An emotional, sobering insight into the conflicted soul of Brazil.


Source: Orlando Brito/Sundance Institute

‘The Edge Of Democracy’

Dir/scr: Petra Costa. Brazil. 2019. 116 mins

The personal and the political are inextricably linked in The Edge Of Democracy. Petra Costa’s riveting documentary provides an authoritative overview of recent Brazilian history, revealing the way it is also closely woven into her own family story. The result is a heartfelt lament for the short-lived dream of democracy in Brazil. Intriguing parallels with the rise of right-wing, populist movements in America, Europe and beyond should enhance the potential for this documentary, which premiered at Sundance before making a European bow at CPH:Dox, to attract an international following when it becomes available on Netflix.

Guilt or innocence is almost irrelevant when blustering rhetoric and political connivance can sully a reputation and sow doubt in the public mind

Costa narrates (in English) from a position of sadness and disbelief at what has happened in Brazil. Following more than two decades of military dictatorship, she felt that Brazil had “finally broken the curse” in 2002 when Worker’s Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (affectionately known as Lula) was elected President. This was the chance to chance to end poverty, tackle injustice and ensure that the will of the people was sovereign. His approval ratings soared and President Obama is seen during one visit to Brazil declaring him to be “the most popular politician on earth”.

Costa ventures back in time to provide a clear context for recent events. Steelworker strikes in the 1970s were the first sign of opposition to military rule. The Worker’s Party was formed in 1980 and elections were fought later in the decade. Costa considers herself to have grown from child to adult in the shadow of democracy. She was 19 and able to vote for the first time in the election that brought Lula victory in 2002. Her parents spent the 1970s fighting the dictatorship and then in hiding. Members of their group were tortured and killed.

There is always a personal connection for Costa to significant events in the life of the country. Extensive archive news footage is matched by home movies throughout. Costa has also been able to gain access to Lula and his successor Dilma Roussef. A conversation between Roussef and Costa’s mother reveals the similarities in their lives and experiences. Behind-the-scenes footage of both Lula and Roussef reveals the human side of the leaders as that “dream of democracy” comes under threat from powerful figures within big business and a resurgent, backward-looking nationalism that Costa finds hard to comprehend.

The move to impeach President Roussef and the rise of Trump-like politician Jair Bolsonaro (now Brazil’s President) are all part of a complex, many-tentacled story that Costa follows in considerable detail. She never loses sight of the bigger picture or her own mixed feelings towards a country in which democracy is being eroded by compromise, cynicism and the contagion of corruption. Guilt or innocence is almost irrelevant when blustering rhetoric and political connivance can sully a reputation and sow doubt in the public mind.

Costa’s use of news footage, tapes of incriminating conversations that were made public and acts of self-serving betrayal gives The Edge Of Democracy the feel of an All The President’s Men-style political thriller. Further revelations about her own family and the allegiances of earlier generations turn that aspect of the story into something with the sweep of The Godfather. She may not be able to fully explain the popularity of Bolsonaro or the nostalgia for the bad old days but her film offers an emotional, sobering insight into the conflicted soul of Brazil.

Production company: Violet Films

International distribution: Netflix

Producers: Joanna Natasegara, Tiago Pavan, Shane Boris

Cinematography: João Atala

Editors: Karen Harley. Tina Baz, David Barker, Joaquim Castro, Jordana Berg, Felipe Lacerda

Featuring: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva , Dilma Rouseff, Jair Bolsonaro