After a special screening of Petra Costa’s critically acclaimed documentary “The Edge of Democracy,” the director discussed the tragedy that is Brazilian democracy in its current state, and how she balances the personal with the political in her storytelling.
“I think we’re really closer to the edge than we have ever been at this moment.” Petra Costa addressed the audience at the Roxy Hotel after the closing credits of her most recent documentary, a political thriller that chronicles the rise and fall of former Brazilian presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff.
Costa’s film traces the formation of the Workers’ Party in 1980, through the corruption scandals that left Rousseff’s rule in tatters and ultimately led to her impeachment in August of 2016. The narrative draws on many of Costa’s personal experiences – documented by home videos showcasing her early idealism and faith in a political system that will fail her – as well as substantial access she gains to the political elite in footage of revealing interviews with Dilma, Lula, and Jair Bolsonaro.
“Brazilian democracy and I are the same age,” Costa voices with a hint of sadness at the start of the documentary. “When we reached our thirties I thought we’d both be on solid ground.” This theme of constructing the political in relation to the personal resonates throughout the two hour film, and Costa laid bare her approach to this framework in her conversation with the event’s moderator following the screening. Costa spoke to the dilemma she faced in deciding “how much I would put of my personal voice into the film and my personal perspective.” She ultimately decided to turn away from an objective observational piece and focus instead on finding how the personal was political, from a feminist point of view.” While it’s a stretch to say the film concentrated on projecting a feminist viewpoint, Costa’s familial ties to Brazilian’s political movements provided a strong foundation for a movie about the transformative effects of a toxic body politic.
Costa related the experience of living in a democracy that is continually undermined: “We were living something which I think is very similar to what Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine, which is like so many shocks – one to the other – that you lose any perspective to what is actually going on.” She spoke of the trauma of “losing your perspective of what you thought your nation would be.” In the United States we take for granted that democratic values and processes are upheld on a daily basis. Costa channeled the dejection that came with realizing this is not the case for her country, as she watched more and more the spectacle of Brazilian politicians ensnared in corruption trials.“Not even what my parents fought their lifetime to achieve is guaranteed,” she declared early in the conversation.
When asked whether she considers herself an artist or an activist, Costa spoke of the decision early on in her career to become a documentary filmmaker instead of a social worker. Her sensitivities to telling stories in the realm of her own experiences led her to brainstorming a story involving a gaze on her role as a Brazilian citizen:“ I had to let go of my desire to make a social impact to find my voice.”
Costa’s filming first centered around Dilma’s impeachment trials, but with the sudden rise of Bolsonaro it soon became clear the story was shifting in ways that demanded more time and longer reels. Costa described how difficult it was to first get access to Dilma, who – post-impeachment – declares on camera she’s been made out to be Joseph K from Franz Kafka’s The Trial. These political interviews, along with incredible drone footage of protests in Brasileiro and of Palácio da Alvorada, enhances the tragic dualities of a republic in shambles: contrasts between the city’s chaos and its barren, concrete infrastructure. Costa ended the talk urging the international community, which she felt was largely absent in Brazil’s time of need, to stand in solidarity with the country, ushering in the notion that only by taking a personal stance can political progress proceed.