After it premiered at the Berlinale to a 7 minute standing ovation and won numerous festival awards, a series of pre-screenings for Maria Augusta Ramos’ ‘O Processo’ (The Trial) were held in Brazil ahead of its May 17 theatrical release. The documentary records the illegitimate impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, a process which was the principal attack of a coup which is still ongoing, supported by an alliance of Brazilian elites, international capital and the North Atlantic powers which serve it.
An audacious and monumental work, it is difficult to recall a similar event captured from this proximity, in this sharp focus, and with such palpable tension. 2003’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised which gave a semi-accidental fly-on-the-wall view of the attempted 2002 Coup in Venezuela, is a distant relative. However, O Processo is a very different kind of film, its DNA that of a courtroom drama.
It begins with infamous scenes of the congressional vote on April 17, 2016. Outside in the sun, metal isolation fencing separates pro-impeachment and anti-coup protesters along Brasilia’s iconic esplanade. During the session, Rousseff allies PCdoB’s Jandira Feghali, PSOL’s Jean Wyllys and PT’s Wadir Damous and Maria de Rosario’s defiant votes against the coup are juxtaposed with those of fascists such as Jair Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo, who dedicate it to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the DOPS commander responsible for the brutal torture of Dilma during her 3 years in jail from 1970-73. Surrounded by an all male group of baying ruralists, grizzled ultraconservatives and young white “classical liberals” it is the most chilling moment of the film, and a window to the rotten heart of the process.
O Processo is both essential to Brazil’s internal conversation (and to any eventual reconciliation), and to warn the outside world, as this kind of procedural coup or “Lawfare” becomes a common means to remove elected governments and leaders.
Confusion and frustration at lack of international repercussion as the story unfolds is touched upon by a visiting French politician. In the years prior, English language media in particular was far too easily influenced by the narratives of the pro-impeachment opposition which, and by no means accidentally, dovetailed with those of Wall Street. For example one of the most commonly repeated tropes following the 2014 election result was that Rousseff had won by a “razor thin” margin, intentionally casting doubt upon her mandate. This was despite her scope of victory equalling that of Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.
The film thus provides a fresh opportunity for international media who called it wrongly in 2015/16, or who didn’t call it at all, for whatever reason, to issue their mea culpas. Brazilians expected help, it never came.
One thing that must be emphasised is that the impeachment threat was present well before the 2014 election. At that time it was already evident that should she go on to win, the opposition had no intention of allowing Rousseff to complete her second mandate. With her defeated PSDB opponent Aécio Neves immediately calling his supporters to the streets and vowing to make it impossible for her to govern at every turn, the election of Eduardo Cunha to lower house leader enabled that strategy.
With Dilma and PT without majority in either house, she was at the mercy of the most conservative congress since the 1964-85 dictatorship, 2/3 of which are unelected, and many of whom were facing corruption charges of their own. Not only that, many had been bribed for the impeachment vote itself. The facts of the case were irrelevant to its outcome, and her impeachment was a fait accompli once Eduardo Cunha accepted the petition request from a furious right wing who had been kept out of Government for 13 years by PT’s electoral success.
The commission hearings, upon which most of the film focuses, were the only realistic opportunity to halt the proceedings against Rousseff. Overseeing the commission was PSDB Senator Antonio Anastasia, thus effectively eliminating any chance of a fair trial.
Under a veneer of legality and constitutionality, the process was one of bribery, blackmail and violence. Car Wash (Lava Jato) the biggest anti-corruption operation in history, somehow brought the country’s most corrupt individuals to power, as did its blueprint, Operation Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) in 1990s Italy.
The film manages to convey that despite Dilma not being implicated or charged in Lava Jato, it provided a pretext for her impeachment as if she was. Enabled by Rousseff-endorsed changes to the law intended to facilitate the pursuit of corruption, Lava Jato in turn damaged the economy so sharply that it provided another pretext, with the exacerbated recession and resulting unemployment used as auxiliary by supporters and corporate PR whenever doubt was cast upon the impeachment case itself.
