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Tragedy Strikes with Historic Brazilian Cinematheque in Flames as Community Lashes Out: ‘An Indescribable Pain’

With decades of Brazilian film legacy potentially destroyed by the blaze, the film community explained why the tragedy was a long time coming.

The Brazilian Cinematheque in the aftermath of the blaze.

Arthur Sens

On Thursday evening, the Brazilian Cinematheque was engulfed in flames in western Sao Paulo, where the 6,500-square meter building has housed much of the country’s filmmaking legacy for decades. The organization was founded in 1940 and serves as the largest film archive in South America, with 250,000 rolls of film, 90,000 titles, one million documents and historical materials like early projectors.

Early reports suggest that the fire, the second to strike the complex in six years, was caused by a short-circuit in the air conditioning system. However, many in the Brazilian community have been quick to denounce the blaze as the fault of the government, which eliminated funding for the Cinematheque in early 2020 and caused it to remain abandoned since then.

While it remains too early to ascertain the full extent of the damage, early reports from the ground show that while there were no victims in the blaze, the fire has consumed a large portion of the building where former employees say many archives were kept.

Earlier this month at the Cannes Film Festival, jury member and Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho addressed concerns surrounding the archive during an opening press conference. “The Brazilian Cinematheque has been closed for just over a year now,” he said. “All the technicians and experts have been fired. This has been a very clear demonstration of contempt for culture and for the cinema.” His comments led jury head Spike Lee to condemn Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro by saying, “The world is run by gangsters.”

Pushback to the government’s neglect of the Cinematheque has been building over the past year. Last summer, activists from the Sao Paolo Filmmakers Association staged multiple protests outside the building in the hopes of raising awareness for the situation. The demonstrations also took place in the wake of the country’s push to eliminate financing for Ancine, its central regulatory agency for the national film industry.

“Over the last year, we feared this would happen, so it does not even feel like an accident,” Mendonça said via email as the blaze took place. “This is a tragedy.” He added that while filmmakers have expressed interest in withdrawing their materials from the archive for safekeeping elsewhere, that would require the help of former staffers no longer employed by the institution. “The Cinemateca main building is a beautiful building where once stood an abattoir, fully restored and factory-like,” he said, citing two state-of-the-art screening rooms in addition to the storage facilities. “I was introduced to this place through the São Paulo International Short Film Festival in the 2000s. A great place of cinema. In 2019, we realized things had changed when a season of military-themed films was announced. Gradually, the Cinemateca disappeared from public view.”

The Brazilian Cinematheque on fire.

Many in the Brazilian industry saw the event within the larger context of Bolsanaro’s dictatorial approach to rule, as well as his neglect for the country’s struggles with the pandemic as it continues to worsen. To date, Brazil has reported around 20 million cases of the coronavirus and 550,000 deaths. “With the illegitimate arrival of the extreme right to power, we are all helplessly watching the destruction of everything that is good and beautiful in our country,” said Juliano Dornelles, who co-directed “Bacurau” with Mendonca and shared the jury prize with him at Cannes in 2019. “It’s a war against our dearest symbols and memory. What happened with the cinematheque is a premeditated crime. It’s an indescribable pain.”

Others focused on the impact on national morale for filmmakers who continue to try and work in the country. “Although we don’t know to what extent the fire has destroyed the stored items, this will be brutal and has a significant impact on our already reeling morale as professionals,” said producer Rodrigo Teixeira, whose credits include 2019 Brazilian Oscar submission “Invisible Life,” among others. “We feel very discouraged.” He was not optimistic that the damage would be appropriately assessed. “We have no expectation that under the current government this situation will be handled appropriately,” he said. “They’ve been warned, they know of the issues and yet, nothing is done. This is criminal.”

That sentiment was echoed by “Invisible Life” director Karim Ainouz. “The goal of this government is to end the country, to burn the country, to kill its people,” he wrote via email. “It is a clear project of destruction.”

Documentarian Petra Costa said that she used materials from the archive for two of her films, “Elena” and the Oscar-nominated “The Edge of Democracy.” Her first short film was screened at the institute. She noted that the year of Bolsonaro’s election in 2019 was a big moment for Brazilian cinema on the world stage, with “Bacurau” winning at Cannes and “The Edge of Democracy” going to the Academy Awards. “It takes decades to construct and weeks to destroy,” Costa said. “The current government has been very effective in this destruction. … I hope this fire becomes not only a source of lamentation, but actually a fuse to protect the treasures that still remain in these archives.”

According to Debora Butruce, a researcher and audiovisual preservationist who serves as the president of the Brazilian Association of Audiovisual Preservation, the only path forward is for the government to implement its emergency work plan to allow staffers to assess the damage. “In Brazil, it seems that tragedies need to happen fo urgent actions to be taken,” she said. “This situation represents the disregard the current government has for Brazilian culture.”

