“As I write this, I’m trying to remember a film I liked, or even one I didn’t like. My memory becomes a wilderness of elsewheres,”
Robert Smithson, A Cinematic Atopia.
Since the start of quarantine, my computer has been on with three browsers open, in which, with no method at all, I open (and lose track of) tabs for future consultation, tabs with texts about the end of the world and the reinventing of worlds, non-dystopian science-fictions, newsletters about virtual exhibitions, online festival programs, lists of films about lock-down, and artist’s Vimeos. There are even tabs with recipes, with Brazilian, English, New York and French newspapers, some with stories which are 15 days old; tabs that show the curve’s evolution, tabs with petitions to save the Brazilian Cinemateca, others asking for the impeachment of the Brazilian president and for a progressive coalition against authoritarianism.
In the most unexpected moments, competing songs and conversations in different languages start to play without me being able to tell where they’re coming from. If I sit down to watch a film, it may come accompanied by another film’s soundtrack. I have watched the first few minutes of a Maxakali film with the voice-over in a language of Germanic origin. Numbed by the inertia of the past days and months, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that there was no way northern European languages could share the same roots with the languages of indigenous Brazilians. It reached the point where I didn’t bat an eyelid when O signo do caos, a film by Brazilian filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla, started with the opening credits from Les Films Imaginaires, by Maurice Lemaitre. Honestly, it made sense.
Once I get over the initial embarrassment caused by my inattention and failure to listen, I accepted the state of lethargy. I allow these images and sounds to blend into a tangled mass. Deep down, I’m not certain that I really wanted to watch films. I’m not even sure what’s the point of watching films at the moment.
I should be using my time during quarantine to translate Robert Smithson into Portuguese; or to write about him and thus fill my post-doctoral obligations. I have given up trying to do anything substantial with this research project, which should be about the role of cinema in the artist’s thinking. At this point, coping with my bureaucratic obligations would be a victory.
I haven’t managed to make any progress with the project in two years. It’s not that I have lost interest in Smithson, on the contrary, I find him ever more fascinating. I even went to Utah last summer to see the Spiral Jetty. For five days, I drove alone through a lunar landscape, trying to understand what attracted him about those places where time appeared to stand still and geology defied logic, causing ideas, concepts, systems, structures or abstractions to collapse. I came back with a notebook full of notes, which I haven’t managed to organize. My office has posts-its everywhere about Smithson and his plans for underground cinemas in mines. But I’ve never managed to make any of this into a text.
Whenever I sit down to write, I remember the rejection letter I received when I first applied for a grant for this project. The anonymous referee report justified the decline with two sentences: “The research project is original, and it might be important to the field of Contemporary Art History. However, it regards a rather marginal and obscure production, which is extremely specialized, with restricted interest and limited reach, even in the USA.” I received this rejection exactly nine days after the 2018 presidential elections, in which the alt right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected after a campaign against the “cultural Marxists”. The expressions “might be of interest”, “extremely specialized”, “marginal” and “obscure” seemed to come from the world he represented and which, even today, I still do not feel prepared for, especially not coming from a leading research agency. I shifted my state of despair with my country onto this research project, although I have continued to write about other topics.
Even though I am unable to write seriously about him, I go back to Robert Smithson, thinking about his description of the cinematic experience as a privileged passage to limbo. In Entropy and the New Monuments, the artist describes the movie theater as an ideal “mental conditioner,” to make “a hole” in one’s life. His limbo is entropic and atopic; a borderland where memories of films react and recombine themselves through fusing together. It is also irreversible: the entropy cannot be mapped or rewound.
Smithson’s ideal filmgoer is the opposite to the classical one; the latter with his notebook in hand, and his encyclopedic memory, his archivist’s pleasure in citing names, dates, and places. For the artist, the authentic filmgoer would be “a captive of sloth. Sitting constantly in a movie house, among the flickering shadows, his perception would take on a kind of sluggishness. He would be the hermit dwelling among the elsewheres, forgoing the salvation of reality. (…) Between blurs he might even fall asleep, but that wouldn’t matter. (…) This dozing consciousness would bring about a tepid abstraction. It would increase the gravity of perception. Like a tortoise crawling over a desert, his eyes would crawl across the screen. All films would be brought into equilibrium – a vast mud field of images forever motionless.”[i]
Just as Smithson sees the ideal filmgoer as the opposite of the classical one, his interest in cinema moves beyond classical interpretations and their celebration of film’s power for capturing and preserving a moment in time intact – what André Bazin called “the mummy complex”. Smithson’s interest in cinema is sparked precisely by what is lost, muddled, erased, what can be found in the in-between spaces where oblivion takes over.
