When the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro caught coronavirus in July 2020, it seemed like a matter of time until Donald Trump followed. Sure enough, three months later, the American president had tested positive. Neither took the pandemic seriously, and this was the consequence.
Their shared diagnosis added an additional chapter to the narratives surrounding the authoritarian leaders. Both rely on fear-mongering to garner votes. They are both arrogant bullies that have relied on social media to divide and conquer. Now both use their recovery from the virus as a symbol of their invincibility despite the rising body count in Brazil and the United States alike.
On the eve of the “most important US elections of our lifetime” (as every election seems to be referred to), the 2019 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy is as relevant and hard-hitting as ever. Over the course of two hours, director Petra Costa guides the viewer through a series of events that led to Bolsonaro’s rise. A key takeaway from the documentary is that the only way to get out of the current mess is to first understand how we got ourselves into it.
The realities of Brasil’s political fortunes are compelling and should not be pigeonholed to fit American narratives, though the factors that contribute to the rise of populist right-wing politics translate with striking ease. Costa introduces:
1. a charismatic leader who harnesses a groundswell of activist energy to preside over a period of hope, prosperity, and the launch of long-needed social welfare programs;
2. the chosen successor, a shatterer of the glass ceiling, who is accused of “coldness” as she faces tremendous backlash; and
3. a would-be tyrant that emerges from the wreckage of a political crisis with a chip on his shoulder and a desire for revenge.
The masterful editing from years of footage strings together a nuanced story of the delicate state of an emerging democracy. A few decades removed from a brutal military dictatorship, the country’s economic elites are still willing to go to any lengths to protect their fortunes.
The magazine and newspaper covers along the way show how public opinion was manipulated to conform to the owners’ interest. The impeachment of a duly elected leader hinged on an act of “creative accounting” uncovered in the sprawling, unaccountable Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) investigation that revealed the deep extent of corruption in Brazil (and throughout Latin America). The transgression in question was inappropriate, yet not out of line with the country’s statecraft culture and relatively minor in the larger scheme of things. Through innuendo and deliberate erosion of public confidence, however, the incident came to occupy an outsized role in a country’s future.
Particularly fascinating are the scenes from the floor of the Congress in April 2016 as each politician made their case about whether then-president Dilma Rousseff deserved to be suspended. Several lawmakers deployed religious rhetoric and alarmism about expanding transgender rights to rationalize their plotting decision in the absence of just cause.
The official stated reasoning of the proceeding is lost completely, and the incident assumes all the hallmarks of a naked power grab – a coup in line with those that happen every time power is threatened on the continent. Once the roll call is finalized, the faces of dismay from Dilma’s supporters feel remarkably similar to those we would see at Hillary Clinton’s election day party a few months later.
One of the documentary’s biggest accomplishments is that Costa also centers her personal relationship with Brazilian democracy as part of the story. The disillusionment caused by the defeat of a candidate who reflects your ideals hits on a deeply guttural level. The feminist maxim of “the personal is political” is put on full display as the documentary painstakingly details the implosion of a sonho efêmero – an ephemeral dream.
The documentary concludes with the 2018 ballot box victory of Bolsonaro, a “law-and-order” candidate that fetishizes a period in which the military arbitrarily detained and tortured dissidents. His childish penchant for finger guns only becomes more horrifying in the context of Brazil’s past.
The entire spectacle is suffused with a sense of inevitability. In multiple instances, an ominous bossa-nova soundtrack lingers over spectacular aerial shots of the modernist capital of Brasília and clips of the empty halls of the Palácio da Alvorada presidential palace. Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s monumental modernist design does little to obscure the underlying unscrupulous machinations that take place inside. Costa lucidly spells out in these scenes how the voice of progressive change in Brazil, the Workers’ Party, became entrenched in a campaign finance system that prevents actual social advancement from taking root. This bargain with the devil to achieve power is shown to lead to the party’s downfall.
The Edge of Democracy is a fiery and spirited revelation of the contemporary realities of power – in Brazil and around the world. However, the footage of mass progressive mobilizations serves as a timely reminder that there are countless like-minded people that are outraged and ready to push back to defend the rights they have attained over the decades.
Politics are ultimately about people and ideas, despite the many failings of the politicians, and it is the responsibility of those who dare to dream of a more just future to figure out how to emerge from the current global political crisis. The stakes could not be higher.
“The powerful can kill one, two or a hundred roses,” former president Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) says in a rousing speech to his heartbroken followers toward the end of the documentary, “But they’ll never stop the arrival of spring, and our fight is in search of spring.”