From Personal to Political: The Edge of Democracy and the Effectiveness of Personal Narrative

by Alina Snisarenko

  1. Introduction

The Edge of Democracy is a documentary film that integrates the personal with the political in an attempt to mobilize the understanding of Brazil’s grim political future. Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa and released in 2019, the documentary follows Brazil’s authoritarian past and its short glimpse of a democratic future with the prodigious election of Lula, a man from the working class, and Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president and ex-guerilla fighter who endured torture during the country’s dictatorship. Costa follows the encouraging path of democracy and its quick overturn at the hands of corruption and scandal, all while depicting her take on Brazil’s polarized political state and its consistent reemergence throughout her familial history.

This paper argues that Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy deliberately integrates personal narrative to exemplify the progressive polarization of Brazil’s politics and its simultaneous return to an authoritarian past. Costa demonstrates this in her filmmaking by establishing ambivalence, an intercultural historical precedent, and sensibility.

2. The Presence of Ambivalence

The Edge of Democracy establishes political uncertainty through Costa’s ambivalent narration. The first shot of the film — a panoramic view of the Alvarado presidential residency — shows a sparsely furnished and bleak home, guided by Costa asking the audience to “imagine a country that took its name from a tree: Brazil Wood. Its red ink led it to the brink of extinction . . . a country, that after twenty-one years of dictatorship, established its democracy . . . but here we are: with one president impeached, another imprisoned, and the nation moving rapidly towards its authoritarian past” (The Edge of Democracy 00:03:00). Evidently, the opening scene in Costa’s documentary establishes an ambivalence to the political culture within Brazil. Costa does not instantaneously assert her own political views on the audience; instead, she offers a description of the intricacies and complexities that characterize her country. Thus, Costa’s opening narration and shots of an emptied presidential residence act as a preface with a warning: her documentary is not an attempt to convey a single truth, and the search for such a truth within a country like Brazil is simply futile. This ambivalence allows Costa to expertly balance her personal narrative with Brazil’s complicated political past without overtly pushing for the adoption of a specific worldview. The Edge of Democracy uses personal narrative to warn the audience of Brazil’s return to its non-democratic past, and this allows Costa to integrate her own experience and contrast it to the nature of Brazil’s tumultuous democracy — which proves to be an effective technique for evoking sentiment and an intimacy with the documentary subject (Gilbride 138). 

Alongside the opening scene and Costa’s grim narration of her country’s politics, ambivalence is established through the usage of both diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Dilma’s impeachment process was exemplified with shallow focus shots that exposed her tranquility when watching the proceedings (The Edge of Democracy 00:59:54). These shots were cut with montages of protestors on either side of the controversial issue and layered with sounds coming straight from the scene — such as screaming and chanting — amidst live news anchor broadcasts of the impeachment (The Edge of Democracy 00:35:29). Clearly, there was a break in diegetic sound with the inclusion of external audio in order to convey the chaos and polarization that sparked amongst Brazil’s population during Dilma’s impeachment. The use of audio in such a way establishes Brazil’s nebulous political future and thus enhances the documentary’s ambivalent nature. This technique allows for Costa’s personal narrative to flourish; she uses narration to establish the level of cluelessness that most Brazilians were faced with when it came to Dilma’s trial — she narrates that only after spending hours inside the impeachment commission did she understand the context of the trial. Beforehand, like most Brazilians, she did not know that Dilma’s trial was not prompted by a criminal offence (The Edge of Democracy 00:49:34). Evidently, The Edge of Democracy demonstrates Brazil’s polarized politics and growing right-wing population through the presence of ambivalence that is deliberately established within Costa’s personal narration.

3. Established Intercultural Historical Precedent

While Costa’s personal narration helps establish ambivalence in the documentary, which advertently plays to the advantage of creating a strong film, Costa’s inclusion of Brazilian history — interwoven with her familial past — utilizes her personal experience to criticize and observe Brazil’s current politics, a technique effectively used in intercultural films (Gilbride, 139). While interculturalism is typically defined as a clash between minority groups and majority white, Euro-American groups (Marks and Polan 1), Costa establishes interculturalism within Brazil’s own borders. The division of right-wing and left-wing supporters is so distinct that it inadvertently creates two distinct cultures: one that favors dictatorship and military intervention, and one that favors democracy and egalitarian society. This division is expertly captured by Costa during a chaotic protest, where the Brazil flag is passed down by raised hands. Instantly, the camera shifts to a low angle with the flag obscuring the sky, and the division between the green and yellow line pattern on the flag is filmed as the flag is passed on, clearly depicting the separation and steadfast polarization of Brazil’s politics (The Edge of Democracy 00:41:36).

