Documentary Spotlight

'The Edge of Democracy' Acts as Warning Shot for America, Says Director

Courtesy of Netflix

Brazilian director Petra Costa, earning her first Oscar nomination, says the Netflix documentary presents a dark "distorted mirror" of the myriad crises facing the U.S. today.

An impeachment trial that divides the country. Large crowds chanting to "lock up" their right-wing candidate's political opponent. And the rise of an authoritarian leader who threatens to undercut democracy and the rule of law. Sound familiar?

In Netflix's The Edge of Democracy, nominated for best documentary feature, Brazilian writer-director Petra Costa delves into her country's messy political history — and in the process presents a dark "distorted mirror" of the myriad crises facing the U.S. today. With remarkable access to former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer — as well as the current hardline president, Jair Bolsonaro — Costa documents Brazil's fraying democracy through the prism of her family's own history, contrasting the views of her right-wing, industrialist grandparents with the ideals of her left-wing, freedom-fighter parents.

What was your reaction to being nominated?

I was with my mother, my boyfriend and my grandfather, and on a call with my producer Joanna [Natasegara]. We'd had a very depressing call just beforehand, consoling ourselves that this wouldn't happen and thinking about how we would survive the next step. We were really not expecting this at all, it was such a huge surprise. We were screaming like crazy.

How have viewers reacted to the film in Brazil?

The film has been explosive in Brazil. There was one tweet [about the film] per minute for the first month of release, and Netflix recently announced that it was the second-most-watched documentary on its platform in 2019. It really triggered a huge political debate. I've received messages that were really gratifying from people, but of course there were also attacks of all sorts. The nomination became the most talked-about topic on Twitter in Brazil. And there were some interesting comments from Bolsonaro himself, saying that the film is not a documentary but a fiction, and only fit for vultures to eat. He also said that he hasn't seen the film.

Have Lula da Silva or Dilma Rousseff had an opportunity to see the film?

Yes. Lula saw the film in prison — more than once, I heard. And Dilma also saw the film; we had an agreement to show it to her before it was finished. And they both had positive responses to it.

What lessons should U.S. audiences draw from the documentary?

The film has so many parallels with what is happening in the United States, it feels like a distorted mirror of the situation in America. From the "lock her up" movement that attacked Hillary Clinton, which was a mirror to what happened to Lula in Brazil, to the intense polarization in the streets and inside Congress with families not speaking to each other. The difference, though, is that the impeachment of Donald Trump is at the heart of why the impeachment law was invented, to prevent this type of abuse of power, while in Brazil, the impeachment was for a technicality — a misdeed that most presidents had committed before, which does not rise to the level of impeachment. But what we see in both cases is how some parties are ready to abuse the constitution to try to destroy their opponents at all costs.

This is your third personal film after 2009's Undertow Eyes and 2012's Elena. Why did you decide to tell the story through the lens of your family, rather than taking the more traditional historical documentary route?

All my films come from a personal perspective. I'm interested in the concept of trauma and how it shapes us as human beings — how powerful it can be to dive into one's own trauma and then find the energy and the light that can come from that. And in this case, I was interested in political trauma. My generation grew up in an age of optimism, believing democracy was here to stay. And, similar to what the United States went through in 2016, there was an earthquake that made us feel that basic human rights and a line of ethics that separates the humane from the inhumane, guaranteed through decades of fighting [for it], were suddenly starting to dissolve. And the trauma I felt — which I think many people felt in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump and in the U.K. with Brexit — was the sensation of losing your future and your idea of what your country was and would be.

You credit three co-writers alongside yourself. How did you approach writing the film?

It was a back-and-forth process. There were some parts that I wrote while I was in Brasilia, in the heat of the event. And then an amazing editing team helped a lot with the writing and the rewriting. Carol Pires, a journalist who works with The New York Times, covered the entire impeachment process and helped a lot in getting the political context right, and also in finding the right measure of how much to put myself into the film or not, along with [co-writers] Moara Passoni and David Barker. We were fine-tuning the narration until the very last day of mixing.

What are your hopes for the future of the film and for Brazil?

I hope the film will raise people's awareness about the frailty of democracy. Many other countries around the world should be declaring a state of emergency, or a kind of state of alert. Political parties are willing to destroy democracy to be able to win or to stay in power. And that is happening in Brazil and the U.S. and in many other places. It's catastrophic not just for human rights, but also for the climate. And it might be too late if we wait to protect the rule of law and democracy, acquired through so many centuries of hard work. It's alarming what is happening in Brazil; we're really at the edge of becoming an authoritarian government. Or past that edge.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.