The Edge of Democracy

“Mourning Democracy?”

Esther Hamburger (University of São Paulo)

On November 8, 2019, while I was rewriting this piece for the second time, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was released from prison. In Latin America and elsewhere, governments are being shaken by protests against the rise of poverty and inequalities and/or in defense of democracy. Instability is such that it is hard to know the best moment to make a point that might be immediately overcome in what seems an uninterruptible cascade of events. In this situation, it is hard to finish a film comment, let alone to end a film.

The Edge of Democracy, directed by Petra Costa, is a powerful personal examination of the perverse sequence of events in Brazil that, amidst a corruption scandal, led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the incarceration of businessmen and politicians, President Lula among them, and to the election of the current proto-fascist president. Speaking in a brave first-person, Costa gives form to a complex, interpretation of history, which relies on a precise editing of a range of film and audio materials, and on her experience as a member of the economic elite who share leftist values, in order to denounce the threat to the democratic advancements of the past 30 years.

Costa’s film was initially about the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, the subject of The Trial by Maria Augusta Ramos, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2018. Ramos’ film is a look at the defense of Rousseff inside the Congress by a filmmaker who has directed powerful observational documentaries about the Brazilian judiciary system. Other documentaries on the impeachment include Excelentíssimo (2018) by Douglas Duarte and O muro (2017) by Lula Buarque, the latter of which ventures outside Brazil to look at other past or ongoing processes of social and/or political segregation. That two of these films are directed by women has helped to shine light on the not-always-recognized misogynist aspect of the impeachment process.

As the crisis went on, Petra Costa continued to film. The result is an account of the last 40 years of Brazilian history, which starts and ends with the imprisonment of the now-released Lula. The director narrates both the Portuguese and the English versions of this Netflix documentary, signaling that she is able to cross the language border and that she speaks both to national and international viewers. Educated in the United States and in Europe, Costa comes to documentary film with a cosmopolitan humanist agenda that leads her to confront her own conflicting position in the contemporary crisis.

Working with footage shot by her crew, material shot by President Lula’s official photographer, and family footage, shot both by herself, her mother, and her grandmother, the film brings insider information. The film borrows from documentaries that depict the 1979 and 1980 strikes that brought Lula to national attention and reinforced the popular movement against dictatorship, ABC da greve (1990) by Cinema Novo director Leon Hirszman among them.

The autobiographical tone marks many of Costa’s films. Undertow Eyes, her short from ten years ago, about her relation to her grandparents, mingles family films and photographs with contemporary digital material to weave a mosaic of textures and memories that includes her own affective presence. Her first feature, Elena, is a poetic elaboration on her relationship to the suicide of her older sister; the essayistic tone with which the director faces this trauma includes her acting as herself. In The Edge of Democracy, she turns back to the autobiographical as the film delves into the political and economic rifts that divide her family, and her country. In this film, she deals with her subjective experience of public controversial events. She acknowledges the emergence of a popular opposition to the Workers’ Party. She questions politicians on both sides. She listens to internal auto-critiques coming from the Workers’ Party. She does not hide her sympathy for Lula.

The director and her mother are present in the film, both in family archival material and as they interact with each other and with President Dilma Rousseff. As inheritors of one of the largest construction companies in Brazil, one that was involved in the corruption scandals, they share with viewers their critical perspective on their own family history. Indeed, the strength of the film comes from its honest acknowledgement of the privileged position from which the director narrates her story.

One of the most powerful sequences includes shots of two plaques that commemorate the voluntary collaboration of construction companies in the renovation of the Presidential Residence. While shooting in this palace Costa realizes that her grandfather’s company helped both rightist President Color de Mello and Workers’ Party’s Lula. The director’s voice-over acknowledges that economic power has promiscuous relations with politicians, who “come and go,” while companies remain.

But the film moves beyond class belonging. By sharing her parents’ political agenda, she speaks as someone who came of age with democracy, believing that the country was finally overcoming its long history of violent discriminations and inequalities. With the help of the music score, The Edge of Democracy becomes a melancholic personal-political acknowledgement of the sudden interruption of a dream. The film stimulates further debate on a still-ongoing controversial process. What was the role of the 2013 mass riots in this crisis? Why did the Workers’ Party have a hard time in the 2014 election? In what ways does the Brazilian case relate to the crisis of democracy elsewhere?

The Edge of Democracy opens the case of Brazil to comparative approaches. While the ongoing crisis of democracy can be thought of as a sort of Global Weimar, it cannot be understood without looking at specific cases. Even at the local level, univocal explanations do not account for complex ongoing relations. In many places, institutional politicians seem to have detached themselves from the people. Instability has reached Chile, a longtime example of neoliberal success, now an example of the perverse social consequences of the geared-to-financial-results policies which benefit only a few. In the United States, Hungary, Poland, India, and Turkey, in relation to rising inequalities, right-wing authoritarian leaders have come to power through the vote, but then attack diversity and democratic institutions. In Hong Kong local elections favor democracy. These highly distressed situations perhaps demand pro-democratic movements which, like the one that in the 1970s and 1980s was able to overthrow the military regime in Brazil, gather different political forces to guarantee the enlarged democracy. By contextualizing these political shifts within a personal frame, Costa’s film helps to move the global debate further.

