As fires consume Brazilian cultural heritage, could Cinemateca Brasileira be next?


Amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Brazilian cultural institutions face a wave of funding cuts, closings and employee layoffs, all the more painful as the federal government denies the severity of the health crisis and its economic benefits. Adding to this already difficult set of circumstances is the persistent threat of irrevocable damage from fires and floods.

In March, a fire broke out at an art storage warehouse in the state of São Paulo, which destroyed works belonging to the Galeria Nara Roesler, including pieces by Antonio Dias, Vik Muniz and Abraham Palatnik . Other Brazilian galleries, such as Luciano Brito and Simões de Assis, used the same warehouse. It was only the latest in a series of fires to devastate Brazil’s public cultural institutions, mainly due to inadequate prevention mechanisms and budget cuts.

The Brazilian National Museum in Rio de Janeiro caught fire in September 2018. Courtesy of: Getty Images

In September 2018, the Brazilian National Museum in Rio de Janeiro burned down, resulting in the loss of irreplaceable indigenous, Afro-Brazilian and ancient artifacts, as well as precious fossils and the skeleton of the oldest human ever found in Brazil, dating from 12000. years. The fire was later deemed to have been caused by an electrical fault, which could therefore have been avoided by regular maintenance checks. In June 2020, a fire at the Museum of Natural History and Botanical Gardens of the University of Minas Gerais damaged several storage rooms – destroying the majority of the collections they contain – and revived fears suffered by many national archives. cultural and scientific institutions. of the usual negligence of the government.

Fireman in full uniform and equipment coming out of a burnt-out museum
A firefighter exiting the National Museum of Brazil in September 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images

In light of this, many now fear that the Cinemateca Brasileira de São Paulo, the country’s largest film and television archive, and the largest audiovisual archive in Latin America, will be the next to burn. Cinemateca’s immense holdings – estimated at 240,000 rolls – include early modernist films of the 1960s novo cinema masterpieces by directors such as Glauber Rocha and countless TV recordings, from newsreels to legendary football matches. An essential documentary resource for the country’s modern and contemporary history and culture, Cinemateca has also been instrumental in presenting retrospectives of international cinema classics to Brazilian audiences through its two screening rooms and a library.

Including the highly flammable nitrate and acetate, Cinemateca archives require constant and vigilant care. Careful monitoring is also necessary to ensure that the ambient temperature and humidity remain stable to prevent fires and reduce the risk of rapid deterioration. This threat is even greater in São Paulo due to the city’s heavy rains, which cause frequent flooding and power outages that can lead to the failure of generators and cooling systems, not to mention potential water damage on d ‘countless works on paper, photographs and analogues. and digital films. Cinemateca is already vulnerable: in 2016 a fire in a nitrate storage vault destroyed many film reels and in 2020 torrential rains and flooding destroyed a storage vault containing DVDs of Brazilian films.

Image of the exterior view of the Cinemateca Brasileira
Cinemateca Brasileira. Courtesy: WikiCommons

Despite these serious risks, Cinemateca has been left empty and unsupervised by its trained technical staff or a specialized firefighting team since August 2020, when all workers at the institution saw their contracts terminated by the Brazilian government. The layoffs follow a bitter battle between the federal government and the private company Associação de Comunicação Educativa Roquette Pinto (ACERP), which has managed Cinemateca since 2018.

Poor management left the institution in limbo – a situation made worse by the government’s refusal to offer financial support. Plans to replace ACERP with Presidential nominee Jair Bolsonaro, Regina Duarte, have caused further disruption. Following staff protests against government interference and the threat of an impending closure, the new Special Secretary for Culture (and former telenovela star) Mário Frias arrived – accompanied by the military police – to force the closure of the institution and dissolve its employees.

These former employees then mobilized, disseminating the hashtag #SOSCinemateca on social networks, organizing fundraising campaigns and contacting a global network of fellow archivists. A petition urging the Brazilian government to take immediate action to date has nearly 20,000 signatories.

SOS banner for Cinemateca Brasileira written in Portuguese
Support banner for the SOS Cinemateca campaign. Courtesy: Cinemateca Acesa

The government announced in December 2020 that the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca (Association of Friends of the Cinemateca) would take over the management of the institution, allowing it to renew staff contracts and receive funding. However, Cinemateca has yet to be declared operational for several months in this bureaucratic maze. The government blockade – complicated by the fact that Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative party dissolved the Culture Ministry in 2019 – once again increases the looming danger to Cinemateca’s vulnerable and irreplaceable collection.

In the midst of these ongoing debates, Cinemateca staff suspect that the institution’s days are numbered. “ We fear the death of Brazilian social, historical, cultural, cinematographic and audiovisual memory, ” they write in their manifesto, published on social networks in April 2021. “We plead for the immediate return to their respective jobs of workers whose experience is crucial for the recovery of the institution”. Failure to implement adequate fire prevention methods at the National Museum of Brazil had catastrophic consequences. Cinemateca must be saved before it burns down too.

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