Besouro (The Assailant) closed the MOSTRA Brazilian film series last night.
  • Besouro (The Assailant) closed the MOSTRA Brazilian film series last night.

Last night marked the conclusion of the fourth edition of MOSTRA, a free series of Brazilian films presented at college campuses, high schools, and park-district buildings. The program is framed as a form of cultural exchange rather than a traditional film festival—which seems fitting, considering how little Americans know about Brazilian culture on the whole. In the spirit of cultural exchange, last weekend I sat down with Franthiesco Ballerini, a Sao Paulo-based critic and historian who was in Chicago as a guest of the program. In the first part of our conversation, posted below, Ballerini provided me with an overview of Brazilian film history, noting how changes in national politics affected film production and moviegoing habits. In the second part, which I’ll post tomorrow, we compare our experiences as film critics in two rather different cultures. My thanks to Alex Miranda and Ariani Friedl of MOSTRA for arranging this interview.

Ben Sachs: Like most U.S. viewers, I have a very limited knowledge of Brazilian cinema, both past and present. I’d like to talk to you about how one goes about discovering it, but first I’d like to know about your career as a film critic. Could you tell me a bit about your background?

Franthiesco Ballerini: I am a journalist, and I have a master’s degree in cinema. For eight years I worked for one of the biggest newspapers in Brazil as a film critic and foreign correspondent. I wrote the first book in Portuguese about Bollywood—it grew out of a special report I wrote in 2008. After that, I decided to move into the academic field, so now I teach. I still write once a month, as a contributor to an art magazine. And in 2012 I published my second book, which is a collection of 17 interviews with the biggest people in Brazilian cinema now—producers, directors, actors, lawmakers. It was well-received, because people took it as a portrait of Brazilian cinema in the 21st century.

Getting into your other question, the first chapter of the book came out of my master’s [dissertation], which was about the history of Brazilian cinema. I often mention a researcher named Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes, who founded the film program at the University of Brasilia. He said that we can’t talk about an independent-cinema history in Brazil since the country wasn’t economically independent for most of the 20th century. Now I teach cinema history there too, and I start my courses by saying that Hollywood cinema and Brazilian cinema have always been inversely related. Like when American TV companies sued the Hollywood studios in the 50s—as in the case of United States vs. Paramount Pictures [actually 1948 —ed.]—and the economic force of the studios went down, the force of Brazilian cinema went up.

I’m talking about Brazil’s commercial cinema here. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, we tried to industrialize our cinema using Hollywood as a model. This was absurd. We’re a very different country, our economy’s different, our culture’s different. So, of course, the plan went wrong. We put a lot of money into making a self-sustaining movie industry, and it didn’t work. We made a lot of good movies back then, but we couldn’t sustain the industry.

Then in the 60s, acting on the influence of neorealism in Italy and the nouvelle vague in France, we had our “Cinema Novo.”

That’s one of the few chapters of Brazilian film history that North American spectators hear much about. In Chicago, for instance, our Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a retrospective of Cinema Novo films several years ago. And American film-history textbooks might mention Glauber Rocha (Terra em Transe, Antonio das Mortes) in discussions of national cinematic movements in the 60s.

Yeah, Cinema Novo was very famous. It was influenced by the nouvelle vague, and it also influenced the French in return. In this movement, filmmakers started to look to the countryside to find the roots of Brazil’s social problems. Glauber’s ideology was leftist and anti-American. He criticized our politics, economy, culture, and religion, arguing that they did not help us develop as a country. He was part of an important movement.

And then Brazil became a dictatorship, so that movement was shut down.

  • Antonio das Mortes

When did the dictatorship begin and end?

It began in 1964, softened in the late ’70s, but didn’t officially end until 1985. In 1968, we had the Institutional Act Number 5, which suppressed all press freedom in Brazil. In that year, Glauber Rocha was sent out of the country—he went to Chile—which meant the end of Cinema Novo.

After this came “Cinema Marginal”—cinema of the outskirts. This cinema comes from Sao Paulo, which is where I live and work today. Instead of creating direct criticisms of the political system, these were “bang bang” movies with hidden critical messages. The dictators didn’t recognize these messages, so the movies worked well in the public. And they were fun. One of the most important films of this era was The Red Light Bandit (1968) by Rogerio Sganzerla.

Sganzerla also worked with Glauber. There’s a funny story about them. They loved the same woman, but Rogerio was much more handsome and much funnier, so he got the girl. Glauber hated him for the rest of his life.

It’s interesting how you refer to him as “Glauber,” like he transcends cinema and represents a cultural force. It reminds me of how certain European and U.S. cinephiles talk about “Godard.”

We often say in Brazil that even if you hate Glauber—and there are quite a lot of people who do—you cannot make films unless you know him. It’s like being filmmaker in the U.S. and not knowing Kubrick or Coppola or Griffith—it doesn’t make sense.

