BY Ela Bittencourt in Columnists | 10 MAY 21

As Fires Consume Brazilian Cultural Heritage, Could Cinemateca Brasileira Be Next?

With preventable fires and flooding destroying many of Brazil's cultural institutions, what's at stake for the country's most significant film and television archive?

BY Ela Bittencourt in Columnists | 10 MAY 21

In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, Brazil’s cultural institutions are facing an onslaught of funding cuts, closures and employee layoffs, made all the more painful by the federal government’s denial of the gravity of the health crisis and its economic fallout. Compounding this already-challenging set of circumstances is the persistent threat of irrevocable damage due to fires and flooding.

In March, a fire broke out at an art storage warehouse in São Paulo state that destroyed works belonging to 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 storage facility. This was just the latest in a series of fires to have ravaged Brazil’s public cultural institutions, mostly due to inadequate prevention mechanisms and budget cuts.

Image of museum ablaze with fire in the dark
National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro ablaze in September 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images

In September 2018, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burned down, resulting in the loss of irreplaceable Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian and ancient artefacts as well as precious fossils and the skeleton of the oldest human ever discovered in Brazil, dating back 12,000 years. The blaze was later deemed to have been caused by an electrical fault, which could therefore have been prevented 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 contained within them – and revived fears that numerous national archives at cultural and scientific institutions are suffering from routine government neglect.

Firefighter in full uniform and equipment walking out of a burnt museum
A firefighter walking out of the National Museum of Brazil in September 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images

In light of this, many now worry that Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo, the country’s most significant archive for film and television, and the largest audiovisual archive in Latin America, will be next to burn. Cinemateca’s massive holdings – estimated to be 240,000 reels – include early modernist films, 1960s cinema novo masterpieces by directors such as Glauber Rocha, and innumerable television recordings, from newsreels to legendary football games. 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 via its two screening rooms and a library.

Including highly flammable nitrate and acetate, Cinemateca’s archives require constant, vigilant care. Rigorous monitoring is also needed to ensure room 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 might lead to the failure of generators and cooling systems, not to mention potential water damage to countless works on paper, photographs, and analogue and digital films. Cinemateca is already vulnerable: in 2016, a fire in a nitrate storage vault destroyed numerous film reels and in 2020, torrential rain and floods destroyed a storage vault containing  Brazilian film DVDs.

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

Despite these grave risks, Cinemateca has been left empty and unmonitored by either its trained technical staff or a specialized firefighting crew since August 2020, when all of the institution’s workers had their contracts terminated by the Brazilian government. The redundancies followed a bitter battle between the federal government and the privately owned Associação de Comunicação Educativa Roquette Pinto (ACERP), which had been managing Cinemateca since 2018. 

Poor management left the institution in limbo – a situation compounded by the government’s refusal to offer any financial support. Plans to replace ACERP with President Jair Bolsonaro’s chosen director candidate, Regina Duarte, caused further disruption. Following staff protests against government interference and the threat of imminent closure, newly appointed Special Culture Secretary (and former telenovela star) Mário Frias arrived – accompanied by military police – to enforce the closure of the institution and to disband its workers.

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

SOS Banner for Cinemateca Brasileira written in Portuguese
Banner in support of the SOS Cinemateca campaign. Courtesy: Cinemateca Acesa

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

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

Editor's note: On 29 July 2021, a fire broke out at Cinemateca Brasileira's warehouses during maintenance work, fuelled by highly flammable acetate. Two rooms containing films and other archival material were destroyed.

Main image: Banner in support of the SOS Cinemateca campaign. Courtesy: Cinemateca Acesa

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.