Petra Costa’s masterful new documentary The Edge of Democracy is an essential telling of Brazil’s recent history and a rude awakening for those who kept the world in the dark about what was really happening there.
At the core of a classical coup d’état is denial of its own existence. In 1973, whilst leading a US-backed military takeover in Chile, General Augusto Pinochet went on television to express his support for the already doomed President Salvador Allende. Meanwhile the New York Times dismissed as ‘paternalistic’ any notion that the CIA was involved, when it was already self-evident.
In Brazil’s post-modern coup, denial, and more general control of optics were again central to the plot, and this extended to international media. As a result I’ve spent much of the past five years engaged in explaining to friends, family and colleagues the immense disparity between what they perceived and what was actually happening in the country. I know firsthand the difficulty in telling a story which depends so much on prior knowledge of Brazil.
Costa achieves this with an ease and clarity that I feared could be impossible, and her family history is woven through it in such a way that not only personalises, but functions in building understanding for an unfamiliar audience. This is at its core a uniquely Brazilian story, and it must be understood that what was done to the country is not simply a tropicalised version of what is happening elsewhere, such as in Europe and North America. The country’s long and violent history of coups and political tumult is the landscape into which Costa places its most recent political distress.
To watch this immaculately constructed work, packed with scenes just as I remembered them; of street protests and events where we had been perhaps only metres from the camera, was like replaying a history unfolding practically as my friends and I had experienced it. It was eerily melancholic. The recent past always carries the scent of the uncanny.
Now more than ever, the line between entertainment and propaganda is increasingly blurred. Political and historical narratives are often cemented in the public consciousness with movies and dramas, and their production has increasingly become an extension of statecraft, with films funded by government agencies, which depict their paymasters in a positive light.
A counterpoint to this is the expansion of documentary filmmaking as a force for good. Sometimes there comes an event so momentous, with history caught in realtime from multiple angles, that the truth about it cannot be suppressed forever. Brazil’s long coup of 2013-18 was one of them.
The films which capture these events and manage to wriggle through cracks in institutional censorship to reach a broader audience, are uniquely precious, but this is not the first documentary to be released about Brazil’s coup. In 2018, Maria Ramos’ wonderful O Processo (The Trial) premiered at the Berlinale, picking up the Panorama award. Ramos’ film dealt specifically with Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trial itself, and showed the inherent preposterousness of it, from an austere fly on the wall perspective, in startling detail. With that film I did worry about how it would translate outside Brazil – if it would be understood, without the audience already knowing who all these characters, the coup protagonists, were. Kennedy Alencar’s Brasil em Transe (In English named What happened to Brazil? and shown on the BBC), aired in early 2019 and took a more conventional journalistic approach, but still left the viewer in little doubt that grave injustice and subversion of democracy had taken place in the country.
Costa’s film is different. Narrated mostly from first person, it explains the sequence of events in Brazil with a razor sharp interpretation of the facts, a poetry and a frankness. In rendering a complicated, expansive, and often impenetrable story, what it also manages to convey is the deep emotional toll of this period on those who were caught up within it.
Through aerial shots of capital Brasilia’s congress and esplanade, both during its construction in the 1950s and in the present day, you sense the fragility of its young democratic institutions, and the vulnerability of Brazil’s open veins.
Director of 2011’s acclaimed Elena, 35 year old Costa, from Belo Horizonte, had unparalleled access to both elected President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor Lula da Silva, and was present at all the key moments as the coup unfolded. She also calls on the comprehensive record of Ricardo Stuckert, the Workers’ Party’s own omnipresent visual chronicler.
Premiered at Sundance, The Edge of Democracy begins with the scenes at the Metalworkers Union building in greater São Paulo where Lula had made his political name, just prior to his arrest, with the building surrounded by supporters who insisted they would not allow the Federal Police to take him. It travels back to the optimism of his election in 2002, with a 19-year-old Costa casting her first vote which would help sweep Lula to the Presidency at his fourth attempt.
It goes on to highlight the momentous achievements of Lula’s eight years in the presidency, lifting millions out of hunger, massively expanding afro-Brazilian and working class representation in universities, public life, and managing to avert the worst of the 2008 financial crisis.
His successor Dilma Rousseff was clearly a reluctant president. She confides that Lula decided she would run in 2010, and laments that she knew at that moment that she would never again enjoy the freedom of anonymity, such as she had when in hiding during the 1960s resistance struggle.
Rousseff is asked about her party’s alliance with Temer’s PMDB, for which many supporters felt betrayed by the party, and what would ultimately be the bargain that enabled her undoing. Rousseff explains it in simple congressional arithmetic, whilst Lula says that if Jesus came to Brazil he would need to work with Judas in order to govern. Dilma insists that, paralysed by Eduardo Cunha’s congressional sabotage and Operation Lava Jato (Carwash), that she didn’t actually govern in 2015 at all.
Costa identifies Dilma’s 2012 confrontation with the banks, in lowering Brazil’s bizarre and anomalous interest rates, as the point at which the country’s elites decided she had to go.
The June 2013 protests are shown as a critical juncture, which began as a post-occupy, post-arab spring movement, were amplified by police violence, proliferating on social networks, and finally embraced by Brazil’s oligarchic media which saw a political opportunity, shifting its messages rightwards. Elsewhere the film indicates the later role of social media algorithms in spreading campaigns to impeach Dilma. New tools originating in leftist protest movements were turned against Brazil’s first genuine and successful leftwing government.
