Brazil’s documentary wars

. Jul 30, 2019
brazil netflix edge of demoracy Scene from 'The edge of democracy'

The events of the past years in Brazil deserve cinematic treatment. From the irruption of street protests in June 2013, through a World Cup and an Olympics, massive corruption revelations, a cataclysmic impeachment, and the country’s worst-ever recession, to the election of one of the most right-wing leaders on the planet, it is a story that needs telling—and explaining. And The Edge of Democracy is a beautifully made attempt to do so. But in today’s Brazil, nothing is so simple.

Petra Costa’s film has been amply reviewed elsewhere, so relaying its form and content is not our object here.

What should be noted is that, while the film is hardly uncritical of the Workers’ Party, it—and the film’s auteur, whose own biography is skillfully interlaced with the film’s narrative—is explicit about its left-wing sympathies. It is unabashedly partisan—in favor of democracy. But that is not an uncontested value: for one section of the right, it was precisely the Workers’ Party that came to threaten democracy; for another, democracy itself is suspect.</p> <p>Consequently, we are about to witness a political battle fought across the terrain of the silver screen, as other films currently in the works present their own, alternative narratives, from more conservative perspectives.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Politics played out over film</h2> <p>Brazil is not a stranger to controversy over cinematic production; unsurprising in a country where culture plays an outsize role in discourse and self-conception.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2016, under the shadow of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s <em>Aquarius</em> became the year’s most talked-about film. First, the cast<a href=""> protested</a> the impeachment on Cannes Film Festival’ red carpet, declaring it a “coup” and stating that “Brazil is not a democracy anymore”. Hotly tipped for an Oscar, the film was then withdrawn by the Culture Ministry commission responsible for Brazil’s submission. For the director, the choice—made under the Michel Temer government—was clearly<a href=""> politically motivated</a>.</p> <p>The release of the José Padilha’s series, <a href=""><em>The Mechanism</em></a><em> (</em>Netflix, 2018), also proved highly controversial, as its Manichaean and sensationalist depiction of the procedures of Operation Car Wash drew ire from the left. Mr. Padilha subsequently<a href=""> admitted error</a>, charging Sergio Moro—the hero of his series—with a lack of independence and of providing succor to militias (this before the more recent revelations by <a href=""><em>The Intercept</em></a>).</p> <p>Now, following on from the success of <em>The Edge of Democracy</em>, come two ripostes from the right.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Right-wing reacts to <em>The Edge of Democracy</em></h2> <p>Perturbed by what it sees as that film’s attempt to “<a href="">stamp the transformation of the country … as a gigantic coup</a>,” the MBL (the Free Brazil Movement, which emerged as one of the protagonists of the pro-impeachment street protests in 2015) will release its own film in September. Entitled <em>Não vai ter golpe</em> (an ironic reference to the left-wing slogan from early 2016, “there will not be a coup”), the film will feature interviews with key figures who played roles in the impeachment.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-16-9 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span> </div></figure> <p>The group’s<a href=""> press release</a> positions the film explicitly as an intervention in this battle of narratives, arguing that Petra Costa’s depiction presents “Brazil’s transformation into an ‘extreme-right dictatorship’, after years of Workers’ Party paradise” in contrast to MBL Filmes’ offering, which “narrates, in an unpretentious manner, the struggle of a few amateurs—far removed from the political world—against the structure set up to operate a country.”</p> <p>While the source of that film’s funding has not been disclosed, another film aiming to counter <em>The Edge of Democracy</em> was approved to receive BRL 530,000 from Ancine, the Brazilian National Film Agency. Josias Teófilo’s <em>Nem tudo se desfaz</em> (“Not everything fades”)<a href=",773374/filme-sobre-bolsonaro-tera-auxilio-da-ancine.shtml"> aims to tell the story</a> of the “greatest plot twist in Brazil’s recent history”: how the initially left-wing protests in 2013 ended up “turning 180 degrees,” leading to protests in favor of Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment and eventually to Jair Bolsonaro’s election, something the film’s promotional material refers to as a “conservative revolution.”&nbsp;</p> <p>The director—whose previous film concerned the Bolsonaro clan’s guru, <a href="">Olavo de Carvalho</a>—told a newspaper that the film is not about, nor pro-, Jair Bolsonaro, “despite the fact that people on the right will like it because it isn’t accompanied by nonsense like saying [the impeachment] was a parliamentary coup, ignoring the millions of people who went to the streets.”