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Why São Paulo’s Film Festival is still important in the streaming era

By Bruno Yutaka Saito

It was around 11 PM when Renata, a 17-year-old girl, decided to enter a movie theater in the center of São Paulo, which was already showing signs of decadence.

The elegant Metropole cinema was showing a German film called “Freak Orlando” (1981).

The grandiosity to which this Virginia Woolf-inspired production, full of metaphors – a recreation of the history of the world from the beginning of time to the present day – aspired to compete with the sumptuousness of the giant cinema’s entrance hall, with almost a thousand seats.

She hated every minute of the movie. As it was late at night, fatigue made her even more irritated.

Renata de Almeida with the poster for this year's festival.
Renata de Almeida with the poster for this year’s festival. (Photo: internet reproduction)

A few years later, she went to take issue with the person responsible for showing such a pineapple.

“When I met Leon, I cursed him for choosing that film,” jokes Renata de Almeida, referring to the creator of the São Paulo International Film Festival, where the film starred by Delphine Seyrig, from the modern “Last Year in Marienbad”, was shown.

With degrees in radio, TV, and cinema, Renata had sought Leon to do a part-time job in the festival’s production.

What was supposed to be temporary took root. The professional relationship extended to their personal life, and they had a love affair that produced two children. When Leon died in 2011, Renata took over the direction.

Today, at 56, she commands for the 11th time the film marathon, one of the most traditional cultural events in the city, which has its 46th edition between October 20 and November 2.

If when it was created during the dictatorship in 1977, São Paulo’s festival represented a balm for the public in need of information, culture, and democracy, today the cinephile has several other festivals available besides the private screenings represented by streaming services (Netflix alone has 3,693 films available this week, not counting series).

The festival, in this edition, will show 223 films from 60 countries, such as “Triangle of Sorrow”, Golden Palm in Cannes, and “The Super 8 Years”, which portrays Annie Ernaux, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Every year I ask myself: is there any point in me doing this anymore?” says Renata, who has worked in the production of the event for more than 30 years. But this time, the answer came clearly, from a new obstacle.

For the first time since the Rouanet law was created in 1991, São Paulo’s festival did not use the federal law due to a new Normative Instruction that demanded “unfeasible” counterparts, according to the director.

Among them, the condition that the festival offered a 40-hour course for 1,000 people, with half of them coming from the public network, besides transportation and proof of attendance.

“I consulted specialized lawyers, and nobody assured me we could use the law. In recent years, São Paulo’s festival had already lost sponsorships, such as Petrobras and BNDES; now, without using Rouanet, it has lost others.”

When asked by the reporter, the Special Secretary of Culture didn’t answer.

“São Paulo’s festival is, above all, a space for the democratization of knowledge, something that is cyclically fought in a country as unfair as Brazil,” says filmmaker Walter Salles, who has followed the festival since its beginning.

“It was and always will be a space of resistance for spreading and fighting all forms of intolerance.”

Imbued with this spirit, instead of giving up, Renata accepted the suggestion of a friend who brought together producers. Thus was born the group of patrons – Friends of the São Paulo Festival.

It is not a “swimming pool of money” but rather collaborations from R$2,000 (US$378) to R$15,000) that offer benefits.

The sponsorship, common in cultural institutions around the world, allowed the festival to take place this year, with a budget of around R$6 million, besides the partnership with Sesc and sponsorships from Spcine, Projeto Paradiso, and Galo da Manhã.

“It was an initiative of the sector itself and society, something that has been happening a lot in Brazil in the last few years. It started a culture of society itself seeing that it wanted to supply things it believes in,” says Renata.

“For me, it was exhilarating, a moment of feeling less lonely, of feeling that [the festival] has some importance.” The director downplays the necessary cuts, such as the coming of foreign guests from the jury and orchestra performance in special sessions.

“The festival makes us more sensitive and tolerant, and we need this more than ever,” says Walter Salles

More than just an affectionate relic for film lovers, the festival is one of the select cultural events in the country with a mythical aura around it, an institution that has helped create trends and spread culture.

Long before a streaming platform like Mubi, the festival had already consolidated the concept of “head movie” by bringing author productions that didn’t reach the most commercial theaters and inspiring columnists like humorist José Simão from “Folha de S. Paulo”:

“São Paulo’s Festival is a strange movie, spoken in a strange language, with a disconnected story, seen by a scala white people!” he wrote.

