For Petra Costa, the personal is political and the political is personal in her latest documentary “The Edge of Democracy.” Currently streaming on Netflix, the film chronicles the rise and fall of democracy in her native Brazil as the country has backslid into authoritarianism with the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, pro-torture former military officer. That followed the imprisonment and impeachment of his two democratic predecessors, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, respectively, revealed in the film to have been engineered by shady government officials.
As Costa, 36, notes in the doc, she and Brazilian democracy are almost the same age, and the past three years have made her realize how she — and others — have taken democracy for granted.
“I grew up believing democracy was my birthright, achieved from a lifetime of my parents fighting against the military dictatorship in Brazil that lasted from ’64 to the mid-80s,” Costa said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “In 2016, I started filming a protest … that was asking for Dilma’s impeachment. I realized it was kind of a wake-up call how ephemeral even democracy can be. I saw hundreds of thousands dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag singing the national anthem, some of them asking for the return of the military, others asking for the imprisonment of anyone who was wearing red.
“From there on, entered into a rabbit hole that took me to what was in many ways a nightmare because Brazil, as the United States, as England and many countries in the world, in 2016 suffered kind of an earthquake, where what we took for granted — I, myself, took for granted — which was democracy, became completely at risk.”
Rather than make a straightforward documentary covering the impeachment trial of Dilma, the country’s first female president, and later Lula’s conviction over money laundering charges, Costa weaves the film with her and her family’s personal stories, and the impact this crisis has had on her. Her parents were leftist activists in the ‘60s, and her mother and Dilma were imprisoned in the same prison back then. Her grandfather also owned a construction company that’s aligned with the rich.
“For me, what made me want to make this film was the idea between a citizen and his or her own democracy, and the utter pain that you feel when you feel that your democracy is at risk,” Costa explained. “Citizens no longer have a say in the democratic process, that it’s been co-opted by huge corporations, huge lobby systems, the manipulation of social media. And how do we get democracy back? … I made the film kind of from wanting to investigate the feeling of trauma, which is something that inspires me throughout my filmmaking. My first film was about the death of my sister Elena, who committed suicide, and my second film was about the dilemmas of pregnancy, and this film is about the trauma of losing your ground, which was democracy. The first step to cure trauma is to retell.”
As a result, “The Edge of Democracy” paints a chilling cautionary tale as Brexit and Trumpism rage on in the Northern Hemisphere. The film doesn’t explicitly draw direct parallels to either, but Costa says those subsequent events helped her better understand her own feelings as she watched Brazilian democracy crumble.
“Brazil’s erosion of democracy started in March of 2016. And then in June happened Brexit. And I started reading what people were writing about Brexit. One guy said … it was like being punched in the face but very slowly. I was like, ‘Exactly! That’s what I’ve been feeling,’” she shared. “And then with the election of Trump and millions of people started writing the sensation of grief and paralysis and complete disturbance. So I understood what I was going through by reading these foreign accounts.”
Video by Andrew Merrill
Be sure to make your Oscar nominee predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their films and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on January 13. And join in the fun debate over the 2020 Academy Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.