The Edge of Democracy: Petra Costa's Cautionary Political Tale

by Emanuel Levy September 16, 2020
Petra Costa

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The Edge of Democracy, (Democracia em Vertigem) the forceful political documentary by Petra Costa, was one of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2019, a particularly strong year for non-fiction fare. World premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary was streamed in June by Netflix, which also showed the film theatrically in some big cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

An alarming cautionary tale for these times, when democracy is in crisis in so many places, The Edge of Democracy fuses the personal and the political in an effort to explore and illuminate one of the most turbulent periods in Brazilian history. The film is set against the backdrop of the first term of President Lula da Silva and the events leading to the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, analyzing the rise and fall of both Presidents as well as the socio-political crises that swept Brazil, while remaining little known or reported in many Western countries.

Having gained unprecedented access to presidents da Silva and Rousseff, Costa presents evidence that attests to the emergence of a tragically polarized nation. The film aims to explain the long road that led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency of Brazil as part of a deeper process of weakening the country's political system, by breaking the rules of the democratic process.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in “The Edge of Democracy” (2019)

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in The Edge of Democracy (2019)


Although this revelatory and scary feature focuses on the events of one South American region, it also reflects the global phenomena of political polarization, brutal violence, hate speech, and the rise to power of the current brand of fascistic populism. Indeed, when the documentary was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Spike Lee, who hosted the event, noted: "It gives us another look at Fascism, which is not only in Brazil, but is global.”

During 2019, the film was the second most-watched documentary of the giant documentary platform in Brazil. Though he had not seen it, President Bolsonaro reacted quickly and violently by saying that the film was "crap." Other officials, such as the Special Secretariat of Social Communication, labeled director Costa an "anti-Brazilian activist who is defaming the image of the country abroad." These were typical responses of totalitarian regimes, which consider critics of the government as "enemies of the people" – President Donald Trump has described American media in such terms, as well.

Political polarization is one of the film's central themes, symbolically represented in a scene that shows a wall put up by the police on the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia, which divided the demonstrators into those in favor and those against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, each side positioned on either the left or the right of the wall. On one side, there was a legitimate process to remove from office a president who had lost popular support; on the other, there was a parliamentary coup d'état led by a corrupt congressman and Vice President.

To her credit, Costa does not try to be objective or even impartial, but this does not tarnish the credibility or the authenticity of her chronicle. The right and ultra-right wings are not the only targets of the director, who also examines the disenchantment with the left parties. Costa narrates the events with her own voice, which is recorded in Portuguese and English, explaining her point of view, while showing images of Brazil's recent history through both familiar and previously unpublished sources. In addition to testimonies of the main players in Brazilian politics, there are also stories of ordinary and anonymous people, such as the cleaners of the Palácio do Planalto, the official workplace of the Brazilian president.

Along with using flashbacks of the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff and the arrest of former President Lula da Silva, Costa also provides necessary historical perspective by revisiting such crucial events as the 1964 coup d'état, the 1964-1985 civic-military dictatorship, the 1978-1980 strikes, the founding of the Workers' Party in 1980, the election of Lula da Silva in 2002 after three failed attempts, and his succession through the Rousseff-Michel Temer ticket in 2010.

Interspersed with the broader political events are personal observations of Costa, who tells the story of her own family, including her grandfather, a contractor who did business with the state during both civil and military governments. We get glimpses of her relatives who celebrated both the 1964 coup and, decades later, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.  Petra's own parents, known for their left-wing activism, were persecuted by the dictatorship. In one of the most intimate segments, Costa's mother, who was a sympathizer of the Workers Party, converses with former President Dilma, who discusses the experience of serving in the government.

This transfixing documentary is a continuation and expansion of Costa’s previous work – which includes the more intimate features Elena and Olmo and the Seagull – applying a similarly poetic lens to this alarming chronicle of current affairs. Assembled with absorbing insight and passion, The Edge of Democracy offers a disturbing and expansive overview of how a democratic nation can descend into dangerous rightwing populism and "slide" into autocracy.

At the end, Costa asks alarmingly: "What do we do when the mask of civility falls and what appears is an ever more haunting image of ourselves? Where do we gather the strength to walk through the ruins and start anew? Where do we go from here?" While unable to offer easy solutions, at the very least the documentary reaffirms our essential faith in the possibility of rationally understanding the past and the present, with an eye toward the future.