Thursday, October 31, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Edge of Democracy

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The Edge of Democracy
Directed by Petra Costa
DOC NYC Screenings

Countries go through cycles, with different governments remaining in power for a given amount of time as social change and political upheaval sweep through them. Many nations have experienced a relatively recent transition from authoritarian regimes to hopeful democracies, and, in most cases, those new institutions are far from secure or stable. Checks and balances exist to ensure that constitutions are upheld and some sense of normalcy can be maintained, and when those seeking to defend them are threatened and called illegitimate, the descent back towards previous failed systems feels all but inevitable.

Filmmaker Petra Costa examines events in Brazil over the past two decades that began with the union aspirations of one Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ran unsuccessfully for president multiple times before being elected twice, enjoying an incredibly high popularity rating and accomplishing much during his time in office. The election of his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, set in motion a troubling course of events as political opponents called for her impeachment and then tried to implicate Lula on corruption charges. Costa looks at the contradictions of the actors on both sides and, regardless of whether Rousseff and Lula are indeed guilty, what this indicates for the future of Brazil.

Costa faces a difficult challenge in making this film, which is that she is far from certain of whether Lula does deserve the fate he has been dealt, and she manages to maintain an objective focus in exposing how the judicial system works in Brazil, with prosecutors and judges often indistinguishable from one another. She has a great deal of access to both former presidents, and the archive footage assembled is more than sufficient to provide detailed background on how the Brazilian people have been motivated to advocate for radical change, with opposing camps villainizing Lula and Rousseff and praising them.

This film’s United States release on Netflix this past June after a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival feels especially timely for an audience that is grappling with its own controversial impeachment process. The similarities between the United States and Brazil are disconcerting, as politicians pounce when one defendant is being investigated and urge restraint when it’s someone they don’t want to see tarnished, even in the face of undeniable proof of wrongdoing. Costa’s film is intelligent and informative, and it’s an unsettling viewing experience that should be required for those concerned about where the United States is going with some power to do anything to course correct.


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