“If there was ever a festival in limbo, it would be called “Oblivion”[ii], he wrote. As a curator, this idea has hounded me since well before the post-doc. Perhaps that’s why I’ve pushed for this project. Even when it was no longer possible to work as a cinema programmer in Brazil.
Smithson died in 1973, at a time when artists were just beginning to dream up the possibilities of computational art. Before home video or the smartphone, before we got used to falling asleep with laptops in our laps, only to wake up, hours later, with them falling on our faces. Before Covid.
Smithson never came to Brazil; he never got to visit the Brazilian Cinemateca.
I read in an editorial in the largest Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, that the Brazilian Cinemateca “finds itself in limbo”.
Limbo, as we know, was the place where the Catholic Church sent children who, as a result of dying before baptism, hadn’t obtained the necessary entry visa for Paradise. Its abolition in 2007 by the Second Vatican Council was not enough for it to be erased from other spheres of life.
In one of his first acts after taking office, the alt right President Jair Bolsonaro dissolved the Ministry of Culture. As a consequence, the Brazilian Cinemateca was handed over to the Ministry of Tourism. However, the organization directly responsible for running it, the Roquette Pinto Association, falls under the Ministry of Education. When this Ministry decided to end its contract with the Association, the Cinemateca fell into a juridical and institutional limbo, cutting it off financially and endangering a collection of more than 250 thousand film reels which require constant temperature control. The Cinemateca has already suffered fires and floods – some 730 rolls of film, 270 of which were the only surviving copies, were destroyed in a fire in 2016.
Time has shown that the Cinemateca is not in limbo, but in a hell designed and desired by the current Brazilian administration and its destructive project. In 2020, the Bolsonaro administration confiscated the keys of the institution, rejecting every offer of help from civil society or local administrations and making it clear that they were not interested in saving the institution. The Cinemateca’s problem is not that it lacks the proper paperwork to receive the necessary funds and to continue operating satisfactorily. No, the Bolsonaro administration project is to dismantle it entirely, to lock and let rot and burn all the stories of resistance, all the proofs of past violence and every remembrance that it is possible to world other worlds in film. To preserve and let loose only the ghosts of the authoritarianism, knowing then that no proof will ever be accessed against them in the future.
“Let them set fire to the Louvre . . . right away . . . If they’re afraid of something beautiful.” says the French director Danielle Huillet, quoting Cézanne, in Une visite au Louvre (Straub-Huillet, 2004).
In Brazil, there is no need for threats, even less for fear of beauty. Institutions, museums, films, memory, and bodies burn each and every day. From criminal oversight, from despair; we burn and are burnt. In the past ten years, we have witnessed at least eight institutions with collections of inestimable cultural or scientific value, burn down, some of them, with fewer than ten years of existence and with architectural investments worth millions (Museum of the Portuguese Language); others, with valuable collections that had been amassed over two hundred years (National Museum). As I am writing this, the Museum of Natural History, based at the University of Minas Gerais, has also suffered an irreparable loss.
Here, even the Louvre burns. In 2012, I organized a major retrospective of Straub-Huillet in Brazil. My co-organizers and I brought 35mm and 16mm copies from Europe and the United States to be screened. On the last day of our retrospective in São Paulo, the copies of Une Visite au Louvre, Quei Loro Incontri and Il Ritorno del figlio/Umilitali were stolen from the vehicle of our courier service. The retrospective was taking place downtown close to “Cracolândia” (literally: Crackland, an area in downtown São Paulo where crack addicts trade and use drugs). I can only imagine that the robbers hoped to find objects far more valuable than film strips to sell on some black market. And thus, the Louvre most likely ended up being dumped on some bonfire one cool summer’s evening, melting a rock of crack.
Jean Marie Straub received approximately fifteen thousand euros from the Swiss insurer that we had hired, which is not a bad amount to remake distribution copies of three films with.
In Brazil, to be foreign and to burn can sometimes be a profitable business. The Brazilian Cinemateca, however, is not insured.
So much for Brazil being the country of the future.
To have worked in the country of the future
In 1924, after his first visit to Brazil, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig – who ten years later when fleeing Nazism would choose Brazil as his country of exile – published his book, Brazil, the Country of the Future.
