A Horror Documentary About How Democracy Dies
Petra Costa's "The Edge of Democracy," a Netflix documentary, takes us into the center of a decaying democracy—and it looks a little too familiar.
A democracy, like a person, is a fragile thing. It needs nourishment. It needs support. It needs not to be taken for granted. Democracy is an idea, after all, not a given—an idea that only stays alive as long as the people who believe in it do.
These are the lessons Petra Costa learned firsthand throughout the process of filming her haunting documentary, The Edge of Democracy. The film, now streaming on Netflix, chronicles Brazil's descent into autocracy with the outraged you-are-there fervor, tenacity, and poeticism that only a citizen watching the death of her own country's democracy can muster.
Costa begins with a line of voiceover that sets the stage for the way the political meets the personal: “Brazilian democracy and I are the same age, and I thought in our thirties we’d be on solid ground.” In 1985, the year Costa was born, civilian government was restored in Brazil, ending a 21-year military dictatorship. But as soon as democracy was born in Brazil, it was diseased. In the prevailing political party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), corruption was rampant, big business ruled the roost, and the working poor were left to starve. Costa describes the party as a thinly-veiled oligarchy.
"I was always looking at how the personal was political. I guess in this one, it's how the political is personal."
In 2002, Costa and her parents, revolutionaries of the Workers’ Party, were overjoyed to cast their vote for a former steelworker and union organizer, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. It was Lula's fourth bid for the presidency. This election cycle, Lula had cozied up to Petrobas, Brazil's monolithic oil company. It was his golden ticket. During his tenure as President, Lula instated a social-welfare program, Bolsa Família, which single-handedly elevated 20 million Brazilian citizens from the grips of poverty. He became a folk hero, and one of the most popular leaders in the world. When he left office, in 2011, he had an 87 percent approval rating among Brazilian voters. Lula was succeeded by his Workers’ Party colleague, Dilma Rousseff, an intellectual who had been imprisoned and tortured by the military regime. Things were looking up in Brazil.
Then, in June 2017, the tides quickly turned toward populism, and the old oligarchy began to take hold. Rousseff was impeached as a part of a dubious investigation into the country's corruption, which came to be known as Operation Car Wash. Months later, Lula would be imprisoned, despite a disturbing lack of evidence to convict him. And in October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician and an admirer of Brazil's past dictatorship, was elected President.
How could this possibly happen? The answer lies somewhere in the frames of Costa's documentary. The tenacious filmmaker and cinematographer João Atala were there from the beginning of the end, as anti-liberal extremists sowed the seeds of discord in Brazilian media, led a campaign of misinformation, roiled the public, and ultimately empowered Congress to make a political prisoner of Lula. Costa's camera follows Lula and Rousseff through the scandal, with an eye to the hypocrisy of the charges levied against them and the anti-democratic forces that began to take hold of her country. Audiences across the globe, from the UK to the U.S. to Hungary to the Phillippines, will recognize disturbingly familiar trends in this film—not least of them in the moment where Bolsonaro pops a balloon painted with Lula's face behind bars and snickers, as if to say, "Lock him up."
No Film School caught up with Costa and producer Joanna Natasegara to discuss the massive undertaking that became The Edge of Democracy.
No Film School: Petra, your last film, Elena, was intensely personal. It was about your sister's suicide. Of course, this film is personal, too, with your family history in Brazilian politics. But this your first time doing a film with an inherently political engine?
Petra Costa: Yes, it was. I came into documentary filmmaking very much with a desire to make social issue docs but did not feel ownership over the subject matters. So I started looking for subjects that I felt no one else could talk about but me, so there was this urgency. I did a short film about the love/death relationship of my grandparents as they were aging, the film about my sister's suicide, and then another film about the journey a woman goes through during the madness of pregnancy, which I thought was extremely under-represented. But I was always looking at how the personal was political. I guess in this one, it's how the political is personal.
NFS: Which was the germinating seed of this film—the personal or the political?
Costa: Well, I saw The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman a few months before the political crisis exploded. I loved that film. It's about the military coup in the '70s that happened in Chile, and it made me understand so much of what was happening in Brazilian society, in terms of the class polarization. When I saw it, I actually thought, "I wish I had made that film while that was at its peak."
