at the Rio De Janeiro International Film Festival, which ran Nov. 1-11.

Top among those concerns: the potential rolling back of government incentives and mechanisms that have helped grow the industry and, more broadly, of basic rights and freedoms in this diverse country.

The festival’s co-executive director, Ilda Santiago, says she didn't attend a single presentation of the 80 short and feature films playing at the fest where Bolsonaro’s election wasn’t a topic of discussion. “The festival is playing a major role in allowing producers, directors, all the different professionals to say we want to guarantee that from here on we go forward, not back,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.

Bolsonaro won with just over 55 percent of the vote. His appeal was attributed to disillusion with unemployment, crime and economic instability in the country, as well as cases of corruption under the ruling Workers’ Party. Supporters said they hoped Bolsonaro would “fix things.” 

“I’m pretty optimistic,” says Brazil’s outgoing Minister of Culture Sergio Sa Leitao. “Brazil is already recovering from the huge economic crisis that we had here in 2015 and 2016. I think the new government, at least in the economic field, has the right agenda, which means doing the structural reforms that Brazil really needs in order to be a competitive player in the global arena.”

But as a candidate and before, Bolsonaro expressed extreme views on everything from the uses of torture to the merits of dictatorships, and he has made patently offensive remarks about women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.  

“A dark cloud of intimidation and repression is looming over Brazilian civil society,” warns Andrew Fishman, Rio-based managing editor of investigative news outlet The Intercept Brasil. “Jair Bolsonaro is not ‘the Brazilian Trump.’ All signs suggest that he is far more extreme, far more violent and far less restrained by institutions.”

At the recent Sao Paulo International Film Festival, which ran Oct. 18-31 and overlapped with the election, director Brunna Laboissiere, who premiered the doc Fabiana, about a trans woman truck driver, says, "The general climate [at the fest] was critical of the setbacks that the country is going through, fear and uncertainty about what is going to happen, but at the same time a feeling of unity to resist against future attacks."

Government Support

Almost every person interviewed for this story underscored a need for the entertainment industry, admittedly antagonistic to a Bolsonaro win, to sit down and talk with the new administration, which has not yet made its plans for the sector clear.

“In Brazil, the creative economy is responsible for 2.64% of our national GDP, more than 1 million direct formal jobs, and more than 200,000 companies and institutions. It’s a power force behind Brazil’s development,” says Sa Leitao, who will take on the role of culture secretary for the state of Sao Paulo starting in January.

During the transition period, he says he hopes to convince the new government of the value of the creative economy. “If they pay attention to that and increase investments in the years ahead, our creative entertainment areas can really boost the development of Brazil,” he says.

But the fate of the Ministry of Culture itself is unclear. It’s expected to be folded into or merged with other ministries as part of Bolsonaro’s widely publicized plan to shrink the number of ministries from 29 to a reported 15 or 16. There’s talk of merging Culture either with Education and Sports or with Tourism and Sports, the latter being the option Sa Leitao says he would favor.

“I don’t think combining ministries is a bad idea in itself,” he observes. “For instance, if you take the U.K., which seems a benchmark to me for cultural policies today, they have a ministry that combines culture, tourism, sports and media.”

He also says he is suggesting transforming the formal status of the National Cinema Agency (ANCINE), as well as the Brazilian Institute of Museums (IBRAM) and the National Foundation for the Arts (FUNARTE), from regulatory agencies to investment agencies, giving them “the flexibility of a private company with the duty to have the public interest in mind in everything that they do.”

ANCINE manages the crucial Audiovisual Sector Fund (FSA), which invests money collected from taxes on the industry back into the audiovisual sector to the tune of  $415 million in 2018. Rumors have surfaced that the new government could do away with the FSA or try to divert the funds for other uses. Sa Leitao says he doesn’t consider this likely as it would require a change to the law.

"This money is not government money, it’s money that the government takes and uses for this purpose,” says Walkiria Barbosa, co-executive director of the Rio Film Festival and head of production company Total Entertainment. “The FSA money comes from taxes that the industry pays."

She also points to other funding sources the industry relies on, including tax incentives for private companies to invest in entertainment content, and a rising interest in product placements as Brazilian content travels further abroad, especially on international streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.

 "I think it’s a very rich moment to discuss new ideas," she says.

“It is going to be equally interesting to see which of the new governors is happy to support culture, as both mayors and governors have larger budgets that can make as much difference as what the federal government is doing,” adds Chris Pickard of international consultancy firm Critical Divide, which works extensively in Brazil, including with the Rio Film Festival and the Rio Film Commission. “It will be uncertain times for people that produce culture in Brazil and need government funding.”

Freedoms at Risk?

Outside of financing, there are also rising concerns about content in what could be a very restrictive new environment.

Just days before the final election, Caetano Veloso, the renowned Brazilian musician whose work has graced hundreds of film and TV soundtracks, published an op-ed in the New York Times warning, “If Mr. Bolsonaro wins the election, Brazilians can expect a wave of fear and hatred.”

He continued that "Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly defended the military dictatorship of the 1960s and '70s," a time when "the military junta imprisoned and arrested many artists and intellectuals for their political beliefs," including Veloso himself.

The fear of a return to such times seems to be bubbling under the surface for many artists and journalists in Brazil.

“The first step against independent cinema is to reduce the resources destined to them,” says director Laboissiere. “And the few resources will hardly go to LGBTQI narratives, or narratives of black and indigenous people.” 

“They do not know exactly what they are going to do, but culture and art are something that they really want to extinguish in this country, since culture and art always point to a diversity and plurality of ideas.”

"Jair Bolsonaro has been extremely explicit about his absolute disregard for democracy and human rights and has repeatedly promised supporters that his government will repress and commit acts of violence against political opponents," says The Intercept’s Fishman. "The fear is very real." Concludes Fishman: "The question is what will come to pass.” 

The Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism has tallied more than 150 cases of journalists being physically, verbally or digitally threatened or attacked in the context of the election.

Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro also gives preference to friendly media outlets, excludes others, and employs social media like Facebook Live videos to speak directly to his people. He has used the term “Fake News” in tweets, in English.

“We are concerned,” admits RT Features’ Rodrigo Teixeira, producer of dozens of local and international films, including Call Me by Your Name. “Free speech must be a priority to any government.”

“I’m an optimist and a realist at the same time,” adds Rio Film Festival’s Barbosa, who says her first husband spent three years as a political prisoner under the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985 and is still fresh in many Brazilians' memories. “It was very different. At that time, people in Brazil didn’t have information about the dictatorship.” Now, she says: "Everyone has information, and when we have information we have power."

Until the government’s plans for the industry take formal shape, says Sara Silveira, the veteran producer behind last year's Locarno Special Jury Prize-winner Good Manners, “let’s believe and hope for the best, that we can carry on in harmony and peace, with our guaranteed freedom and democracy.”

Impact on Hollywood

Hollywood and others interested in co-producing with or shooting in Brazil will be watching closely to see what direction the industry, and the country, will take under the new administration. As will distributors: In 2015, Brazil was the eighth-biggest film market in the world.

Supporters suggest structural reforms could pull Brazil further out of its economic crisis and make it a more attractive investment location. But political instability and reports of crackdowns on political opponents and the press could scare people away.

Brazil currently has co-production treaties signed with 12 countries, mostly Latin America and European, but also including Canada and the U.K., and is one of 15 signatory countries on the Latin American Film Co-Production Treaty. 

So far, Teixeira says local producers are hoping for the best: “Considering that we have a very committed and talented artistic community in Brazil, I believe international companies will keep their interest in the Brazilian marketplace.”