It’s no secret that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has enraged much of the country’s population and the world at large. Since his election in January, the far-right leader and former army officer has attempted to censor the media, expanded laws protecting police offers and soldiers who kill on duty, and denied the devastating impact of wildfires destroying Brazil’s rain forests. He has flouted his authority in a reckless fashion and lashed out at anyone remotely critical of his policies.
Less attention has been paid to Bolsonaro’s current war against the country’s film industry. Bolsonaro made huge cuts to the arts early in the year, but also made some explicit threats to support for filmmakers. Over the summer, the president delivered a speech including the casual proposal to eliminate Ancine, the country’s central regulatory agency that finances Brazil’s film industry. While such a radical maneuver would involve a near-impossible bid for parliamentary approval, it indicated the level of hostility towards the country’s filmmakers that left many of them uncertain about its ability to continue.
That includes Karim Ainouz, whose acclaimed “Invisible Life” was selected earlier this year as Brazil’s Oscar submission. The movie, a lush, ‘50s-set melodrama about two sisters separated by family secrets over the course of several decades, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and eventually found U.S. distribution through Amazon Studios. (It was initially titled “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.”) However, in an interview with IndieWire from New York a week before the movie’s domestic release, Ainouz said he experienced constant antagonism from the government — when it chose to acknowledge him at all.
“I think you are seeing a dismantling of the cultural industry,” he said, citing recent right-wing uprisings in Bolivia and other parts of Latin America. “Brazil is just the beginning of it.” Ainouz has been making films since the early ’90s, and said he was initially surprised that nobody from the National Film Agency reached out to him after “Invisible Life” found success at Cannes and elsewhere as the institution has done in the past. “For the whole year, we never got one email, letter, phone call, saying, ‘We’re so proud of you, you’ve won this prize,’” he said. “Zero. Fine, I’m happy, because I don’t need their fucking fascist, ‘Hello! You were great.’”
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The situation continues to take discouraging turns. In September, Ancine pulled back on supporting several LGBTQ+ films, in an apparent attempt at censorship reflecting the country’s fidelity to its religious base. (Prior to “Invisible Life,” Ainouz’s own films often dealt with these themes as well.) “This constant going back and forth, and all the projects that go through that agency — which they all do — means everything is taking 10 times longer,” Ainouz said. “It’s what I call a turtle operation. So no projects can be advanced, and if you want to change something in a project, they make it bureaucratically impossible to do it.”
The same week that Ainouz traveled from the Havana Film Festival to New York on the promotional trail, he encountered another red flag when a screening for “Invisible Life,” set for National Film Agency employees, was abruptly canceled. “They never told me why,” he said. “They didn’t reschedule the screening. It’s just a lack of respect. The whole industry is stopped, a lot of people are changing professions, because clearly what’s going to happen in the next two years is that it’s going to be this constant stop and go.”
Ainouz is hardly the only veteran of the Brazilian industry fretting about its future. Another Cannes-premiering title, “Bacurau,” surfaced at the festival while co-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (directing with Juliano Dornelles) faced peculiar demands from the government that he return financing for “Neighboring Sounds,” his 2012 debut — likely due to his ongoing criticism of Brazilian policies. “Every time I get exposure, they see an opportunity to do something,” he said in an interview with IndieWire at the time.
“Everybody’s really worried about this,” said director and producer André Klutzes, whose credits include “Memorias Postumas” and the Cannes-acclaimed “Marvada Carne.” “We feel very fragile in this situation with the government. It affects culture, science, the funding of many kinds. Moviemaking in Brazil needs this kind of funding. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. There’s no other way.” Brazilian journalist Ana Paula Souza, who has written at length about the situation, concurred. “The story of the Brazilian film industry is based on this relationship between cinema and state,” she said. “This is about more than politics. I think it’s about the place we have in the world.”
The situation is particularly notable for “Invisible Life,” a movie that Ainouz envisioned as a commentary on the country’s past and present. Adapted from Martha Batalha’s 2016 novel, the movie follows Eurídice (Carol Duarte) through a difficult marriage while her sister Guida (Julia Stockler) is exiled by her traditionalist father (Antônio Fonseca) after she runs away with a sailor. Eurídice spends much of the movie believing her sister is dead, a lie from her father that underscores the country’s troubled history with gender inequality during the first half of the 20th century.
“It was like this last frontier where the idea of family, religion, tradition was very much there,” Ainouz said. “From the 1960s until now, things have changed a lot, because of the struggles that had been taken up by women and their supporters.” But Bolsonaro’s rise has created a new crisis. “There is this nostalgia for that decade now, something celebrating the values of traditional family,” Ainouz said. “So I think it was interesting for me to look in that decade as a way to say, ‘Look, what you’re trying to celebrate is the ideal family model, and the subjugation of women. This was forged through violence, through cruelty.’”
Ainouz’s own relationship to Brazil has been a complicated one. After studying architecture and urban planning, he moved to New York in the ’80s to become a visual artist, only gravitating towards filmmaking after getting his masters in cinema studies at NYU, where he wrote a thesis on black British filmmakers Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah. He later worked for Todd Haynes on his Sundance-winning directorial debut “Poison” and cut his teeth working at a Manhattan film lab. But he struggled to find support for his work in the U.S., eventually returned to Brazil with some European financing to start his career, and stayed. “I didn’t really want to move there, I was super happy here, but then I did it because of the film,” he said. “I think that every film I make I feel like is the last one. It’s very, very strange. I come from a background where funding could always end.” (He currently lives in Berlin, but all of his movies take place in Brazil.)
Now, nearly 20 years after his first feature “Madame Satã” played at Cannes, and almost 30 years since his documentary short “Seams” gained some traction on the circuit, Ainouz is returning to the prospects of making movies outside of Brazil. That decision has exhumed some early memories of his first attempt, including a meeting with producer Lee Daniels in New York, when Ainouz was just getting started. “I felt I was entering a world that I didn’t know if I had that freedom, and I just made one film,” he said. “So I said no, and my agent dropped me, because I just said no to every script he sent me. I just decided that I needed to have my own calligraphy really. I didn’t want to make films in English. I thought there was a very important moment to be able to make films in Brazil.”
So what changed? “The more you make non-English-language films, the more you feel like they’re more marginal around the world,” Ainouz said. “The market for foreign-language films is so small. This is an adventure I’d love to do.” Also, his mastery of the language has improved since he first stepped into the business. “I just feel stronger,” he said. “Before, I was learning how to speak. Now, nobody’s going to tell me how to speak.”
Amazon Studios releases “Invisible Life” in New York and Los Angeles on December 20.