Costa reveals that she has a family connection to Aécio Neves, one of two PSDB candidates defeated by Rousseff, whose refusal to accept that 2014 result was the inception point of the coup. She also explains that her Grandfather founded one of the construction companies involved in the corruption scandal which was the pretext for it. She goes on to recount her parents history of resistance during the US-backed 1964-85 dictatorship, in which her mother was imprisoned in the same jail as Dilma Rousseff was held and tortured for two years.
‘For Jair Bolsonaro, my parents should have been killed by the Dictatorship’, she remarks.
‘Again.’ intones Costa as she replays the secret recording, from an unknown source, of Michel Temer wingman Romero Jucá and businessman Sergio Machado explaining the coup plot in motion to remove Rousseff. This was in part to save their own political skins from a corruption investigation that she had enabled, and which would go on to destroy her presidency from both sides.
‘Again.’ deadpans Costa as a recording is replayed of relative Aécio Neves suggesting they use an operative for delivering bribes who ‘we can kill before they make a plea-bargain’, as she wonders how the proven corrupt can keep their political mandates and freedom, how institutions can be seemingly switched off and on at will by the elite families who hold the real power in the country. At the heart of this film there is burning indignation.
Meanwhile usurper President Michel Temer is recorded complaining that he cannot sleep in the beautiful Alvorada Palace, moving out after just one week as he believed himself to be tormented by its ghosts.
The political manipulation at the heart of Operation Lava Jato, led by supposed anti-corruption crusader turned Bolsonaro Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, was corroborated by documents leaked to The Intercept in the week prior to the film’s Netflix debut, adding weight to its already implicit doubts. There is thus a strong irony in The Edge of Democracy sitting side by side with the notorious Operation Lava Jato propaganda series The Mechanism on Netflix, which recently premiered its second season, just as the narrative upon which it was ‘loosely based’ was falling apart.
In her final ten-hour Senate hearing before being finally impeached on 31 August 2016, Dilma Rousseff talks of how she had already looked death in the face on two occasions: once during her torture by the dictatorship, and again through the cancer she overcame to run for president in 2010. ‘What I do fear…’, she said, ‘…is the death of Democracy’.
Rousseff insisted they would be judged by history. This film itself is a phase of that judgement.
In one of its most moving scenes, shortly before he handed himself in for arrest, Lula tells his massed sobbing supporters that ‘they can kill one, two or 100 flowers, but they will never prevent the coming of the spring’, ‘There is no point in trying to end my ideas, they are already lingering in the air and you can’t arrest them. There is no point in trying to stop me from dreaming, because once I cease dreaming I’ll keep dreaming through your minds and your dreams. There is no point in them thinking that this will cease when I have a heart attack. That’s nonsense, because my heart shall beat through your hearts, and they are millions of hearts’.
His imprisonment is now proven to have been a plot to keep him out of an election which he was certain to win, and Costa questions if Brazil’s democracy was ever secure, speaking of the fear that she and others felt back in 2002 that the powers that be would not even allow him to assume the presidency.
The Edge of Democracy is a courageous work, bringing with it great personal and professional risk. Brazil’s most internationally-known actor of the modern era, Wagner Moura, now says he fears for his safety in Brazil, and his directorial debut Marighella may never get a domestic release due to its subject matter.
Beyond its inevitable repercussions within the country, with its high profile Netflix billing and simultaneous worldwide release, what The Edge of Democracy does is for the first time demonstrate to a mass international audience the limitations of what they were being told about Brazil, and leave those who denied, and continue to deny what was happening, looking both foolish and dishonest.
With their focus on the already labyrinthine domestic dimensions of the story, what none of the films released so far have done is delve deep into the significant role the US government and Wall Street interests have played in Brazil’s crisis. (Our book Year of Lead focuses closely on these aspects).
But in The Edge of Democracy, there are subtle nods to foreign hands in the coup, from an acknowledgement of Inquisitor-Judge Sérgio Moro’s US training, the history of which is documented here, to the NSA espionage of Rousseff, her government and national oil company Petrobras, whose massive offshore discoveries Costa identifies as a gift that became a curse for Brazil. Protesters facing down tear gas and rubber bullets are heard screaming in defiance against the giveaway of the country’s oil to the Americans, while neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro is identified as the ‘market’s choice’ for the 2018 election, as an enabler who would bring yet further sell-offs of Brazil’s riches to foreign corporations, while threatening to banish the left from the country entirely.
As Brazil’s rich film industry faces ideological vandalism, with Bolsonaro attacking ‘cultural marxism’ which has brought about a crisis in funding, 2019 saw awards for two films at Cannes film festival: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau won the Jury Prize and Un Certain Regard went to Karim Ainouz’s The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao. In addition, February saw the the out-of-competition premiere of Wagner Moura’s Marighella at the Berlinale. All three, like Kleber’s 2016 Aquarius, whose cast made a high profile protest against the coup underway on their red carpet, have helped draw international attention to what was taking place Brazil in their own ways, circumventing media censorship by omission, and perhaps creating an audience to whom The Edge of Democracy can now explain.
Dispensing with the kind of fake impartiality which enabled the oligarchic media to depict the legitimacy of what was happening as a ‘matter of opinion’, there will be attempts to claim The Edge of Democracy is a partisan piece, especially as in the wake of The Intercept’s latest leaks which will likely spell the end of Sérgio Moro. There’s now a circling of the wagons; one desperate last stand to to protect the evaporating Operation Carwash.
The Edge of Democracy deserves every plaudit and award that will inevitably come its way.
This film is as concise and accurate a document of Brazil’s recent history, in particular of what really happened on the ground during 2013-2018, that the outside world will likely ever get to see.
We know that because we were there.
This article was originally published in Brasil Wire.