Marighella’s delayed release shows censorship is alive and well in Brazil

There is a highly symbolic scene in Marighella, a Brazilian film that has only reached movie theatres now, even though it has been ready for release since 2019. An American agent (Charles Paraventi) praises Police Chief Lúcio (Bruno Gagliasso) for the inventiveness with which the revolutionary group Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN) infiltrated radio stations, broadcasting a subversive message using only a tape recorder and circumventing the censorship. The sequence fulfils at least two functions: to reinforce the deep ties between the brutality of the Brazilian military dictatorship and North American imperialist interests; and reinforcing political and social resistance through creativity, a typically Brazilian trait often described as jeitinho or malandragem – a way of circumventing the bureaucratic norms.

I evoke this idea of trickery because it is at the centre of the imbroglio involving the release of Marighella, a political biopic of Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist-Leninist communist, politician and writer.

Marighella, born in 1911, was regularly in and out of jail between the 1930s and 1950s for criticising the Brazilian government as an active member of the Communist Party.

In 1966, he published The Brazilian Crisis, which argued for an armed struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship which had been installed as a result of the 1964 coup in the country. Two years later, Marighella was expelled from the Communist Party and he went on to found the ALN, which became involved in robbing banks to finance guerilla warfare and the kidnapping of high profile individuals to win the release of political prisoners.

After the ALN’s involvement in the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick, Marighella became a target. On 4 November 1969, he was ambushed by the police in São Paulo and shot dead.

The release of the biopic during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, an apologist of Latin American military dictatorships and nostalgic for the bloodthirsty Brazilian regime that acts as the de facto villain of the film, is timely.

Marighella was supposed to be released in early 2020 but Ancine, the government agency that works to promote national cinema in Brazil, withheld funding of R$1 million (roughly £134,000) for its distribution, alleging a problem in the accounts for another production by O2 Filmes, the film’s producer.

Celebrated actor Wagner Moura, who debuts here as the director, had no doubt that the film was censored.

“It was a time when Bolsonaro was talking about filtering and regulating Ancine,” Moura said at a press event about the movie.

Brazil hasn’t had a censorship department since the end of the military dictatorship, which ended with popular elections in the mid-1980s. The constitution that was enacted at that time was so influenced by the “years of lead” (as the times under the regime are known) that censorship was expressly prohibited by the law.

There are, of course, age rating systems and, with the justification of “protecting the innocence of children”, certain films, events or exhibitions are only released for certain ages, and/or with parents’ authorisation, very much alike the ratings systems in the US or the UK. That’s why, as long as it feels the need to comply with the Constitution, the current far-right Brazilian government needs to be at least as creative as the speeches it seeks to curb.

Hence Moura’s revolt, saying that there would be “veiled censorship”, different than what happened during the dictatorship, applied as a state policy.

“Today they infiltrate people in these agencies, and they make anything impossible to happen. That’s what they did with Marighella. They found a way to make the release impossible, from a bureaucratic point of view,” he said in an interview with Veja magazine.

Without this being state policy, made official by documents, it is difficult to say that there is de facto censorship. Carlos Marighella symbolises much of what the radical wing of the government despises, finding it absurd that public money is used to finance “non-aligned” works.

Bolsonaro himself has even threatened Ancine with extinction because the productions it finances are no longer “aligned” with the government. His government’s special secretary of culture, former actor Mário Frias has even tweeted a response to Moura’s statements: “Did you think I was going to get public funds for this pamphlet garbage?”

This type of declaration by a state representative helps to understand the Brazilian Government’s relationship with culture. Its origin lies in one of the ideological consequences of the end of the military dictatorship, in which some far-right intellectuals and disgraced military personnel came to the conclusion that the left had “won” the “cultural war”, infiltrating universities and fostering ideologically aligned artistic production .

This conclusion was, in part, a reaction to the establishment of the National Truth Commission, dedicated to revealing and documenting the crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship, and the result of a bad reading (and also in bad faith, it should be said) of the theories of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist intellectual.

The rise and permanence of the extreme right in power, they think, would be conditioned to the dismantling of an apparatus of cultural incentive and promotion, developed over the years of redemocratisation. This explains the presence of someone like Frias in charge of culture and the use of jeitinho to impede the exhibition of “misaligned” films such as Marighella.

