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'The Edge of Democracy' Tracks Brazil's Slide to Fascism

By Lauren Wissot

From Petra Costa's 'The Edge of Democracy.' Courtesy of Netflix

Though The Edge of Democracy is Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa's final piece in a personal trilogy, it's the first to nab her an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. A year after the doc was acquired by Netflix at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the cinematic exploration appears to have struck a timely chord far beyond the borders of the divided nation in which it is set.

Costa's epic film is a sweeping mélange made up of the director's expert cinéma vérité camerawork and vast trove of home movies, plus archival footage and media coverage spanning decades of her country's history—from the military dictatorship that Costa's wealthy maternal grandfather wholeheartedly supported; to the workers' rebellion that brought the iconic future president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to prominence (and forced Costa's own left-wing parents underground for a decade); to the more recent corruption scandals that fatefully led to the impeachment of Brazil's first female president, Lula protégé Dilma Rouseff; the jailing of Lula himself, and the rise of strongman Jair Bolsonaro to the highest office. With remarkably intimate access to all the players, and guided by the director’s own philosophical voiceover, we’re given a front-row seat to what Rouseff (a former militant and victim of dictatorship torture) calls in a powerful farewell speech her greatest fear: the death of democracy.

Documentary took the opportunity to chat with Costa soon after the Academy Award nominations were announced.

DOCUMENTARY: The film plays like an autopsy of democracy, a search for what went wrong. When you began working on the film in 2016, though, did you view the divisiveness straining democratic institutions in Brazil as part of a bigger global trend?

PETRA COSTA: When I started I was just focused on Brazil. I was amazed because I saw the seeds of a fascist movement happening in the streets—and the media was kind of naturalizing it, and even fermenting it. I went to a protest and it was the most similar thing to a fascist protest I had ever seen in my life. I was very scared of what that would lead to.

I did not understand it was a global trend until Brexit happened. That was a few months later. A lot of things I read and the reactions of people my age regarding Brexit kind of helped me to understand what I was feeling here in Brazil. It’s a kind of political grief, a political trauma, that I had never felt in my lifetime. 

This idea that I'd grown up with—that things were progressing slowly but surely, that there was a line dividing the humane from the inhumane that we had acquired after the Second World War—suddenly all that dissolved, and we were back to a time that I thought we had overcome. And then with Trump's election, that just confirmed that it was definitely a global trend. And since then more and more countries have entered that trend, which is pretty scary.

D: This is the third film in a trilogy that you began more than a decade ago. What are the connections between The Edge of Democracy and your prior award-winning docs, Undertow Eyes [2009] and your feature debut, Elena [2012]?

PC: I see it as a trilogy in terms of how I'm kind of zooming out more and more in each one. Undertow Eyes is the most intimate, just about the relationship of my grandparents, but not looking at all the political or the social implications of their position in society, only at their relationship to love and death.

And then with Elena I look at another family nucleus, which is my mother, my sister and me. It’s the story of three generations of women, and their relationship to themselves, and to their pains, and to their bodies, and to society. Not in an overtly political way, but really within the context of how the personal is political. And with The Edge of Democracy I zoom out to not just encompass this entire family nucleus of both my grandparents, my mother and myself, but also in relationship to the entire nation, past and present.

D: The access you get to such high-profile politicians is quite remarkable. Why do you think they let you follow them? Did your family’s own place in Brazil's history pave the way?

PC: It was definitely not because of the construction company [Andrade Gutierrez, co-founded by Costa’s maternal grandparents] because the company was very much pro-Dilma's opponent in the [Operation] Car Wash investigation. Though the fact that my mother had been politically active, that both my parents were left and progressive, I think definitely helped.

But still, there were so many barriers. Both Dilma and Lula were in the most historical moment of their lives. And so as soon as it all began, I wrote each of them a letter asking for an interview. Later I learned that they’d never read those letters. I just kept insisting through every means I could. I entered into the Congress, and there I would ask for help from anyone I met who knew them. But it was still impossible.

I had to sneak into a bus full of historians that were visiting Dilma. And after months in Brasília trying to meet with her, I managed to get into the presidential palace and have my first interview with her. That was very formal, and it would still take months for her to actually let me, like, into the back of the car, as you see in the film. So it was a huge process of endurance.

D: Though Bolsonaro seemed to have let you in quickly.

PC: He was the quickest. Bolsonaro was immediate. With the first interview I did with him, I was just crossing through the corridor and we started speaking. He then takes me into his office and starts talking about how the only true presidents of Brazil were the military generals during the dictatorship. And at that time, thugs got what they deserved; they got killed. Bolsonaro was a lower-ranked congressman then, so he was trying to get as much attention as he could to promote his ideas and his desire to become president.

