by Sara Sidheri
The Edge of Democracy (2019), directed by Petra Costa, is a documentary of the political and economic implosion of Brazilian democracy. Subjective through the eyes of Petra Costa, this narrative centres around a left-wing political party designated the Workers’ Party. The Edge of Democracy is a purely political film, holding a high political content in that the documentary involves government officials (police officers, military generals, and political parties) as well as legal institutional settings (government offices, presidential residences, and Congress). Political intent is also high within matters of the political divide, callous capital, and social class. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are depicted as the tragic heroes of this documentary, with growing hostility toward the figures in the waning days of Dilma’s impeachment and Lula’s imprisonment. From there, it chronicles allegations of corruption scandals, in particular Operation Car Wash which was an investigation of a national oil company, Petrobras, who accepted bribes from construction companies. A polemic film, Costa is socially and politically engaged regarding her storytelling, appropriating the country’s history as her own. Transparently targeted at audiences unfamiliar with Brazil’s political history, Costa utilizes the power of ignorance to persuade viewers in this propagandistic film. In order to acknowledge the unconscious influence and impact of propaganda in The Edge of Democracy, one must understand its underlying concept. Propaganda is the “dissemination of ideas intended to convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular persuasive purpose” (Cull & Kristmanson, 2003). Through close examination of the film’s techniques and political themes, I will illustrate how the fallacies in Petra Costa’s ‘documentary’ spread the indoctrination to mass media that the Workers’ Party is mere victims of a political plot.
2. The Effective Making of a Propaganda Message
Military dictatorship and torture ruled Brazil. Comprehending Brazil’s historical background, Portuguese colonizers made the country “a principal market for slaves” (Bethell, 2018, pg. 59). Constructed by union and labour, the mention of slaves in the film is an ode to the political landscape and discourse of social class. As the country establishes itself into democracy, the corruption of politics is met with rebellions and protests. Those against the regime are tortured and killed, and democratic revolution does not come until the 1979 Steelworkers’ Union in São Paulo. The leader of the strike, Lula, is shown lifted by arms of appraisal by those he advocates for, a political intent of hierarchy working as an indicator of “workers becoming political actors” (Natasegara & Costa, 2019). This is a prime example of successful propaganda. Costa constructs effective propaganda through intricate and meticulous messages in The Edge of Democracy. Eliciting an emotional resonance in the narrative, Costa uses the handheld camera technique to engage active spectatorship, “rejecting a more passive model of thinking about film and politics” (Haas, Christensen, & Haas, 2015, p. 4). Her interest is to immerse viewers in this political landscape to influence the veracity of her messages. The camera’s jerky motions are intimate and powerful, in conjunction with somber non-diegetic instrumental music. The brisk editing of black and white archival footage, news clips, and recorded protests allow for a verisimilitude in which “the quality of representation allows viewers to accept a world—its events, its characters, and their actions — as plausible” (Corrigan & White, 2004, p. 180). The film projector also aids in this sense of reality. Unfortunately, bias seeps into her documentary, tainting the genre due to her one-sidedness. Through the extremist left perspective of her country, Costa paints corrupt politicians to be martyrs. This is evident in the kind of access she has to Lula and Dilma throughout the film, indicated with camera crew placed conveniently before the action occurs. Costa is deeply involved in PT government corruption scandals as well. In the presidential residence, her grandfather’s name is etched in Lula’s plaque. He is the founder of Andrade Gutierrez, one of the main companies investigated in Operation Car Wash. Costa effectively coerces a propagandistic message that shapes the history of her country. Post-viewing, audiences discover the film is saturated in falsities, which will be discussed further on. This documentary shows how well the public responds to the use of propaganda with its global reach through Netflix’s platform and the nomination for an Oscar.
3. Cinema as Political Propaganda
Nominated for Best Documentary, Petra Costa perpetrates cinema as political propaganda towards an international audience. Being that the film is available on Netflix, it transcends national viewership and opens the film up for global discussion. This story of a broken country uses “creative camera movement and angles, close-ups, long shots, panning, tracking to simultaneously occurring events, montage editing..fade-ins, fade-outs, thoughtful framing, and composition” as part of a “cinematic grammar” (Haas, Christensen, & Haas, 2015, pg. 97). For instance, extreme close-ups of Dilma Rousseff evokes intimacy and vulnerability through the worn in her face—suggestive of the stress caused by this presidency. Through a feminist lens, the sole fact that she is a woman in power allows for identification from other women which dismantles static gender roles. Cinema also works as political propaganda through Lula, who is shown as a warrior of the Brazilian people when giving moving speeches, hugging impoverished people, and holding babies. Montage editing of Lula meeting important individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth II, and Obama works as a cinematic code in establishing his credibility as a president. Petra Costa employs a time-proven movie convention that serves to “minimize the political conflict of storylines that might otherwise arouse controversy”—personalization (Haas, Christensen, & Haas, 2015, pg. 33). Personalization is when films “focus on the individual drama of politically active roles…to make them more palatable to mass audiences” (Haas, Christensen, & Haas, 2015, pg. 33). She intersects her personal life with childhood footage of her, and videotapes the president and ex-president under lenses mainstream media do not show them under. In one example, Lula’s wife’s death humanizes Lula and eradicates all negative connotations to his name through the rhetorical appeal of pathos. The president and ex-president are purposely shown dressed-down in relaxed environments to give viewers the notion that they are the common, everyday Brazilian. This makes them more palpable, yet comes at a cost with glossing over key events such as the impeachment process, the corruption scandals of Mensalão and Operation Car Wash, and Dilma Rousseff’s radical move to reduce ‘high’ interest rates that cause the largest economic disaster in Brazilian history.