This institutional trickery, in this case at least, has backfired, since a work is not an isolated object of its historical context. Since release – without the benefit of government funding –  Marighella has become the most watched Brazilian production of the last two years, with 100,000 spectators in 300 theatres across the country. This is low in a historic context, as the screen quota which usually ensures that cinemas show a certain amount of locally produced content to counter the influx of foreign films is currently suspended while a new proposal, suggest by Brazil’s opposition parties, is considered.

Despite its success, the film has problems – from the annoying overacting to the lack of real interest in its main character – and it perhaps wouldn’t be so celebrated in another time. In Brazil at the end of 2021, with all the absurdities committed by action or inaction of the Bolsonaro government, Marighella has become the film to be seen.

He is loathsome, but I will always defend Ken Loach’s right to offend me

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116256″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]I can think of few public figures I hold in greater contempt than Ken Loach. Mr Loach may be an esteemed film maker but I regard his politics as those of the sewer. His involvement in the cancelled original production of Perdition, the notoriously antisemitic play, ought to have led all decent people to shun him. Far from that happening, however, he has been widely feted and his career has soared. And yet not only do his views remain the same, he misses few opportunities to promote them.

In short, I loathe the man and find him deeply offensive.

All of which is true, but all of which should be irrelevant to anyone but me and those who are interested in my views of Mr Loach. There are many other public figures whose views I find deeply offensive. To which you rightly respond: Who cares?

Except people do care. Not about my specific response, but about the offence Mr Loach generates among many of my fellow Jews. And that is an issue.

Earlier this month, a brouhaha arose over a decision by students at St Peter’s College, Oxford, to invite Mr Loach to speak (as it happens, about his films rather than, er, Jews). Would I have invited him? I think you know the answer to that. But the invitation was issued, Mr Loach accepted, and we are where we are.

Vile as I – and, let’s be clear, many others – may find him to be, if a group of Oxford students wish to hear from Ken Loach, so be it. He has broken no laws when speaking and has as much right to put forward his views – and, of course, to talk about his films to a group of people interested in hearing from him about them – as anyone else.

Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the matter. But when the event was made public, the Board of Deputies of British Jews weighed in, demanding that the invitation be withdrawn. They argued – correctly – that many Jews find Mr Loach’s views deeply offensive. But, bizarrely and ludicrously, they concluded from this that he should therefore have been banned from speaking.

The sheer idiocy of this position takes some grappling with. For most of my time as editor of the Jewish Chronicle, a recurring story has been how representatives of Israel face violence and intimidation on campus to stop them speaking. In other words, one group of people believe that the offence they take at hearing a certain view entitles them to silence that view. The Board of Deputies has rightly criticised such attempts.

Do they really not see the contradiction? For Jewish students, the greatest campus battle at the moment is the right to be heard. All too often they are shouted down and attacked by anti-Israel activists. The Board of Deputies’ position is that if someone is regarded as offensive by enough people, they should be denied the opportunity to speak. Presumably anywhere, always. If Mr Loach is to be denied the chance to speak at St Peter’s, is he also to be barred from promoting his films? Or from making films?

As one can see, the whole thing unravels with a moment’s thought – as well as being so obviously counter-productive. It will not be long before the next attempt to silence an Israeli speaker, this time doubtless claiming to be based on the Board of Deputies’ own logic, that their presence is offensive to many people.

As readers of this site well know, free speech issues can be complicated. But not always. Sometimes the issue is obvious. I loathe Ken Loach. But I defend his right to speak.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Turkey’s rising censorship: How did we get here?

People gather in solidarity outside Zaman newspaper in Istanbul in March 2016

People gather in solidarity with the press outside Zaman newspaper in Istanbul in March 2016

By Ianka Bhatia and Sean Vannata

The spotlight has been on Turkey following the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government’s ensuing crackdown on journalists, teachers, judges and soldiers. How did it come to this? Here are five key articles on Turkey from Index on Censorship showing the escalation of threats to freedom of expression prior to July’s failed coup.

