Political row in Brazil over dystopian film 'Executive Order'

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – In the Brazil of the near future, the government has found what it calls the answer to righting the wrongs of slavery: send blacks back to Africa.


That dystopian premise is the point of departure for the new film "Executive Order," which is generating controversy in the Brazil of the present over allegations it is being censored by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's government.

The film, the directorial debut from acclaimed actor Lazaro Ramos ("Madame Sata"), has won praise at a series of international festivals, from Moscow to Memphis.

But it does not yet have a release date in Brazil, where there are mounting accusations against the National Cinema Agency (Ancine) of dragging its feet on green-lighting films deemed uncomfortable for the Bolsonaro administration.

"I can't say whether it's bureaucracy or censorship, but both are barriers to culture," Ramos said when the picture screened at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, which wraps up Sunday -- for now, the only time the movie is scheduled to play in Brazil.

"Executive Order" stars Ramos's wife, Tais Araujo, renowned actor and singer Seu Jorge ("City of God," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"), and Anglo-Brazilian star Alred Enoch (the "Harry Potter" franchise, "How to Get Away with Murder").

Araujo and Enoch play Capitu and Antonio, a doctor and lawyer with the trappings of professional success.

Capitu "is a black woman who doesn't really want to talk about racism at first -- she just wants to live," said Araujo.

"But then life comes calling, and she has to dive deep" into the issue.

'Accentuated melanin'

The "executive order" of the film's title requires all blacks -- or people with "accentuated melanin," in the script's Orwellian language -- to hand themselves in to the authorities to be removed to Africa.

Through Capitu, Antonio and his cousin Andre (Seu Jorge), viewers see how Afro-Brazilians organize a resistance to this mass deportation as the security forces begin arresting people in the streets.

The film is flush with references to structural racism in present-day Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.

The cast and crew of the film 'Executive Order' present their work before a one-off screening at the Rio film festival on December 15, 2021
The cast and crew of the film 'Executive Order' present their work before a one-off screening at the Rio film festival on December 15, 2021 Daniel RAMALHO AFP

Some authorities in its fictional government also bear strong resemblance to real members of the Bolsonaro administration.

In April, Bolsonaro ally Sergio Camargo, head of the Palmares Cultural Foundation, called for a boycott of the film.

"It's pure victim mentality and a defamatory attack on our president," said Camargo, a black Brazilian who has sparked controversy in the past by saying slavery was "beneficial for Afro-descendants."

It is unclear when Ancine will clear the film for release in Brazil.

The production team says it completed its application for funds to distribute the film in November 2020 and has yet to receive the official response.

Ancine says the application is "under review" and that it is following the "standard procedure."

'Marighella precedent'

It is not the first such case to cause controversy.

Directed by "Narcos" star Wagner Moura, the film is a biopic on a leftist guerrilla leader who fought Brazil's military dictatorship (1964-1985).

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is a fervent admirer of the former military regime, despite its large-scale human-rights abuses.

"Marighella" had its application to Ancine rejected twice in 2019, before finally being cleared for its Brazilian premiere last month.

Shortly after taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro said he wanted to "filter" Brazilian film productions.

"If there's no filter, we're going to get rid of Ancine," he said.

Ramos is undeterred.

"We're not going to stop debating this issue, or thinking about how this country was built," he said.

"Art is powerful, we can't give that up."