Bona Fide Brazil

'If you want to make productions in Brazil, you must be strong and never give up,' says Mario Borgneth, head of the documentary division at TV Cultura, the country's public broadcast network. A Brazilian producer and director for more than 20 years, Borgneth is well aware of the challenges that face doc-makers in South America's largest nation.
October 1, 2001

‘If you want to make productions in Brazil, you must be strong and never give up,’ says Mario Borgneth, head of the documentary division at TV Cultura, the country’s public broadcast network. A Brazilian producer and director for more than 20 years, Borgneth is well aware of the challenges that face doc-makers in South America’s largest nation.

In the last decade, he has watched as government funding for productions dry up. At the same time, corporate sponsorship has exploded, fueled in large part by Brazil’s culture-friendly tax-incentive laws. Cable television brought new markets for non-fiction programming and more opportunities for documentary filmmakers to apply their skills in related areas, such as commercial production. ‘When the money came from only government agencies, there were fewer projects and less money,’ Borgneth says. ‘It is better now.’

João Salles, the acclaimed director of Futebol, says there is ‘kind of a fever’ for docs in Brazil. With an increasing number of art theaters and venues willing to exhibit feature docs, and two big annual doc festivals, ‘it’s become trendy to be a doc-maker,’ he says.

Brazil is a land of astounding beauty, with landscapes ranging from the forests of the Amazon basin, to the Atlantic coastal ranges of Bahia, to the southern mountains of Paraná. It is also a land of contradictions, where the extremely wealthy live alongside the extremely poor in relative tranquility. All of which makes for rich source material for anyone with an adventurous spirit and the means to pull together a film crew. ‘If you want to see what is happening in film now in Brazil, you should see the documentaries,’ Salles says. ‘The non-fiction filmmakers are very attuned to what the people in Brazil are about.’

TV programmers, while still unable to completely finance independent productions, have made more room in their schedules for docs. During Borgneth’s tenure at TV Cultura, he has boosted the number of original productions and copros from 14 hours in 1998 to 67 hours in 2000. This year, he plans to build on that record with 100 hours of Brazilian factual programming – 60 hours produced in-house and 40 hours through copros. (TV Cultura will also air 270 hours of foreign doc programs in 2001, with an average acquisition fee of US$1,000 per hour, according to Borgneth.)

He spends much of his time working with independent producers on business plans to present to potential corporate sponsors. Under Brazilian law, companies can contribute up to three percent of their income taxes to film productions; in exchange, they receive a tax break and publicity, often in the form of a non-product advertisement when the program is broadcast.

While this funding structure has helped Brazil’s film industry expand, money for docs can still be hard to dig up, particularly for productions that address delicate political and economic issues, such as narcotics trafficking or the country’s vast rich-poor divide.

‘It’s very hard to go to GM Brazil or Johnson & Johnson with a controversial film about street crime or horrible violence,’ Salles says. ‘They never want to link their name with that kind of subject, which is understandable. You can’t find the funding to do documentaries that aren’t about beautiful and successful people – that are critical of a certain reality. Those docs are difficult to make in Brazil. That is a problem.’

Salles’ recent work, News From a Private War, delved into drug-related violence in the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro. Originally, says Salles, the project started out as something very different – as a feel-good story about a woman who taught ballet in a favela. But once shooting began, he recalls, ‘it became clear to me that I should do a film about the civil war in the favelas.’

When Salles was finished, the corporate sponsor acknowledged the importance of his movie, but asked to have the company’s name removed, allowing him to keep the money already invested. ‘If I had gone to them with the idea initially, I never would have gotten funds for the movie,’ Salles says. Interestingly, Salles does not want News From a Private War to be aired outside of Brazil. He even went so far as to buy back the broadcast rights from a French TV network. ‘These are issues that belong to us Brazilians, and I don’t see the point of it being shown outside Brazil,’ he says.

Salles’ attitude is ironic, given the difficulty that Brazilian producers have selling serious-minded documentaries in foreign markets. ‘It’s not easy to sell Brazilian docs around the world,’ says Renato Levi, a Sao Paulo-based doc-maker who produced Brasil Alternativo, a 6 x 30-minute series about poor communities struggling to better themselves. ‘People in First World countries are not interested in Third World productions.’

One way to run a successful independent production company in Brazil is by taking on a mix of commercial and non-commercial projects. Giros Productions in Rio de Janeiro follows this strategy, earning the bulk of its income from copros with Discovery Networks, MTV/Brazil and GNT/Globosat. Past projects include the 5 x 30-minute series Eco Adventure: the Amazon and the one-off doc Blast Off. Giros also produced Beyond The Sea, a 5 x 50-minute series (US$1 million total budget) that won the International Documentary Association’s award for Best TV Series in 1999.

Non-commercial work gets slotted into the spare time of the company’s directors and producers. For example, the non-fiction film True People, which looked at the traditions of the Xavante people in Mato Grosso, took two years to shoot in a largely piecemeal fashion. ‘When one of our crew was in the area of Mato Grosso, we would have them shoot new footage using funding or film stock from other, more commercial projects,’ says director Belisario Franca, co-founder of Giros. ‘We have to survive and keep working, and then opportunities appear to show our non-commercial projects.’

Another approach is the one taken by Rio-based Vista Nova Productions, which combines in-house productions for clients such as National Geographic and Discovery with a service bureau for visiting producers who want to film in Brazil and elsewhere in South America. ‘We found there was a real need for a local base that could provide research, crews and logistical help for projects that are essentially U.S. or European productions,’ says Adam Stepan, the American-born founder of Vista Nova.

Recent Vista Nova projects include a collaboration with London’s Cicada Films on Wolves: Legends of the Night, which aired this summer on National Geographic, and Brazil: Heart and Soul, a series of five films for a traveling exhibit on Brazilian art for the Guggenheim Museum. Vista Nova provided research, a local fixer, a soundman and lights for four of the five films. The fifth was pulled together using Vista Nova-produced material. ‘It’s often hard for a producer to do research and location scouting long distance,’ Stepan explains. ‘We are here to close those gaps.’

Vista Nova is currently in post on Samba!, a US$400,000, 90-minute feature doc about six months in the lives of Carnaval junkies in Brazil and around the world. ‘While Brazil’s Carnaval has been featured in many docs, the treatment it generally gets is very superficial,’ Stepan says. ‘No one has taken a serious look at the current reality. Today’s Carnaval is a huge business, moving millions of dollars and inspiring people’s fantasies the world over.’ International partners helped shoot local Carnavals in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Goa, India.

Samba! will be distributed theatrically in Brazil. Stepan plans to follow that with a television release worldwide and says he has already received interest from several international partners, including the BBC and PBS. ‘We feel that there is a real future in finding projects that can be funded in Brazil through incentives, but that also speak to an international audience,’ he says.

In many ways, Brazilian doc-makers resemble their peers the world over, with similar financial pressures and artistic concerns about creating significant works. ‘The story’s always the same,’ Salles says. ‘What really changes is the scale. Errol Morris has to go out and get $6 million, we have to go out and get $300,000. But, it’s just as difficult.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.