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The Community Podcast #21

Petra Costa: The Edge of Democracy

Petra is a Brazilian filmmaker whose documentary The Edge of Democracy got released on Netflix today. The Edge of Democracy is a very personal film about the political situation in Brazil, told through the eyes of Petra who witnessed first-hand the rise and fall of her country’s leaders.



We met with Petra after the documentary’s screening at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX earlier this year. Her movie reflects a crisis in democracy that’s not only happening in Brazil, but all over the world. As people lose trust in their institutions, they are starting to doubt democracy as the best way to govern themselves. Some of the core beliefs that held our countries together are being questioned right now.

So when we talk about community, can a country or a nation still be a community today? Are we united by a core set of values and beliefs that connect us? If not, what use does the nation state still have?  Why are we getting further apart from each other? What moves us to extreme, divisive opinions and positions? These are the questions we explored in our talk with Petra for episode #21 of The Community Podcast.



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Interview excerpts

We selected and transcripted a few key parts of our conversation with Petra, so you can read and share them. 


On The Edge of Democracy

The Edge of Democracy is about the Brazilian political crisis from the past few years, beginning in 2016 with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, our first female president, to the imprisonment of Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], who was once called the most popular leader in the world, and to the most recent election that just happened.

We follow all this in the streets. There have been a lot of street protests for and against these leaders throughout these years, in the congress where the impeachment was being decided, and in the palace where these presidents were in power.

The country had, I think, not lived such a critical moment in its history since the end of the military dictatorship. Many Brazilians–at least I, for sure–felt that democracy was very solid in Brazil, even though it was very young. I have the same age as Brazilian democracy, as I say in the film, and I thought that in our thirties we would both be standing on solid ground. I decided to make this film when I realized that that was not the case, that democracy was and is at risk in Brazil, as in many other parts of the world. I wanted to understand how that happened, what has brought contemporary societies to this crisis of democracy and how can we deal with it. I think this is one of the most important questions today that many of us are asking ourselves.


On the polarization of opinion

Polarization, I think, is one of the main elements of this crisis. And I think it's been heightened by the fact that we are getting very different access to information from our social media, with its tendency to reinforce our beliefs and kind of radicalize them. So if you were already leaning towards the center or center-right, then you go into the far edge of that spectrum, and the same for the left. So we're getting further and further apart and distrusting of what the other side says. It’s very hard nowadays to find places where we can start to communicate. Facts have been clouded by a lot of news about corruption, about big scandals. And I think my first step in this film was really trying to understand the facts, like: what is Dilma actually accused of, what are the charges, what is the evidence?– and grounding myself in the facts to understand what the crisis is actually about. And it's not what is in the headlines.

The crisis in Brazil is the crisis of the institutions. The institutions are somewhat sick. And that is for many reasons, one of them being the influence of money in politics. I think more and more today our democracies have been coopted by financial interests. How do we deal with that? Because then it's  no longer a democracy, it becomes a plutocracy or an oligarchy. So how do we reclaim our democracy?


On what moves people

Pina Bausch, who was a choreographer I love, says that she's not interested in how people move, but what moves people. That, I think, is a very good guide for me whenever I'm making anything: to see if I'm just showing how people move or if I'm actually trying to understand what moves people. And that's what I was trying to understand when I made this film: what was moving people towards this level of hate and polarization. And I think I understood things that I had not understood before. It basically comes from a lot of class tensions and different access to information, people reviving old hatreds. Sometimes, someone will have lost their jobs because of a company just wanting to cut expenses, but they will assume that it’s Dilma’s fault. There was a moment where anything that happened in the country was seen as the fault of the president. How much that had to do with old beliefs, how much it had to do with sexism, and how much it had to do with class hatred was something that I always tried to understand. You'll never get a true clear answer because people are mysterious, but trying to tap into the subjectivities is, I think, the main goal.