São Paulo Letter: Fire at neglected cultural institution a metaphor for a troubled Brazil

Under Bolsonaro’s regime the Cinemateca Brasileira has been starved of funds and effectively abandoned

Another piece of Brazil's cultural heritage went up in flames last week. A warehouse fire in São Paulo consumed an estimated four tonnes of material belonging to the Cinemateca Brasileira, the institution responsible for preserving the country's rich audiovisual history.

The fire has not fatally destroyed the oldest film archive in Latin America but historically significant documentation as well as a still unknown amount of film has been lost. This was worse than a tragedy foretold.

Under the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro the Cinemateca has been abandoned. Starved of funds last year, it laid off specialised technical staff responsible for maintaining the archive – the institution’s very raison d’être.

These former employees campaigned desperately to save the institution they served and whose main site in a beautifully repurposed redbrick slaughterhouse is the pride of São Paulo’s cinephiles. In April they published a manifesto demanding the government take action warning “the risk of fire is real”.


After these appeals were ignored their fears were realised. Under Brazil’s constitution the state is charged with preserving the country’s cultural patrimony. So for many Brazilians what happened last Thursday night was not a disaster but a crime.

Official lack of care with Brazil's cultural institutions predates Bolsonaro's arrival in office in 2019. This is not the first fire to hit the Cinemateca. In 2015 the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo was gutted in a conflagration exacerbated by flaws in the building's fire prevention plan while in 2018 the 200-year old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was consumed by flames after years of neglect.

Each of those disasters were viewed as somehow symbolic of a society cut adrift during the last decade of political crises and social regression.

Bolsonaro capitalised on this sense of unease to catapult himself from the far-right fringes of politics into the presidency by positioning himself as a national saviour. But Brazil has since learned that rather than a pacifier it elected a pyromaniac.

To foreigners this is most clearly visible through the huge increase in fires consuming the Amazon rainforest since Bolsonaro crippled the institutions designed to protect it. Domestically he has sought to let the coronavirus pandemic rip through the population and is currently toying with making a bonfire of the country’s democracy.

Culture is another enemy he would haul onto the pyre. Bolsonaro views most of it as inimical to his supposedly traditional values and wages a constant war against it. On taking office he immediately downgraded the culture ministry to a mere secretariat under tourism and has since sought to choke the sector financially.

Soap star

This disrespect is better illustrated by the calibre of people he has chosen to oversee it. One of his culture secretaries left after plagiarising Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's notorious minister of propaganda.

He was replaced by a soap opera star whose short tenure was most notable for her defence of torture during Brazil's last military dictatorship. She was replaced by the current incumbent, Mario Frias, another former soap star who has proven a loyal soldier in the government's war on the country's artistic community.

Within hours of the fire, Frias opened a tender process to hire an outside administrator for the Cinemateca. The speed with which he moved appeared an exercise in political damage limitation.

After all it was a year ago this week that he oversaw the federal government’s takeover of the institution from the previous administrator, having sent in the police to get the keys. Between then and the tender process, nothing.

As if seeking to cover up his potentially criminal neglect, Frias sought to blame last week’s disaster on the Workers Party. It left power five years ago. But Brazil’s artistic community is in no doubt about who is responsible.

"This is another crime by this government of misrule," says film-maker Aurélio Michiles, whose recent documentary Secrets from Putumayo examines the genocide against indigenous peoples in the Amazon exposed by Roger Casement.

“This is a crime foretold. All of us who worked with the material the Cinemateca Brasileira protects knew of this risk. Bolsonaro just lit the match to set fire to this patrimony, just like he is doing with Amazonia. Brazil, and this is not a metaphor, is a country, a nation, under ashes.”

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America