Brazil: A Case Study in Anger, Sound and Fury

Politicians seem mystified by growing global unrest, but showbiz has its finger on the pulse of the enraged masses

Brazil Unrest Biz

If Brazilian president Dilma Rousse had taken a look at more of her nation’s movies, she might have avoided some of the civil unrest that has been spreading like wildfire across the country. On June 20, 1 million Brazilians — students, middle-class professionals, trade union rank-and-file, ’60s activists and entire families — staged the nation’s largest street protest since 1992 — the time of the impeachment of president Fernando Collor.

In 2013, similar demonstrations have been held in territories including Egypt (see story, p.52), Spain, Turkey, Greece and Russia. The protests in Brazil are a microcosm of what’s behind all the anger, and what’s to come — and a reminder that the entertainment business has had its finger on the pulse of the nation, zeroing in on the signals that are often ignored by politicians.

The Brazilian fury targeted a number of issues — cuts in the country’s public services, the $14 billion bill for the nation to stage the 2014 World Cup, the cost of living, a constitutional amendment limiting prosecutors’ ability to investigate politicians, and even a Brazilian evangelists’ bill in Congress to “cure” homosexuality.

But there’s a bigger picture.

Brazil is a young democracy: Its first modern elections took place in 1990. Growing 4% annually during 2003-10, its economic boom lifted 40 million Brazilians out of poverty. Many flooded into already-congested cities. Brazil’s growing middle-classes now have time to consider the quality of their life, and often are unhappy with what they see. The Brazilian masses have evolved far more quickly than its ruling elite.

As the digital world offers citizens a chance to view their lifestyle and compare it to others around the world, the reaction is often a sense of betrayal.

“Brazil’s hospitals and education are terrible. People want more direct participation in democracy. Their basic values are not being taken into account,” said producer Paula Cosenza, at Sao Paulo’s Bossa Nova Films.

The frustrations erupted June 13, when police officers fired stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets at a small group of Sao Paulo protesters, bystanders and motorists.

In general, the movie industry reacts slowly to historical change, since films often take 18 months or more to develop, shoot and distribute. But Brazil’s modernization has been decades in the making, so the national unrest has been reflected in many hit movies.

Brazilian police brutality? 2007’s “Elite Squad” ($10.2 million box office in Brazil) is a good beginner’s guide. Corruption in high places? That drives 2011’s “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” ($62.9 million).

The daily grind of urban life was captured in two-part “Upside Down,” about a woman who’s a slave to her job (the two pics earned a combined $40.1 million at the local B.O.). Last year’s “Till Luck Do Us Part” ($17.0 million) and “Party Crashers” ($12.9 million) show the huge damage inflicted by economic pressures.

In Brazil, more filmmakers look set to zero in on politics, such as the upcoming “After the Rain,” from Claudio Marques and Marilia Hughes. “ Thirty years ago, we couldn’t even talk about these issues,” said Madrid-based Brazilian producer Iona de Macedo.

Meanwhile, in Spain, the protests reflect a different connection between film and the national mood. In 2011, three million demonstrated in a single day in the Indignados (literally, “Outraged”) protests, set off by a fiscal squeeze. Among the cutbacks were slashes in film subsidies, forcing a new generation of directors to work on microbudget movies often targeting festivals and the Internet.

“The crisis confirmed that classical theatrical distribution is no longer possible for many Spanish films,” said Berlin Film Festival delegate Javier Martin.

In global demonstrations, social media has played an important role in mobilizing protesters. So has traditional media (TV, print and online). “Brazil is learning that countries that host world events attract the world’s media spotlight. People can take advantage and embarrass them,” said Christopher Pickard, chairman of the Latin American Travel Assn.

Many think entertainment is for escapism. But as Brazil and others have reminded, show business can be one step ahead of reality.