As we enter October 2020, the months-long crisis of Brazil’s largest film archive, the Cinemateca Brasileira, continues. One would hope that governmental inaction placing a country’s entire filmographic history in jeopardy of destruction would be unprecedented, however Alain Fresnot’s 1974 documentary film Nitrato helps us realize that the Cinemateca Brasileira has always existed on the brink of extinction. Nitrato portrays harrowing images of nitrate reels burning, the façade of the Cinemateca Brasileira cracking and breaking away, and archival papers standing aside bathroom urinals, reflecting the desperate state Brazilian archivists were in 1974 to preserve and maintain film collections. The film also brings forth the voices of numerous scholars, archivists, and filmmakers to weigh in on the historical importance of the Cinemateca Brasileira and its lack of governmental support (the archive only became recognized as a government institution in 1984).
Watching Nitrato today should feel like a blast to the past, and the Cinemateca Brasileira should still be operating as one of the most efficient film archives in Latin America. However, the fact that Nitarto could easily pass off as a film made about the situation of the Cinemateca Brasileira in 2020 speaks volumes about the current Brazilian government’s inability to learn from previous negligences related to the institution. Nitrato helps us understand the tumultuous past of one of the world’s most important film institutions, the Cinemateca Brasileira, for which we remain in hope of a better future.