</p> <p>Though the film had been promoted by the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, it may now fall victim to Brazil’s film wars in another way. President Bolsonaro believes that Ancine should be abolished, arguing the state should not fund cinema, citing a 2011 film based on the diaries of a prostitute, <em>Bruna Surfistinha</em>. In the apparent interests of balance, he has told Ancine to withdraw funding from Mr. Teófilo’s film.&nbsp;</p> <p>The stated aim of both right-wing ripostes is to overturn the notion that, under the Workers’ Party governments, things were fine—this despite Ms. Costa’s overt criticisms of those governments’ implications in a corrupt system. More fundamentally, perhaps, is their desire to claim victory as theirs. Hence the emphasis, from both latter films, on the mass street protests that led up to impeachment. Those “anti-corruption” movements to a large degree evaporated since Ms. Rousseff was deposed (certainly if one compares turn-outs); this despite many severe corruption revelations affecting both Mr. Temer and Mr. Bolsonaro.&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps the intention, then, is to reclaim the right-wing protest groups’ protagonism in a process that may, in reality, have had more to do with machinations at the top, than any mobilizations “from below.”</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="576" src="" alt="" class="wp-image-21489" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>President Lula depicted in <em>The Edge of Democracy.&#8221;</em> Image: Netflix</figcaption></figure> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s democracy in the eyes of the world</h2> <p>There is another aspect to the documentary wars. <em>The Edge of Democracy </em>is in English, released on the largest dedicated streaming platform in the world. Perhaps it has drawn such criticism from the right because of anxiety over how Brazil is portrayed abroad. Broadly speaking, the mainstream international narrative is a lot less favorable to those that inherited the executive post-impeachment than those on the right might wish.</p> <p>The denouement for many was precisely the farcical vote in the lower house on impeachment. As the rest of the world came to know how deeply implicated in corruption the entirety of Congress was—as was President Temer, later—the sequence of events started to look more like nasty political intrigue at best, and a parliamentary coup at worst. Irrespective of the interpretation chosen, it rather de-emphasizes the role played by the 2015-2016 street demonstrations, however noble one may think they were.</p> <h2>The battle is at home</h2> <p>So how is an objective documentary account possible, while we are still living the history that is meant to be depicted? Even if we put aside the fraught debate over whether the events represented a “coup,” how are we to portray a historical sequence about which every detail, motive, cause, and consequence is questioned? Should it even be attempted?</p> <p>The writing of history—whatever the medium—is always a political act, even if recency makes the antagonism acute. But the turbulence of Brazil’s past six years means the documentarians perform a service in reminding us how we got to where we are. The objective should be to shake us from any complacent notion that the way things are are how they have always been; it should de-normalize the present. And that applies to both sets of documentaries.</p> <p>The MBL and Mr. Teófilo films have not yet come out, so judgment should be reserved as to their qualities. However, one can say now that what distinguishes <em>The Edge of Democracy </em>from so many other accounts of the recent period is its attempt to capture a totality. Vulgar narratives of both left and right pivot on the rectitude or iniquity of individual acts or events. Did the impeachment follow the letter of the law? What were the motives or background of those who militated in its favor?&nbsp;</p> <p>The writing of history is always an interpretive act, not just a matter of placing relevant events in sequence. But the objectivity inheres in attending to the flux of historical development. Petra Costa’s work, whatever its (declared) biases, achieves this.</p> <p>That will doubtlessly not satisfy many on the right. But that is because, beyond the shouting about coups and corruption, the visions of the partisans are of a fundamentally different country. For those on the left, it is a story of 500 years of inequality and oppression, with, at best, some glimmers pointing a way to progress. For the right, the question is ethical: Brazil represents a just order which was morally corrupted by interlopers.&nbsp;</p> <p>In either case, however, the filmmakers, as well as viewers, are mainly objects in this recent, turbulent history, powerless in a country that often feels out of control. A documentary on the recent past is an attempt to stamp our authority on what happened, even if we have no authority over what <em>is</em> happening. It is claiming a little piece of posterity so that we might be redeemed.

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Alex Hochuli

Alex is a writer, researcher and consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga, and is currently researching a book on anti-politics.

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