So when the crisis [in Brazil] exploded, I immediately got my camera and went to film. I was drawn into it. It was like entering into a rabbit hole.
But once I was in the midst of it, I was like, "Who am I to tell this story?" It didn't make sense to make a Battle of Chile today, with objective narration.
"I wanted to tell a story about that personal relationship between a citizen and his or her own democracy."
And then this sentence came to me: "I'm the same age as Brazilian democracy. I thought that in our thirties, we would both be standing on solid ground." I understood that that was my motivation—I wanted to tell a story about that personal relationship between a citizen and his or her own democracy.
NFS: You said you grabbed your camera and started shooting. What did that first entail? I imagine you were filming a lot of the protests, but how did you make your way into the inner circles?
Costa: I love filming protests. Now I can't stand even looking at one anymore! [Laughs]
I kind of naively thought that this situation would all be decided in the streets. So when I was filming most of the anti-impeachment protests, it felt like a soccer game—who's going to win? And then suddenly I was like, "Oh, actually, it's the congressmen who are going to decide this, no matter how many people show up."
So I was like, "I have to go to Congress."
Costa: I flew to Brazil with an amazing DP, João Atala. We tried to get into Congress. It took a while, but we finally managed to get into the rooms where the decisions were happening. This was not through any family connections whatsoever. It was basically with requests that were, after some time, granted. It was a bit strange for [the congressmen] because they were not accustomed to documentary filmmakers. We weren't journalists.
We started filming, and then I started requesting interviews with Dilma Rousseff. After months and months and months, they granted those interviews, and that's how we got the access. It was through extreme insistence.
NFS: You were following the situation as it unfolded over how many years?
Costa: Three years. It was quite unique to be there—not just following and testimony, but also the impeachment of one president, the imprisonment of another, and the election of a congressman [to President]. We had the luck of being able to have access to him while he was still just a congressman.
NFS: What was your emotional journey as you realized how bad things were getting?
Costa: It was very difficult as a Brazilian to be trying to tell the story when the emotions were so high, so it was very important for me to have outside partners that could help me understand what was fact and what was fiction.
I was paired with Joanna Natasegara, who has an amazing background in political films and human rights, and it was very helpful to have her perspective to basically navigate the political part of the story and to make sure it was translatable to audiences everywhere. Also, she made sure that we were getting the investigative journalism right.
Joanna Natasegara: You know, Petra is a very poetic filmmaker, as you can see from her earlier work. The footage that I was shown in the beginning was equally poetic—not like anything I've ever seen before. I mean, there's a big catalog of amazing vérité political films, but none of them have this kind of operatic feel.
In meeting Petra, I think it was really interesting that from the beginning to the end of the film, her thinking and her process changed. At the beginning, who I met was a very passionate Brazilian with a very clear point of view on what she thought. In the process of making the film, her opinion didn't change so much as grew. She learned and became more interested in the instruments of democracy, rather than just who was right and wrong in which party.
"There's a big catalog of amazing vérité political films, but none of them have this kind of operatic feel."
Those themes, I think, are really interesting globally. They certainly are for me, as a British person. I think we learned a lot as a team about protecting democracy.
NFS: In terms of the specific mechanics of democracy, what surprised you about way things actually work? It's easier to learn how something works when it breaks down.
Costa: In so many ways, I had a very superficial comprehension of how democracy actually worked. I thought I just had to vote every four years and that was kind of it—that you campaign for the right person and hopefully things work out.
Costa: But, for example, understanding how Congress works was fascinating. It's so dysfunctional—putting 500 men in a room and having them decide on things that they have very little relationship to...they're making speeches to themselves, mostly. No one is actually hearing each other. It's so much about the performance and so little about dialogue, which is quite disheartening.
And then to understand the importance of the separation of powers, at the moment where that was actually kind of collapsing in Brazil—the judicial was interfering with the executive and the executive with the legislative and the legislative with the executive. What's fascinating about Brazil is that you can see how it's actually divided through the architecture of the National Congress of Brazil, but how it was actually not being respected. Voters didn't get included, and each family became extremely polarized and divided. That division is the centerpiece of the erosion of democracy today.
