The Edge of Democracy
by George Wolf
Documentaries can often be judged by how successful they are at showing us unfamiliar worlds.
But for the Oscar-nominated The Edge of Democracy, it is the familiarity of the story it tells that makes it so heartbreakingly urgent, as it wraps a personal memoir around a first hand account of Brazil’s fragile hold on democracy.
Veteran documentarian Petra Costa (Omar & the Seagull, Undertow Eyes), whose own parents risked their lives protesting Brazil’s military dictatorship, narrates the film with much personal insight, starting with her feeling that she and Brazilian democracy “have grown up together.”
Taking power through a U.S.-backed coup in 1964, a succession of generals ruled Brazil until 1985, when the Workers Party began to take hold, thanks in large part to union leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who was finally elected president in 2002.
Costa, backed up by a string of working class Brazilians, speaks in glowing terms of the economic progress made under Lula, and we see no less than Barack Obama dub him “the most popular politician on Earth.”
Indeed, Lula left office in 2010 with an 87 percent approval rating, when his hand-picked successor, former militant Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency. Three years later the economy stumbled, Dilma announced a crackdown on corruption, and the knives came out.
Even then, not many would have thought it possible for the democracy Brazilians long fought for to succumb so easily to primal populism, or for Jair Bolsonaro, a bigoted, hostile, “fake news” decrying candidate who began as a joke, to be elected president in 2018.
But here we are.
Costa’s passion for her cause is weary but evident, and her earnest narration often asks us to assume much without pausing to consider any contrasting evaluations of what she dubs “the coup of 2016.”
That’s not to say Dilma’s ouster doesn’t stink to high Heaven – it does – but it also isn’t hard to find accusations against the Workers Party that don’t seem that flimsy, and while the one-sided approach is in line with the film’s personal journey, it leaves the documentary side wanting.
But Costa’s ultimate success comes from weaving her family’s story into the political tumult of her homeland, and in turn mirroring a more global struggle. We get a stark illustration of the rising tides of authoritarianism, leaving the Edge of Democracy a film that should be pretty damn personal to all of us.