This Documentary About The Brazilian Donald Trump Is A Warning For The U.S.

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
When Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accused Leonardo Dicaprio  of starting this summer’s fires in the Amazon rainforest, it somehow wasn’t even close to being the most bizarre claim he’s ever made.Bolsonaro, often dubbed ‘The Brazilian Donald Trump’, is a far right hardliner: pro-gun and pro-life, he has systematically stripped indigenous people of their land rights and opposed enviromental regulation meant to protect the rainforest. He’s also once said  “I would rather have a dead son than a gay son’ and claimed he wouldnt rape a congresswoman because she was ‘ugly’. Bolsonaro, is an admirer of the old military dictatorships that once governed Brazil and is part of a global trend toward authoritarian, anti-liberal populism currently flourishing across the world. 
If this is sounding scarily familiar, that’s because it is. The parallels that can be drawn between the Bolsonaro’s rise and the tactics that he and his party used to secure power, are reminiscent of almost every dictatorship and abuse of power in modern history, including our political climate here in the US. In the new documentary, just shortlisted for an Oscar, The Edge of Democracy, Brazillian director Petra Costa chronicles, with arresting immediacy, the people and events behind Brazil’s waning democracy and gives the viewer a real-time lesson in our own potential political future. Costa brilliantly depicts the tragedy that is a return to far-right politics, while providing valuable lessons to watch for in our own country. The Edge of Democracy is a cautionary tale that we should all pay attention to. 
Can you briefly summarize the film for the audience?
‘The Edge of Democracy’ is a documentary about my personal relationships and my country’s democracy in a time of deep crisis for both. The film explores how the personal is political in the context of investigating the reasons that led to the unravelling of two Brazilian presidencies. I was born around the same time as democracy in Brazil, and took it for granted most of my life, so when Brazilian democracy was confronted with such a dangerous threat, it was shocking to me and I decided to document the erosion of it. 
How is this film and topic relevant to an international audience?
If you understand how democracy was dismantled in Brazil, you can understand how it happens elsewhere, it's the same process anywhere else in the world that has fell victim to the epidemic of fascism and deconstruction of democracy. 
The film is an analysis into how people can be convinced overnight to enter into a McCarthyist- type hunt against anything that appears progressive because of a belief that ‘Progressives’ are the reason for all the failures, economic crises and problems of the country. It's a phenomenon of scapegoating in times of political polarization that we see throughout history, and it’s not organic, it has to be fed to survive and prosper. In Brazil, it was fed and financed over years. It began with the Koch brothers who financed one of the main right wing groups in Brazil and used social media to create this discourse of hate speech against the workers party, leading the population to believe that the workers' party was communist – which was actually never the case.
Americans are currently seeing a rapid erosion of their own democracy, they’re witnessing their own impeachment process and there’s uncertainty about what the impeachment will mean for the future of US politics. There's also a surge of far-right attitudes throughout the country and people don’t know how to address those attitudes either. Families are being divided. In this film, I trace exactly the same circumstances in my own country, Brazil, and in my own family. 
How did you gain the access that you had to people on both sides?
It took a long time. I started writing letters to Dilma, Lula and other key players in the story in March, of course they never read those letters or replied. So I travelled to the capital, Brasilia, and started filming the impeachment process. During this time, I asked every person I met if they could introduce me to Dilma or Lula and they’re answer was consistently ‘no’, the reason being they were going through the most intense political moment of their lives and one of the most significant moments in the country’s history, they didn’t have time for a chat.
Eventually, I managed to sneak inside a bus full of historians that were going to meet with Dilma in the presidential palace and there I got to meet her for the first time. I gave her a DVD of my first film, asked for an interview and her answer shockingly was “yes”. It ended up being a very formal interview which didn't even make it into the final film. It would take months before I finally got to be in the back of the car with her, as shown in the film. In the film it all seems like an easy process with easy access to the key characters, but it really wasn’t, it took a long time and a lot of persistence. 
How were Brazil's natural resources weaponized and what was their role in this political process?
This political crisis stems in many ways from competition over Brazil's natural resources. The oil company, Petrobras, was state owned when, in 2008, they discovered huge oil reserves off the coast of Rio De Janeiro. After that discovery, Brazilian politics started to become more and more chaotic.
There has been massive deforestation happening in the Amazon for a long time but what you see now under Bolsonaro, is ranchers feeling completely authorized by the government to expand their possessions into the indigenous reserves, so there's going to be more soil plantations, more selling of wood and more mining. There's an explosion of mining happening in Brazil, which was previously forbidden inside indigenous reserves.
There are big corporations that are benefiting from what happened in Brazil. The country is regressing back to being a colony. Like any colony, it's not in the interest of the big corporations who exploit these resources that Brazil becomes sovereign. Sovereignty would mean Brazil would be able to take care of its own interests, lift its citizens out of poverty, and start on the path to being a sustainable democracy. It's obviously more in the interest of these companies to have a leader who is willing to sell anything for profit – and that's where we are now.
What has the reaction been to the film thus far?
It’s truly been amazing. Many American audience members have told me that they have a greater understanding of what is occurring in their own country, after having watched. This is why learning history is so valuable for fully comprehending what is going on in the present. For me, I could understand, much more deeply, what was happening in Brazil when I analyzed what was happening in the UK regarding Brexit and in the US with Trump. I wanted to provide that insight for others.
In Brazil, I've had great feedback from people who write to me saying that they hadn't been speaking to their family for over two years because of political differences, and that after seeing the film they were able to reach out because they felt they could empathize with the other different point of view. As shown in the film, these divisions took hold in my own family. As I give that personal perspective, people empathetically connected to the story, when usually these political discussions have become so toxic that it’s almost impossible to bridge that divide. 
You have to be able to come with a personal perspective and be open to noticing your opinions’ own flaws in the process. We are all depending on democracy to be able to survive, we have to be able to wake each other up and protect constructive dialogue and debate.

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