by Ronen Tsyrlin
The rise and fall of political figures have been widely documented in Hollywood cinema. The constant struggle for power and justice is a common topic for many debates today, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy documents the on-going struggle citizens face electing a governing body to represent their rights and freedoms. Costa challenges the idea of democracy as being short-lived as Brazil divides into two distinct sides after years of corruption, injustice, and political instability. The film appears to be personal as Costa narrates the scenes herself, incorporating various home videos, stories, and photos that influence her views on the various states of government. Brazil’s struggle for maintaining democratic leadership has been an ongoing problem. Corruption scandals, media bias, and third-party funding have led the country’s leaders to be controlled by wealthy investors. Cinematic footage expresses the support of the film of left-wing political candidates while exposing backdoor political mischief. The portrayal of political leaders as self-interested, immoral, and selfish individuals shows their intention to do what is beneficial for themselves rather than their country. Costa shows us how political parties often lose touch with the very same movement that brings them into office. Arguably, once power is assumed, the party either deviates from its original values or ostracizes itself from the people making dialogue a one-way relationship.
2. Understanding the relationship between political parties and the public
It is assumed that the fundamentals of democracy lie in the rights of expression and freedom of speech. Costa uses a variety of footage to display Brazil’s history from the past through to the present and focuses on the careers of former president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The film’s opening scene shows the imprisonment of former president Lula, and the civilian unrest it caused. Brazil has once again divided into two sides; for or against the current state of government. “With one president impeached, another imprisoned, and the nation moving rapidly towards its authoritarian past. Today, as I feel the ground opening, I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream” (The Edge of Democracy 00:04:10-20). Former President Lula is introduced as a union leader who has dreams of changing the current state of Brazilian congress as he finds out that only two members are from the working classes. “We all know that around the world, workers never got anything… Without struggle, without perseverance, and without fighting until the end. There’s work to be done in neighborhoods, there’s work to be done at bus stops. And more importantly, no one goes to the factory doors!” (The Edge of Democracy 00:07:30-40). Lula is introduced as a figure of a movement and a revolution is seemingly about to start in Brazil. After several failed attempts, Lula finally becomes President in 2002 when he decided to compromise on his campaign and call out the wealthy in his support. Costa narrates “I voted for Lula with the hope that he would ethically reform the political system and here he was, repeating practices that he had always criticized and forming alliances with Brazil’s old oligarchy” (The Edge of Democracy 00:09:28-35). Lula and the Workers Party instilled hope and prosperity within the Brazilian people however, ultimately ended up hiding secrets and information leading to their downfall. Far away from public pressure, Brazil’s age-long system of corruption would be the cement that held its democratic integrity together.
3. The feminist approach of Petra Costa
Costa’s film was shot from a feminist perspective, focusing on the subjects that portray women as active participants in the formation of Brazil’s democracy. Haas et al. 269-271 suggest that documentary filmmakers often aim to influence viewers’ perspectives on a topic and this form of propaganda is apparent to the viewer. The Director’s story begins with the introduction of her parents, who were both imprisoned in Brazil during the 1970s. Moving on, she includes various pictures and videos that show the rise of Dilma, Brazil’s first female president, and her mother reminiscing about their time as guerilla fighters. Ten years after assuming power, Dilma became the target of riots, attacks, and civil unrest. Her decision to challenge bankers to change the interest rate caused the economy to contract rapidly and her popularity to decline. In defense of her actions, she passed a series of anti-corruption laws that allow a major investigation to erupt. “Operation Carwash” investigated Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company that became involved in backdoor negotiations with political parties. “The investigation has shown that private companies paid briberies to senior managers of Petrobras to maintain their participation in the large construction and engineering projects of the Brazilian state-owned companies.” (Valarini and Pohlmann 390) Operation Carwash is documented as the final shift in Brazil that caused the nation to reach a divide. This shift is represented as the final chapter of democratic stability and demonstrates the lengths politicians will go to in order to maintain their reputation when quizzed by the public. Costa displays Dilma as a strong woman who would stop at nothing to maintain her power as the country’s leader. Conflict, however, arises as Dilma’s competitor defends the various impeachment allegations set against her by the public. “We did not lose the election to a political party. We lost it a criminal organization” (The Edge of Democracy 0:33:27-35). Costa continued to support Dilma and the workers’ party as the reasons used to impeach the president were incorrectly displayed by the media. In order to maintain a reputation, one must be open and honest about their political campaign and their ability to implement the actions that they have promised to the public. Dilma did her duty as president to expose the issues of political alliances formed behind closed doors to remove someone from power.
4. The media’s influence on democracy
The Edge of Democracy is a highly charged piece of political cinema, documenting the various challenges Brazil has faced with its governing bodies. Costa represents social media as an outlet that fuels propaganda, hate, and violence on display throughout Brazil’s impeachment of President Dilma. The supporting claim of Dilma’s impeachment is described as a dishonest act, overseen by Federal Court Judge Sergio Moro. This move caused thousands to rally the streets and voice their opinions in support or against the decision made by the Federal Court. “At this moment almost half of Brazil, including me, thought that Dilma was being impeached for corruption… After hours inside the commission, I understood that the actual accusation made was that she had delayed the transfer of funds to public banks.” (The Edge of Democracy 01:12:27-31) This misrepresentation of information caused the country to divide without the correct knowledge and understanding of the situation. The Edge of Democracy displays issues media outlets face as they often lack the ability to provide clarity to the public regarding what is really going on within their country. Costa’s displays Brazil’s direct conflict with its people and leaders as not being able to meet the needs and wants of society. The Edge of Democracy effectively exhibits the extent to which a leader will go to prove his or her innocence to the public. It is necessary for politicians to be open and maintain cohesion with the manifesto used to elect them into office. Despite the fact that there is evidence the opposition is corrupt, the rule of law is the only thing that separates a dictatorship from a democracy.
The Edge of Democracy is a film that uses a variety of elements to help communicate the Director’s political point of view. Costa convinces her audience by displaying the various threats posed to the democratic values which had been voted for in society. Democracy is cast by vote, not by a judicial power used to change the current position of authority. Her use of personal stories, home videos, and a variety of past to present clips help shape public opinion on the main political figures documented. The growth and progression of Lula display how a working man has the power to become the face of a country that has never before seen the benefits of being a democratic nation. However, the same people who elect you to power have the ability to take that power away. Costa ends the movie with a question that only time can answer. “What do we do when the mask of civility falls and what appears is an ever more haunting image of ourselves?” (The Edge of Democracy 01:15:50-60). It is at that moment the audience is left to wonder what has happened to the democracy they had hoped for and in turn, ended with. The continued contrast between the up-close fight and the one behind closed doors shows how a nation can end up confused and lost in the twisted manipulated world of politics.
Cheibub, J.A., Gandhi, J. & Vreeland, J.R. “Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited.” Public Choice 143, 2010, pp. 73
The Edge of Democracy. Directed by Petra Costa, Busca Vida Films, 2019.
Haas, Elizabeth, Terry Christensen, and Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Routledge, 2015.
Valarini, Elizangela and Markus Pohlmann. “Organizational Crime and Corruption in Brazil a Case Study of the “operation carwash” court records.” International journal of law, crime, and justice, vol. 59, 2019, pp. 100-340.