‘The Edge Of Democracy’ Offers An Intimate Look At Brazilian Politics In Flux

Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa chronicles the rise and fall of democracy in Brazil from 1985 to the present in The Edge of Democracy.


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Halfway through Petra Costa’s engrossing new documentary, The Edge of Democracy (2019) — a mesh of personal memoir and reportage — Gilberto Carvalho, the Ex-General Secretary of Presidency for Brazil’s Workers Party (PT), sums up the party’s seventeen years in power: “We didn’t make the political reform necessary to end the curse of business campaign financing. There lies the mother of corruption.”

The aforementioned PT is the party of one of the most popular politicians in modern history — the former metallurgical worker and ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — and of his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, who became president in 2011, and was impeached in 2017.

Rousseff’s impeachment lies at the heart of Costa’s film, which dropped on Netflix Wednesday; it is the edge, or the precipice, that tests the soundness of the country’s executive, legislative and judicial branches. In her preamble, Costa briefly recounts the beginnings of Brazilian democracy, born in 1989 — six years after Costa — following decades of military dictatorships. Costa then outlines the circumstances of Rousseff’s downfall, which sealed PT’s defeat, and opened the door for the election of the current right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Costa, whose previous films include Elena (2012), about her sister’s prolonged depression and suicide, and Olmo and a Seagull (2015), which blended observation and performance, once again frames a broad-reaching reportage with a personal story. This twofold approach yields poignant moments, though it also limits Costa’s ability to more fully engage the complexities of historical flux.

Costa’s parents, like Rousseff, lived in hiding during the dictatorship. Costa shows her family’s archives, including the 1970s photographs of her parents when they met and joined the opposition, along with archival images of protests. In a poignant time-leap, a home video shot years later shows Costa joining the political process: She grins to the camera as she casts her first vote, and moves closer to a “world we wanted to live in.” The main protagonist of her dream is, of course, Lula da Silva: Stirring archival footage recalls the charismatic young Lula rousing immense crowds, around a time when he formed the Workers Party, in 1980. We then leap forward: After losing three political campaigns, Lula was elected President in 2002.

Costa’s personal angle yields remarkable moments, such as when she brings her mother to Brasilia, to the Presidential Palace, Alvorada, to meet Rousseff. As they stand in what looks like a backdoor parking lot, Rousseff speaks candidly about missing her personal freedom — the anonymity she had while in hiding.

With stylish 1950s architecture that favors clean lines, high-vaulted white concrete, and modernist furniture, the Alvorada provides a striking backdrop. The film’s cinematographer João Atala returns repeatedly to its empty rooms, the camera gliding slowly along its darkened interiors, as if in a ghost story. It is, indeed, a poignant metaphor for The Edge of Democracy, as one by one, Alvorada’s inhabitants are pushed off the political stage: First Rousseff, then Lula.

So many factors contribute to the capital’s political drain that Costa struggles at times to address them all, seeking some measure of impartiality, while also speaking to her profound disillusionment with the political process. Once installed in Congress, she spends months chasing down politicians, to quiz them on why Rousseff is being impeached. Their answers vary: Being cold and temperamental, antagonizing the media, bad economy. Costa adds some other reasons: austerity measures that hurt the poor and undermine Rousseff’s popularity, plus her support for the anti-corruption investigations, Operation Carwash. The latter reveals a vast network of bribes paid by construction companies to prominent politicians — PT among them.

Thus, in Carvalho’s prescient telling, PT, and with it, Lula and Rousseff, fall at least partly as a result of failing to reform Brazil’s corrupt and dysfunctional political machine (Costa, whose grandfather founded a construction firm, Andrade Gutierrez — also implicated in Operation Carwash — dutifully notes that, with the exception of her parents, nearly her whole family have stood on the regimes’ side).

Costa had access to the impeachment proceedings, and shows how that machine geared up to try Rousseff for “fiscal responsibility,” an offense whose gravity Costa and much of international press have called into question. Costa reserves the final word for Lula, who notes that only an international committee can impartially proclaim whether allocations like Rousseff’s, to plug budget gaps, violate the law.

Meanwhile, Lula has been questioned about a triplex registered under someone else’s name but believed to be a bribe. That investigation is also shrouded in doubts: Whether Lula should have been required to testify, whether he wanted to shield himself by trying to take a post as Rousseff’s Chief of Staff, whether leaks of recordings should have been admitted as proof by the prosecuting judge, Sérgio Moro. In the film, Rousseff’s international lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, goes as far as to question the efficacy of Brazil’s judicial system, claiming that it robs the defendant of a right to an impartial judge.

There is no room to answer all these questions in Costa’s film, partly because the denouement is still underway — Lula remains in jail, sentenced to twelve years, while Moro has become Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister. But will he sentence more high-level officials for taking bribes? Will anti-corruption trials continue, as right-wing politicians, now in power, face trial? Costa’s film points to secret pacts to thwart justice that have already taken place.

“Where do we gather the strength to walk through the ruins and start anew?” Costa muses in the finale, evoking repeatedly — perhaps a bit naively — the ideals and precepts of Greek democracy (on the severe limitations of those, another recent documentary, What is Democracy?, by Astra Taylor, is an essential viewing).

For now, Brazil’s democracy emerges as a bruised and battered adult. Costa herself is shaken, haunted by her family and country’s past — more precisely, by how the few powerful families, like hers, dictate the country’s fate. Nevertheless, a samba over the closing credits offers a cautiously upbeat tone. An ending that suggests, at least for now, that Brazilians have suffered too much, fought too hard, to easily give up hope.