Glauber had an interesting relationship with Brazilian culture. North of Sao Paulo, he was a god, because he made films that concerned that area—specifically the Amazon and the northeast. The further south you get of Sao Paolo, the more hated he was, because the reality he presented was not the reality of the south. The south has lots of Italian, German, and Spanish immigrants—the culture’s completely different.

After the dictators ignored The Red Light Bandit and it became popular in Brazil, it developed an international reputation as the Breathless of our country. Rogerio even cited Godard’s film as an influence.

  • The Red Light Bandit

Brazilian Cinema was weakened in the 1970s, but in the 80s Embrafilme—a state-funded film company [created in 1969]—started to give more money to filmmakers again. The problem, though, was that it was always the same filmmakers who got the money. The system wasn’t fair or transparent.

We had our first free election in 1989 [since 1960]. We elected a guy called Fernando Collor, and he closed the Ministry of Culture. He was a neoliberal, following the advice of Reagan and Thatcher, and he felt that closing our Ministry of Culture would open our economy and culture to the world. This was terrible. In 1992, Brazil produced about 15 films. By the time the Ministry of Culture was down in 1993, we produced three films—zero, really, because those three had been started in ’92 but didn’t finish postproduction until ’93. So we say in Brazil that our cinema history stopped that year.

Collor was expelled by a popular movement, and his vice president came to power. Under him came the passage of the Rouanet law, which is still in place today. It’s basically what allows our film industry to work. Everyone who wants to make a movie submits their project to a government committee of about 30 people who analyze whether it’s a good project. If they think it’s good, the government doesn’t give it money directly, but gives the filmmakers a permission card to take to private companies. This card grants the company permission to redirect 3 to 5 percent of what they’d pay in taxes into the production of the film.

The law got lots of money flowing into Brazilian cinema. Now we produce about 70 to 80 films per year—some commercial successes and some “critic films,” like Central Station, City of God, and Neighboring Sounds. Brazilian cinema today is dominated by comedies—a genre we’ve done pretty well since the 1920s—and favela movies, which reinforce stereotypes of Brazilian society for the rest of the world. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good favela movie. Elite Squad 2 may have been the last.

  • Neighboring Sounds

Do you have any memories of going to the movies during the years of dictatorship?

No, I was born in 1981, so I don’t have any memories of that. But I know that in the 1960s and ’70s, when the favelas were growing in Rio and Sao Paolo—You see, we had a very big immigration movement in those years from the northeast to the southeast of Brazil. But before this movement, movie theaters were very popular in the cities. We had very large theaters with 1,000 to 2,000 seats. And they’d always be full, because it was safe to go out in the cities.

Slowly, during the 70s, those theaters began to close or they started showing these sort of pornographic films. Not actual pornography, but . . .

Do you mean like exploitation films?

No, they were like a mixture of comedy and eroticism, aimed at men.

Like the “pink film” genre in Japan?

Yes. So, the big, urban movie theaters got a bad image—they were associated as being only for men. And during this time, shopping malls started getting built in Brazil—and with them came multiplexes. This was also the period when the contemporary international distribution system started. At this time, there was not yet a law in place requiring Brazilian multiplexes to show at least one Brazilian film at a time. Most of the theaters got used for Hollywood films. And so in the 70s and 80s, Brazilians got in the habit of not watching Brazilian films anymore. We only reversed this pattern in the 90s.

Is that law requiring Brazilian multiplexes to show Brazilian films still in effect?

It changed in 2002. Now theaters have show a certain number of hours of domestic films each year. It varies depending on the number of screens the theater has. But if you disobey the law, you have to pay a big fine. It’s not like in Argentina, which has much stricter laws—not just for exhibition, but for distribution too. For example, if Warner Brothers wants to release the new Harry Potter in 2,000 theaters [in Argentina], they have to pay a really big tax to do that.

Are Hollywood studios willing to pay those fees in order to open their movies in wide release?

They have to. In Brazil now, we have about 2,300 theaters—which is nothing—and sometimes there are weekends when a Hollywood studio books 75 percent of them for a single film. That’s insane! I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having 75 percent of the films you watch come from Hollywood, so long as there’s some diversity. But one film?

For decades now, Jean-Luc Godard has spoken out against Hollywood clogging up channels of international film distribution. His argument is colored by radical politics, as he’s described the phenomenon as a form of U.S. cultural imperialism. When I hear statistics like the one you just shared, I can understand where his anger comes from.

You know, I’m not a leftist—my politics are not even close to Godard’s—but he’s kind of right. Hollywood sells American culture around the world, and I’m sure lots of other countries would want the same thing for themselves. But the difference between Brazil and France is that France created laws to protect their culture long before we did. So, the market share of French films in France is about 30 to 50 percent, where in Brazil it’s about 20 percent in a good year, 8 percent in a bad year.

If countries can create strong protection laws for, say, the orange industry, why wouldn’t they do the same thing for culture? That’s our identity.

Read part two of this conversation.