Review of Brazilian movie The Edge of Democracy (2019)

This article talks about the 2019 Brazilian movie called 'The Edge of Democracy'. The movie directed by Petra Costa was recently nominated for an Oscar as well, although it wasn't able to win the award. Nevertheless, the movie was a highlight among documentaries made in the last year, interweaving the personal and the public. This article provides a review of the movie as well as a description of the crisis that has engulfed Brazil since 2014, which is also the subject matter of this movie.

"Fragile democracies have one advantage over solid ones – they know when they are over. Generals close the Congress, occupy the TV stations, and everyone knows what happened. But democracies can also end slowly… What seems wrong to me is for one side of the political dispute to have the power to turn the institutions on and off according to their own interests – a blatant exercise of power that gave me the nauseous feeling that our democracy was very sick."
- Petra Costa in The Edge of Democracy

When does a democracy stop being a democracy? The question might seem like a strange one, given that the basic features of a democracy, namely the rule by the elected representatives of the people and the enjoyment of certain basic political and civil rights by the public are quite conspicuous. Brazil in the period 2014-2019 had both of these features. Yet a documentary that features the political upheavals of this period is titled 'The Edge of Democracy' as if democracy was about to fall off the edge of a cliff never to rise again.

The movie is based on a much-discussed subject namely the anti-corruption investigations called Operations Car Wash that led to the imprisonment of a former Brazilian president and in related scandals the impeachment of another. However, amid these big events, the filmmaker and narrator Petra Costa also look at the events through which her family has gone. This mixing of the personal and the public events has been remarkably well-done one that I have not seen in any other documentary. However, an examination of Petra's previous works reveals that the technique is not new to her. Innovations like the ones she uses have expanded the boundaries of what we call documentaries.

The movie starts with the video of a birthday party from Petra's childhood. Her remark that she and the Brazilian democracy are almost of the same age and in their late thirties both expected themselves to be on a stable footing perhaps gives us a premonition of what is to come. The period when she was born was a remarkable one in Brazilian politics. Workers were asserting themselves under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (henceforth referred to as Lula). People especially the ones who had to face the horrors of the military regime (this includes Petra's parents) welcomed the change of leadership. After Lula became the president a few years later he is said to have taken several progressive measures (providing huge subsidies in the process) providing ease of living for the poor as well as the indigenous people, communities who hitherto had little to gain from the government.

Yet Lula's political moves, including his willingness to tie up with the right-wing PTPD, are criticized and quite rightly so. Nevertheless, in 2013 Lula passed the baton to Dilma Rouseff (the first female president of the republic), as he retired as one of the most loved politicians on the continent. All was well for Dilma until the 2014 economic crisis hit Brazil. This crisis was a combination of external factors (mostly the reduction in global demand for oil and iron ore, which were the main exports of Brazil) and the huge subsidies that led to massive distortions in the economy. Inflation soared and growth rates plummeted ultimately moving into the negative (in 2015 and 2016).

What kind of crisis does the movie talk about?

In Amid this economic crisis, a political crisis was swiftly raising its head. From 2014 onwards, under the initiative of a judge called Sergio Moro, massive cases of corruption were rapidly uncovered. Labeled as Operation Car Wash, this led to the uncovering of the nexus between corrupt politicians and Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant. The former president Lula was soon entangled in the net as well.

In the midst of all this, there were allegations that Dilma Rouseff was manipulating the budget numbers to show a lesser deficit. This is where the movie gets controversial, even among those who might have otherwise been sympathetic to Dilma. According to some respected critics the movie almost glosses over Dilma's faults. Although this article is too short for a discussion like this, I just want to say that budget manipulation, although a serious affair cannot be treated as a ground for impeaching an elected head of government.
But the impeachment did happen, amid allegations that some senators were probably bribed or coaxed in other ways. One on one conversations between Petra and the senators (these are also included in the movie) showed that many of them were blissfully unaware of the specifics of the case.

The story after this is too well known and too recent to be recounted in full. After Rousseff's impeachment, Lula returned to take charge of the Worker's Party. But the anti-corruption investigations reached a highpoint at precisely the same point leading to his imprisonment. In a weirdly enacted farce where Sergio Moro was both the prosecutor as well as a judge, Lula was removed from the presidential race. This, of course, paved the way for Bolsonaro from the right-wing who has been running Brazil ever since.

Documentaries are rarely impartial and The Edge of Democracy is no exception. Petra displays a certain sympathy for the Worker's Party as well as for Lula and Dilma. Yet there is no doubt that the facts mentioned here are true to the fullest. In June 2019, nearly six months after the movie was released, certain leaked documents seemed to uncover the farce that lay beneath the trials. That Judge Moro was not impartial is amply proven by the fact that after Bolsonaro won the elections, Moro became the Justice Minister. Thus the right-wing led by Sergio Moro and Bolsonaro and fuelled by a partisan media successfully removed two popularly elected leaders. What we have seen in those cursed years was undoubtedly a case of "lawfare" – a neologism that means using fabricated court cases to remove political opponents. Lula was released in September last year but I highly doubt if democracy will regain the trust it has lost in these years.

Sullen anger

So much for Brazilian politics. Let us return to the movie. The narration of the movie has been done interestingly (by Petra herself). The sullen anger of the narrator is apparent in her tone. There is also a pervading uncertainty about the future that seems to haunt the viewer for a long time afterward.

It is also quite clear that Petra had to work hard to create this masterpiece. Her documentary has a really wide range of footages, including a view of the protests from close quarters, several personal conversations (not interviews) with Dilma, Lula and Bolsonaro (in one of these he is seen calling the army as the "protector of our freedom") as well as several senators as well as hard to get footage from inside the official residence of the President. The Edge of Democracy is factual and at the same time extremely moving. If you ask me, it is a must-watch!


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