Modern Olympic Games opening ceremonies are basically very costly tourism brochures. A director, in this case Fernando Meirelles, is sent out there to make the best possible case for the city, or the whole country, to people all over the world.
Meirelles’ participation in the 2016 Summer Olympics created more interest than usual in what the director brings to the show, partly because he’s never been one to hide Rio’s famous disparity between the haves and have-nots, and partly because this was advertised in advance as an austerity ceremony. Unlike the ceremonies from Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, which flaunted their immense budgets, publicity for this show focused on how little money Meirelles had to work with. Meirelles has said that because of Brazil’s economic problems, the budget was cut to nearly half what it originally was, and that the final product cost 1/12th of the 2012 ceremony and 1/20th as much as Beijing’s in 2008. Making a literal virtue of necessity, these economy measures have been presented as a sign of Brazil’s conscience. In 2012, England wanted us to know that it was a richer, more lavish country than we might imagine. Brazil, with its reputation for wealth disparity, wants us to know that it’s not the kind of country that spends more than it needs to on superficial ceremonies like this.
With that in mind, you could see how some of the ceremony tried to play up the low-budget, low-tech nature of the proceedings, starting with the national anthem, performed very simply by singer-guitarist Paulinho da Viola. This was followed by a longish interpretive-dance reenactment of the history of Brazil and its peoples. But the overall impression was that there were never too many people in view at once.
The 2008 Beijing ceremony was famous for trying to impress us with the number of people we saw, like an epic movie that advertises a “cast of thousands”. Meirelles seemed to take the opposite tack. During a segment about the big buildings that rose up in Brazil—which, like many such segments, seemed to imply that we were all better off before everything got all modern — he showed people climbing up the buildings and then pushing around some props, but only a few people. Until the full cast finally spread out onto the field about 40 minutes in, it sometimes didn’t seem like a bigger cast than you might get in a conventional stage show. The feeling of moderation, of not putting out more people than you need, was pervasive. The props looked a little wobbly, transitions were accomplished with simple changes of background or projections, the music was not overwhelming.
It all looked fine, and conveyed what we outsiders expect to see from Rio, particularly the dance and music forms that are some of Brazil’s most popular exports. Sometimes a low-budget production can look less tacky than a big-budget production, particularly because the lower volume of people allows us to concentrate more on individual faces and movements. But a small budget is something that can either be concealed or turned into a virtue, and here the emphasis seemed to be on the latter option: trying to make the show look appealingly home-made, the costumes and choreography look simple (whether or not they actually are is beside the point). And above all, using the simple alternations of colour – colours like orange, blue and purple – as the main way to create emotion. Changing colour and lighting is the simplest-looking way to achieve an effect; it’s why, during the parade of countries, each country tries to use bold, striking colours for the outfits people are wearing, as if the colours of jackets will touch off certain associations in our brains. But the role of colour was especially important in this ceremony, because it’s all part of that hey-let’s-put-on-a-show style.
The politics of the night didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. We learned that diversity is good, and then in a segment after the interpretive dance, we learned that global warming is bad. Meirelles announced in advance that climate change would be more of a focus than wealth inequalities, saying that drawing attention to the issue is a way to “tell the world to stop attacking our home.” So the segment called attention to a problem that affects the world, but perhaps more importantly, a world that the whole world can be blamed for: highlighting it may have seemed like a downer moment in an otherwise up ceremony, but it changed the subject from the country’s problems to the world’s.
And so there didn’t appear to be much that addressed the concerns people might have about Rio or Brazil in general. Instead, the simplicity of the ceremony was expected to stand in for that, and sell Rio as a place that is really more united and happy than we might believe. In the end, whether they’re meant to appear big or small, all Olympic opening ceremonies have more or less the same message: whatever issues a city or a country might have, they can all be resolved through dancing. And that’s a message that’s hard to deny.
The opening ceremonies at the 2016 Summer Olympics were the production of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. (Frank Gunn, CP)