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A woman walks by in front of a theatre in Buenos Aires.
A woman walks by in front of a theatre in Buenos Aires.

Like a bad movie: Argentina’s culture industry agonizes under Milei

President Javier Milei’s “chainsaw” approach to budget cuts have not only caused deep financial pain to many Argentines, but is also threatening the country’s Oscar-winning culture scene, industry players say. At home and abroad, actors, directors and musicians accuse the self-declared “anarcho-capitalist” leader of showing disdain towards their industry as he slashes funding and rails against those who question him. Milei himself has said the government must choose between “funding movies that nobody watches” and “feeding people.”

He has denounced at least one artist criticizing his funding cuts as a “parasite” living off taxpayer money at the expense of hungry kids. The cultural industry in Argentina, the birthplace of tango, is responsible for some 300,000 formal jobs. But under Milei, “they are dismantling everything related to culture in general and cinema in particular,” award-winning Argentine actress Cecilia Roth, who has played in several movies by Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, said at a press conference in Mexico on Friday. On top of losses in direct state support, the industry is also reeling from the average Argentine having much less money to spend on such luxuries as films or plays as disposable income has shrunk and poverty levels have risen to 60 percent.

‘Little hope’

Argentina’s Incaa film institute has dismissed 170 of its 645 employees in recent months, suspended overtime payments and is not accepting any new projects for a period of 90 days. Incaa is financed mainly by taxes on ticket sales and 25 percent of the revenues of the National Communications Agency which co-finances dozens of films every year, including eight Oscar nominees and two winners: “The Official Story” and “The secret in their eyes.” “Every day the panorama is darker,” Argentine production and audiovisual director Paula Orlando, told AFP. “I am considering leaving the country,” added the 31-year-old, who has 12 years of experience in the industry. “There is little hope.”

‘Strong bias’

Voices of concern have also been raised abroad, from directors such as Almodovar himself, and Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki. Earlier this month, Belgian film-making siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, France’s Claire Denis and American Viggo Mortensen penned an article in which they said Argentina’s cinema industry was “on the brink.”

Music and literature, too, have suffered the effects of Milei’s cost-cutting measures, including the repeal of a law protecting independent book stores from being undercut by large chains. Such actions go to show that Milei and his government carry “a strong bias against cultural industries,” according to Martin Gremmelspacher, president of the Argentine Book Chamber. Book sales, he said, fell 30 percent in both January and February from a year earlier.

‘Dangerous’ future

Luis Sanjurjo, a professor of cultural policies at the University of Buenos Aires, said it was wrong to think that “the market can replace the state.” “In no serious capitalist country in the world is there an absence of the state” in the development of culture, he told AFP. Sanjurjo formerly headed an arts and culture industry sub-division in the now-defunct culture ministry, scrapped by Milei. He said it appeared the ultra-liberal Milei government was “bitter” towards the industry amid the global culture wars increasingly pitting people against each other on issues such as gay rights, abortion, religion, women’s rights and even political correctness.

Last week, renowned Argentine concert pianist Martha Argerich published an open letter lamenting the government’s decision to stop the issuing of grants to impoverished artists under a scholarship named after her. Culture Minister Leonardo Cifelli later said the decision was merely the temporary result of an “administrative transition,” without saying when the grants would be resumed. “I myself received the support of the Argentine State as a young girl,” Argerich wrote. “If the state does not support and contribute to culture, the future is really dangerous.” - AFP

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