“You don’t even know what is happening right under your nose,” a gold mogul says in the series trailer.
Brazil’s prime-time soap operas, called novelas, have a long tradition of setting the public debate — and sometimes effecting change — on labor conditions, drug policy and other issues.
Now several shows are directing their focus — and that of their tens of millions of viewers — on President Jair Bolsonaro’s agenda.
“Aruanas,” named for the fictional nongovernmental organization for which the women work, was written and produced with activists from the environmental group Greenpeace. “Every Way to Love” follows Sao Paulo’s LGBT community and a transgender woman as she contemplates gender reassignment surgery. “Earth Orphans” chronicles the trials of Syrian refugees resettling in Brazil.
Each takes the opposite side of a debate Bolsonaro promoted during his successful run for office last year. But at a time when Brazil’s mainstream news media is losing audience to partisan outlets, analysts say, viewers might be open to hearing points of view with which they might disagree, when they’re expressed by characters in whom they’re emotionally invested.
“The press is facing a very delicate time, being discredited and accused of inventing news when it doesn’t coincide with what some viewers want to be true,” said Daniela Ortega, a researcher who studies soap operas at the University of Sao Paulo. “But fiction tends to bring these topics up in a way that is softer, less imposing. From the moment you identify with a character’s problems, you see their world with different eyes.”
Novelas, watched by men and women, young and old, have a record of changing hearts and minds.
The 2012 series “Full of Charm” offered a sympathetic look into the lives of Brazilian housekeepers — and questioned some of the country’s accepted practices around vacation time and pay. The following year, Congress passed the first set of laws aimed at setting fair conditions for domestic workers.
The 2003 series “Women in Love” chronicled domestic abuse against a set of grandparents. It led to a law protecting the rights of the elderly.
Bolsonaro won election last year on promises to tighten immigration laws, restore conservative social values and cut environmental red tape.
In his first week in office, he portrayed environmental activists as hippies willing to sacrifice economic progress to save the trees. On his second day on the job, he passed a decree to monitor nongovernmental organizations. His chief of staff suggested the NGOs were foreign agents, trying to preserve the Amazon so their governments could exploit its resources.
Critics have warned that those comments could further imperil activists. Brazil led the world in killings of environmental activists in 2017 with 57 deaths.
“Aruanas” attempts to recast the environmental activist as a cool and tough defender of the earth.
“This is not the annoying vegetarian,” said Estela Renner, a documentary filmmaker who co-created the show.
Its characters stride around beautiful offices in tailored suits, issuing orders and intimidating interns. The dramatic set pieces are spliced with footage of real Greenpeace stunts, set to rock music.
The creators borrow freely from actual events. When a tycoon asks a lobbyist to fight to open protected reserves to development, the request could have been lifted straight from the mouths of the country’s recent presidents, who faced international backlash when they pushed the same policy.
“When we were in doubt about how to write an episode, we would just open the newspaper, and the episode would be written for us,” producer Marcos Nisti said.
Further blurring the line between fact and fiction, producers wrote the series finale from Greenpeace’s offices, and the show’s protagonists were trained in nonviolent resistance, alongside actual activists.
Tica Minami, Amazon campaign director for Greenpeace Brazil, helped coordinate the partnership with the show.
“People are confusing activism with turmoil, thinking it is a crime, that it is terrorism when in reality, it is none of that,” she said. “We thought it was important to show that within activism at Greenpeace, there is a basic principle of nonviolence.”
The show’s creators hope it has an impact in the real world. Half of the streaming proceeds go to organizations fighting for the conservation of the Amazon.
Not everyone has been charmed. Commenters on social media have called the show “activist trash” and “an enemy of Brazil.” Bolsonaro’s supporters have rallied to his defense.
“So confused at how people are convinced by this,” one wrote on Agência Caneta, a right-wing website. “You won’t influence anyone.”
Bolsonaro’s Environmental Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
“The soap operas transform what happened in the news and turn it into fiction,” said Ortega, the researcher. “They bring political debates, social debates, to the mouths of characters.”
It’s not only liberal values that have been advanced by telenovelas. Some say the shows’ traditional focus on Brazil’s wealthy elite, as in last year’s “Second Sun,” helped spread the conservative social values, individualism and fear about violence that propelled Bolsonaro to office.
The format can be effective for promoting causes, Ortega said, because it’s “not watched in isolation.”
“It is being discussed socially, at the dinner table, at the hairdressers, at the bakery,” she said. “The plot and lives of the characters are discussed, but these real-life situations end up being discussed as well.”