“Now is an Interesting Moment, When the Cruelties and Inequality are More Exposed than Ever”: Petra Costa on her Netflix-Premiering Doc on Brazilian Politics, The Edge of Democracy
Politics is confusing at the best of times. But in the age of Brexit, Trump and now Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, it’s impossible to keep track of the fake news, alternative facts and the good old-fashioned lies, damned lies and statistics. Since January 1st of 2019, President Bolsonaro has been ruling the roost in Brazil, following hot on the heels of a president who was almost impeached (Michel Temer), one who was impeached (Dilma Roussef) and one who now keeps a prison bed warm (Lula). The political shenanigans came so thick and fast from the biggest nation in South America that it was hard to keep track of what was going on, even for Brazilians.
That confusion is somewhat alleviated by The Edge of Democracy, the new film from Elena director Petra Costa, which wowed at the Sundance Film Festival and premiered on Netflix today. (The streamer boarded the project shortly after meeting with Costa at IDFA in 2017.) As the voiceover narration by Costa informs us, she was born at the same time as Brazil ended a period of dictatorship and embraced democracy. For most of her life she saw democracy as going from strength to strength in her nation. Her trust in the political system was eroded when news came through that Dilma Roussef was undergoing impeachment proceedings and she realised that she — and the rest of the populace — was being hoodwinked as to the nature of the charges. The director has made a highly personal film about her response to the news of the impeachment and gives an analysis of what has happened in Brazilian politics over the past decade.
As the film reveals Costa is herself from a political background: her parents were prominent Marxists who fought against the dictatorship that ruled Brazil, and they all believed, in keeping with the philosophy of Francis Fukuyama, that the arrival of a liberal democracy would be the final political system that would be adopted worldwide. That thought has been seriously questioned around the world, not just Brazil. Costa’s film highlights how checks and balances can themselves be corrupted and the abundance of information and news following the advent of social media has made it easier, rather than more tricky, to hoodwink the electorate and commit unjust acts in plain sight. Costa has made an urgent and necessary film about politics, the balance of power and how fragile democracy is, with the lessons pertinent not just to Brazil.
Filmmaker: In 2013, you were at the Sundance Film Festival and you saw The Square by Jehane Noujaim about the demonstrations in Tahrir Sqaure in Cairo, Egypt. I believe that as you were watching it, you kind of thought, “Oh, at least I live in Brazil, a country where democracy is established.” What changed?
Costa: Yes, I was moved by The Square in the sense that I felt that they were living through something that in Brazil we experienced in the early ’80s, which was big protests asking for democracy and for the end of the military dictatorship. And so, in Egypt, they were living exactly what my parents had gone through but decades later. I met many of the filmmakers of The Square, and I was like, “Why don’t you guys run for congress, run for president? I mean, democracy is great and it’s been working really well in Brazil.” Little did I know how naïve I was for thinking. That same year, 2013, only six months later, in June, big protests exploded in Brazil. And, what was confusing about those protests was that initially the protestors were asking for more rights, more public investments in health and education, less corruption. But, because there was no clear ideology behind those protests the protests were hijacked by those who had a simpler narrative and a simple antagonist, which was Dilma Rousseff. They said she is a robber and so she has to get out of power. And they were the ones who managed to win the battle of narratives. This is kind of the trend now at this present moment of demagogues winning over many democracies all over the world.
Filmmaker: How did you feel when you heard things being said about Dilma, that she should be impeached?
Costa: Well, it was very hard to understand what were the grounds for impeachment. It took me months to actually understand what they were impeaching Dilma for. Most of the population, I think, never understood. They thought it was on grounds of corruption accusations, but actually it was for fiscal peddling — budget maneuvering that most presidents had done in the past but not to the degree that she had done it. But still, that was not why she was being impeached. And I began to realise that it was for political reasons, and that became clearer and clearer as you see in the film. The fact that the country was in economic crisis made it all the more attractive to impeach the president, as if that would solve all the problems.
Filmmaker: For you, how is that contrast between the perception of Brazil as the home of samba, football and sun — things associated with freedom — with the reality of political Brazil?
Costa: It’s a hard question. Brazilians thought that one of our greatest attributes was to be very tolerant. Like we were not segregated like the United States. There was always miscegenation and this happiness and this joy were kind of our identity that we were proud of inside the country and that we kind of exported. And to many degrees the country is living in identity crisis at the moment because that was somehow destroyed. It became extremely polarized [here], more than ever, with political hatred that has been dividing families. That [previous] level of tolerance is no longer there. But, it’s also interesting because this oppression was always there; there’s always has been racism in Brazil and kind of the idea that we had, that we were racial democracy, made it harder for to combat racism. So, now is an interesting moment when the cruelties and inequality are more exposed than ever so that we can actually deal with it. [Previously] it was always swept under the carpet in a way.
Filmmaker: And then also, people didn’t understand why Lula was thrown in jail. Just hearing that he was in jail makes one believe that he must have been guilty of something. The Edge of Democracy does a very good job of exposing, from your point of view, that he was imprisoned on the basis of lies. Can you tell me about your investigation and how you reached that conclusion?
