“Semi-Fictional” Drama or Propaganda? Lava Jato comes to Netflix

In 2016, with Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment underway, a rumour spread that actor Wagner Moura, regular collaborator with director Jose Padilha, had refused the role of Lava Jato Prosecuting Judge and self-styled national saviour, Sérgio Moro, in a new drama series. He had just completed a second season portraying Pablo Escobar in Narcos, also directed by Padilha, and also for Netflix. Padilha claimed no invitation was made, and Moura denied saying he didn’t play “dodgy characters” in reference to Moro.

The show instead stars Selton Mello, and is called “The Mechanism” launching on Netflix in March 2018.

Despite Padilha’s insistence that it was fundamental that the TV drama was made from an impartial perspective, that a show was already being written at all, with the case still ongoing, raised alarm, not least because it will reportedly feature “revelations not known to the public“. If it follows Narcos’ recipe – a very liberal relationship with reality, fictional characters, events that did not occur, even outright historical revisionism, can this really be appropriate for an unfolding criminal investigation & trial, one of the biggest in history? The result of which that could alter the 2018 election result, and with it, Brazil’s political future?

Another dramatisation, this one a film called “Federal Police: The law is for all” reportedly has a R$15m budget, raised from mystery investors. It is also reported to have been granted use of a plane, helicopter, firearms and uniforms from the Federal Police, free of charge. Among other massive distortions of reality, this film directly jeapordized the safety of the doorman at Lula’s apartment building in the working class industrial suburb of São Bernardo, who was depicted as a special forces style mercenary who carried an AR-15, whereas in real life he is an unarmed service sector employee.

The positives and negatives of Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) are widely contested in Brazil, despite a firm media line that it is an impartial investigation, which is echoed in Anglo press, against a wealth of evidence to the contrarypublic opinion of the operation is split, Lava Jato is deeply controversial. It is also partly responsible for exacerbating Brazil’s economic troubles, estimated to have accounted for thousands of lost jobs in the knock-on from paralysed energy & construction sectors, and according to this BBC report up to R$ 142,6 billion, or 2.5% lost GDP in 2015 alone – cementing the worst recession since the 1990s.

Lava Jato’s facade of political impartiality was finally broken in January 2017, when Attorney General Rodrigo Janot addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos and described the operation as “Pro Market” – a very clear political position. Both Janot and Sergio Moro make regular trips to the US, speeches at think tanks such as the Wilson Centre, Atlantic Council and Council of the Americas, where they have been met with protest.

In 2015, Lava Jato’s actual blueprint – Italy’s Operation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) was also dramatised in a similar fashion, in the Sky Italia-produced “1992“. It is unclear if the Italian TV show was also the inspiration for its Brazilian cousin. Mani Pulite was responsible for the collapse of Italy’s post-war political system, and left a vacuum for the rise of Silvio Berlusconi.

In recent years, there are numerous examples of controversial events and themes which have found themselves dramatised for the big and small screen as a new form of soft power, or “Smart Power”. Such dramatisations come to form the general public’s understanding of a subject and have become integral to the selling of US foreign policy. Some of these, such as Zero Dark Thirty, worked in tandem with Government agencies, such as the CIA and FBI, and in over 1800 documented cases productions even receive funding from these agencies or their proxies.

Operation Lava Jato, which has been referred to by scholars as “Lawfare”, appears to have been formulated with at the very least the knowledge of the US State Department, part of a wider “War on Corruption” in Latin America, and illegal US DOJ collaboration on Lava Jato and Former President Lula’s prosecution is now not only openly admitted, even boasted about, but has also become grounds for annulment of the case against him. Lula, the clear leader in polls and almost certain to win the 2018 election if he runs, has his candidacy depending on the outcome of this latest appeal against illegal US involvement in his prosecution. This will alter the course of Brazilian history.

A US-produced dramatisation serves who exactly? Though no evidence against Dilma Rousseff was found within Lava Jato investigations, there is still a widespread misconception that it was the reason she was impeached. Trial by media, guilt without proof – what part Lava Jato did play, as well as exacerbation of an economic slowdown, was that it created the anti-corruption pretext; the media spectacle feeding a public mood that enabled, lest we forget, a Soft Coup which reset Brazil’s foreign policy to US alignment (away from Russia & China), and its economic policy squarely back into the fold of the Washington Consensus. These are enormous factors. From Alcântara base to the gutting of the Pré-Sal law, with each passing concession, with each loss of Brazil’s sovereignty, the more benefits to the United States resulting from Rousseff’s removal resemble the spoils of war, or lawfare.

How involved the Lava Jato team are in these productions is unknown, though there is clearly collaboration on some level taking place, which again raises all manner of ethical concerns, particularly regarding the situation of former President Lula.

In 2014, the phrase “Brazil’s institutions are working” became a mantra of domestic, international journalists and commentators – it is now only deployed as a joke, if at all. And here is where the dissonance kicks in among ardent supporters: Lava Jato was used to help unseat Rousseff amidst a climate of anti-corruption sentiment, yet her removal then protected corrupt members of the resulting Post-Coup government from their own pending prosecutions, using what Senator Romero Juca called the “big national agreement” – a pact which he was recorded saying included the Supreme Court, and the Military.

The ancient Brazilian legal system, inquisitorial with no presumption of innocence, has been criticised by experts around the world, as has Lava Jato’s theatrical use of media events to galvanise public support. In this video renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC explains the many issues with the way Lula is being pursued and the operation conducted.

Talented Director Jose Padilha made his name with Tropa de Elite, a film that was initially censored which turned it quickly into an online sensation before eventual release. Moura’s portrayal of protagonist, Captain Nascimento, led to criticism that it glorified a form of proto-fascism and lynch-mob mentality which has only worsened in the decade since its release. For some its sequel seemed to make amends for this, with a more sensitive Nascimento, joining forces with a Leftist university professor to defeat corruption in Rio de Janeiro city government.

Lava Jato the TV show will no doubt, like Narcos, be very watchable for those with no knowledge or interest in the realities of Brazilian political life, but the suspicious and unexplained death of Supreme Court rapporteur Teori Zavascki, in a light-aircraft crash just a few weeks ago, underlines how absurd it is to be writing such a show about current and un-concluded events. This is especially true when you’re adding fiction to the mix as you go.

And there is little confidence that the show will be impartial. Padilha’s view of Lava Jato, despite the collapse in its reputation since production of the show began, is still deeply idealistic. He has said that the imprisonment of Lula will be symbolic, and will force the left into pursuing the prosecution of Temer, Aécio Neves and so on.

However biased it is, and however it develops creatively, any mass media dramatisation of Operation Lava Jato at this point in time will effectively shape the historical record before the full facts are known, all this with a country’s political future on a knife edge.

This is at best, irresponsible. At worst, propaganda.

Originally published February 2017. Updated March 2018 to include recent developments.