Coronavirus in Chile CULTURE NATIONAL

Chilean cultural sector struggles to survive during Covid-19

Chile’s cultural sector has been hit hard by the pandemic and quarantines. With no help from the government, artists have been forced to adapt to survive. One of those is actress and filmmaker, Paloma Larraín, who hopes that the events of the past year will show people the importance of supporting local art.

When the first Covid-19 quarantines were implemented in March 2020,  the arts were brought to a virtual standstill. As many artists worried about how this would affect their livelihoods, the Minister of Culture, Consuelo Valdés, made it clear that culture was not a priority, leading to a tense relationship between the Ministry and artists.

More than a year later, many artists find themselves hanging by a thread, and having to transfer their talents to an online capacity, something that not everyone has been able to do. Actress and filmmaker Paloma Larraín is among those who have managed to survive the numerous quarantines without any help from the Culture Ministry.

Little to no response from the Ministry

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of numerous theaters and cultural centers. To help aid them, the Ministry of Culture secured CLP$15 billion (about US$20 million). This money was used to support cultural spaces and organizations affected by the virus as well as to promote future artistic projects.

However, three months after the Ministry’s announcement, actor and director Alfredo Castro accused the Ministry of never sending the money. In an interview with CNN Chile, he said, “The people who needed that money have yet to receive it. The CLP$15 billion has not arrived.” 

He later added, “The moment we are living is shocking, not just for the theater but for filmmaking, painting, and music, because it is a sector that is invisible to Chilean society. We do not exist in society, in the sense that no help, no loan, nothing [has been provided] because we do not fit in anywhere.”

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The last straw came during an interview with CNN Chile, when Minister Valdés said, “[The funds] are resources of all Chileans and one peso that is given to culture is taken away from another program or necessity of the citizens.” A statement that angered the arts community. 

A year in pandemic

More than a year later, the cultural sector has managed to find ways to survive, but its members are still asking for support from public institutions. On May 11, 2021, National Theater Day, approximately 20 actors and theater workers gathered in front of the home of the minister to protest the Ministry’s lack of help to the cultural sector.

That same day, the Red Sala de Teatros, the network of theater halls in Chile, released a statement urging the government to modify its Covid-19 strategy to include culture and art as an essential activity. The network also asked that theaters be allowed to operate during Phase 2 of the government’s Step-by-Step plan. At the moment, theaters are only allowed to open during Phases 4 and 5.

As of this writing, the Ministry of Culture has yet to respond to these demands.

Paloma Larraín survives

Well-known Chilean actress Paloma Larraín has managed to survive the pandemic by shifting to digital media, thanks in part to her filmmaking background. She told Chile Today, “In reality I define myself as doing many things, but lately what I have been doing the most is acting, … I do have to thank my filmmaking side because without it, I would not have been able to live out the pandemic.”

“Everyone in the cultural sector has been affected by the pandemic, but I am lucky and privileged to have an audience that continues to watch me online, allowing me to continue my work through the internet. So, thanks to them, I have been able to record theater plays during those small spaces when we are not in quarantine so that I can transform it into a product that sells online. Clearly it is not the same, and I have to work twice as hard because now I have to record it which is more expensive, but thanks to that I have been able to survive.”

Larraín has yet to receive any help from the Ministry of Culture, only the general aid given by the government. She commented, “I feel that they have ignored us a lot. There have been attempts to contact them through unions and organizations, but there is never an answer. So why are we going to say something if no one listens? Unfortunately, the majority of artists in Chile are used to not receiving any help.”

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Larraín’s observations and suggestions for the arts and beyond

She further explained, “No importance is given to artistic work in Chile unless you are a visible face. The actors, the singers, they can continue working from home, they can record plays with their mobile phones, but behind them there are many people who are left without work, such as the technicians, the light crew, the camera people. I used to work with a cameraman, but because of health protocols, he cannot be at my recordings.”

“Something that the Ministry could do at this time, is take all the products that are online and put them on a website that they themselves manage, so that they can give more visibility and sales to artists who have continued creating. There are plays, stand-up specials, and concerts online. These people have very little audience and depend on word of mouth. The Ministry could make a weekly press release listing online events, but there is a complete abandonment of us.”

“Even when the government tries to give work to artists, it is through contests, like the annual culture funds that are handed out. It just forces us to fight with each other so that we can have a little money for a couple of months. The logic of excluding the rest while rewarding a select few is not enough.” 

“Most of the time we are not even sure what their criteria is. Once we presented a project based on a play we had performed in various cities. It had been well-received, so we presented it to the Ministry. But they said no because it was about Federico Fellini, and they thought it should be about a local film director. Because of this, many projects are abandoned unless they are able to be self-funded – which is what I have been doing. But it is risky, I should not be reliant on the public to see if I survive the month. However, more than giving money to artists, [the government] should just be allowing them to work.”

She also talked about the financial struggles of the industry. “Here in Santiago, many theaters and stand-up venues have been forced into bankruptcy; meanwhile, the malls and amusement parks are open,  and, while bars are open, they are not allowed to hold performances – [and this] even though many venues figured out ways to control the capacity and implement the sanitary protocol.”

“You can separate people in the theater and bars, but not in the subway or in airplanes. It is as if the government is telling people that they can go to and from work, and buy stuff, but they cannot go to artistic spaces – which are vital for life, especially during difficult times like now.”

“Art can help you reflect on other aspects of life, and it also works as a historical registry of what life was during that period in time, which is especially vital during this pandemic. Nothing captures how we feel as a society quite like art, music, theater, film and comedy. There is a very receptive audience in this country, but the main issue comes from the authorities.”

With the country in the middle of a Constitutional Convention, Larraín also shared her thoughts as to how a new constitution might address Chile’s cultural problem.

“We need to start by looking at education.” Larraín said, “The amount of hours given to art in school are too few. It is necessary to include the arts as an integral part of the educational process. That way you can create adults who have an interest in art, which gives national productions a bigger audience and thus creates an industry around the arts.”

“We also need spaces that will help spread Chilean art, for example, TVN (Chile’s public TV Channel) could broadcast national movies or plays to isolated regions. There are a lot of movies being made in Chile, but many of them are forgotten because the press does not promote them unless they are paid to do so. It is very hard to have an audience if people do not know that your movie exists or if they are competing with well-known franchises like the Avengers.”

“Chile has the tools to develop a strong entertainment industry, but just like what happens in the sports and science sectors, there is no support from within. They only receive help from the outside. There is talent, we just need support.”

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