A once-in-a-generation president who gives a young generation new hope for the future, replaced by a woman accused of being emotionless and corrupt, and then an openly bigoted candidate who brings the country’s far right to the fore. For Americans, Brazil’s recent political history can seem awfully familiar.
Those likenesses were on Petra Costa’s mind as she filmed The Edge of Democracy, a documentary that covers Brazil’s recent slide from socialist prosperity toward military dictatorship and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the ex-military candidate who enthusiastically endorsed the use of torture and praised the country’s past dictators on his way to winning the presidency. Costa talked to me at Sheffield, England’s Doc/Fest, where the movie, which debuts Wednesday on Netflix, was among a generous selection of documentaries about the current state of Brazil. In a United Kingdom itself unsettled by the battle over Brexit, the multiple windows into another world were a sobering reminder of how many struggles these apparently disparate settings share.
Slate: The documentaries you made before this, Elena and Olmo and the Seagull, focused on the relationship between stage performance and real life. And while there’s a connection between policies and theater, this is a pretty big departure. How did you get started down this road?
Petra Costa: I had seen [the 1970s documentary] The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzmán a few months prior, and it felt so similar to what I was seeing happening in Brazil in terms of the class polarization and the hatred building up against the Workers’ Party. When I saw it, I thought, “Oh, that passed. I wished I had filmed it, but now everything is getting calmer again.”
Then, a few months later, it actually exploded. I went to film a street demonstration that was the biggest demonstration against corruption but also asking for [President] Dilma’s impeachment. The scene that I show in the film were these two protesters that were actually protesting also against the government, but because they were wearing red, they were screamed at by all the people and had to be escorted out of the protest by the police.
They were wearing red because they were socialists?
Yes. Communist. That level of hatred was something I had never seen before in Brazil, and I was scared and perplexed and wanted to understand more. It became clear very quickly that I was going through the most important historical moment that I had lived. And Guzmán’s film was an inspiration in the sense that I knew I wanted to document that on several levels, on the street level and the parliament and then the presidential palace.
You mention in in the film that your parents were leftist political activists—but also your grandfather co-founded one of the country’s largest oil companies. Was your family name a help in gaining access? A hindrance?
The company’s history is known, but my name was not known for politicians at all. My mother had been an activist in the Workers’ Party in the early days, so people there knew her and knew who she was. Dilma had never met her, but when I interviewed her, I said, “Oh my mother went to the same school as you.” She knew they were from the same kind of struggle, and that established a level of trust.
When did you realize your own family history would be such a significant part of the movie?
After about one or two months of filming, the sentence that’s in the film came to mind: I’m the same age as Brazilian democracy, and I thought after 30 years we would be standing on solid ground. When I found that sentence, I found what story I wanted to tell. I started to see so many similarities between what had happened in ’64, and the fact that my family was very much pro- the military coup. I found it fascinating to see what was happening today through the lens of these repetitions, and the idea from [Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel] The Leopard: “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” I thought my family’s story would help a spectator understand the cyclical nature of Brazilian history.
Did you think about bringing your family into it more directly, perhaps by interviewing them?
I did. I interviewed my grandfather a couple of times, but it didn’t really fit into the story. It felt like another story in itself once I went deeper. My mother kind of managed to integrate herself more seamlessly. But it’s hard. The film dictates what can fit and what can’t.
We’ve acquired this idea that democratic governments are the pinnacle of human achievement, and that once a society has gotten to that point, people will never let it go.
And since 2016, we’ve all realized that that’s possibly not the case. That’s quite daunting.
How much are you thinking about or playing up those parallels with other countries in the film?
When it began, I was like, “Oh my God. This is just happening in Brazil. How abnormal of us.” But then about June 2016, when Brexit happened, and when Trump won in November, it was clear that it was a global phenomenon. There’s so many reasons behind it, but for me one of them is the way money is asphyxiating democracy, and how on one level that has taken out people’s belief in democracy. You elect a politician, and then even if they are progressive, they have to do deals. What happened in Brazil with the Workers’ Party is that it started more progressive and then as time passed, it became less and less so. … And so people went to the streets to ask for more—more democracy, in a sense. it was also very unorganized and didn’t have a leadership behind it or a very good narrative behind it, just like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, and was quickly co-opted by the right, which did have a good narrative at that point.
The movement in Brazil began over a rise in bus fares, which would seem to indicate that there was a lot of dissatisfaction right under the surface, and it didn’t take much to bring it up.
Definitely. But I think there’s more still to be discovered, like the role that social media played in those protests, because they were very much mobilized by social media and those protests changed very quickly. They began extremely progressive and in about 10 days, you started seeing people asking for the return of the military right then. And they released all these pages on Facebook, like Anonymous Brazil and Movimento Brasil Livre and Students for Liberty. … There’s a lot of mystery in how much manipulation there was then.