“Accessing Democracy”

Sophia Beal (University of Minnesota)

Unlike most Brazilian documentaries, which circulate within restricted elite circles and festivals, Petra Costa’s 2019 documentary The Edge of Democracy (in Portuguese Democracia em Vertigem) is easy to access online via Netflix. Its accessibility has increased its viewership enormously. I’ve never heard so many people talk about a Brazilian documentary. My University of Minnesota students are talking about it. Brazilians from various regions of the country and economic classes are praising the film. A friend of mine in Rio de Janeiro noted that her family—black multi-generational working-class Brazilians—saw the film and were moved by it. “It reached the masses,” she said, which is no small feat for a Brazilian documentary.

Its topical theme also has attracted viewers. The film addresses the tumultuous political events in Brazil since 2014. A federal police investigation of a money laundering scheme run out of a Brasília gas station marked the beginning of Operation Car Wash. This federal anti-corruption investigation soon expanded, taking down leaders within the oil industry, agribusiness, and politics. Despite its virtuous premise of ridding the country of corruption, Operation Car Wash has involved partisan accusations and unlawful collaborations between prosecutors and then federal judge Sérgio Moro, an example of how Brazil’s judicial system has failed to be impartial. Within this setting, the documentary focuses on the fate of two recent Brazilian presidents from the Workers’ Party: Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), Brazil’s first blue-collar president, who is lauded for lifting millions of Brazilians out of poverty, and Dilma (Dilma Rousseff), Brazil’s first female president who previously fought against the military regime as a political militant.

Operation Carwash led to the imprisonment of Lula in April 2018 on dubious grounds (for passive corruption and money laundering). He was released on November 8, 2019 but remains ineligible to run for president again. In 2016, Dilma was impeached supposedly due to legal violations, but many refer to the impeachment as a coup, suspecting that partisan (and to a lesser extent sexist) motivations prompted her ousting. These events polarized Brazilians, as The Edge of Democracy documents, tearing families apart, catalyzing violent hate speech, and motivating Brazilians on both sides of the aisle to take to the streets. Although the film itself centers on Lula’s imprisonment and Dilma’s impeachment, it inevitably resonates with other recent events. 2018 brought the murder of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco, a black, gay woman vocal about progressive causes. In 2019, Dilma’s successor, Michel Temer, was arrested on corruption charges, making him the second former Brazilian president jailed under Operation Car Wash. Meanwhile, major dam breaches in 2015 and 2019, as well as an increase in wildfires in the Amazon in 2019, have shed light of the government’s alliances with mining and agribusiness that take precedence over environmental and humanitarian concerns. Brazil’s current president, Bolsonaro (Jair Messias Bolsonaro), who modeled his campaign after Trump’s, can be characterized as an anti-establishment, conservative populist, typified by his habit of posing with his hands flexed in the shape of guns. Bolsonaro’s presidency has put various progressive causes in jeopardy: equal rights, environmentalism, racial equality, gun regulations, freedom of expression, and the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community, and indigenous peoples. Costa’s film reveals that Brazil’s democracy (regained in 1985 after a 21-year military dictatorship, which was backed by the United States) stands again on shaky ground.

The Edge of Democracy begins making sense of Brazil’s recent past with relevant archival footage and new interviews with Dilma, Lula, Bolsonaro, and many other major political figures. While documenting the unfair treatment of Lula and Dilma, The Edge of Democracy, more importantly, depicts a worrisome state of affairs in which the values of democracy—liberty, equality, and justice—are being subverted. The film, both due to its accessibility and the way it explains complicated topics, has generated dialogues in Brazil and abroad about both the vulnerability and the importance of democracy.

Lula’s charisma shines through in The Edge of Democracy, even more than in João Moreira Salles’s 2004 Entreatos, a documentary entirely about the former president. In contrast, Dilma’s lack of on-screen charisma may, in part, be explained by the sexist ambience of Brazilian politics in which women cannot play by the same rules as men. In the film, Lula often is hugging people, touching their faces, using terms of endearment, and being informal in ways that aren’t as socially acceptable for female politicians in a largely male milieu. When legislators cast their vote on Dilma’s impeachment, they were given the opportunity to briefly speak, creating a theatrically vile atmosphere. Bolsonaro, then a lower house deputy, dedicated his impeachment vote to a colonel who had led a torture unit during the Brazilian military dictatorship when Dilma was a victim of torture. That type of hateful speech permeated the impeachment proceedings, representing Brasília more as a site of mudslinging than of serious political deliberation.

Screen Shot 2019-11-30 at 11.37.55 PM

Striking drone shots zoom out on massive urban protests, while more intimate shots tour the interior of an empty Alvorada Palace in Brasília, one of Oscar Niemeyer’s most celebrated buildings. Much like Vladimir Carvalho’s 1991 documentary Conterrâneos Velhos de Guerra, a major strength of the film is that the director managed to interview so many key Brasília personalities. The footage of the beautiful Alvorada Palace—with the sculptures, tapestries, and paintings of Brazil’s most legendary modernist artists—harkens to the hope and sense of possibility in Brazil at the time of the 1960 inauguration of its new capital. Yet it also alludes to the months Costa and her crew spent attempting and waiting to interview Dilma.

The Edge of Democracy debuted amid a global wave of populism, which has allowed audience members to make connections across countries. This certainly was the case among the audience members at the screenings of the film in the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April 2019. In telling Brazil’s story, Costa ended up telling many other countries’ stories as well, as audience members there commented. The Edge of Democracy asks us all to reflect on whether the checks and balances designed to keep democracies fair are working. The film’s grave tone is one answer to that question.

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