Costa: Yes. What became clear and I’ve spoken to many lawyers — lawyers from all sides of the political spectrum — and most of them agree that his imprisonment is probably unconstitutional [and] certainly illegal because the legal process did not go until the end, which is in the constitution in Brazil. In the law you have to be heard in all instances before you go to jail, and that was definitely not what happened with this case. So, that is quite revealing that a president could go to prison illegally and also the pace of how it was done. The timing was just perfect for the impeachment crisis; weeks before the impeachment vote, they leaked the audio of Dilma and Lula, recording a president for the first time in Brazilian history, which is also illegal. Then the PowerPoint comes out, incriminating Lula two weeks after Dilma’s impeachment. He goes to jail six months prior to the election and then the Judge Sérgio Moro, who condemned Lula to jail, becomes the Minister of Justice of the new president. So, the timing seemed scripted. But, what I say in the film is that I would love to know if Lula’s guilty or not, but unfortunately no one took the job of actually proving his guilt. There was no due diligence.
Filmmaker: What made you decide that talking about your parents experience fighting dictatorship would be a way of telling the story of contemporary society in The Edge of Democracy?
Costa: Well, the films I made before are all personal and quite intimate, and I had never made a political film. I was quite daunted by it. My interest was in trying to somehow be able to transmit the relationship between the citizen and their own democracy. In my case, my parents spent their life fighting for democracy under the military rule and when democracy finally arrived, it coincided with when I was born, so I grew up feeling that democracy was my birthright. They transmitted that idea into me, and so it felt more than natural for me to incorporate them into this story. Also, I think their story revealed much of Brazilian history in an organic way.
Filmmaker: But, what’s interesting is you still do live in a democracy.
Costa: Yes, I do. The thing is that democracies today don’t die with military coups. They die through democratic means.
Filmmaker: But it’s not necessarily dead, because in a few years time you’ll have another election where you can remove the President?
Costa: Yes! But it definitely weakened democracy in the sense that more than 20% of Brazilian people in a recent poll said they don’t believe in democracy and think that authoritarian rule would be better. That’s clear evidence of the weakening of democracy.
Filmmaker: Do you think it’s partly because people are so confused by technological changes that happening so quickly today? That they romanticize a past when life was maybe seemed a bit simpler?
Costa: Maybe, and the confusion between facts and fake news also through WhatsApp and social media on general, I think, and also the feeling that democracy’s somehow anachronistic when compared to the immediacy of our devices. The fact that we can’t interact and be heard in the same way we can in social media I think also frustrates people. But my perception is more that money, big money, has asphyxiated democracy in a very deep way. And people see that, at least the people I have spoken to on the streets, who feel that democracies have been corrupted by financial interest, that the congress is corrupt, that the politicians are corrupt and that maybe only a dictator could actually get things done, without selling his soul to the devil. I don’t want this to get misinterpreted as that I’m defending dictatorship, because I am not. I think a renovation is necessary so that people can feel that they have their voices heard when they vote. And they’re not voting and then having the politician being bought by a company.
Filmmaker: In terms of the construction of the film, you used footage shot on film in the past, you used archive footage from television companies and new footage that’s been shot in the present day. How did you marry this footage together?
Costa: We filmed with a C300, so some things in 4K, some things in 2K, also with a Sony Alpha. Some images I did with my iPhone and we had Super 8, 16mm and VHS from both my family archive and the country’s archive, which was found by two great archivists, Antōnio Venâcio and Isabela Moto. I loved the combination of different materials. I think all my films have that. And I feel they’re able to transmit the different perceptions, making some images feel more dreamlike, memory-like. And we also used a Steadicam, which gave the sensation of being able to zoom out of the political chaos and reflect upon what was happening. The main work was in the color grading — we spent a week on establishing a film grain to kind of give a unity to all the different formats. We used a very good 4K, 35mm grain that would give the film a look as if it was all shot on film.
Filmmaker: That means there must have been different audio sources with different levels?
Costa: Yes, we also had a lot of work to do with the sound design. We worked with Leslie Shatz, who I admire greatly and who has worked on many of Gus van Sant’s films. He did a huge amount of research and worked a lot with me on the entire sound design and also with the music soundtrack. There were very bad quality audio that he managed to clean and also creating the atmosphere inside those political corridors. He did a beautiful job.
Filmmaker: We hear your poetic narrative as a voiceover throughout the film. Can you talk a bit about how long that took to write? Was it a process of rewriting and constantly editing?
Costa: It took so long. Too long. I was like, “I’m never narrating a film again.” It’s so much work, but basically I was writing some parts of the narration while I was filming, kind of as the ideas came to me. And then while we were editing, we had so much material, so we divided the work with different editors and each one did what I called “an act of the story.” And while they were reducing that material I was working with Carol Pires, one of my co-screenwriters, writing the narration and finding what the arch of the story would be.
Filmmaker: And I presume the story was changing as you were editing, because the real life story was moving at 100 miles an hour.
Costa: Yes, while we were making sense of what we had filmed and kind of barely being able to stick our heads out of it, [Michel] Temer almost got impeached because of the audio leak that appears in the film where he is allegedly buying the silence of the congress speaker who was in jail. And then I had to go back and shoot again and it felt like Groundhog Day, because this story would never end. And then Lula’s imprisonment was imminent and we continued to film that, and then he went to prison, and then when [Jair] Bolsonaro emerges as the new president, we had to organize to film his inauguration. And while it felt like the story would never end, but I kind of knew actually that it would end with the inauguration of the new president.