D: The operatic score and panoramic shots truly heighten the stakes. And your voiceover narration is simultaneously informative and poetic. How did you decide on the film’s overall aesthetic?

PC: I knew I wanted to do something kind of operatic since the beginning. I think Brasília really lends itself to that. And I was also very inspired by one of the greatest Brazilian filmmakers—or the greatest Brazilian filmmaker—Glauber Rocha, who uses a lot of opera and classical music in his films. And everything was so Shakespearean; the whole turn of events was so Shakespearean.

I wanted to be able to elevate. When we were filming inside the Congress, it could be really intoxicating. So I wanted to create these spaces where one could elevate themselves beyond that, kind of look from afar, and be able to reflect ahistorically about what was happening.

I also knew I wanted to be able to film these spaces with a Steadicam. I didn’t know how I was gonna manage, but we kept trying. It was amazing—one of the goddesses of cinema was blessing us—because the day we went to film at the presidential palace they were actually emptying all of Dilma's belongings. That was the day they gave me access to film it. And we were working with João Atala, who is an amazing DP, and was really the most essential person in our crew throughout.

Director Petra Costa. Courtesy of Netflix

D: What was the editing process like? You seem to be working with an inordinate amount of footage, from home movies to archival images, all spanning decades.

PC: It was 10,000 hours of material, three years of nonstop filming. It was very insane. I was only able to do this because we were working with an amazing team of editors. We had Jordana Berg, who is one of the best Brazilian editors. And Karen Harley and Tina Baz, who does Naomi Kawase's films, were kind of the main editors. We divided the 10,000 hours by chunks of time as they were being produced. 

One editor would be responsible for three months of time, and from that construct, an eight-hour first chunk. For the first year that we filmed, it took more or less nine months for the footage that we had shot for the impeachment alone to be reduced to an eight-hour material that was then workable. So we had an idea of the structure from there.

That was the foundation of the first half of the film. But then it was crazy because once that became workable, events continued happening—the vice-president is almost impeached, and Lula's centerpiece becomes whether he’s going to prison or not. And so I had to constantly be in the editing room, then film again, and then film again, and then back to the editing room.

And as soon as we started to know what story we were telling, it would continue. It was very intense. The last thing we filmed, which was Bolsonaro’s inauguration, happened two weeks before the film premiered at Sundance.

D: Though you’re Brazilian, you've also studied and worked everywhere, from here in the US, to throughout the UK and Europe. What was it like navigating all the moving pieces of this international production? Does working across continents and in different languages just come naturally to you?

PC: For me it helps. I think Patricio Guzmán—I saw The Battle of Chile five months before starting this film and it was so uncanny, because through it I understood what was happening here—says that when making films, you have to go to another country to be able to understand your own country. When you're inside you're too consumed by what is happening. And here in Brazil it all became a soap opera. When we were all following each detail so closely we lost track of what was important and what was not important.

So zooming out was crucial for that. And also for what was true and what was not, because the entire media was saying that Dilma should be impeached and that Lula should be imprisoned. Sometimes even progressive people would start getting convinced by that narrative. Having an international perspective helped me to not get consumed by these political passions at a moment when the country was getting really blinded by them.

D: How has the film been received in Brazil?

PC: It’s amazing. It's been explosive. It was the second-most-watched documentary on Netflix in 2019. It was more watched than Beyoncé and a bunch of other really top docs; we only lost to Our Planet. And there was, like, one tweet per minute in the first month. And now with the nomination that’s become even more vertiginous, the amount of people that are talking about it.

So it has created a supportive audience—people love it—but also a backlash. After the nomination Bolsonaro said to a reporter that our film was a fiction piece, and that it was rotten meat that should be offered for vultures to eat. So then the reporter asked if he had seen it, and he said he had not.

But for him to call it fiction is so revealing if you think about how he, Trump and so many presidents have been able to destroy truth by calling it fake. There's actually a congressman from his party who saw it and loved it, and has been texting me about how he's showing it to his entire team. I have family members who voted for Bolsonaro who loved the film as well, and even thought it was impartial. So we've had all these different responses, and it's quite revealing of each person’s point of view. It's almost like anyone can read anything into it sometimes.

D: Maybe you're bringing your country together.

PC: In many moments it has felt like that. There have been a lot of people who have written to us saying things like they had not been speaking to their best friend. And that now, after seeing this film, they could finally reunite in a kind of empathetic vision of their different political points of view. I have a friend whose father hadn't spoken to her for two years. After he saw the film they finally were able to speak again. So there has been this creation of dialogue, and of empathy, which has been very beautiful.

The Edge of Democracy screens as part of IDA's DocuDay LA, February 8 at 10:30 a.m. at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. Petra Costa will participate in a post-screening discussion. Click here for tickets.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.