In the midst of the current global tumult, I decided to take an afternoon’s break and escort my young children to the local movie theater to watch the new animated feature film Rio. As the first brightly colored 3-D computer-generated images flashed upon the screen, I felt assured of at least ninety minutes’ respite from the so-called real world.
I was wrong. In less than five minutes I realized that Rio is Hollywood’s soft-power gift to Brazil, a love letter from its Brazilian director, Carlos Saldanha, to the city of his birth (the film’s last line of dialogue is “I love you, Rio!”). It is virtually guaranteed to spark new or intensified interest in Rio de Janeiro and Brazilian culture in children and adults alike. With a sigh I stopped simply watching the movie and began analyzing it. Having long been fascinated by the comparative politics of filmmaking, I simply could not help myself.1
For those unfamiliar with the film, Rio, a Twentieth Century Fox release, is the animated story of a rare blue macaw, raised in Minnesota and brought to Rio de Janeiro in the midst of Carnaval to mate with his female opposite number and thereby save the species. The macaws are bird-napped by local smugglers looking to sell the rarae aves, and much merriment, excitement and Carioca singing ensues as the macaws seek their freedom.
As of this writing Rio is a smash hit in both the United States and internationally, including in Brazil, where the film is being celebrated on both its aesthetic merits and as a representation of the local culture. O Globo film writer Rodrigo Fonseca pronounced Rio “an exuberant slapstick comedy with feathers” and noted its tribute to the beloved Brazilian chancada musical comedy film genre. Even more pointedly, Rio de Janeiro’s State Secretary of Culture Adriana Rattes declared that the animated feature “is the best cinematic present we could get.” Rattes averred that Rio “will convey to the world an ultra-positive image of the city. . . . The world’s children will grow up with Rio de Janeiro in their imaginations.”
What will stay with these children, as well as grown-up viewers around the world? As denoted by the title, Rio de Janeiro is not simply a backdrop for the story, but an integral character in it. The city is meticulously and ravishingly depicted via computer modeling, from the legendary beach at Ipanema to the lovely 19th-century architecture of prosperous neighborhoods to the hillside favelas of Rio’s poorer denizens. (Director Saldanha brought his team of U.S. animators to his native city “because I wanted them to capture what was the essence of Rio.”) Indeed, one of the film’s most remarkable tricks is that it frankly acknowledges Rio’s vast disparities of wealth; even with its portrayal of an orphaned Afro-Brazilian boy forced by homelessness into criminal activity, the city still looks irresistibly gorgeous. Disney’s Saludos Amigos it ain’t.
Rio portrays as a given the longstanding Brazilian vision of a colorblind society in which peoples of all ethnic backgrounds freely interact and share a deep national pride. In the film’s case, this vision is centered on Brazil’s stunning Carnaval festivities. In a key, heartwarming plot development (spoiler alert!) a Euro-Brazilian ornithologist, the Anglo-Minnesotan owner of the blue macaw at the center of events, gets married and adopts the aforementioned dark-skinned orphan. The clear intimation is that no one in Brazil bats an eye at multiethnic, “interracial” families. That there is something of a gap between Brazil’s colorblind self-conception and the more complicated reality is another story, but the image of racial comity that Rio conveys to global theatergoers (and to Brazilians as well) is overwhelmingly positive.
This affirmative depiction of Brazil combines with others depicting, for instance, a nation committed to environmentalism (pace longstanding criticism of Brazil over Amazon rainforest destruction), as well as, naturally, a fun-loving, sensual, musically rich culture. (The soundtrack features music by Brazilian icons Sergio Mendes and Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as a track sung by Bebel Gilberto, daughter of legendary bossa nova performer João Gilberto.)
Given the clear boost Rio provides to Brazil’s already positive overseas image, not to mention the strong possibility that the film will increase tourism, one might suppose that the production enjoyed the direct or indirect cooperation of the Brazilian government. However, the only state aid acknowledged in Rio’s closing credits is that of Connecticut, host to Blue Sky, the animation production company behind the motion picture.