There’s a shot in The Edge of Democracy of you emerging from the booth after voting for Lula, and you have this huge smile on your face. Do you remember how you felt when he was elected?
Well, it was the most optimistic moment of our history, from my perspective. But there was a lot of fear. People thought he wouldn’t last a month. That the dollar was going to spike. The stock market was going to collapse. Or he would get killed or he would be thrown out. The fact that he didn’t was kind of miraculous. But of course it had its cost, in the sense that it meant he conciliated. As I say, he made a lot of compromises. The rich got richer than ever in his time, but so did the poor. The fact that we had like 40 million people rising out of misery and poverty and entering the middle class is really mind-blowing.
The flip of that is the day the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach Dilma. You say in the film that the face of Brazil changed that day—and so did your face. You see yourself reflected in your country, whether you want to or not.
The Picture of Dorian Gray really resonated with me at that moment. I was really haunted by how I actually saw my face change. I remember when I was really little, I would always see political campaigns on the TV, and I loved seeing how so many politicians were not able to smile. Their smile would be so fake. Almost scary. Around the time of the impeachment, I remember I saw that in my own face. That inability to smile, and that loss of purity from just the toxicity and the hypocrisy of so many people that I was filming daily. The level of hypocrisy … and hypocrisy’s not even a strong enough word for what they were doing. Hundreds of white men with uncontrollable joy at reclaiming power—and having to film that and just smile back at them.
You say at one point that Dilma’s impeachment and the charges against Lula were criminalizing “not just politicians but politics itself.” What do you mean by that?
Well, the way Operation Car Wash was portrayed by the media was not, “This is a historical problem in politics in Brazil and there has been systemic corruption for a very long time.” It was spectacularized at every level. The way they portrayed it, every new scandal, every new investigation had a cinematic name. TV would be covering it 24 hours a day. You would see the police cars getting into a politician’s house, dragging them out. On the main TV channel, each time there was a revelation they would have these tubes of money and this money would be overflowing out of it.
It gave the sense to the population that this was the first time in history it was ever happening, and it was the greatest corruption scandal, and basically you were being robbed and the fact that there was an economic crisis was because of this. And that was not the case. The economic crisis was happening because of a global drop in commodity prices, many mistakes of Dilma’s government, and of course the corruption and Petrobras collaborated with that.* But the sense that people have until today on the streets was that it was because the Workers’ Party was robbing Petrobras that everyone’s life got destroyed. And it was the fault of these specific politicians.
And then as the operation evolved and it started to show how widespread it was and it was not just the Workers’ Party, but it was the opposing party … and on and on. Then people got a sense, “OK, all politicians are robbers, and the solution is a military intervention and the return of the monarchy or possibly an outsider.”
Or instead of a military coup, you just elect someone who’s …
Right. Close enough. Some of your relatives voted for Bolsonaro. Have you asked them why?
What they said was that they had to decide between what they knew, which was the Workers’ Party and they did not like it, and what they didn’t know. And they opted for what they didn’t know in the hope that it would bring change. And many people made that decision also when he announced that his finance minister would be this Chicago schoolboy who was going to go into extreme austerity. And that kind of legitimized a lot his candidacy. He was no longer just a radical, he was backed by someone who was respected by the stock market, the financial elite.
Do you have hope for the future of Brazil?
Well, one hope is that the youth who had not really protested against Dilma’s impeachment, that were not so much participating, really took to the streets about a month ago against this extreme cut in university spending that the government did. So hopefully the youth will continue in the streets more and more. It’s hard to know what will happen. People were talking about impeachment. But I think that would be horrible, too.
To circle back to the title of the film, what do you think Brazil’s example tells us about the sustainability of democracy? Can we be close to the edge of losing it and not even realize?
It’s much more fragile than I imagined. I agree with the thought that there’s no pure democracy. There’s levels of oligarchy. How much you manage to control the greed of the oligarchy is your measure of how much democracy you have. In the past years that control has lessened and lessened and we’ve had less and less democracy because money is somehow really asphyxiating democracy in a deep way. I think it’s a wake-up call for us not to take democracy for granted. And try to resuscitate it to a certain extent.
There was a terrifying study several years ago that concluded the U.S. is already an oligarchy: The rich have so much power that it effectively doesn’t matter how we vote.
But there’s also the idea of crowdfunding candidates, no?
That’s the hope: that somehow millions of small individual donors can overpower the elites. But it feels like it could go either way at any time.
Yeah, exactly. And we’ve been going backward.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Correction, June 19, 2019: An earlier version of this article misspelled Petrobras.