'Bacurau' at Cannes a bright spot for troubled Brazil film industry

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) –


With "Bacurau," Kleber Mendonca Filho returns to the Cannes film festival for the second time, determined to shine a light on the turmoil in Brazilian cinema under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Shot in Sertao do Serido, an impoverished and isolated region in northeastern Brazil, "Bacurau" tells the story of a village turned upside down by the death of a 94-year-old female resident.

Mendonca said his third feature film -- co-directed by Juliano Dornelles and in competition for the coveted Palme d'Or in Cannes -- reflects the difficult times Brazil is now enduring under Bolsonaro.

But in an interview with AFP, the 51-year-old director stopped short of calling himself an activist.

"Making films about human dramas, about people facing all kinds of difficulties, can be seen as a form of activist cinema, but I do not want to put 'activist filmmaker' on my business card," says Mendonca, whose previous film "Aquarius" was in competition in Cannes in 2016.

"I am a Brazilian filmmaker, I live at a time when Brazilian society is suffering and stories are springing up."

The film, set on the border between the northeastern states of Paraiba and Rio Grande do Norte, is the first that Mendonca has made outside his hometown of Recife, the capital of nearby Pernambuco state.

He says the movie featuring veteran actress Sonia Braga -- who also starred in "Aquarius" -- shows Brazil can produce "great" movies.

But Mendonca said attempts by the Bolsonaro government to dismantle the country's arts sector was worrying.

"I'm happy and a little sad at the same time because this second selection in Cannes comes at a very strange moment for our film industry, which was on an upswing and is now experiencing a serious crisis," Mendonca says.

In Cannes three years ago, the team behind "Aquarius" brandished placards to denounce a "coup" against Brazil's left-wing former president Dilma Rousseff, shortly after she was stripped of office.

But this time, says Mendonca, the film itself will be the protest.

"Today, what is happening with Bolsonaro is widely covered by the international press," he says.

"In May 2016, it felt like people did not know what was going on here."

- 'Cultural Marxism' -

Since Bolsonaro's presidential election victory in October 2018, the arts sector has been in crisis, as the far-right president seeks to purge the country of what he calls "cultural Marxism."

The culture ministry no longer exists -- it is now simply a department of the new citizenship ministry, which also includes sports.

"This idea of 'cultural Marxism' is nonsense," says veteran film producer Luiz Carlos Barreto.

"Art is created by the free flow of ideas. No government can label artistic expression with preconceived ideas, ideologies."

In the first three months of the year, coinciding with the start of Bolsonaro's term, state financing for Brazilian audiovisual projects amounted to just over one million reais ($250,000).

At that rate, total funding for 2019 would be less than half of what was offered in 2018.

In comparison, in 2009 during Brazil's economic boom, state funding in that category topped 34 million reais.

On top of that, Bolsonaro has announced plans to cap a tax credit mechanism for financing cultural projects.

Brazilian cinema is also threatened by a crisis at ANCINE, the government body responsible for distributing funds for audiovisual productions.

At the end of March, the agency suspended financing of film and TV projects after it came under government scrutiny over its accounting procedures.

For Mendonca, the situation at ANCINE was "artificially created to end Brazilian cinema."

"What strikes me is this apparent feeling of fear, even rage, towards artists. I cannot understand that because we are Brazilians too and we love our country," he says.

But for Barreto, the situation is all too familiar.

"I feel like I've seen this movie before, at different times in the past, like in the early 90s. As soon as Brazilian cinema hits its stride, it is destabilized," Barreto said.