‘The Edge of Democracy’ sheds light on Brazil teetering on the brink
Brasília on the edge

As America ponders the impeachment of Trump and investigating him for crimes, a young South American female director has made a documentary about another large democratic nation that recently underwent the ordeals of impeaching one president plus the trial and imprisonment of an ex-president. Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy is a sprawling nonfiction epic depicting the rise, then fall from power of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (TP), with the senate’s removal from office of left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff.

The former guerrilla’s ouster was followed by the conviction of her mentor, TP co-founder and ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Being found guilty prevented the popular labor leader from running for the presidency again to replace his protégée Dilma. Strangely, in his trial the absence of a crucial piece of evidence is viewed as “proof” of Lula’s alleged corruption in the Alice in Wonderland judicial proceedings.

These acts trigger street fighting, riots, and unrest in Brazil shown in vivid footage in Edge, which was an official selection at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was screened at other filmfests, including Hot Docs. As such, the documentary serves as a cautionary tale, warning of the forces that can be unleashed by impeachment and court rulings, which might explain Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s restraint regarding launching measures to charge Trump with high crimes and misdemeanors in the House of Representatives. (Or possibly sheer cowardice could also explain her Hamlet-like indecision.) On the other hand, Edge also demonstrates the effectiveness of what happens when the rightwing moves ruthlessly—as opposed to the centrist democratic leadership’s cautious, if not timid, approach.

Filmmaker Petra Costa

The documentary also covers Brazil’s decades of military rule, the restoration of democracy and the progressive reforms of the TP that through its policies lifted millions out of poverty. The edgy Edge is very up to date, ending with reactionary Jair Bolsonaro—the “Trump of the Tropics”—becoming Brazil’s president in an increasingly divided country. This 113-minute documentary by award-winning director Costa feels like a Costa-Gavras feature, such as Z or the Greco-French director’s South America dramas State of Siege about Uruguay’s Tupamaros urban guerrillas and Missing about Chile’s coup.

This nonfiction film proves, once again, that the personal is political. Interwoven into Edge is a family drama: Costa’s relatives include members of Brazil’s elite, although her parents were “militants” who went underground to resist the military junta that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Presumably, due to her family connections, Costa had startling access to Lula, Rousseff, Bolsonaro, etc., for Edge. However, at some point in this ambitious doc Costa, who’d provided a first-person presence early in the doc, disappears onscreen. As the narrator, Costa’s voice continues to be heard—educated at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, she speaks good, if accented, English—visually the director vanishes like one of a South American junta’s “disappeared.” This gives Edge an uneven feel; it’s as if the compelling, wide-ranging subject matter is beyond Costa’s creative control and grasp. Unlike documentarians like Michael Moore, whose proletarian persona is a recurring part of his docs, Costa can’t keep up with her material.

The Edge of Democracy is produced by Joanna Natasegara (Academy Award-winning producer of The White Helmets), Shane Boris and Tiago Pavan. The documentary is in English and Portuguese with English subtitles and opens June 19 in select theaters—in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, in New York at the IFC Center, in San Francisco (theater TBD), in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and globally on Netflix.

The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.