It is a rare case that the title of a literary work – a foreign one, to top it off – becomes a national epithet. From time to time, we are called “the country of the future,” and we believe it. This is our strange psychology: we pride ourselves in what we are not yet, in what we are always on the point of becoming. The future, as we know, is always just ahead of us, except when it’s cancelled. But for the sake of our self-esteem, it is enough for us to be “destined for” greatness.
The assistant producer of our retrospective evoked this very phrase, “the country of the future,” when one of our international guests expressed surprise that our team was so young. Here was the largest retrospective of Straub-Huillet to take place in South America, and yet, most members of our team, including curators, were under twenty-five years old.
This happened in 2012. At that time, we were indeed the country of the future. We all knew it; we all talked about it. In 2009, The Economist printed Rio de Janeiro’s iconic statue, Christ the Redeemer, taking off like a rocket on its cover: “Brazil takes off,” the headline read. We had not been affected by the crisis of 2008. We were under a progressive, leftist government, which invested in ending inequality, and which valued arts and education as never before.
I am part of the first generation since democratization in Brazil that can choose to make a living by working in the cultural sector. I left university the same year that Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva became president, after eight years of a stable economy and the strengthening of institutions. My generation believed that we were building a new Brazil, the Brazil of the future – more egalitarian; less narrow-minded, corrupt and elitist.
Between 2010 and 2016, with state support, I organized, either as a curator or producer, individual retrospectives of Chantal Akerman, Pedro Costa, Straub-Huillet, Naomi Kawase, Jonas Mekas, David Perlov, Harun Farocki, Douglas Sirk, Jerzy Skolimowski, plus a large showcase of structural films. For many of them, the filmmakers came to Brazil. For all of them, we flew in copies of films from Europe and the United States, covering the cost of insurance, air transport, customs duties and exchange-rate fees. It was an abundance, a cinematic feast.
When I now reflect on those years and retrospectives, the costs don’t add up. To make a broad estimate, the transport of one 35mm feature (weighing 55 pounds) from France to Brazil, plus customs duties, adds up to approximately two thousand dollars. That is two thousand dollars to show a single film, without even figuring in insurance or the royalties. Before the detractors anxious to criticize Rouanet’s Law – a tax credit law for companies and organizations that sponsor cultural activities – get worked up, let’s be clear: the team weren’t paid proportionally to the amount spent on the copies. Quite the opposite, the greater the chunk of the budget taken up by the copies, the greater the cuts in other areas.
Obviously, at the time I didn’t think about the absurdity or disproportionality of these costs. During my undergrad years, I had read French writers, watched French films, and dreamed of the French Cinematheque. I had learned enough French to read Cahiers du Cinéma. Naturally, a true movie-theater experience would initiate me into the international community of ciné-fils, whose patron saint was Serge Daney – a community whose history I had devoured reading La Cinéphilie, Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, by Antoine De Baeque.
It was fantastic to be able to pay two thousand dollars to then show a film in a room with no more than seventy seats. It guaranteed a true experience. A magical one. The fact that we did not have the correct lens to screen in the 1:33 ratio, required for Straub-Huillet’s films, which we had to show instead with a little bit cut off, or that every twenty minutes we had to turn the lights on to change the reel – those were just minor details. After all, what’s a severed head compared to the trembling light of the projector?
By some curious twist, our recent mistrust of the idea of universality has not extended to movie theaters. We continue to believe that a dark room is the same thing in Brazil, the United States, France, or Mozambique: a sort of laboratory-dispositif with the perfect temperature and atmospheric pressure conditions for concentration: darkness, silence, distance, stillness. Raymond Bellour, the missionary of the “true dispositif”, wrote not so long ago that the dispositif was “the only truly inviolate element”[iii] to ensure the distance needed for an artwork to keep its “aura”. For Bellour, whom we loved to invite to Brazil from time to time to tell us how the movie-theater experience should be, “one can rewatch a film in various situations, but only if the first time around the film has been viewed and received according to its own aura”[iv].
It would be easy, in fact, very easy, to point a finger at those “old French guys”. But this depressing elitism has roots buried deep in the film community, and it flourishes where you least expect it. I recall, for example, hearing Trinh Min-Ha, at the Flaherty Film Seminar in 2017, using Brazil as a model at the seminar in which she was showing her own films in digital copy. Brazil, with all its problems, she said, had made an effort to screen films on film. Comme il faut… Here was a Third-World director at the most elitist First-World seminar praising the Third World for being better than the First.
