Brazil’s film archive is facing wipeout

Indifference and hostility from successive governments have left the Cinemateca Brasileira, one of Latin America’s great film institutions, close to collapse. Director Walter Salles and other Brazilian film industry figures explain how this came about and what’s at stake.

Protesters outside the Cinemateca Brasileira on 14 July, with the word ‘abraçaço’ (‘embrace’) projected on to the building above them

On the night of 14 July, protesters gathered outside the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo to draw attention to the desperate situation the organisation faces. It now lacks the most basic resources necessary to maintain an archive – staff, security, air-conditioning, protection by the fire brigade – and its electricity may be cut off at any moment. The organisation charged with managing the Cinemateca, Acerp, has received no government funding this year. As things stand, 150 employees are on strike indefinitely, their wages unpaid for four months.

That night the word ‘abraçaço’ (‘embrace’) was projected on to the Cinemateca and the protesters, holding out their hands, surrounded the building in a socially distanced circle. Cases of Covid-19 are still rapidly rising in Brazil. Since March, the country has recorded more than 2 million cases and more than 80,000 deaths. São Paulo is one of the regions worst hit.

The first big protest, led by the São Paulo Filmmakers Association, took place on 4 June, as soon as lockdown started to lift. Before that, many hand-drawn placards and homemade flags were placed outside the Cinemateca.

Protest at the Cinemateca Basileira

The institution has been in trouble for some time, thanks to budget cuts under previous governments, but according to Saõ Paulo-based film critic Filipe Furtado the Cinemateca’s position rapidly worsened under Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power at the start of 2019: “They have zero interest in culture and memory and their neoliberal views regard any sort of art funding as a complete waste of resources. They also see most of art and education as suspicious activities overrun by leftists… While all this has been happening, ANCINE, the Brazilian film agency, has been hit by its own problems, which have put financing of future productions in jeopardy. Many efforts are focused on protecting Brazilian film’s future rather than its history.”

Founded in 1940, the Cinemateca is the oldest cinema institution in Brazil and has the largest archive in South America, with 250,000 rolls of film (including much highly flammable cellulose nitrate) and a million cinema-related documents.

Director Walter Salles is one of many Brazilian filmmakers deeply concerned about the situation facing the organisation: “The Cinemateca Brasileira houses and protects the entire memory of Brazilian Cinema in its archives, from the first documentaries shot in the early 20th century to the Cinema Novo masterpieces. In its 45,000 titles, the Cinemateca holds a register of our national identity in construction, of our culture being redefined through time.”

The Cinemateca’s vault for master film prints

Salles also highlights the work of its archivists: “Until recently, the Cinemateca Brasileira was considered a center of excellence for film restoration, thanks to its personnel and technical capabilities.”

“The Cinemateca has on occasion played a key role in finding lost copies of films in the continent,” adds Furtado. “The Brazilian private sector has very little history of investing in restorations so the efforts of the Cinemateca to preserve Brazilian cinema film memory are even more essential.”

In 2010-11, a survey conducted by FIAF rated the Cinemateca third in the world for its photochemical processing capabilities. It is an important training centre for technicians and researchers from partner institutions. It runs varied film programmes: recently, these have included a survey of contemporary Swedish cinema and a homage to Brazilian horror pioneer José Mojica Marins.

The Cinemateca’s highly flammable nitrate vaults

A source who works in the archive, but didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisals, gave insights into life over the last few months: “During lockdown, and despite not being paid, some technicians dealing with the collection and building maintenance continued to monitor the holdings, in a relay system. There have been movements of solidarity and the organisation of a fund for a minimum survival for the most needy who work there… Many have protested, firmly but peacefully, in front of the institution – employees, filmmakers, researchers, cinephiles, councillors and residents of the neighbourhood.

“It is almost unbelievable that everything is at imminent risk of loss… that we have not convinced governments of what should be common sense: that any closure of institutions that keep memories – so that a better future can exist – is a death sentence for what these institutions harbour. May future generations gaze, through films, at their ancestors’ ways of life, their good deeds and their villains; the black-and-white film recordings of a family from the early 20th century enjoying Sunday lunch and also the insanities of wars recorded in newsreels; the beautiful landscapes of their old country and the fictional narratives that have nourished our imaginary since the advent of cinema. We need the government to be aware that the Cinemateca’s collection and the intelligence that takes care of it are a responsibility of the state, and that it is a treasure of the nation and of humanity.”

The Cinemateca's videos vault

Furtado explains how the Cinemateca’s woes started, before Bolsonaro came to power: “In 2013, the culture ministry under [former president] Dilma Rousseff found problems with the NGO who had long run it and decided to cut its resources. The Cinemateca has been operating under budget and fighting to stay alive since then. Still, those running it were doing the best they could to protect the archive.

“For the past few years Cinemateca Brasileira has been run by Acerp, a private foundation, an agreement that made very few people happy but allowed it to keep its doors open. That same foundation used to run educational public TV and in 2019 there were some clashes about content, with people in the government accusing them of leftist bias. At the end of 2019, the government decided to cease all contracts with Acerp, including the one with the Cinemateca. It is an absurd situation. They seem to have no understanding that an institution like the Cinemateca can’t simply take a semester or a year off while they decide what to do.”

It was recently announced that the government plans to move the Cinemateca to Brasília, the federal capital. “There is absolutely no logic in doing so,” says Salles, “but the Bolsonaro government is not one that operates based on logic, science or reason. This is a government run by an urge of destruction. To erase our collective memory seems to be one of its aims. The deforestation of the Amazon follows the same unthinkable principle.”

The Cinemateca's documentation centre

“They have no idea of what this means in terms of cost, labour, logistics. What’s the point?” asks the Cinemateca employee. “Will there be a building in Brasília with the knowledgeable staff and technical requirements for safeguarding this huge collection, and one composed of so many different materials, in different states of conservation?”

A glimmer of hope comes in a lawsuit filed against the federal government by the Federal Public Ministry of Saõ Paulo. “The Cinemateca is well covered from a legal standpoint,” Furtado believes. “This government’s desire to run the Cinemateca themselves runs against the contract that donated the Cinemateca to the government in the mid 1980s, which established that Cinemateca Brasileira would always have operating autonomy.

“[But] the way the judicial system has been politicised is such that it would only take a conservative judge who hates art and thinks film memory is useless… I can’t say I feel fully hopeful about it.”

Thanks to Christophe Dupin at FIAF for all his help with this article.