Fire Engulfs Warehouse of South America’s Largest Film Collection

A storage facility belonging to the Cinemateca, the national film institute in São Paulo, Brazil and South America’s largest film collection, went up in flames Thursday night. The 70,000-square-foot building is the nation’s latest cultural asset to succumb to preventable fires and floods, largely a consequence of deep budget cuts in the sector and government negligence.

The fire department reported no victims, but the extent of the material damage is not yet known. Located in the Vila Leopaldina district, the warehouse guards part of the institution’s vast holdings, which include more than a million archival documents and around 250,000 film reels, many of them made of highly flammable cellulose nitrate.

“The fire at the Cinemateca de São Paulo is a crime against the country’s culture,” said São Paulo governor João Doria. “Contempt for the art and memory of Brazil leads to this: the gradual death of national culture.”

URGENTE! Cinemateca Brasileira está pegando fogo. Cultura Brasileira abandonada. Nossa história pegando fogo pelo descaso proposital pic.twitter.com/TShD2y9QPc

— ERIKA HILTON (@ErikakHilton) July 29, 2021

The latest reports say the fire was sparked by a short-circuit in the building’s air conditioning system, but many have taken to social media to decry what they view as the larger cause: conservative president Jair Bolsonaro’s longstanding neglect of Brazil’s cultural institutions. The blaze, the second at Cinemateca in the last year, is eerily reminiscent of the devastating fire that burned 90% of the National Museum of Brazil’s priceless collection in 2018.

After he dismantled the Ministry of Culture in 2019, Bolsonaro’s administration stopped paying the entirety of the Cinemateca’s technical staff and ended its contract with ACERP, a private foundation overseeing the organization. A lawsuit against the government filed by the Federal Public Ministry of Saõ Paulo, warning specifically of the risk of fires in the unattended building, was dismissed.

“It is impossible not to link the various disasters that have caused serious damage to the premises and collections of the Cinemateca Brasileira in the last few years to the glaring lack of financial aid and institutional support which the Cinemateca has experienced from the Brazilian government in the same period,” said the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Protesters from the Brazilian collective Na Rua Na Luta gathered in front of the smoking structure on Friday, holding signs that read “Who set fire to the Cinemateca?”

In a statement on their social media this morning, the former staff of the Cinemateca described the fire as “a crime foretold.”

“We are in mourning for the loss of more than half a million Brazilians,” the workers said, referring to the pandemic’s lethal toll on the nation, “and now for the loss of part of our history.”

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