Petra Costa captures Brazil’s political tensions, legacies in ‘The Edge of Democracy’

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“The Edge of Democracy,” the latest film from director Petra Costa, begins with an image that may encapsulate the current political moment in Brazil. From a bird’s eye view, a swirling mass of bodies lit with flashlights, torches and other means of illumination encloses a government building. The bodies look like magma — an unstoppable force with an unclear source and aim.

Costa uses this as a starting visual metaphor and ends the film in a bird’s eye view as well. In capturing Brazil’s current political moment, marked by the rise of the nationalist right and culminating with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president, Costa attempts to mimic the effect of this view by zooming out to see what led to this situation.

Using incredibly intimate footage and interviews with the politicians and other figures involved — including ousted left-wing presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva themselves — the film pieces together a picture of a deeply fragmented country. Between these figureheads and the other interviews that are included, such as citizens on the street protesting, no one cohesive narrative emerges. Rather, the extent of the country’s political divides is furthered with every frame, fracturing indefinitely.

Costa doesn’t shy away from involving herself in the action; throughout the film she can be seen and heard asking questions and pressing interviewees to reveal more. She also includes the ways in which her own history is intertwined with the current political moment. Costa’s grandparents were beneficiaries of the military dictatorship in the 1970s, while her parents were persecuted during this same time for their Marxist beliefs. As she puts it: “This story of this crisis … runs directly through my family.”

The film brings into question a typical response that spectators have to the political upheavals both in Brazil and the United States: How did we get here? “The Edge of Democracy” suggests that this trajectory is one that has been long-building and the result of decades of negotiating what democracy should look like. As the final bird’s eye shot zooms out, the answer is unclear and the future ultimately uncertain.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].