University of São Paulo: Memory, History and Fire

Mmemory and history can and should be considered inseparable parts of the long thread that weaves our cultural fabric, our identity. It is from them that we structure ourselves, either as individuals or – in a much broader way – as a country. Anyone who’s ever lost old photos or an important old super-8 film or accidentally deleted their entire smartphone photo album knows the pain it can be. It was the story that faded away, leaving to the memory the task of bringing back, in ever more fluid reminiscences, what no longer exists. Now, imagine losing, literally overnight, no matter how many alerts were given, around four tons of historical documents and films, an essential part of the Brazilian cinematographic memory. This is exactly what happened on the night of July 29th, when the flames consumed three rooms – around 300 square meters – of a warehouse at the Cinemateca Brasileira, in Vila Leopoldina, in the west side of São Paulo. No, the fire did not burn the Cinemateca headquarters, in Vila Clementino, almost on the other side of town, as he learned as the smoke rose. This matters? On the one hand, yes – after all, the building is still there, intact and abandoned, as a concrete symbol of the current situation of Brazilian culture. This matters? On the one hand, yes – after all, the building is still there, intact and abandoned, as a concrete symbol of the current situation of Brazilian culture. This matters? On the one hand, yes – after all, the building is still there, intact and abandoned, as a concrete symbol of the current situation of Brazilian culture.

On the other hand, it was the name “Cinemateca Brasileira” that burned that Thursday. More: it was a considerable piece of our memory and our audiovisual history – inseparable threads, remember? –, even from our affective memory it can be said that it burned into the night. In that warehouse were part of the archives of the late Embrafilme and the National Institute of Cinema, documents and films by Glauber Rocha, part of the national and foreign film collection of Pandora Filmes, newsreels matrixes such as the iconic Canal 100, domestic films – but no less important for our cultural history – and a considerable portion of the audiovisual production collection, in 16 mm and 35 mm, by students from USP’s School of Communications and Arts (ECA). And worse: lots of nitrate films, quite a food for the flames. All fires, fire, wrote the Argentine Julio Cortázar. All the fires, the fire, echoed through Vila Leopoldina until dawn.


Professor Maria Dora Mourão, also from ECA and executive director of the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca, a non-profit association that tries to do what the federal structure passes by, goes on the same pitch. “I was in shock when I saw the fire, seeing that fire created a very great feeling of hopelessness. Imagine 50 years of a Film course without a good part of the students’ production existing anymore. This is very sad. The Cinemateca not only preserves Brazilian memory, but culture in general.”


The fire at the Cinemateca may have several reasons – only expertise will determine – but it certainly cannot be placed on the list of “accidents”. After all, an accident is what happens without waiting, without warning. This was not the case with the Cinemateca shed. Nine days before the fire scared the Vila Leopoldina neighborhood, the Federal Public Ministry in São Paulo alerted the federal government – ​​responsible for the Cinemateca – of the risk of fire. What was done? The usual, when it comes to culture in these strange times: nothing. And the chronicle of an announced fire materialized. “When I heard about the fire, I was stunned by the predictability. We knew that Cinemateca was in a precarious situation and that at any moment something bad could happen. Even so, I was incredulous”, recalls professor Almir Almas,at the end of this text, read CTR’s Manifestation about the fire at the Cinemateca ). “Certainly, the cultural dismantling policy carried out by the federal government is responsible for the situation of the Cinemateca today”, says Almas.

And this “dismantling” to which Professor Almas referred is reflected in the sad and disheartened Brazilian cultural scenario. The Special Secretariat for Culture is lightweight and doesn’t seem very interested in gaining muscle tone to deal with the problems that are piling up in front of it. In fact, cultural policy is far from being a priority in the current government. And the signal had already been given. When the National Museum went up in flames in September 2018, the then-elected candidate said, somewhat disinterestedly: “Want me to say what? It’s already burned”. Fact. It’s just not worth calling it pragmatism.


A few were even minimally excited when the federal government appointed the double of ex-girlfriend-do-Brazil and actress Regina Duarte to the Secretariat of Culture to replace her predecessor who had, at the very least, bizarre ideas. Nothing came of it. As her most famous character, Regina ended up “being without ever having been”. He spent a little over two months at the Secretariat and ended up leaving his briefcase to go on a tangent by his boss to the Cinemateca. “Guys, I got a present: I’m going to make Cinemateca”, she said, overjoyed, in a video next to the one who had just dismounted her from the post of Secretary of Culture. Nobody warned her that you don’t “do” Cinemateca. It takes care of the collection, preserves memory and history, protects, hires specialized professionals, yes.

But there wasn’t even time for her to understand the game: the “Porcine Widow Syndrome” struck again and Regina, again, was without ever having been. And the Cinematheque continued to drift. The City Hall of São Paulo – first with João Doria, later with Bruno Covas – even asked the federal government to transfer the Cinemateca to municipal management. The answer was silence. Just so as not to say that nothing was done, the Department of Culture, in a classic case of “ perfect timing ”, published a notice the day after the fire, as Professor Eduardo Morettin recalled: “The only change was the notice call for a new social organization, through a public process, to manage the Cinemateca with a known insufficient budget of R$ 10 million. And the minimum should be BRL 20 million.”

A few were even minimally excited when the federal government appointed the double of ex-girlfriend-do-Brazil and actress Regina Duarte to the Secretariat of Culture to replace her predecessor who had, at the very least, bizarre ideas. Nothing came of it. As her most famous character, Regina ended up “being without ever having been”. He spent a little over two months at the Secretariat and ended up leaving his briefcase to go on a tangent by his boss to the Cinemateca. “Guys, I got a present: I’m going to make Cinemateca”, she said, overjoyed, in a video next to the one who had just dismounted her from the post of Secretary of Culture. Nobody warned her that you don’t “do” Cinemateca. It takes care of the collection, preserves memory and history, protects, hires specialized professionals, yes.

But there wasn’t even time for her to understand the game: the “Porcine Widow Syndrome” struck again and Regina, again, was without ever having been. And the Cinematheque continued to drift. The City Hall of São Paulo – first with João Doria, later with Bruno Covas – even asked the federal government to transfer the Cinemateca to municipal management. The answer was silence. Just so as not to say that nothing was done, the Department of Culture, in a classic case of “ perfect timing ”, published a notice the day after the fire, as Professor Eduardo Morettin recalled: “The only change was the notice call for a new social organization, through a public process, to manage the Cinemateca with a known insufficient budget of R$ 10 million. And the minimum should be BRL 20 million.”


“Everything that represents history, no matter if we agree or not, needs to be an object of reflection. We have lost a substantial part, for example, of the entire public policy to support cinema in Brazil. This is irreversible. The public power is very careless in relation to what is heritage. So there is a certain indifference and slowness to find solutions, the government is in no hurry”, says Carlos Augusto Calil, also a professor at ECA, who was director of the Cinemateca between 1987 and 1992 and is currently the president of the Sociedade Amigos da Cinemateca. “The Cinemateca crisis has persisted for over a year. The problem is that there is no specialized employee at the headquarters for the proper care. It’s closed. The Cinemateca today is like a patient in a coma, who lives on devices”, pointed out Calil, going further and remembering, once again,

“It is as if pages of our curriculum had been eliminated, as if the ECA department had not existed in that period. It’s very sad, especially for the students, because it’s their work and dedication. No matter how much material is lost, there is a feeling that life has not been lived.”

Perhaps this acrid sensation, with the smell of smoke and ash, which Professor Calil referred to, will remain in the air for a while. But it will pass, because life needs to be lived and it cannot be a sad movie

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