The fuzzy nationalism of the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Can it be four years already since Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony sprinkled fairy dust over this Scepter’d Isle as we sat on our sofas feeling, despite ourselves, genuinely proud to be British? The spectacle may have been beamed across half of the world, but given that viewers from Milwaukee to Manila didn’t necessarily catch the finer points about the NHS, really it was meant for us, a reminder of how remarkable Great Britain has been and occasionally still is. What we couldn’t do with something like that now after Brexit.
 
 On Friday it’s the turn of Brazil, R$40 billion poorer for the Olympics (small change compared to the R$ 162 billion of public contracts elsewhere under investigation) to tell the planet what a miraculous and beguiling place it is. It’s safe to say Brazil has more pressing things to worry about right now, such as why the elected president Dilma Rousseff has been impeached, why the interim Michel Temer is in such a hurry to reverse all social gains made over the past two decades, and exactly how Santo in the telenovela Velho Chico came back from the dead. But for just one evening, the country can forget all its cares and bask in the admiration of an international television audience while thousands of volunteers samba, parkour, cycle, rollerskate and fly around the hallowed turf of the Maracanã stadium (a fitting symbol — it came in R$600 million over-budget when it was refurbished for the World Cup, apparently netting Rio’s govenor Sergio Cabral R$60 million).
 
The ceremonials has been entrusted to a trio of film directors, among them Fernando Meirelles of City of God and The Constant Gardener fame, as well as the carnival director Rosa Magalhães. But which story does Brazil want to tell to the world in 2016? Which picture does it want to sell to investors and tourists and, most importantly, to itself? It is not short on spectacles of self-mythologization — Carnival parades have sung the praises of the country as far back as the 1930s. The country even has its own boosterist brand of nationalism it calls ufanismo, vaunting its natural beauty and seemingly boundless natural resources.
 
Will the ceremony begin with the shonky foundation myth that Pedro Álvares Cabral serendipitously ‘discovered’ Brazil on 22 April 1500 — when in fact he knew the exact coordinates, and when the indigenous people he met there had discovered it many millennia earlier? Will it go for the familiar clichés of football, capoeira and samba used by proto-fascist president Getulio Vargas to build a national consensus in the 1930s? Will Brazil be the cordial nation of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, the dubious racial democracy that Gilberto Freyre proposed in the 1930s, or the country of the future that Stefan Zweig thought he’d discovered shortly before taking his life in a hotel room in Petrópolis?
 
 In an opinion piece in El Pais this week, Eliane Brum argues that Brazil, reeling from a long-drawn-out political and economic crisis, is now incapable of presenting a cohesive image of itself to the outside world, or to itself. Brazil, she says, comes to the Olympics ‘with0ut a face’. While this sounds like the premise for an Almodovar film, her point is that the national consensus built the Workers’ Party especially under President Lula, has broken down, bringing to the fore tensions between the urban elite and the mythical masses dubbed the ‘povo’, between the north and the south, between those crying ‘coup’ and those supporting it — but also revealing how those categories no longer hold water.
 
 The picture looked all so different when Brazil won the bid in 2009, crowds going beserk on Copacabana and President Lula barely able to contain his emotions. ‘The same people who believed that we did not have the ability to govern this country will be surprised with the ability of the country to organise an Olympics,’ he told the cameras. A month later the cover of The Economist put Christ the Redeemer with a rocket engine under its feet on its cover with the headline Brazil Takes Off. The sleeping giant was awaking….

To what extent Meirelles and co. can be expected to paint a new face for Brazil remains to be seen. So far their biggest challenge — aside from not knowing which president’s face to put in programme — has been having had their budget slashed to a half of what was initially proposed, that has somewhat clipped the wings of the team. In an interview with Trip Magazine, Meirelles gamely suggested that it was no bad thing. ‘Parts of Rio de Janeiro don’t have sewers… If the money was diverted towards sewerage, it would be very well spent,’ he said. 
 
 The past few days the director has been fighting a media firestorm after newspaper Folha de S. Paulo published a spoiler in which it claimed that one of the scenes in the ceremony showed model Gisele being robbed by a black boy. The actual drama, in which the child asked to have a selfie taken with the model but was then chased by the security guards, has had to be dropped, with the result is that the one hint social criticism has been airbrushed from the spectacle. The opening ceremony doesn’t have to be a promotional video for the host country, but at a time when winning the Olympic bid is the bigger victory than winning medals, it’s seen as a golden opportunity to enjoy your moment in the international spotlight. Brazil, with last minute jitters, certainly intends to.