"Linking politics to emotion is really important, but we often forget that if we're making films about politics, or even talking about politics."
Natasegara: It's so difficult to compare country-to-country. But democracy is changing. Certainly, the digital era's changed things—elections are not quite the same. We're starting to understand how we get news differently. People are starting to struggle to understand fact from fiction.
NFS: In the filmmaking process, I can imagine you were sending different cuts to different people and that was informing what you would go back and film differently. How did your approach on the ground change based on what was changing about the situation over time?
Natasegara: It was a big team. It was hundreds of hours of footage, with extraordinary amounts of archival. So wading through all of that material to get to where we got to was a beast. Carving a story out of that was hard. And then, as we touched on slightly earlier, it was about trying to make the story both complex enough for a Brazilian audience to feel like this wasn't reductive and for an international audience to understand. That was another layer of difficulty. It was a very difficult film to make.
Costa: Initially, we thought this film was a film about the impeachment, so we filmed the entire impeachment trial. That took six months. But it turned into only 15 minutes [of the film's final run time]. It became clear that getting more access to Dilma Rousseff and Lula was quite important. The turning points of the story were happening through these politicians and through their lives.
Costa: It was difficult to break the glass with them. They're politicians—they're accustomed to giving interviews and not saying anything [revealing]. But we wanted to get what they never say. How to do that was a huge exercise over time—gaining trust and understanding who they are and how they react. As a theater director, for me, it was quite fascinating to try and get to the places where they're vulnerable.
The story became clearer and clearer over time. At the end, when we were editing, we knew Rousseff's imprisonment and the election of the next president were coming up, and we were saving space for that.
Natasegara: For a long time we thought Lula might get elected again.
NFS: How did you balance the poeticism and investigative journalism aspects of the film? How did you kind of weave the really compelling personal narrative and poetic license into this story?
Natasegara: It's not a heavy journalistic piece, but I think it was very, very important to make sure the facts were well researched and correct. That was a process.
"It's only worth making films if I reach something that is utterly human."
Then I think it was about Petra sharing how she feels about things. That's a very interesting element of our relationship to democracy, isn't it? You know, the public generally votes on how they feel. So linking politics to emotion is really important, but we often forget that if we're making films about politics, or even talking about politics. We think it's all rationality, and actually, it's usually exactly the opposite.
Natasegara: So for me, as a producer, we would write the voiceovers and we would talk about it. Often when we were trying to get to a point, we'd get to the facts, and then I would ask her how she felt.
Costa: Pina Bausch, the German choreographer, says, "I'm not interested in how people move, but what moves people." And Tarkovsky says something similar: "I'm not interested in describing, but in trying to reach the poeticness of whatever I'm investigating." These two visions make a lot of sense to me. It's only worth making films if I reach something that is utterly human.
Natasegara: I also think Petra is incredibly brave in using her own family's history and her own experience and laying that bare to tell the story. Not every family could have done that. I think that approach allows an audience in in a very accessible way.
Costa: It was so fascinating to see how this sensation of being lost in your own democracy is something that was suddenly happening not just in Brazil, but in so many countries around the world. People start to actually grieve and don't know how to deal with that grief.
Natasegara: Even if you sit in a "stable" democracy, the film is a warning that democracy should not be taken for granted—that it's absolutely precious and that each and every one of us has a role to play in protecting it.
NFS: How was your journey to distribution? When did Netflix come on board?
Natasegara: Petra might have a different answer because it's her first with Netflix, but it's my third. You know, it's amazing to be able to tell a story like this in multiple languages to 190 countries around the world. The very things that we're talking about are specific to one country, but really we're inviting people to interrogate their own countries and their own democracies. And you can't do that going territory by territory [with distribution]. So because the film launches in one go in those 190 countries, we're going to get to see live how different people in different countries respond to that same message. That is just...magical.
I think Netflix has been extraordinary in the documentary space. They love films like this, which are really brave and different. 10 years ago, it would be unthinkable that there would be a distributor that would take on a doc about Brazilian democracy and distribute it in such a large way. We feel really lucky.