I’m not sure how much urgency many of us will attach to watching the Netflix documentary “The Edge of Democracy,” now that it’s been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
I knew what it was about and held off watching it until after it nabbed the Oscar nomination.
It’s about an American democracy under assault by the rich and their democracy-averse-racist, fascist, fundamentalist-homophobic supporters. Do we need a two hour film to see that? Doesn’t everybody already have CSPAN?
But Brazilian journalist/interviewer/filmmake Petra Costas has crafted an exceptional film, a downbeat funeral dirge for her country’s much younger democracy, a blow-by-blow of how it all went wrong.
The daughter of leftists and lifelong democracy advocates in a country whose military junta imprisoned them and forced them underground for years, Costas was named for a murdered activist. But her family’s history has crossed that democratic/totalitarian divide more than once, with various branches and generations embracing free speech or military takeovers that might benefit them.
She is white. In Brazil, labor, the underclasses and uneducated who are kept in poverty by the oligarchy, are of the darker races — indigenous or descended from African slaves. White liberal academics and leftists joined with them to pull the country toward democracy. And for successive administrations, they seemed to succeed.
Then, “at the peak of optimism” that Costas would live in a country governed the way her parents had dreamed of, “the foundation of democracy itself would begin to crack.”
Her movie — using first-person eyewitness filming — talking to men and women on the streets during demonstrations, archival news footage and close-access interviews with the two democratic politicians her movement identified with, presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his hand-picked successor, Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff — shows us point by point, how a democracy is killed.
Years of progressive rule move millions out of poverty, but the moment the leaders pushed for corruption investigations of the state run oil company, and into bank practices, right wing movements found financial backing, social media support and leaders suddenly rising up in classic “bandwagon effect” propaganda fashion.
Defeated candidates use mob incitement to contest election results. “Guns” are promised to the impressionable, the under-informed and the rural.
“Lock him up! Lock her up!” chants at big, widely and uncritically covered rallies, an impeachment, activist judges twisting the law to suit the needs of the oligarchs, feckless ex-military members wrapping themselves in the flag, glorifying violence, torture and appealing to bigotry — that sounds nothing like what’s happened anywhere else, does it?
In Brazil, the monied and the corrupt used impeachment to halt an investigation. In America, the monied and the corrupt are the ones fighting impeachment.
Nothing in common, right?
Costas notes how the country’s schism “runs directly through the center of my family” without interviewing any members of that family other than her mother. But she gets at important truths about democracies in general — be they Chile, Britain, Brazil or the United States.
“Our democracy was founded on forgetting.” They are sustained, reformed and menaced by “forgetting,” too. People Costas records arguing on the streets or in congress seem clueless about the dangers of their “military takeover” pleas and the like. People who can’t remember history vote to tragically repeat it.
With the death of the myth of “American Exceptionalism,” we can’t help but feel, while watching “The Edge of Democracy,” that yeah, it could happen here.
I remember interviewing the great Chilean writer, playwright/screenwriter (“Death and the Maiden”) Ariel Dorfman, who saw his country’s democracy ended by a CIA backed coup. He was pretty quick to disabuse me, and any American he met, that the United States was no so special, so united, so vigilant that we couldn’t take a seriously wrong turn after a few modest mistakes that preceded it.
“The Edge of Democracy” won’t convince that “It CAN happen here.” It’ll make you wonder how far down the hole we’ve already tumbled.
A final thought about this riveting, sometimes confusing and always dispiriting film — don’t be a martyr. Remember to change the language to “English” on your Netflix settings for this film (unless you’re fluent in Portuguese). At least the narration, still by Costas, won’t require subtitles.
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Credits: Directed by narrated by Petra Costa. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:01