When filmmaker Petra Costa was two years old her native Brazil returned to civilian rule after more than two decades of dictatorship. For her, government of the people, by the people and for the people felt like the natural order.
“I grew up believing that democracy was my birthright,” Costa tells Deadline. “My parents had dedicated most of their life fighting against the military dictatorship in Brazil and I was born more or less at the time that they—together with hundreds of thousands of people—managed to reestablish democracy and I believe both democracy and I grew and became stronger together.”
But in recent years Brazil and many other nations around the world—including, arguably, the United States—have retreated from democratic norms. Costa explores the alarming developments in her home country in the Netflix documentary The Edge of Democracy, one of the best reviewed nonfiction films of the year and a candidate for Oscar consideration.
“I felt something was very wrong with Brazilian society and I wanted to understand more,” the director explains. “I wanted to invite the spectator into the journey of this thriller that I was seeing unfold before my eyes, be it in the streets, be it trying to get as close as possible to the people making the decisions or being hit by the political decisions that were being made, be it Dilma and Lula or Bolsonaro.”
The three people she refers to are Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil who was impeached and removed from office in 2016; Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the enormously popular left-wing former president of Brazil who was tossed into prison in 2018 on what many consider to be trumped up charges, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, a right-wing populist figure who has threatened to suspend democratic freedoms. Remarkably, Costa was able to spend time with all of them.
“It was a long process to get access,” Costa told Deadline at the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January. “It took about eight months before Lula granted us an interview and Dilma about six months, but six months waiting in [the capital] Brasília, texting every day until we finally got an interview with her and from that gained access to have a few more interviews.”
Costa sees a telling moment for Brazil in 2014, when Dilma won re-election in a close contest. Her opponent refused to accept the outcome “and coordinated an impeachment movement against her,” Costa states.
“One of the first fundamental structures that guarantees a democracy is the opponents who lose recognize the victories of the ones who won,” she observes. “That happened in the United States [in the 2016 presidential election], but didn’t happen in Brazil in 2014. That is where I think our democracy started to erode.”
The years since have seen increasing polarization of Brazil’s electorate, the director affirms, and hints of a return to a darker past.
“I was quite surprised in 2016 when I went to the streets to film a protest and saw for the first time people asking for the return of the military,” Costa recalls. “It was the first time I had ever seen that and I was really shocked, not just by that but also by the level of hatred I saw in the streets.”
A bitterly divided public, the rise of right-wing populism—all this may sound quite familiar to observers of politics in the U.K. and the U.S.
“We think the film is enormously important for the global community, not just for Brazil,” notes Oscar winner Joanna Natasegara, producer of The Edge of Democracy. “We polarize more and more and that’s not only in Brazil—this idea that the left and right are getting further and further apart and that, in and of itself, creates anti-democratic sentiment on both sides. I think we as a team really agree that democracy is worth protecting and that you do that by protecting its institutions, not by protecting ideologies.”
Recent developments in Brazil have made the documentary even more timely. Lula was released from prison a month ago after the country’s supreme court ruled he was entitled to remain free while he pursued all possible appeals of his conviction.
“I was very surprised because they’ve been delaying that decision for a very long time,” Costa comments. “It’s a sign that the Supreme Court might be going back to the rule of law in Brazil.”
Releasing on the Netflix platform has made the documentary available around the world including, of course, in Brazil. Costa says the impact there has been considerable.
“There was a huge explosion when the film came out in Brazil,” she told Deadline at the IDA Documentary Awards on Saturday, where The Edge of Democracy was nominated for Best Documentary Feature. “For about two months there was about one tweet per minute and lots of people saying that they felt after seeing the film—they hadn’t been speaking for one year, two years to their best friend—[they] could finally come together in a united vision and have empathy for different political visions, which is what I really wished for when I made the film.”