Today an artist of the world, nominated for the Oscar and the Golden Palm, Fernando Meirelles, is one of the many Brazilians influenced by the festival in its formation.

In the past, he used to open up his schedule to be able to dedicate himself to marathons: “I would try to watch two or three films a day from places I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. It was a lottery, like a game.”

Even today, the director of “City of God” emphasizes the importance of the event. “Some of the films shown will be in theaters or on the platforms, but the vast majority would never enter my radar if it weren’t for the festival’s catalog,” he says.

“I’m interested in the eye of Renata, the curator. She is sensitive to making a mix of daring films, more accessible films, and trends.”

In the book “Cinema without End” (2006), in which Leon Cakoff recalls the festival’s history, Walter Salles highlights the 1979 edition as the most emblematic.

Two young filmmakers, Roberto Gervitz and Sergio Toledo, presented a fundamental documentary in the history of Brazilian cinema, “Arms Crossed, Machines Stopped”, about “the strikes of May ’78”, promoted by the Metalworkers Union.

“We were very young; I was 22, and Sergio was 23. We were obviously delighted with the selection of the film for the festival, where it premiered for the general public. We were even happier with the great success that ‘Arms…’ had”, says Gervitz.

“Since the film only received a censorship certificate to be shown in film clubs and festivals, and its main public was the popular organizations and unions, the festival was an essential showcase, even more so because of its great repercussion in the written press.”

For Gervitz, the São Paulo festival is also synonymous with life. “In that claustrophobic society we lived in during the civic-military dictatorship, São Paulo Festival was pure oxygen.”

The free circulation of ideas haunts authoritarian governments, and the festival has not gone unscathed.

“The festival has always been vital to discover that the world is much wider than we imagined. Thanks to it, we came into contact with cinematography from very different latitudes and discovered unknown physical and human geographies”, says Walter Salles.

“The festival makes us more sensitive and tolerant, and we need that more than ever.”

Professor, critic, and director at Deusdará Filmes, Sérgio Rizzo, has witnessed public outrage at intolerance.

In his memory, the end of a São Paulo Festival session is still very vivid. In 1984, at the age of 19, the young journalist, still under the impact of the emotion of having just seen “The State of Things” by Wim Wenders, was brought back to reality when the lights came on while the credits were still rolling.

“Leon came in through a door under the screen, so in front of the audience, yelling for everyone to hear him. He said he was obliged to interrupt the festival because of a court order,” says Rizzo.

Although the dictatorship was in its death throes, in the last year of the Figueiredo government, the previous censorship of the films was still maintained. For four days in a row, the event was interrupted.

“People, surprised, were for some time without reaction. Then, shouts of protest, slogans against censorship.”

Difficulties would be a constant. Nowadays, the obstacles impose themselves in other ways. “There are several ways you can make something impossible,” says Renata.

“You have a way in which you say: this is forbidden. And there’s another way in which you make something unviable.” For Roberto Gervitz, the event also plays a crucial social role.

“The festival has this importance in the face of the overwhelming presence of cinematographies that impose their immense economic force that translates into habits, preferences, and values.”

For example, the famous queues at the festival have already yielded many stories of people who met before seeing a film and even married.

“São Paulo is a tough city; it’s not very outdoorsy, like Rio,” says Renata. “Paulistas are very shy, and at the festival, we always had this feeling of belonging. I think that’s why it is still successful among young people.”

This year, the festival will have a primarily presential format, unlike the last two years, in which streaming was a possible way out. The platforms Sesc Digital and Spcine will make available for free ten and seven films, respectively, of the selection.

The moments when she sees people in the bars near the movie theaters commenting on the festival’s films and asking each other for tips are the director’s favorite, and she cites research that shows that 30% of the public is young.

Affectionate ties with cinema professionals, such as Carolina Jabor, are also reinforced.

Besides the tribute to her father, Arnaldo Jabor (1940-2022), São Paulo’s festival will present “Transe”, the new film she directed with Anne Pinheiro Guimarães. She sees the event with an eye to the future.

“The festival is fundamental for forming new generations of filmmakers,” she says. “It needs to exist so that we can access films from a careful curation of contemporary and classic films that should be eternalized.”

When he was younger, Fernando Meirelles used to create logistics to get out of a film session and splice in another. “After a week of doing this, you enter a different state; it’s like a drug. Cinema trip. I recommend it.”

With information from Valor Econômico

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