What’s Fuelling Political Corruption in Brazil? On Netflix’s ‘The Edge of Democracy’

A timely documentary about the backslide into dictatorship reveals some uncomfortable home truths in the US

In 1964, the democratically elected President of Brazil, João Goulart, was deposed by a military coup. In 2016, another democratically elected President of Brazil was deposed by a parliamentary coup. The first coup ushered in the 20-year reign of a dictatorship that crushed dissent through torture and assassination. The second coup, albeit indirectly, ushered in the reign of Jair Bolsonaro, a president who has openly celebrated the dictatorship and its abuses.

This historical tragedy is the subject of director Petra Costa’s important new documentary, The Edge of Democracy (2019), which recently premiered on Netflix. The film frames history through the generational politics of Costa’s own family: her grandfather founds a construction company that booms during the dictatorship years, even as her militant parents spend the 1970s in hiding organizing against the regime. Ecstatic crowds at the country’s 1985 election, in which the dictatorship was overthrown, become one of Costa’s earliest memories and, in 2002, the first election of her adulthood raises up both a leftist president and the hope of the Brazil her parents fought for.

Petra Costa, The Edge of Democracy, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

That president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – known as Lula – is the tragic hero of Costa’s film. A magnetic leader who rises from poverty to found the powerful Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), Lula leaves office in 2010 with an 87 percent approval rating, and his anointed successor, Dilma Rousseff, who survived being tortured at the hands of the regime as a young leftist, goes on to win two elections of her own as Brazil’s first female president. Even from the PT’s first triumph, however, Costa’s voice-over complicates her heroes, whose increasing concessions to an entrenched oligarchy would eventually bring disaster. From the start, Lula forms an uneasy coalition with the robber-barons of Brazilian industry, while a series of missteps in 2013 damages Rousseff’s popular and political support. When she fast-tracks hasty anti-corruption measures in a bid to regain legitimacy, the ensuing corruption scandal, known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), ensnares scores of the Brazilian elite, who immediately turn on their erstwhile allies. Seeking to halt Lava Jato and escape prosecution, corrupt lawmakers impeach Rousseff on a paltry accounting technicality. Meanwhile, crusading prosecutors accuse Lula of accepting a seaside apartment in exchange for construction contracts. The media close ranks behind chief judge Sérgio Moro, whose inquisitorial zeal is unimpeded by the fact that Lula never owned nor even resided at the apartment. At the end of the film, after a moving address to thousands of disconsolate supporters, Lula is led off to the prison cell where he resides to this day.

Petra Costa, The Edge of Democracy, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

An excellent primer to a byzantine political drama, The Edge of Democracy is beautifully filmed. It marries archival and contemporary footage with surprising smoothness – notably in one scene where mounted police from the 1960s seem almost to charge through the same thoroughfare as mounted police from 2016. One undoubted star of the film is the architecture and urban design of the country’s capital, Brasília – in particular, the modernist masterworks of Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa. The serene rhythms and geometries of mid-century optimism, orderly from a drone’s-eye view, provide striking backdrops for the unrest in the film. In fact, it is at Niemeyer’s glimmering presidential residence, the Palácio da Alvorada, that dual ceremonial plaques confirm how Costa’s family business has ingratiated itself with both left- and right-wing presidents alike. Corruption at the firm, as indeed for most of Lava Jato’s well-heeled targets, is all too real.

Petra Costa, The Edge of Democracy, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

This film could not have arrived at a better time. Its release coincides with an explosive exposé on the online news platform The Intercept Brasil detailing secret, prohibited co-ordination between Moro and Lava Jato prosecutors. Lula’s case had always appeared politically motivated, but now there is hard evidence that judicial officials sought his downfall and that his imprisonment was secured expressly to prevent him from entering the 2018 presidential election, for which polls showed he had an insuperable lead. The resulting winner, Bolsonaro, rewarded Moro with a bespoke cabinet position. Among renewed calls for his release, Lula’s appeal has been postponed until August.

Invaluable though it is, The Edge of Democracy omits some key details. Bolsonaro, for example, isn’t portrayed with the sheer ordure he is due. We do witness him dedicating his impeachment vote to the very man who oversaw Rousseff’s torture, but the film could have fleshed out this monster with any number of his past statements: his fondness for extrajudicial killings, torture and mass murder, perhaps, or his recommendation that parents beat children who act ‘a little gay’. On television in 2003, he shoved a congresswoman twice in her chest, sneering: ‘I would never rape you, because you do not deserve it … slut.’ Regarding Lula’s sentence, while we do learn that he gets 12 years in prison, the film neglects to mention that he is in solitary confinement. Lula spends 23 hours per day locked up in his cell alone, permitted only brief visits once a week. Revealingly, he was held incommunicado until after last year’s election.

Petra Costa, The Edge of Democracy, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

One significant lacuna is the role played by the US government. Although the voice-over acknowledges US involvement in the 1964 coup, most Americans are totally unaware of machinations by presidents John F. Kennedy and, later, Lyndon B. Johnson to undermine and overthrow Brazil’s elected president, who had the temerity to defy diktats from Washington. The US is directly responsible for the fact that Brazilian democracy is younger than many Millennials. Incredibly, after the parliamentary coup in 2016, the Obama Administration endorsed it. (It was one of three Latin American ‘soft coups’ that found favour with Obama’s State Department.) Despite ample cause for suspicion, mainstream US media fêted the now-disgraced Moro, and details are still emerging about the hand the US played in Lava Jato itself. Perhaps these are stories for a different film: The Edge of Democracy tells a Brazilian tale from a Brazilian perspective – rightly so. But US audiences could use the education. At one moment in the film, Costa laments: ‘Our democracy was built on forgetting.’ That may be true for Brazil, but in the US, what passes for ours was built on never bothering to know in the first place.

Main image: Petra Costa, The Edge of Democracy, 2019, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Jack McGrath is an art historian based in New York, USA. 

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