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Cannes-Winning Filmmaker Faces Surreal Showdown With Brazilian Government

"Bacurau" was celebrated at Cannes, but its director is enmeshed in an ugly battle back home.

Director Kleber Mendonca Filho poses for photographers during a photo call for the film Aquarius at the 69th international film festival, Cannes, southern FranceFrance Cannes Aquarius Photo Call, Cannes, France

Director Kleber Mendonca Filho poses for photographers during a photo call for the film Aquarius at the 69th international film festival, Cannes, southern France
France Cannes Aquarius Photo Call, Cannes, France

Camus/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The 2019 Cannes Film Festival ended in triumph for Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, who shared the festival’s Jury Prize with co-director Juliano Dornelles for their dystopian western “Bacurau.” (The film tied with French police thriller “Les Misérables.”)“Bacurau” follows a remote village fighting for survival against invasive forces; now, Mendonça Filho faces another surreal battle back home.

Two weeks before the festival, the Brazilian government announced a 30-day ultimatum for Mendonça Filho to return roughly $500,000 that it provided for this 2012 debut, “Neighboring Sounds.” According to multiple reports in the Brazilian press, the funding was meant to wholly finance the film. However, the government maintains that Mendonça Filho’s final budget was about 50% higher than the maximum allowed under the program.

The filmmaker has been appealing the decision in court ahead of the June 3 deadline. He characterized the government’s latest decree as an attempt to capitalize on his recent publicity at Cannes, where his previous film, “Aquarius,” also screened in Competition at the 2016 festival.

“Every time I get exposure, they see an opportunity to do something,” he said in an interview last week.

The funding came from Brazil’s Ministry of Culture — a department that was abolished following the January election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Mendonça Filho was first notified of the demand to return his “Neighboring Sounds” budget several months ago, during production on “Bacurau.”

“Everything we did to adapt the budget was consulted with the Brazilian Film Agency and the Ministry of Culture at the time,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was a takeover of power, and the Ministry of Culture was taken over by people from the right who now saw an opportunity to begin to sabotage Brazilian cinema.”

A previous appeal was rejected, but Mendonça Filho plans another courtroom showdown prior to the end of the 30-day window. “Right now, the big question is whether the Brazilian film industry will continue, because all the funding has been cut,” he said, noting that even major Brazilian film festivals, including the Rio de Janeira International Film Festival, have lost government support. “It’s unthinkable,” he said. “Films about to be shot have been canceled. This has been done with glee.”

"Bacurau" DP Pedro Sotero and director Kleber Mendonça

“Bacurau” DP Pedro Sotero and director Kleber Mendonça

Nicolau Saldanha

The filmmaker last contended with government backlash on “Aquarius,” when the Sonia Braga drama premiered at Cannes with a red-carpet protest. Prior to the film’s screening, Mendonça Filho and several of his peers carried a banner that read “Stop the coup in Brasil” while others held up signs proclaiming “We will resist” and “Brazil is not a democracy anymore.” The protest was a response to then-president Dilma Rousseff’s recent impeachment, which resulted in the removal of the country’s first female president and an election that catapulted Bolsonaro to power.

Mendonça Filho said he was surprised by the simmering resentment that the protest caused within the upper branches of the government. “A lot of people took it personally,” he said. “We thought it was just another protest. But it’s like they’re still trying to remove the pie from their faces.”

“Aquarius” found acclaim in Brazil and grossed over $1.2 million at the box office. However, the country declined to select the film as its foreign-language Oscar candidate; the jury assembled for the selection process included a Brazilian journalist who publicly criticized the Cannes protest. Three other filmmakers, including Venice-winning “Neon Bull” director Gabriel Mascaro, withdrew their films from consideration in protest.

“During the whole sabotage of ‘Aquarius’ for the Academy Awards, I never said, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’” Mendonça Filho said. “I kept traveling all around the world, got all the funding I needed for ‘Bacurau,’ and I’m all right.” The film was produced by the French-based SBS Distribution, and is scheduled to open in theaters across Brazil on August 29.

Mendonça Filho said he was open to shooting outside Brazil if the country continued to become a production challenge. Asked if he felt that his looming government showdown made him cautious about self expression, he hesitated. “It’s a very tough question, because it makes me a little afraid when you ask me,” he said. “But there is no self-censorship. We just make the films we want to make.”

“Bacurau” is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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