Devastating Blaze Rips Through Cinemateca Brasileira Warehouse

August 4th, 2021

The Cinemateca Brasileira warehouse sustained considerable damage and the condition of its contents is not yet fully known after a fire tore through the structure, located in the Vila Leopoldina district of São Paulo, on the evening of July 29. The blaze, which local fire chief Karina Paula Mareira said “started in one of the historical film collection rooms on the first floor” of the 70,000-square-foot building, led to the total collapse of one-quarter of the roof. Damage to the 250,000 Brazilian films and million related documents housed in the edifice is likely to be significant, as is that to historical film equipment stored there.

Cinemateca Brasileira, founded in 1940, is the longest-running cinema institution in Brazil. Its collection of films is the largest in South America, and includes the complete collection of Cinema Novo figurehead Glauber Rocha and every game aired on soccer channel Canal 100 between 1958 and 1986. Considered by many to be a national treasure, it was essentially gutted by the conservative government led by Jair Bolsonaro, who in January 2019 dismantled the Brazilian Ministry of Culture and later that year fired most of the archive’s longtime staff, whose efforts had contributed to the organization’s position at the forefront of the film-restoration field and its status as an important training center for future technicians.

At the close of 2019 the state ended its contract with ACERP, the private organization responsible for managing the facility, leaving the archive and its skeleton crew without air-conditioning, fire protection, or security. Months later, as Covid-19 ravaged the country, and in the wake of terrific flooding that affected the warehouse, the federal district attorney’s office in São Paulo filed suit against the government, demanding the renewal of ACERP’s contract through the end of 2020 as an emergency measure to protect the archive and its contents. The lawsuit was dismissed, and the government reclaimed from ACERP the keys to the archive and fired all remaining employees without paying their wages.

Just weeks before the conflagration broke out, federal prosecutor Gustavo Torres had filed a lawsuit against the government charging it with “financial strangulation and administrative abandonment” and citing the imminent threat of fire and the lack of funding for the proper storage of the collection’s highly combustible cellulose nitrate films. According to Torres’s suit, the federal government disbursed to the institution $1.6 million in 2018, $1.4 million in 2019, and zero dollars and zero cents in 2020.  

The cause of the blaze—the fourth in the structure’s long history—has not yet been determined. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, tweeted that the fire was a  “crime against Brazilian culture,” asserting that the government’s sustained neglect of Cinemateca Brasileira and institutions like it will result in the “gradual death of national culture.”