February 27, 2020

‘Edge of Democracy’ Is a Warning for All Democracies

Scene from “Edge of Democracy”

This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Edge of Democracy” is a cautionary tale of a democracy in crisis. Written and directed by 36-year-old Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa, the movie documents the political mayhem in Brazil.

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, but Costa told the Journal making it to the Oscars is very meaningful, “especially in a year where the government attacked the arts. It’s very significant and also, being a Latin American in a year where there are no Latin-American films in the foreign film division and there are no women in the best director [category]. I’m very happy and very honored.”

In the film, Costa links her personal narrative with political storytelling, documenting the rise and fall of three politicians: former progressive president Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016; liberal Workers’ Party founder and first president elected by the people Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was thrown in prison in 2018; and current far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro, who stated on April 2, 2019, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that Nazism was a leftist ideology.

“I started filming in 2016,” Costa said. “There [were] protests that exploded asking for Dilma’s impeachment. I went to film one, and I was really scared of what I saw. It was a very nationalist protest. There was a lot of hatred. There was one woman wearing red and she was escorted out because she basically resisted [the impeachment]. I’d never seen that level of intolerance before, and I was very afraid of where that would lead us.”

Costa and producer Shane Boris, who is Jewish, told the Journal the two-hour documentary was never supposed to be made. However, the duo — who had been working together since 2013 — realized there was an urgency to tell a story about a divided country.

“In Brazil, you can see the rule of law being eroded and each branch of government losing its legitimacy and the cracks in the democratic system were not only in Brazil,” Boris said. “These extreme forces were coming to power across the world, and Brazil started to feel like this dangerous omen. One of the most incredible things about this film and Petra’s filmmaking is how deeply intertwined the personal and political are.”

“My desire was to make a film that would show 

Brazilian society at all its different levels — on the streets, in Congress, in the presidential palace — to see how decisions were being shaped and to be a fly on the wall.” 

— Petra Costa

Costa said she was motivated to make the film because she is almost the same age as her country’s democracy. (Brazil became a democracy in 1988.) Her allegiance throughout the film is with the Workers’ Party. 

Costa interacts with many different groups in the film but consistently shares her family history to bring an intimate perspective to the political divide between generations. Costa’s grandparents are conservative and held positions of power in Brazil’s construction empire. Her liberal parents fought against Brazil’s military from the mid-1960s to the mid-’80s and were even jailed.

From left: Tiago Pavan, Joanna Natasegara, Petra Costa and Shane Boris attend the 92nd Oscars Nominees Luncheon. Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage

“My desire was to make a film that would show Brazilian society at all its different levels — on the streets, in Congress in the presidential palace — to see how decisions were being shaped and to be a fly on the wall,” Costa said.

Costa and Boris both said that media bias and reconstruction of political narratives played a huge part in the divide. “Politics is mobilized by dreams, and you can’t just mobilize people to believe in a party because they know the other one is worse,” Costa said.

Over the past year, the film has continued to gain popularity through distribution via Netflix. In Brazil, reaction has been both positive and negative. One of the first people to criticize the film, calling it fantasy and fiction, was Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Roberto Alvim. Alvim recently was fired for quoting Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in a now-deleted video.

“He had Hitler’s favorite opera [‘Lohengrin’ by Richard Wagner] playing the background,” Costa said. “That really unveils the worst face of the government. There’s still much reason to worry, because this hate speech was very much present during the presidential campaign and [is} very much present [today].”

When Bolsonaro saw the film he, too, called it fiction. Costa said Bolsonaro’s criticism is ironic but that her film must have hit on something truthful if the government is trying to discredit it.

“Dilma was impeached with a fictional piece of accusation,” she said. “In many ways, Lula was imprisoned also with a PowerPoint presentation but not with an actual accusation or proof of a crime. And then Bolsonaro was elected and 90% of the people who voted for him were exposed to fake news, and 87% believed in the fake news they saw.”

Costa added, “For him then to say that our film — which tried to go underneath the fiction and get into the facts of what happened — [was] fiction is ironic and also quite representative of how leaders are now attacking journalism or filmmaking in attempts to discredit something.”

Boris said he hopes their unconventional approach in introducing personal and political themes into the documentary allows people to see what is happening to their own democracies, and will motivate them to act.

“Usually, political documentaries are told in an investigative and journalistic way,” he said. “We know political is personal and therefore, stories about our politics, if they are to be grounded in facts, [should] also contain the personal aspect, too. I know the story about Brazil is also very much about the world. My hope is that through making the internal workings of what’s going on in Brazil comprehensible, it resonates with people all around the world.”

“The Edge of Democracy” currently is streaming on Netflix.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that Shane Boris is an executive producer on the project. He is a producer.