Petra Costa’s film is about Brazil’s democracy since the end of the 21-year military dictatorship in 1985 and the election this year of the extreme right wing Jair Bolsonaro. It’s a very personal film as her parents had organised underground against the dictatorship and believed that the creation of the Workers Party (PT) under the leadership of the charismatic Luiz Lula da Silva the Steelworkers’ Union President would usher in a radical, transforming government.
Costa was born as the dictatorship was ending so she is a child of the ‘Democracy’. Her film is a personal quest to make sense of the deep disappointment and the missed opportunities of the past thirty years.
The PT set out with a radical program of nationalisation and redistribution but failed at its first attempts to win elections. Eventually in 2003, after moderating its program, Lula became President of a coalition government with the PT the largest party. For a time his approval ratings were the highest of any elected leader in the world. After two terms he was succeeded by Dilma Rouseff in 2011 who, like the director’s parents had been arrested and tortured as a young activist under the dictatorship.
PT reforms reduced poverty and brought electoral success, however they failed to address the underlying sources of power, especially within the construction industry and the corrupt payments and patronage that fed the parliamentary parties. Opponents of the PT initiated an investigation into corrupt political funding. The economic instability following the 2014 crisis made it difficult for the PT government to fund its programs. These two developments provided the opportunity for opponents of the PT to stir up popular opposition to the PT, and to use legal institutions that had not been changed since the dictatorship to first impeach Dilma Roussef and later jail Lula.
Costa has assembled footage of her family, of protests, of interviews with PT supporters, with PT Presidents Lula and Dilma Roussef, and of parliamentary proceedings to build a story that helps explain how these manoeuvres developed. There are many moving scenes (Lula’s speech to the crowd before he is jailed) as well as enraging ones (the male politicians celebrating Rouseff’s impeachment, and Bolsonaro’s gun firing stance).
The detailed behind the scenes account of how the PT lost government, and Jair Bolsonaro became President contradicts the impression given by mainstream media that Lula and Dilma were ousted because they were corrupt, and shows rather that Brazil is now back in the hands of an elite which is making it safer for the corrupt.
The Edge of Democracy is worth seeing because it raises questions about how a radical workers’ government can survive against opposition from the privileged and powerful. The sense that Brazil’s democracy is on an edge comes over very clearly. With Bolsonaro’s election the question is, will it step back or go over?
See The Edge of Democracy on Netflix.