1. Silence on campus 

Early in 2015, an academic at Ankara University’s political sciences department spent an evening writing questions for an exam. He never for one minute suspected that one of those questions might lead to death threats. Index’s Turkey editor Kaya Genç reported on the struggle for academic freedom in Turkey’s election year for the summer 2015 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

2. “Judicial coup” sends clear warning to Turkey’s remaining independent journalists 

“Nothing could illustrate the course of developments in Turkey better than the case of prosecutor Murat Aydın,” Yavuz Baydar wrote for Index on 8 June 2016. “In what was described as a ‘judicial coup’ in critical media, Aydin was one of 3,746 judges and prosecutors, who were reassigned in recent days, an unprecedented move that has shaken the basis of the justice system. Some were demoted by being sent into internal “exile”, some were promoted.”

3. Turkey war on journalists rages on

The ongoing deterioration in Turkey’s press freedom has been well documented by Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project since its launch in 2014. Back in March 2015, Index’s assistant online editor Ryan McChrystal looked at how, with journalists being killed, detained and prevented from working, the crackdown on Turkey’s media only appears to be getting worse.

4. Interviews with Turkey’s  struggling investigative reporters 

Kaya Genç interviews writers from the acclaimed independent newspaper Radikal about its closure and the shape of Turkish investigative journalism today for the summer 2016 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

5. Turkey’s film festivals face a narrowing space for expression

The Siyah Bant initiative, which carries out research on censorship of the arts in Turkey, has given much coverage to obstacles to freedom of expression in the cinematic field in research published in recent years. In June 2016, Index published a report on cases of censorship at Turkish film festivals.

Egypt: Prime minister suspends controversial film

(Image: Mohamed Elsobky/YouTube)

A shot from the trailer of Halawet Rooh (Image: Mohamed Elsobky/YouTube)

Just as Egyptian free expression advocates were celebrating the decision by Egypt’s State Censorship Board to allow the screening of Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic Noah, news of the withdrawal of Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe’s new film Halawet Rooh (Beauty of the Soul) from theatres in Egypt put a damper on their cautiously optimistic mood. The fact that the decision to suspend the screening of the controversial film was made by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb — rather than by the censors — has added fuel to the fire.

On Wednesday, the premier ordered the film to be removed from cinemas and sent back to the State Censorship Board for re-evaluation. The move led Ahmed Awad, the head of the State Censorship Board to tender his resignation, saying he was “not consulted” and categorically rejects government interference in his work.

Former Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazy reminded the prime minister of a court ruling forbidding interference in the work of the independent censorship board. “The Premier has no right to suspend the screening of the film,” Abu Ghazy told AFP.

Popular TV talk show host Ibrahim Eissa meanwhile, cautioned that the ban does not auger well for freedom of expression.”Those who ban films today for damaging public morality will in future, ban films for political reasons,” he warned in an episode of his show “Hunna Al Kahera” broadcast on the privately owned CBC Channel.

Rights activists and groups have also expressed concern over the suspension of the film’s screening, saying the move is part of a wider clampdown on artistic expression in Egypt. In his column in Saturday’s edition of the independent newspaper Al-Shorouq, film critic Kamal Ramzy chided the government for not having learnt history’s lessons on censorship. “Instead of focusing on problems of corruption and the rule of law, the prime minister is instead, more occupied with censorship,” he lamented.

Mehleb meanwhile, downplayed the criticism levelled at him. At a meeting with intellectuals and literary figures on Saturday, he insisted that “there is a clear cut distinction between freedom of artistic expression and creativity on the one hand, and infringement on moral values on the other”.

The premier’s decision to suspend the screening of the film came in the wake of an outcry from conservatives in Egypt who denounced the film on social media networks as “obscene” and “a threat to public morality”. Oddly enough, some “liberal” Egyptians too, have joined the online campaigns accusing Ahmed El Sobky, the film’s producer of “destroying an entire generation” and being “more dangerous than bombs and missiles”. El Sobky’s trademark films are often “low quality” productions characterised by a mix of violence, belly dancing and sexually explicit scenes. His target audience are generally the uneducated, low income youth who traditionally celebrate public holidays by going to the cinema.

Film critics have also decried the film as “sexually provocative,” lambasting lead actress Haifa for “revealing too much flesh”. “There is hardly a scene in which Haifa does not appear half nude,” scoffed critic Ramy Abdel Razak in his review published Thursday in the independent daily Al Masry El Youm.