4. Fallacies of the Narrative
The honesty of the narratives should be a given in documentary cinema, however, falsities are saturated throughout The Edge of Democracy. With Lula in office, Costa goes on to say that unemployment rates reached the lowest number in Brazilian history. However, this is proven false in a 2017 thesis from economist Rafael Da Rocha Mendonça Bacciotti, stating that unemployment rates in Brazil from the 1950s to the 1980s are lower than the unemployment rates from Lula’s term, being between 2% and 3% (Bacciotti, 2017). This manipulation of information leads the foreign viewer to believe that a corrupt president was in fact beneficial to the economy, as they cannot read Portuguese documents. Lula’s theft and fraudulent activities are not reported, painting him in an unfair light and spreading the indoctrination that he is a mere victim of the powers imprisoning him. In the protest for Direct Elections in the 1970s, the leader, Pedro Pomar, was killed by the Brazilian militia. Petra Costa, named after him, shows graphic photographs of the assassination. This pictorial symbolism is an effective tool for persuasion yet audiences discover that the photograph was digitally tampered with (Figure 1). In the original photograph, Pedro Pomar and Ângelo Arroyo have two firearms lying next to them. Whether the interaction was planted by militia agents to justify an alleged armed confrontation or not, the removal of the guns leads viewers to believe the documentarian is tampering with a historical document for the benefit of her narrative.
If Petra Costa’s purpose is to document the veracity of the facts, the removal of the weapons negates the fact that this is a documentary. To show the original photograph, following an explicit explanation of the distortion by the murderers would have paid reverence to these individuals in a more truthful light. As seen, she spreads the indoctrination to mass media that she and the people she looks up to are entirely innocent. Costa attempts to show Dilma’s impeachment as a coup d’état. The Brazilians in favour of the impeachment—to Costa—believe that Dilma was responsible for all the country’s problems. The filmmaker fails to present evidence for or against this claim, which leaves audiences to fend for themselves. An economics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Reinaldo Gomes, analyzes Dilma’s economic performance from when she took office in early 2011 to impeachment. He concludes that, as the economy was slowing down and having a damaging effect on the government, 90% of her negative financial schemes are attributed to “national mistakes” (Gomes, 2020). It was this atmosphere that alluded Congress to accepting the impeachment request against Dilma. This obscurity of information is intentional to make Dilma seem as a mere victim of the political powers against her. Had the documentary stayed true to its genre of authenticity, the motive to punish these corrupt politicians would have been internationally comprehended, achieving a successful impact strategy.
The Edge of Democracy should be renamed as The Edge of “Hypocrisy”, in that the unconscious influence and impact of propaganda coerces viewers to believe in the pure innocence of corrupt politicians. Messages conveyed through the film are deliberate without the audience’s realization, tainted with dishonesty and misinformation. The film is exploring and analyzing these social-political conflicts in a documentary-esque lens, with shots of being in the crowds with protestors overwhelming and suffocating, putting audiences in the social discourse of this political divide. Unfortunately, The Edge of Democracy is not accurate to what the genre pertains to—it hinders real fact. There is value in the disparate footage of immersive cinematography and handheld filmmaking, however, the scope of the subject is so dense that Costa cuts corners on Dilma’s impeachment, the Operation Car Wash scandal, and Lula’s imprisonment proceedings. The development of these topics could have been achieved more effectively through a scholarly article. Documentarians can make documentaries—in other words, be socially and politically engaged—but following production and post-production, their work must be sifted through a team of unbiased scholars, similar to peer-reviewed academic journals, to make sure it is factual and accurate to be depicted a documentary film. The political situation in Brazil should not be appropriated through fallacies, as audiences leave the film with the indignation of Brazilian politics. In developing a language that is visual and aural, Costa transforms cinema as political propaganda through cinematic grammar. These film techniques elicit an emotional response, the story, and culture operating poetically in chaos. It is this strategic activism that earns Petra Costa an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. The political theme of ruptured democracy in Brazilian society is a call for action to international viewers, however, falsities inevitably come to light post-viewing as the Workers’ Party is not as innocent as she paints them to be. Amidst political turmoil, this haunting documentary poses the question of how to get out of this cycle of corruption. An architectural masterpiece, the unconscious influence of propaganda is achieved.
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Bethell, L. Britain and Brazil (1808–1914). In Brazil: Essays on History and Politics. London: University of London Press, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctv51309x.6
Corrigan, T, and White, P. The Film Experience: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Retrieved from https://macmillan.vitalsource.com/#/books/9781319093563/.
Cull, N. J, & Kristmanson, M. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: Canada. Santa Barbara, United States: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
Gomes, Reinaldo. Revisão sistemática da literatura sobre governança na cadeia de suprimentos. 2020 Doi:10.22533/at.ed.2712017016.
Haas, E., Christensen, T., & Haas, P. J. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films (2nd ed.). Routledge, 2015.
Natasegara, J. (Producer), & Costa, P. (Director). The Edge of Democracy [Motion Picture]. Brazil: Busca Vida Filmes, 2019.