Director Petra Costa and producer Joanna Natasegara didn’t expect their acclaimed documentary The Edge of Democracy to earn an Oscar nomination. But when they tuned in for the announcement, watching from different points on the globe, they were in for a welcome shock.
“We were both screaming and I am not ashamed to say that we were,” Natasegara acknowledges. “We were very, very surprised. But we’re halfway across the world from each other. Actually, I had my [four-month-old] baby strapped to my front and woke him up, I was so overjoyed. He was not that pleased.”
This is the third Academy Award nomination for Natasegara; she won in 2017 for producing the short documentary The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. She will attend today’s Oscar Luncheon in Hollywood with the Brazilian-born Costa.
“It’s her first time. It’s the team’s first time. So I get to witness their excitement and be excited with them,” Natasegara tells Deadline. “It’s been a very, very long road with this film, and I don’t know that we ever thought it would get this far.”
The filmmakers weren’t sure how audiences would respond to the personal nature of the documentary. The Edge of Democracy simultaneously explores Brazil’s recent retreat from democratic norms, and the ideological split in Costa’s family—her conservative grandparents presided over a business empire, but her left-wing parents fought the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985.
“In the film, I intertwine the rise and fall of the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff presidencies and the election of Jair Bolsonaro with my own family story,” Costa explained in a New York Times op-ed published on Friday. “I am the same age as Brazil’s democracy, and much of the country’s deep polarization mirrors my family divisions.”
Costa believes right-wing forces schemed to oust Rousseff in 2016, impeaching her on what the director considers a technicality. Two years later, the enormously popular Lula, who was weighing another run for president, was tossed in prison after what Costa calls a politically-motivated prosecution. Virulent political disputes fomented by social media began to tear the country apart, opening the door to the election of Bolsonaro, who has steered Brazil sharply to the right and praised the military dictatorship.
“How does it work when the seams of democracy start to unravel?” Natasegara characterizes the film’s theme. “I think that we all need to be watchful for our democracy right now.”
That goes for the U.S., Natasegara argues, and her native Britain, which has witnessed a surge of right-wing populism and an electorate riven by the destabilizing debate over Brexit.
“It’s no secret I’m a political filmmaker. I’m interested in geopolitics and how what’s happening in one part of the world affects another, and it affects us all,” Natasegara notes. “When I first saw what Petra was making, I suddenly felt this chill go down my spine, that actually she was capturing her own home country in such intimate detail. But really what she was capturing was the kind of machinations of what is happening to us all. Certainly in my country, in the U.K.”
The Edge of Democracy is not a partisan film, in Natasegara’s view. Instead, it advocates for a world in which the political arena is governed by a commitment to fairness, and competing parties use their best arguments to persuade voters, instead of skullduggery to engineer outcomes.
“Even war has rules, as ridiculous as that sounds. They’re called the rules of engagement, and they’re not broken—or they shouldn’t be broken. Democracy also has rules, and those rules should not be broken. At the moment they are being broken,” Natasegara asserts. “If we can agree that there’s a fair playing field and there are fair rules of engagement, then everything’s a fair fight, and then it’s absolutely right to take sides…If we don’t all understand that fact, then we’re just going to continue to polarize and polarize and polarize.”
The film has made a big impact in Brazil, dominating social media in the months after it premiered on Netflix.
“We’re very surprised by how the general public has responded to the film. In some ways I think we expected maybe more vitriol or less acceptance,” Natasegara observes. “There has been an enormous amount of pride, actually, that a Brazilian film has made it to the Oscars.”
Maybe so, but President Bolsonaro reacted less enthusiastically. Speaking to reporters after the film’s nomination, he declared the documentary “rubbish,” dismissing it caustically as “Fiction…for those who like what vultures eat, it’s a good film.”
Bolsonaro may not be a fan, but the film’s reception has validated the collaboration between Natasegara and Costa.
“I take on relatively few projects because I feel passionately involved when I do come on board a film or when I initiate a film,” Natasegara affirms. “I like to work in real symbiosis with the director where there’s a real back and forth, where our director feels safe and protected but also challenged, and that I might…push their boundaries a little further.”
This year’s nominations for Best Documentary Feature recognized films with an international dimension, including Syria (For Sama and The Cave), North Macedonia (Honeyland) and the U.S. and China (American Factory). For The Edge of Democracy, the focus is Brazil at a precarious moment of its history, with lessons for democracies across the globe.
“What we thought was a small, personal film when it was made,” Natasegara notes, “has become something much more right now.”