In fact, the Brazilian government has taken steps only in the past few years to gear up its film industry in general, and it has taken even fewer steps to direct subsidies and other inducements to the production of commercially viable movies for international markets. A November 2010 Wharton Business School report on Brazilian motion picture production notes that, while “the economics of Brazil’s film industry have never been better”, it is “still a long way from what it truly wants to be—Latin America’s answer to Bollywood.”2 On April 19, Brazil-watching journalist Kenneth Rapoza wrote in his Forbes.com blog, BRIC Breaker, that the “relationship between the Brazilian and U.S. film entertainment industry has been a one way street. Brazilian directors and actors are coming to Hollywood to make Hollywood movies.” Rapoza hopes that the box-office success of Rio will encourage the production of films made in Brazil but geared toward both domestic and global audiences. He supposes that Rio director Saldanho could serve as an “important link between U.S. studios and talent agencies, and Brazil’s burgeoning filmed entertainment industry.”
Both Rapoza and the Wharton report observe that Brazil’s developing film subsidy program is largely aimed at film directors whose efforts are insulated from failure, in the classic European subsidy model, as the government absorbs the loss of movie house flops. Instead, it should be aimed at creating “an American model, aimed more at assuring profitability and further revenues through marketing and DVD sales.”
That shift may be in the works in the formation of U.S.-Brazilian concerns like Corisco Films, whose directors “believe that combining the best of the Brazilian and American film industry can bring Brazilian cinema to the next level.” As Corisco Films’ New York-based CEO Nicholas Bernstein suggests, “Hollywood is beginning to realize that local ideas have the power to compete internationally. The next logical step is to take local production and show the world that Brazil is ready for its close-up.”3 The Corisco model follows a recent trend of Hollywood direct investment in Bollywood production.4 U.S. financing and production values are deployed to make films primarily for a burgeoning local audience, but with an eye on possible overseas distribution as well.
The idea is a good one and is likely over time to bring commercial success. There is some basis for optimism here. It is well known in Brazil that knowledgeable American and European film audiences have fallen permanently in love with several Brazilian films, Orfeu Negro (1959), Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (1976) and Bye Bye, Brazil (1979), among others. But it’s clear that, while there have been a few more recent domestic and international Brazilian hits, like City of God (2002), Elite Squad (2007) and the latter’s 2010 sequel (the highest grossing film ever in Brazil), these are outliers, even at home. Only about 14 percent of Brazil’s movie screens are given over to Brazilian films, versus 90 percent of domestic production in India. Moreover, City of God and the Elite Squad films, though they achieved international acclaim (the first Elite Squad won a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival), are hardly advertisements for Brazil, with their grim, violent depictions of crime in the favelas. In fact, Elite Squad director José Padilha heartily agrees that his films offer “damaging pictures of my country.”
Clearly, it’s going to take an effort, indeed a collaboration, to turn a good idea into a successful reality. Brazil’s government would do well to encourage significant Hollywood co-production initiatives in Brazil—significant in both numbers and scale—that are specifically geared to U.S. and global audiences as well as to the Brazilian one. Beijing officials fretted a couple of years back about Hollywood’s being able to produce the animated feature Kung Fu Panda, a global hit film that sensitively and authentically portrayed Chinese cultural themes, while China’s own film industry could not. If officials in Brasília aren’t doing some fretting of their own right now concerning Rio, they should be.
Hollywood filmmakers as a group simply have the best grasp of how to tailor their product for the widest possible audience at home and abroad. This has been the American film industry’s modus operandi for almost a century now. With America being the well-established global cultural clearinghouse, Hollywood is a grand international transmitter for positive cinematic images of and messages about Brazil. There was a brief, modest spate of Hollywood production in Brazil in the mid-1960s (although the most notable foreign-produced film made in Brazil during this time was the Jean-Paul Belmondo-starring 1964 French action comedy That Man From Rio), but that spate did not lead to an ongoing U.S. production presence there, as was the case in Britain, Mexico, Italy and Spain. One problem, according to an American producer who worked in Brazil at the time, was that the “techniques of American filmmaking are largely foreign to Brazilians . . . and their technical equipment is either outmoded or nonexistent.”5 This is obviously no longer the case, certainly not when it comes to equipment.
