Petra Costa went out on to the streets of Brazil to film a protest. What she saw was people out in the streets fighting to bring back military presence to the streets. It struck a chord. It struck Costa with fear and concern for the country’s democracy.
Costa did not expect to be making a film about democracy in Brazil, but the protests led to The Edge of Democracy. I caught up with filmmaker Costa and producer Joanna Natasegara to talk about the cautionary tale of how Brazil slipped from democracy to autocracy rule.
That was such a difficult watch because what is happening to the world, not just in Brazil and everywhere. Where did the need for you to tell the story begin?
Petra: I grew up believing democracy was my birthright and I was reaping the benefits of my parents work and the work of their generation fighting against the military dictatorship in Brazil and re-establishing democracy. I grew up believing we would grow and become stronger together. It was a real surprise in 2016 when I went out into the streets in 2016 to film a protest and saw many people asking for the return of the military. Others were antagonizing political opponents in a very aggressive way, and that made me fear for our democracy. I made the film and started making it out of that fear and concern.
Joanna, how did you meet Petra?
I met her through Doc Society who was one of the funders of the film. I had worked with them before, and Petra had had some support from them before. I think they thought that the pairing of the two of us was good because of Petra’s back catalog is made up of very personal films. They’re also political. However, she didn’t have a history of global affairs and internationally related films and I do. When they showed me some of her work and the early cuts, I really fell in love with it. Unlike some of the other political filmmaking that I’ve ever seen, she brings that personal aspect to the work in a very poetic way so you have the real artist lens looking at something with a global resonance but through her eyes. It was like nothing that I’d ever seen.
What was the biggest challenge in telling this story for you Petra?
I think finding the tone of the film and finding the right balance between the personal and the political in a story that is deeply complex was a challenge. I realized early on in the edit that if I invited the spectator into the present moment, it was impossible for a non-Brazilian spectator to understand what was at stake. There were so many things that needed to be understood for that to happen. They’d have to understand the political parties, the corruption scandal that everyone was talking about, the state of Democracy in Brazil and what was this military dictatorship that people wanted back. To give that in a context that felt cinematic and compelling was the biggest challenge. Also, to have the journalistic accuracy to portray the facts. It was really amazing to be able to collaborate with Joanna, not only for her experience with political films but also for her sharp vision and writing skills. We were writing back and forth and we had a great team to make it happen.
You narrated this documentary, and you’ve narrated your past work, what was the choice to do that again here?
Petra: From my first film, I’ve narrated and found a narrating voice. Since I’m telling a personal story and I wanted to tell a story about one’s relationship with his or her own democracy – and was something I realized was becoming important not just in Brazil, but around the world, I felt this was a story that could connect with a lot of people and it would connect better through a personal voice.
Joanne: I think from my perspective; there’s an enormous invitation in Petra’s voiceover which is to say, “this is a very complex issue.” It could have been a very dry rendering of a big piece of history, and by narrating it and by inviting people into that personal space, Petra does the bravest of things that filmmakers can do, which is to say, “I’m going to go through this, are you going to go through it with me?” And all that it means emotionally and with transparency and bravery when you do that. I hope that changes things for the way the audience watches when they see the film.
What was the greatest lesson either of you learned in making this?
Petra: I began the process with a lot of passion and convictions and throughout the process, I was constantly being kept in check. I was wanting to put myself in that vulnerable place to question all of my convictions. I understood the mistakes that were committed by Lula da Silva and the Worker’s Party and how they decided not to tell us the status quo. I understood the pacts they made that led to their self-destruction. I also learned about the sophisticated ways in which the opposition decided to under rule the institutions and the un-written norms that are necessary for democracy to work in order for them to get back into power. It just became more of a grey area and it wasn’t a black and white area.
Joanna: It was a very humbling process. I think what it taught me was the value of that respect. We’ve been talking about this as a global community for years and how have we gotten into this position and why is the world becoming polarized. Going through this process of making the film, even though we disagree with each other and we can abhor the opinions that other people are sharing, we must respect each other and we must respect the democratic instructions otherwise we are nowhere.
Generally, people want the same thing. They want to live in a peaceful society where needs are met and we only do that with mutual respect.
This is on Netflix, what does that global exposure mean to you and all the people who will see it?
Petra: We feel so lucky to launch it in over 190 countries. It’s from Latin America. It’s partly in a foreign language. The most obvious track would be for it to go to festivals. The fact that 190 countries will see it at the same time and discuss their on resonances and their own relationships to their democracy are the most amazing thing that can happen.