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Filmmaker Petra Costa's sobering documentary, “Edge of Democracy,” was given the coveted opening-night berth at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker Petra Costa's sobering documentary, “Edge of Democracy,” was given the coveted opening-night berth at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

'The Edge of Democracy'

Film by Petra Costa

Now streaming on Netflix

Sep 4, 2019


By Ceylan Karasapan Crow

The Documentary “The Edge of democracy, about recent events in Brazil had me sitting at the edge of my seat. It chronicles the passage from years of dictatorship to democracy in Brazil.  Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa recounts with old and new footage the rise and fall of democracy in Brazil from 1985 to the present. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and not to be missed.

Filmaker Petra Costa, The story of this crisis, runs directly through her family. Busca Vida Filmes - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

The filmmaker Petra Costa, takes the downfall of democracy in her nation very personally — we hear her running voiceover as if a lament, at times deeply wounded, at times silent with no words left to express the frustration of a hope crushed. “Brazilian democracy and I are the same age,” she intones, “and I thought in our thirties, we’d be on solid ground.” 

The daughter of two radical activists who were exiled and imprisoned for opposing Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1980s, she admits the current president, Bolsonaro may show their struggle to have been in vain: “I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream.” 

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 5th President of Brazil from 1 January 2003 to 31 December 2010. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert -Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil.Once a nation crippled by military dictatorship, Brazil found its democratic footing in 1985 and then, in 2002, elected a hugely popular politician, a steel-worker-turned-activist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known popularly as LULA). During his presidency, 20 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, and the country rose to world prominence. He was the 5th President of Brazil from 1 January 2003 to 31 December 2010.

In an anonymous review on the documentary, I found a good benchmark on Lula's presidency, a comparison from the day he entered office and the day he left: the GDP went from U$660 Billion to U$2.5 Trillion. Added 15.3 million formal jobs, eliminated the foreign debt and the internal debt. The dollar exchange rate went from R$3.99 to R$1.56. 

In the film, we first see Lula in a newsreel footage as a young charismatic 33-year-old, the head of Brazil’s steelworkers union. Lula formed the Workers’ Party in 1980 and ran for president in 1988, but he lost. He lost again and again before deciding to compromise with an arch rival party PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), moderating his positions and winning the first of his two terms in 2002.

Lula winning his frst election. Screenshot Netflix trailer.

Lula explains this in the film thus: “If Jesus came to Brazil, he would have to make an alliance even with Judas.”

Dilma Rousseff, the first woman to hold the Brazilian presidency. Photo attribution: Palácio do Planalto.He was succeeded by his ally in the Workers’ Party (PT), Dilma Rousseff, (known popularly  as DILMA) an economist who had been imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Dilma held the presidency from 2011 until her impeachment and removal from office on 31 August 2016.

Unfortunately, a decade in power distanced the Workers’ Party from the people in the streets and opened the way for anti-government demonstrations.  When Operation Car Wash, an investigation into bribery and corruption led by a judge named Sérgio Moro backed by rightist politicians and Brazil’s enormous petroleum conglomerate Petrobras, came to the fore, the anti government fervor was inflamed further.

At first the investigation seemed bipartisan, and it soon becomes clear that corruption in Brazil was so endemic that lower-level members of the Workers’ Party had also taken bribes.

At this point in the documentary, the film maker Petra Costa points out the lines that runs through her family history within this part of the story: “The story of this crisis, runs directly through my family.” She interjects.

Costa’s wealthy construction company-owning grandparents are card-carrying members of the powerful oligarchy that has run her country since forever. Yet her parents were political radicals who spent a decade in hiding organizing against the military regime. Footage of her young parents during this time is interwoven with more recent political reels. Petra herself was named by her parents in honor of a colleague murdered by the state.

As we watch “Edge” we witness how Petra Costa gradually begins to unravel the corruption investigation as an attempt by the oligarchy to reassert itself, to take power it could not take via the ballot, by a kind of legislative coup.

Dilma takes the baton from Lula. Screenshot Netflix trailer.

The impeachment of Dilma, not for accepting bribes but for authorizing what is described as a debatable governmental accounting practice, comes first in 2016. Then Lula, still hugely popular, is sentenced to 12 years in prison on what seems to be trumped-up bribery charges for which no solid evidence is produced. Not only that, but the prosecutor Moro was also the judge.

American viewers who watch The Edge of Democracy will see a scary reflection of our own political landscape. What came to my mind was the onslaught of lies and fake news constantly tweeted and picked up by the media, that convinces and enrages a vulnerable and ignorant section of the populace with a twisted view of current affairs. 

Thus in Brazil a populist rage seeped into the mainstream — much of it encouraged by this partisan judge Moro, who fed news outlets sensational, deeply flawed corruption reports that targeted Lula, Dilma, and anyone else who refused to be complicit with powerful politicians and special-interest groups.

In the end we see Brazil divided with Lula supporters on one side and a vulnerable ignorant mass who start believing the past oligarchic times were the golden Age.

Jair Bolsonaro, serving as the 38th President of Brazil since 1 January 2019. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.One of the lessons of “The Edge of Democracy” is that Lula and the Workers' Party lost touch with the mass movement that brought them to power, and more than that not addressing the corruption that ruled governance is what in the end ensnarled them in a quagmire of unjust and illegal procedures.  

The party didn’t do much to challenge the corruption and back room dealings that were the established norms of Brazilian governance and so, public frustration with government as a whole was not hard to mobilize against Lula and Rousseff.

The Edge of Democracy lays out before us Brazil’s leaders who were once a hope for populist democracy as they struggle with a scandal born out of their country’s fascist past inflamed by an extreme ideological divide in the nation. We are left with a triumphant right-wing candidate who unexpectedly rose to power on a wave of nationalist anger despite a history of making rude and racist comments, Bolsanaro. The story is a familiar trend of our unfortunate times.


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