By using intercultural methods to document Brazil’s crumbling democracy,  Costa is able to portray Lula’s rise to power from his humble origins as a steelworker in conjunction with her family’s divisive political involvement, and thus exemplify the sympathies she feels for the left while simultaneously exemplifying the polarized state of Brazil’s politics throughout history. The Edge of Democracy evidently shows that establishing a historical precedent through intercultural, personal narrative and archival footage is of the utmost importance when attempting to analyze current political issues and recognize the incongruities that come with documentary filmmaking (Otway 11). One of the first scenes in the film is a montage of family videotapes in which Costa is a young girl. She narrates that “Brazilian democracy and I are almost the same age” (The Edge of Democracy 00:05:00), which consequentially ties her own identity to Brazil’s. This connection to her country’s politics creates a foundation on which Costa educates the audience on Brazil’s political history by narrating her own. Such a technique reflects intercultural filmmaking through which the filmmaker dismantles “the historical archive as means to reconstruct a past that includes their own voices, experience, and perceptions” (Gilbride 139). The narration of personal family history alongside Brazil’s allows for historical and social analysis of the country’s political sphere while simultaneously exposing the subjectivity of documenting ‘truth’. Such an approach is clearly intercultural; the filmmaker interrogates historical documentation in order to “read their own histories in its gaps, or to force a gap … in which to speak,” (Marks and Polan 5). Hence, Costa is able to document her history in unison with Brazil’s to help make sense of the country’s diverged state, which — as The Edge of Democracy shows — is alarmingly moving towards an authoritarian past.    

4. The Presence of Sensibility

The Edge of Democracy establishes a precarious balance between emotional storytelling and the reality of Brazil’s political state through the presence of sensibility. Costa’s narration is the key propagator of sensibility; her narrating voice is emotional yet levelheaded when she recalls her familial history, Brazil’s complicated authoritarian past, and the country’s grim political future. In the opening scene, Costa states “today, as I feel the ground opening, I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream,” (The Edge of Democracy 00:04:18). This statement serves two purposes: it opens the film to discussion on Brazil’s democracy and also asserts the love Costa has for her country and the sorrow she feels to see its politics become dismantled. By directly contrasting and intertwining her personal narrative with Brazil’s, Costa establishes a middle ground through which the audience can understand her personal struggle and how it is interconnected with Brazil’s struggle for a just government.

By reflecting on her upbringing, Costa brings in a new dimension for documentary film where the personal narrative serves as a mediator for explaining the politics of a nation. In The Edge of Democracy, there is a constant break in chronological storytelling. In the middle of the documentary, there is a wide-angle shot with a deep focus that depicts workers setting up a partition that would separate impeachment protestors. This shot quickly cuts to a black and white aerial shot of the same area where the protests took place, still under construction. Costa uses this break in chronological time to discuss her family’s support for the right-wing during her mother’s upbringing; her whole family prepared to flee the country when the government announced it would redistribute its land to the people (The Edge of Democracy 00:56:14). However, the military regime took power, which greatly benefitted Costa’s family. She doesn’t shy away from this fact and rather claims it as part of the reason her mother and father aligned themselves with left-wing governance, which actively criticized Brazil’s ongoing military coup and authoritarian regime (The Edge of Democracy 00:57:26). Costa does not shy away from discussing her family’s controversial sympathies with the oligarchy and her parent’s differing views, but rather uses her personal narrative to vindicate both sides of Brazil’s polarized state. This effectively conveys a sensibility that anchors personal narrative as an effective technique to portray different levels of truth — a quality that all documentaries aim to assess and analyze (Otway 3).   

5. Conclusion

The Edge of Democracy is an emotional documentary film that unpacks a plethora of history — both political and familial — while actively expressing concern for Brazil’s democratic future. Costa is able to establish a precarious balance of truth and personal narrative; the deliberate integration of Costa’s personal narrative inherently helps exemplify the progressive polarization of Brazil’s politics and its simultaneous return to an authoritarian past. The establishment of ambivalence in the early scenes of the film help the documentary reflect a desire to share the truth rather than one worldview. In unison with ambivalence, Costa’s personal narration helps establish a historical precedent through an intercultural approach, which allows The Edge of Democracy to document a unique method that connects the personal to the political. Finally, the use of sensibility helps to unite the presence of ambivalence and a historical, intercultural precedent into a fair, effective analysis of Brazil’s polarized politics and its threatened democratic governance. Ultimately, The Edge of Democracy demonstrates that there is a multitude of layers surrounding the concept of truth, especially when it comes to determining the right and wrong in politics — which can quickly turn partisan. Petra Costa’s goal is never to establish a ‘just’ side, but rather request Brazil and the rest of the world to understand democracy — or as Lula puts it, “to learn how to live in a civilized way with our differences. Democracy is the only possibility we have” (The Edge of Democracy 00:43:37). Costa employs a unique approach that weaves together her country’s triumphs and falls into a web spun with personal narrative. 

Works Cited

Gilbride, Meghan. “Perceiving Persepolis: personal narrative, sense memories, and visual simplicity in Marjane Satrapi’s animated autobiography.” Forum for World Literature Studies. Vol. 3. No. 1. Wuhan Guoyang Union Culture & Education Company, 2011.

Marks, Laura U. The skin of the film: Intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses. Duke University Press, 2000.

Otway, Fiona. “The Unreliable Narrator in Documentary.” Journal of Film and Video, 67.3 (2015): 3-23.

The Edge of Democracy. Directed by Petra Costa. Busca Vida Filmes, 2019.