Sundance 2019: Petra Costa's Documentary 'The Edge of Democracy'
by Alex Billington
February 2, 2019
For the times, they are a changin'… What a world we live in these days. So many things are coming apart. And this documentary is one of the most eye-opening, magnificent looks at what is happening. The Edge of Democracy is a captivating documentary made by Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa, taking us deep inside the end of democracy and remarkable political upheaval in Brazil over the last decade. It's an astounding inside look at the recent political shake up in Brazil, examining and showing us directly how democracy is collapsing thanks to political power grabs. There's a phenomenal amount of jaw-dropping footage in this, combined with very personal filmmaking from Petra Costa, that make it an extraordinary documentary. This film really blew me away - I didn't expect to be impressed this much, but there's so much to admire about it.
For those who aren't familiar with Brazilian politics, this is an incredibly eye-opening, shocking experience. If you thought the politics in America were troublesome, just wait until you see what's going on down there. Costa gives us the full history of contemporary Brazil's politics - moving away from military dictatorship to a stable democracy a few decades ago. She also profiles one particularly important man - Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (aka "Lula") - taking us back to his early days and explaining his history, along with the history of a few other important politicians. We watch as he rises and finally achieves a great victory, pushing Brazil forward in inspiring and profound ways. But then it all comes crashing down. And the country turns on him, and his successor, and soon comes to embrace a new dictator taking them back in time again… And it's bad.
What makes this film stand out in particular is that it's not a boring historical documentary, it's a deeply personal film. Petra Costa tells her own life story throughout, carefully weaving in her experiences and her thoughts as the film progresses through history. It's important because her parents were political radicals, and she learned a great deal from them including the importance of progressive ideas and staying away from violent dictators. Her insights, not only on politics and history, but also on the experiences of regular people in Brazil, are compelling and genuinely fascinating. She speaks from her heart, and doesn't get in the way of the bigger story being told. Her narration is calm but strong, you can clearly hear the urgency and worry in her voice, but she never lets her emotions get the best of her. I really enjoyed hearing her speak (in English).
This kind of personal injection in a documentary can sometimes hurt the film - but here it elevates, and then enhances the storytelling by making it feel like a good friend is telling us about the history of their country and why it's falling apart. The footage she shares is truly jaw-dropping. I don't know how they got all of it. There's one incredible drone shot in this that is one of the most impactful shots I've seen in any doc at Sundance. Really, really amazing filmmaking that magnificently captures history so clearly. She has footage of the embattled politicians in their cars, at numerous events, discussing intimately their experiences and feelings. She has footage inside the presidential palace. She has fantastic footage of major protests over the years, showing how people radicalize due to propaganda and become vicious the more they rally en masse.
In all honesty - I think this should've been titled The End of Democracy instead of The Edge of Democracy. It's a much better fit. For all I know, they originally had thought of this title for the film but thought "edge" wouldn't make it seem so dangerous or scary (turning away some viewers). But it really is about the end of democracy as we know it, about how it's dying in exchange for plutocracy and autocracy (and most people are blissfully unaware or don't even care). It's a cautionary tale, told with such a breadth of understanding and humility, and with an urgent emphasis on how things are changing for the worse. It's not only a brilliant time capsule doc capturing history so clearly, but it's a film that is reminding us we have to fight to keep democracy alive and strong. It can slip away that easily, right in front of our eyes. We can't let this happen.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing