The clowns were already on stage, faces painted white, costumes carefully adjusted. It was to be the troupe’s second show of “Abrazo,” a play for children about a fictional dictatorship in which hugging is outlawed. The actors breathed deeply, waiting for the public to take its seats.
Then a government representative hustled in and pulled the plug on the show.
The clowns were in breach of contract, or so the state-owned bank that owns the theater argued later. They’d made the mistake of talking politics with the audience during the show’s debut — a taboo in President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil if your production receives public money.
“It’s a suspension of our right of expression, disguised in a legal cloak,” said Fernando Yamamoto, director of the Clowns de Shakespeare theater troupe. “It’s hard for us to view this as anything other than censorship.”
“Abrazo” is among the growing list of shows, plays, conferences and other artistic projects that have been abruptly canceled since Bolsonaro took office Jan. 1. Bolsonaro and his close political circle, advertising their ties to former Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon, have vowed to fight “cultural Marxism” from school benches to movie theaters and museums.
In July, he said he would “extinguish” the country’s National Cinema Agency were he not able to impose a “filter” on its production.
Newspaper columnists, the president of Brazil’s bar association and celebrated artists including Fernanda Montenegro and Vik Muniz have said Bolsonaro’s cultural conservatism may lead to routine censorship and public money drying up for progressive artistic projects.
Federal prosecutors, who are independent of the executive branch, have also sought to reverse several decisions by Bolsonaro’s administration, arguing they violate constitutional right to artistic freedom.
Bolsonaro, an outspoken Christian and former army captain during the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, has bristled at the accusations of censorship and made clear that while his government doesn’t plan to finance projects at odds with traditional values, they can still be privately financed.
“We’re not going to persecute anyone, but Brazil’s changed,” Bolsonaro said in a speech transmitted to a conservative gathering on Oct. 5. “With public money we won’t see certain types of works. That’s not censorship. That’s preserving Christian values, treating your youth with respect, recognizing families.”
In his studio nested in the tropical vegetation of Rio de Janeiro’s hillside Gavea neighborhood, one of Brazil’s most famous contemporary artists, Vik Muniz, said he regretted that politicians in Brazil have become “the curators of our culture,” which he considers a type of censorship.
“People blame Bolsonaro, in the US people blame Trump, but you have to look a little further in the issue,” Muniz said. “You have to understand we have elected these people. What kind of social forces have enabled these people with this kind of thinking to be in power? Whether you like it or not, these people represent the bulk of the population.”
Cultural conservatism in the world’s most populous Catholic nation has been gaining strength in recent years with the rise of evangelicals, who now account for one in five Brazilians. Increasingly, they have expressed outrage at seeing tax money financing works they considered scandalous or even blasphemous.
In Bolsonaro, they found a powerful advocate. His open nostalgia for the military regime resonates with many Brazilians who, tired of endemic corruption and violence, remember that period as safer and more aligned with conservative values. More than 57 million people voted for Bolsonaro — 55 percent of voters.
He was still a member of the army when the military regime ended in 1985 and artists living in exile had returned to Brazil. The dictatorship era’s Division of Censorship of Public Diversions continued to screen films for immoral scenes, communist propaganda, or subliminal messages for another three years, appending its seal on movies, books and records.
Since then, Brazilian governments have often steered cultural output to some degree on both sides of the political spectrum. For example with the leftist administrations of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff financed more progressive works.
“There has been censorship in Brazil for the past 20 years. You can’t find a play that is anti-communist,” said Roberto Alvim, who Bolsonaro appointed director of theater, dance and opera at the National Arts Foundation.
Alvim sparked backlash in September for calling widely revered actress Fernanda Montenegro “sordid” on the eve of her 90th birthday. The actress had posed in a black robe, bound by a thick rope atop of a pile of open books, as if ready to be set afire.
“The culture war in Brazil is fully burning. I’m not the one who invented it,” Alvim said, adding that he was an example of the left’s political persecution.
Overlooking his accolades, the country’s art establishment effectively blacklisted him because of his vocal support for Bolsonaro, he said. Alvim said his theatre in Sao Paulo was marred with graffiti, his plays turned down, his sponsors walked away and students stopped showing up at his classes.
Alvim, speaking from his modest office in Brasilia, two Christian crosses hanging on the wall behind him, said the government isn’t censoring, but rather “curating” art, and that means not promoting political proselytism.
“Like the Crusaders, we are fighting barbarian invasions against the principles and values of our Judeo-Christian civilization,” Alvim said.
The government’s justifications for restricting specific content don’t stand up to scrutiny, according to Hernani Heffner, lead archivist at Rio de Janeiro’s independent Cinematheque, which was once a hotbed of cultural resistance where leftists could find Eastern European productions censored by the military regime.
Heffner said the Bolsonaro government is flirting with Brazil’s troubled past.
Brazil’s 1988 constitution says creation and information cannot be subject to any restriction – a concept that, according to Heffner, every government until now had abided by.
“Democracy is the coexistence of contrary views. It’s the plurality of thoughts,” said Heffner. “The state cannot have its own morale.”
As the culture war rages, artists like film director Claudia Priscilla find themselves in the firing line.
Her documentary “Tranny Fag,” which followed the life of a black transgender woman had won the audience award for best picture at a Brazilian film festival sponsored by oil giant Petrobras, earning a $50,000 prize. But earlier this year, the state-run company said recent changes in its administration meant it wouldn’t be able to give her team the award.
A few months later, Bolsonaro himself railed against another one of her projects, a proposed TV show aimed at exploring the relationship between Brazil’s LGBT community and religions. Days after the president’s comments, the Citizenship Ministry suspended the process that could have granted it public funding. A federal court, however, ordered the ministry to resume the funding analysis and the Supreme Court scheduled a hearing starting Monday for testimony on possible infringement of the right to freedom of expression.
Bolsonaro, Priscilla said, “is someone who prefers to eliminate what is different instead of understanding.”