Today, former workers of the Brazilian Cinematheque issued an open letter addressing the fire. It is reprinted in full below.

Statement from the Cinemateca Brasileira workers regarding the fire at the Vila Leopoldina site

The fire that hit the Cinemateca Brasileira building in Vila Leopoldina on the night of July 29th was a crime foretold, which culminated in the irreparable loss of an uncalculated number of works and documents pertaining to the history of Brazilian cinema. These facilities are fundamental and complementary in relation to the space in Vila Clementino where most of the Cinemateca Brasileira’s collection is stored. Recently, in February 2020, a flood had already affected most of the documental and audiovisual collection stored there.

More than a year ago we publicly admonished against the possibility of fire at the Cinemateca premises due to the absence of any documentation, preservation and diffusion workers. There was a warning about the chance of an accident in the nitrate collection in Vila Clementino, nitrate film being a highly flammable material that can self-combust without periodic inspection. This was not the case in this instance, the fifth fire in the institution’s history. However, the causes are the same. Surely, many losses could have been avoided if the workers had been employed and participating in the day-to-day operations of the institution.

On August 8th it will be one year since the Cinemateca Brasileira was abandoned by the Federal Government and had all of its technical staff fired, without even being paid their salaries and severance packages by the previous manager, Associação de Comunicação Educativa Roquette Pinto (ACERP). Even so, the hiring of maintenance, firefighting and cleaning teams was reported. Although they are necessary for a functioning film archive, they are not sufficient for its specific demands, as evidenced on this fateful day.

The situation becomes even more critical when we begin to think about the irreversible consequences that suffered by the film materials and their conservation status in the year and change without the attention of a specialized technical staff. Equally irrecoverable to the destruction of prints directly by the fire is the now drastically reduced life span of various materials, especially the hazardous deterioration of nitrate and acetate film stock. Only with the return of the specialized team will it be possible to assess the extent of the loss and damage and then attempt to resume and begin new conservation activities.

The collection that was stored in Vila Leopoldina, although fewer in number, had equal relevance and importance to that of Vila Clementino. Below we list some of the materials possibly lost or affected in the fire of July 29, 2021:

From the documentation collection: a large part of the archives of the defunct cinematic outfits and institutions Embrafilme – Empresa Brasileira de Filmes S.A. (1969 – 1990), part of the Archive of the Instituto Nacional do Cinema – INC (1966 – 1975) and Concine – Conselho Nacional de Cinema (1976 – 1990), as well as an additional number archival documents still undergoing an assessment process. To prevent new floods from reaching the collection, part of these materials were transferred from the first floor to the climate-controlled warehouses on the second floor, the main area affected by the fire. This measure occurred after a severe flood in February 2020. Part of the collection of documents came from the Tempo Glauber archive, in Rio de Janeiro, including duplicates from the Glauber Rocha library and documents from the institution itself.

From the audiovisual collection: part of the collection from the distribution company Pandora Filmes, containing copies of Brazilian and foreign films in 35mm. Matrices and copies of single newsreels, trailers, advertisements, documentary films, fiction films, domestic films, all potentially the only extant copies of their respective titles. This part of the collection had already been partially affected by the recent flood. Part of the collection of the ECA/USP – School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo from the student production in 16mm and 35mm. Part of the video collection of journalist Goulart de Andrade.  

From the collection of cinema, photography and laboratory processing equipment and furniture: In addition to their museological value, many of these objects were fundamental for repairing equipment in current use since, to exhibit or even duplicate film or video materials, obsolete machinery without replacement in the market is needed.

Last night’s fire is one more reason why we cannot wait to put an end to the policy of scorched earth and the erasing of national memory! We are in mourning, for the loss of more than half a million Brazilians, and now for the loss of part of our history. We have experienced devastating fires at the Cinemateca Brasileira in 2016, at the National Museum in 2018, and again at the Cinemateca in 2021. In addition to all of the preventable pandemic deaths, our history has been continuously extirpated. Unfortunately, we have lost yet another part of Brazil’s historical and cultural heritage.

The Cinemateca Brasileira cannot continue to be at the mercy of preventable calamity. The erstwhile outsourcing of the institution’s management through a privately-owned cultural organization (in this case, ACERP) showed how fragile this relationship can be, and that such a model does not account for the complexity of a cultural organ of this size. The empty public statement issued by the federal government, given without space for debate, transparency, the participation of the population, cultural workers at large and above all, the collective of ex-workers of the institution, will provide no solution. We also want to make clear that the announced budget in said statement is an amount significantly lower than what is necessary. Stability and a guaranteed long-term technical team are needed for the Cinemateca, along with a budget compatible with the necessary services for the preservation and diffusion of Brazilian audiovisual heritage.

Without workers archives can not be preserved!
Workers of the Cinemateca Brasileira               
São Paulo, July 30th, 2021.

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