At the beginning of her latest film, Petra Costa reflects on her symbiotic relationship with her country’s political experiment. “Brazilian democracy and I are roughly the same age,” she says, a touch of ruefulness in her voice, “and I thought in our 30s we’d both be on solid ground.”
But in “The Edge of Democracy,” Costa’s lyrical and insightful survey of her homeland’s slide toward far-right populism, those democratic ideals appear to be collapsing.
“I thought it was doing quite well,” said Costa, speaking by phone from São Paulo. She got a jolt in 2016 when she filmed a protest calling to impeach Brazil’s then-president Dilma Rousseff. “I saw a huge crowd of people dressed in the colors of the Brazilian flag, a very nationalist protest … asking for the return of the military, a regime that had killed and tortured hundreds of people, and put thousands in jail, without any explained reason for many of them.”
Rousseff, once a youthful dissident who had fought against that regime, was among those imprisoned and tortured.
“So for me it was terrifying,” said Costa, who was motivated by her fears for a system that was under attack. She kept shooting as the story grew scarier and more complicated, from Rousseff’s impeachment through the 2018 election of conservative extremist candidate Jair Bolsonaro. She also backtracks through contemporary Brazilian history, charting the rise and fall of the labor leader and widely popular leftist president known as Lula, jailed in 2018 amid a corruption scandal that is still being contested.
“Edge of Democracy,” which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and launched on Netflix in June, moves between the streets — site of frequent mass demonstrations — and the corridors of power in Brazil’s congress and its extraordinary Palácio da Alvorada, the presidential palace in the capital of Brasília, a stunning ‘50s modernist work designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
“I feel that architecture is part of the problem with Brazilian democracy,” noted Costa, whose camera luxuriates in the palace’s cool interior expanses, which are notably devoid of any human souls. “If our capital was still in Rio, I don’t think things would have progressed the way they did. The fact that the capital is 1,000 kilometers away, people can’t get there. Politicians don’t feel the public pressure and are kind of alienated from society in a very deep way.”
For inspiration, Costa looked to the great Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman and his landmark three-part documentary “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicled the military overthrow of Salvador Allende and the installation of a dictatorial regime headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
“What was fascinating in that film to me was how he could bear witness to time and just by doing that, show how the military coup in Chile happened, in a way that was very comprehensive and cinematic at the same time.”
“The level of class hatred and polarization had been present in Chile then and was repeating itself in the Brazil of now,” Costa said. “What was fascinating in that film to me was how he could bear witness to time and just by doing that, show how the military coup in Chile happened, in a way that was very comprehensive and cinematic at the same time.”
Viewers familiar with Costa’s 2012 documentary “Elena” — a first-person exploration of the mystery and loss of her older actress-sister — know how deftly the filmmaker can weave intimate family narratives into poetic visual memoir. “The Edge of Democracy” benefits from that touch as well, when Costa delves into her parents’ younger lives and the years they spent underground, when it was dangerous to be a radical.
In one powerful scene, Costa introduces her mother to Rousseff, and it’s learned that they both suffered in the same prison. The filmmaker also reveals that she was named in honor of a family friend who lost his life in the struggle.
Cautious to maintain a balance between personal details and the larger national drama, so that “one wouldn’t asphyxiate the other,” Costa eventually found that the intertwining of the two strands was unavoidable. Although her parents broke with its politics, the filmmaker’s family has long been part of Brazil’s oligarchy, bolstered by her grandparents’ construction company.
“There’s a moment in the film, filming in the palace, as I walked out I found plaques where the family company’s name was written. One on the right, one on the left. Even though the right-wing president or the left-wing president had passed through power, the company had stayed.”
In one sense, Costa made her film as a way to process what she calls “a national trauma,” one that has been shared by electorates near and far amid a global rise of nationalism. “You feel a trauma of losing what you thought democracy would be … and that’s as painful as losing a close person,” she said. Yet, in the wake of the documentary’s release, some things have been regained.
Said Costa: “Many people came to me and said, ‘I haven’t talked to my father in years, and after he saw the film, he called me because he finally understood my point of view.’”