Who dreams up Brazil’s future? Whose dream, and in which language, in which medium, gives birth to the “future” in which Brazil is submerged?
I did not raise my hand at the Flaherty Film Seminar – always plagued by the subaltern fear of not mastering the language of the “Other.” Otherwise, I would have asked Trinh Min-Ha how neutral, as a language and tool, she thought that the shooting and screening formats were, especially in the context of post-colonial struggles. And how she linked, if she did, the screening format to the power dynamics and narrative disputes in the fight for non-normative and contra-hegemonic representations.
Three years later, these questions came back to me in an email that I drafted, but never sent, to a programmer in New York.
I’m sad to hear we cannot move on with the [Andrea] Tonacci retrospective. I understand your reluctance to show the majority of films in a digital format. As a film buff, I appreciate the effort of showing prints whenever possible. But sometimes I catch myself wondering if this policy is not working against the very same independent cinema to which we claim and wish to work for… By conditioning screenings to the existence of prints, we could be condemning to a limbo of invisibility filmmakers or filmographies that, for reasons maybe alien to a film archive (even an independent or “underground” one) in the US, did not have the chance to have their works preserved in prints.
I’m well aware this limbo was created elsewhere, before you could make the choice of not showing Tonacci in digital. I know that the lack of preservation policies in Brazil is the one and only to be condemned for this.
And yet, I still think you (and US public) are to be blamed (sorry for that): you are to be blamed for not allowing yourselves to see a Tonacci film. You are to be blamed for choosing the side of your dignified viewing standards, shutting yourselves from anything that does not attend to your expectations.
In the end it all goes down to this: you can wait for Tonacci to present himself the way you consider the correct way of approaching you, or you can learn to speak Tonacci’s language in order to watch a Tonacci’s film. I can guarantee: it is worth it.
my very best,
The festival is to take place in the ruins of the next fire at the Brazilian Cinemateca, amid burned film strips and charred documents.
There will be neither a screen nor a projector.
Former employees of Cinemateca, myself included, will wander through these charred ruins, describing scene by scene, and in as much detail as possible, all the films that we saw and handled while there.
Actors and filmmakers should join in our chorus, whispering ideas for abandoned projects, storylines of films that were never made.
Some reenactments are expected:
– While repeating the opening scene from Sem essa aranha, Helena Ignez will walk through the ruins, circling a projector that keeps running while shouting, “crappy little planet,” “the solar system is trash,” “sub-planet.” The scene will repeat on a loop, ad infinitum, until the light of the projector burns out or Helena collapses.
– The artist Daniel Santiago and volunteers will hang suspended from the building’s surviving beams, to reenact his performance from 1982. On that occasion, Santiago was suspended by the ankle from a gallery’s ceiling, holding a poster on which one could read: “Brazil is my abysm”. The phrase was borrowed from a poem by the poet and filmmaker Jomard Muniz de Britto:
“brazil is not my country: it’s our schizophrenia.
brazil is not my country: it’s a videotape of
brazil is not my country: it’s our hole
With the help of the Ministry of Tourism (now responsible for the Cinemateca), we will bring international critics, programmers, and curators. All will be offered pillows and notebooks.
As proof of our hospitality, the invitations will quote Stefan Zweig, addressing the Brazilian people, in the letter he left behind when, in 1942, he chose to end his life in the country that he considered to be of the future:
“Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself. But to start everything anew after a man’s 60th year requires special powers, and my own power has been expended after years of wandering homeless. I thus prefer to end my life at the right time, upright. I send greetings to all my friends: May they live to see the dawn after this long night.
I, who am most impatient, go before them.”
Translated by Katy Carroll
[i] Smithson, Robert. 1971. “A Cinematic Atopia”. Artforum 10 (1). https://www.artforum.com/print/197107/a-cinematic-atopia-37059.
[iii] Bellour, Raymond. “The Cinema Spectator: A Special Memory” In Audiences, edited by Ian Christie, 206-217. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1515/9789048515059-016
[v] Britto, Jomard Muniz. “Aquarelas do Brasil”. In Terceira Aquarela do Brasil. Recife: author’s edition, 1982.
Patrícia Mourão de Andrade (Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 1980) is a researcher, curator and writer based in São Paulo. Her research focuses on artists films, narratives and counter narratives or art history by artists. She has organized thematic series and directors’ retrospectives at different venues and festivals in Brazil and Europe, and edited books on artists such as David Perlov, Jonas Mekas, Pedro Costa and Straub-Huillet.