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Fashion Statement: Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

Researchers say we often recognize peer pressure in the actions of others — but not in our own choices.

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A while back, Jonah Berger was talking with a lawyer friend from Washington, D.C. The friend was lamenting the impact of social influence on his peers.

He was saying, “‘God, you know, all D.C. lawyers are the same. They make it big, and they go out and they buy a new BMW.’

And I said, ‘Don’t you drive a BMW also?’ He said, ‘oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, but, you know, they all drive gray ones. And I drive a blue one.'”

Our friends may not be independent thinkers, but we are…right? Not quite. Researchers have found that many of our personal preferences are heavily shaped by the whims and wishes of others.

This week, we talk with Jonah Berger about how our choices are influenced by social context. Then, Neeru Paharia takes a closer look at our behavior as consumers. She says the things we purchase send invisible signals – projecting the values we have, and the identities we want.

Additional Resources:

Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger, 2016.

“Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute: Cognition can both help and hurt moral motivated reasoning,” by Neeru Paharia, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Rohit Deshpandé in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, (2013).

“The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography,” by Neeru Paharia, Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, and Juliet B. Schor in Journal of Consumer Research, 2010.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

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‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’: A Defiant Tour Of A Beloved Author’s Life, Work

The work and impact of iconic writer Toni Morrison is surveyed in a new documentary directed by filmmaker and portrait photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

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Toni Morrison had advice for the students in her Princeton University creative writing class: “I don’t want to hear about your little life.”

It’s not as brash as all that, because anyone who has heard Morrison speak over the years knows she’s someone who shares compassion and love easily with her readers and peers. Her own characters, also, often think of their lives as “little,” because they are black and they’ve been driven into self-loathing by the racist framework of the country and time period in which they live. It is by training her gaze on the dramatic weight of their existence that Morrison grants the literary “bigness” society has denied them.

So what Morrison meant, she says now, was that good writers learn how to escape the prison of themselves, that it’s OK to write fiction from perspectives and cultures that are entirely new to you. This simple piece of advice from one of the 20th century’s most potent forces in American letters feels downright radical in 2019, as it requires us to acknowledge that maybe some kinds of “cultural appropriation” aren’t so bad after all. But as it turns out in the lovely new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Morrison herself has the kind of life we do very much want to hear about. And like the lives of her characters, there’s nothing little about it.

Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a longtime friend of Morrison’s, the film is a literary portrait in still images, text and interviews. The author speaks directly to the camera, imparting her experience to us; at 88 she’s still as generous and energetic as ever, dispensing earned wisdom and zingers by the bushel. The film is not a strictly chronological journey through its subject’s career, nor is it comprehensive by any stretch (we hear very little of her work after 1987’s Beloved and no mention of her son Slade, who collaborated with her on many children’s books before dying of pancreatic cancer nearly a decade ago). But it is nevertheless a fitting tribute, breaking up heady discussion of Morrison’s major works with jazzy digressions about her family’s Great Migration journey from the South to her cherished multiethnic suburb of Lorain, Ohio.

Morrison has been writing for nearly 50 years, having published her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 while working as an editor at Random House and raising two children on her own after a divorce. In the film, her triumph is treated as the spoils of a superheroic work ethic (she would routinely rise at 4 a.m. to make time to write before her kids woke up). But the film also shows that Morrison knew what she was going for at every stage of her life, even when the establishment — both white and black — tried to stand in her way.

Morrison recalls her shock, as an undergrad at Howard University, at discovering separate sororities for light-skinned and dark-skinned women, foreshadowing her works like Eye, in which a young black girl wishes she were white so that she could be “beautiful.” Later, as a single parent and professional editor largely responsible for ushering many influential black voices into the public sphere, Morrison nevertheless had to march into her boss’s office to demand a raise equivalent to her male counterparts’. “I am head of household,” she recalls telling him. “Just like you.”

Concentrating primarily on Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved and The Black Book (a compilation of newspaper clippings, drawings and photographs from black American life), the documentary itself is also a formative work of literary criticism, because it takes Morrison’s earliest critics to task. When she first came on the scene, outlets like The New York Times kept her at arm’s length, dismissing her period narratives about impoverished black Americans as ghettoized literature and declaring she was “far too talented” to focus only on “the black side of provincial American life.” The Times later lumped Morrison together with Ishmael Reed and Gayl Jones, three writers of wholly different styles — the only common thread being their blackness.

Even once elevated to bestseller status, thanks to multiple appearances on Oprah’s Book Club (Oprah Winfrey reveals in the film that she illicitly tracked Morrison’s phone number to develop a relationship with her), Morrison still sat outside the white literary establishment, as expressed in a 1988 Times op-ed penned by 48 black writers and intellectuals protesting the fact that she had not yet won a National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize. The publication of Beloved had finally tipped the scales and made it impossible to deny Morrison’s status as a national treasure, yet the largely white awards-making bodies denied it anyway, until she did win a Pulitzer later that year and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993.

What was going on here? Morrison knows: Historically, books by black authors were being written and critiqued with “the assumption that the reader is a white person.” So fiction from nonwhite perspectives was only valuable inasmuch as it could teach something to white people or otherwise find some way to “relate” to them. One of the film’s best qualities is how it turns the story of Morrison’s ascent to the literary canon into the story of how a novelist finds sovereignty: the freedom to write stories from the perspective they deserve, not the one imposed upon the work by white people. Which also means, as many subjects point out, the freedom to go through life without desiring the approval of people who don’t know how to read your work anyway.

“Now I own the world,” Morrison says. “I can write about anything.” It’s the lesson she was born to give.

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