Brazil’s inducements to Hollywood should include encouragement to ambitious American producers to set up permanent operations in Brazil, which would result in a win-win hybridization of Brazilian and American production personnel, approaches and themes. This is how the Franco dictatorship brought U.S. producer Samuel Bronston to Spain half a century ago, where Bronston established “Hollywood in Madrid” and made films like the 1961 epic El Cid, an international hit that many Spaniards still lionize as the greatest foreign cinematic depiction of Spanish culture ever created. Spanish authorities intended the film to promote pro-Franco Spanish sentiment around the world. That hope, apparently, did not pan out. Nonetheless, when Bronston wore out his welcome in Spain in 1972, he approached Brazil, then ruled by a military junta, about establishing a new studio in Rio de Janeiro. For better or for worse, that idea never panned out either.
Brazil happily has none of the soft power shortcomings or vulnerabilities of Franco’s Spain a generation ago or the People’s Republic of China today. (Indeed, Brazil is the most advantaged of the BRICs when it comes to soft power, surpassing even fellow democracy India, which has to contend with such threats to its generally positive global image as the often-bloody Kashmir dispute and radical sectarian politics.) The country already has a strong international reputation as a rising, peaceful, democratic state with a commitment to advancing its interests through multilateralism, persuasion and attraction rather than coercion. Its cultural reputation, too, is a great asset. Americans, at least, have been singing praises to Brazilian music and dance for three-quarters of a century, from Fred Astaire singing “Flying Down to Rio” to Peter Allen’s similarly evocative “I Go to Rio” and more. Brazil will get a chance to show off and hopefully advance that reputation when it hosts the World Cup in 2014 and then the Summer Olympics two years later.
Some observers worry that Brazil is not up to pulling off these major events effectively, but the Brazilian government is determined to prove them wrong. It accepted these challenges because it is not content to rest on its laurels; it is actively working to further improve the country’s overseas image and standing. As Rodrigo Baena Soares, director of Brazil’s SECOM, the Secretariat for Social Communication of the Presidency of Brazil, told China’s Xinhua news agency last year:
We show the idea of a country that has matured, which is consolidated as a strong and vibrant democracy, with problems and challenges, but that today presents itself to the world as a country with all conditions for an even bigger leap, strengthening its economy, reducing social inequality and investing in more advanced economic sectors.
Moreover, says Baena Soares, improving international public opinion on Brazil “does not mean hiding the country’s problems”, such as lingering extremes of wealth and poverty—a sensible approach that is serendipitously reflected in Carlos Saldanha’s Rio. Brazil’s environmental commitment, a key plot element in Rio as noted earlier, is also being stressed by SECOM.
The result of Brazil’s substantive achievements and its canny international outreach, aided by the retention of the U.S. public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard, has been glowing overseas assessments like the BBC’s recent effusion: “Take a nation that is at peace with itself and with all of its ten neighbours. Add a strong and stable economy, with a charismatic, democratically elected leader and huge untapped oil reserves, and what do you have? Brazil.”6
Given the Brazilian government’s determination to continue improving the country’s global image, it should look closely at Rio’s serendipitously spot-on messaging and positive international reception. Serendipity can become strategy with the right package of incentives to attract U.S. filmmakers and foster large-scale collaboration with their Brazilian counterparts. The little blue macaw that is cinematically conquering the world underlines the value for rising states of harnessing the production and distribution skills of the American entertainment industry in the service of increasing their soft power appeal. For Brazil the message is aproveite o dia—seize the day. It’s only a matter of time before Carlos Saldanha announces plans for Rio 2.
2“Can Brazil Become a Latino Bollywood?” Universia-Knowledge@Wharton, November 17, 2010.
3Patricia Maresch, “Corisco Films Launches in Rio”, Rio Times, March 29, 2011.
4Neal Rosendorf, “Hollywood’s Investment Bet on India Over China: Democracy Matters”, University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, September 17, 2008.
5Eugene Archer, “Americans Find New Movie Terrain In Brazil, Norway and Spain”, New York Times, July 26, 1964.
6Robin Lustig, “Brazil Emerges as a Leading Exponent of Soft Power”, BBC, The World Tonight, March 23, 2010.