Critics question how a particularly steamy scene in which Haifa’s clothes are ripped off by a rapist, got past the State Censor board. Overlooking the fact that the film was rated “Adults Only” — which meant it was inaccessible to children under 16 — Egypt’s National Council for Childhood warned in a statement released last week, that the film was “harmful to minors” and “violates public morality”.

The “raunchy” film had been in cinemas for two weeks before it was removed and had reportedly grossed some £84,100 in its first week in theatres. At the time of publication, a two-minute trailer for the film on YouTube had over 3,6 million views.

Described by critics as a “poor imitation of Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s widely-acclaimed Malena”, the film tells the story of a young boy’s obsession with a beautiful nightclub singer. The woman, whose husband is abroad, is pursued by the men in her working class neighbourhood and her ardent young admirer subsequently takes it upon himself to protect her.

Fifteen year-old Karim El Abnoudi, who plays the role of the boy infatuated with Rooh, has reportedly been verbally harassed at his school and on the streets, with his classmates and some laymen — angered by what they had read or heard about the film — hurling insults at him and calling him “an infidel”.

The withdrawal of the film from theatres has fuelled fears among some secularists and rights organisations that increased censorship is stifling freedom of artistic expression and creativity in Egypt. In March, the State Censorship Board banned 20 music videos from Egyptian TV Channels for allegedly containing “explicit content”. In another sign that the interim government is putting the lid on artistic expression, a misdemeanour court in the Southern Egyptian province of Bani Suef in March upheld a verdict against Egyptian author and rights activist Karam Saber, who eight months earlier had been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and LE1000 in bail for “blasphemy”. In June 2013. Saber was convicted on charges of “contempt of religion” and “inciting sedition” in a collection of short stories he wrote two years earlier titled Where is God? Both Al Azhar (the country’s highest Islamic authority ) and the Coptic Orthodox Church had earlier concurred in the opinion that the book was “blasphemous” and “ought to be banned”.

In a joint statement released in September (in the wake of the sentence handed down to Saber), 46 Arab Human Rights Organisations expressed concern for the diminishing space for free artistic expression and creativity. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information also said the verdict against Saber “belies any notion of respect for human rights by the state and violates provisions in the new constitution guaranteeing freedom of creativity and artistic expression”.

A provision in the new charter, endorsed by an overwhelming 98% of voters in a popular referendum in January, guarantees freedom of thought and opinion stipulating that any individual “has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by other means”. Another provision in the 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of literary and artistic creation, stating that “the state shall promote art and literature, sponsor creators and protect their creations, providing the necessary means to achieve this”.

Many artists and writers had joined the mass protests in January 2011, hoping that the revolution would bring an end to decades of repression. For a short period after the fall of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s artists and literary figures capitalised on their new-found freedoms, tackling subjects long off limits to them — like sex and religion.The rise of Islamists to power in 2012 , however brought new limitations to the short-lived free flow of artistic and creative expression. New legislation was introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament, banning art with obvious sexual references as well as concerts featuring female singers. The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013 rekindled hopes for an end to censorship and suppression of creativity. But in the new restrictive cultural atmosphere — reminiscent of the Mubarak era — these hopes have been quickly dashed, giving way to disappointment, frustration and fear.

“It is ironic that the ban on Wehbe’s film would come from the interim government that replaced the ousted Islamist regime,” prominent blogger Zeinobia wrote last week. Many of the liberal Egyptians who joined the uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood president in July last year had said they were protesting against “religious fascism” and had hoped the new government would be secular and more democratic.

“The interim government has demonstrated that it is more Islamic than the Islamists,” lamented Sameh Kassem, culture editor at the independent Al Bawabh news website .

“The withdrawal of Wehbe’s film from theatres and the verdict against Saber are attempts by the interim government to appease the ultra-orthodox Salafis ahead of presidential elections scheduled on 28 and 29 May,” he told Index.

Egypt’s Salafis, the ultra-conservative Islamist movement that had initially backed ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, later decided to side with the military and lent its support to the military-backed interim government after his deposition.

“The military-backed authorities are trying to woo the Salafis to guarantee their votes for former military chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi in the upcoming elections,” Kassem said.

This article was originally posted on 22 April 2014 at