One notable aspect is how the film humanises otherwise silenced or vilified PT politicians. Senator and PT national President Gleisi Hoffman describes the party as under a systematic mediatic and judicial assault, intended to eviscerate its capacity to organise or govern. Its headquarters in various cities were vandalised, raided by Police and even shot at during this period, somehow generating zero media sympathy.
Hoffman and other main protagonist Senator Lindbergh Farias, were both under fierce personal attack from far right groups during the process. Gleisi maintains an admirable calm, even when faced with the arbitrary overnight arrest of her husband during the senate commission hearing, which looked designed to intimidate and sully her reputation at the precise moment she was the public face of Rousseff’s defence.
Farias, likening Rousseff to Josef K from Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, presents the primary documentary evidence of the coup plot and its intentions during the hearings. The first was the recording of Senator Romero Jucá’s conversation with businessman Sergio Machado where they discussed the plan for a coup to bring Temer to power, a “grand national agreement” for Dilma’s removal which would include the media, supreme court, and even the guarantee of support from the military if called upon.
Second, and no less significant, Farias produced “Bridge to the future”, Temer’s PMDB neoliberal policy document. The manifesto, parts of which appeared to have been translated from English, included proposals for unprecedented cuts to public sector investment, worker rights and pensions, including the effective legalisation of slavery and a 20 year, constitutionally protected freeze on public health and education spending. Any future Government would need to fight to reverse that constitutional amendment in order to implement any kind of social democratic programme. Rousseff’s own “Passport” to the future proposal in 2013 was to have channeled all proceeds from Brazil’s enormous subsalt oilfields to fund a revolution in public education and health. Temer’s “Bridge” to the future, on the other hand, proposed gutting of public systems and cut-price selloffs, access to those fields for foreign Oil companies, without requirement of Brazilian involvement, and tax free. This opening up of Brazil’s Petroleum sector had been long pursued by PSDB’s José Serra in collaboration with Chevron and the US State Department. State Dept’s effective point man for the coup, PSDB’s Aloysio Nunes, repeatedly tries to shut down Farias description of its contents, accusing him of defamation (Nunes flew to the US for meetings with former Ambassador to Brazil and head of Western Hemisphere affairs Tom Shannon, along with Wall Street representatives, just hours after Rousseff’s suspension). Farias correctly argues that nobody could win an election in Brazil with this platform, and yet it was imposed without one, after 4 consecutive rejections at the ballot box.
Despite being Rousseff’s Vice, Temer removed all trace of her government, placing the defeated conservative opposition of PSDB, and heir to the dictatorship’s ARENA Government, Democratas, at the heart of his new coalition.
Dilma’s resolve, even nonchalance in the face of what was happening to her is occasionally startling on the big screen. Faced with this battle, gone was the persona of pragmatic managerial technocrat during the previous 5 years, and back was the “Guerreira” in her supporters hearts.
This manifests at a key moment when a PSDB senator breaks down into nervous laughter at Rousseff’s curt rebuttal of his claim that the synthesised street protests for impeachment which provided its sheen of public support, were “spontaneous”. Rousseff explained politely that organisers were receiving money from the disgraced architect of her impeachment, Congressional President Eduardo Cunha, a factual statement to which there was no response.
Though dense by nature, the film is not without laughs and Ramos deftly plays with the tragicomedy and preposterousness of the process. There are candid moments of gallows humour amongst Dilma’s team, and unintentionally in the deeply uncomfortable performances of lawyer Janaina Paschoal, a strange individual, who was paid 45 thousand reais ($15k) by PSDB to present the case for impeachment.
Special mention must go to attorney general José Eduardo Cardozo whose exasperation at the developing farce is both earnest and melancholic, captured in phone calls during late night drives to and from the Parliament buildings. His response to Paschoal’s emotional meltdown during her final summing up was that “it was usual for someone to have a crisis of conscience” after an act like this.
As for the eventual case itself, the commission rapporteur, Antonio Anastasia had used the same supplementary credit techniques (fiscal peddling) himself while Governor of Minas Gerais from 2010-2014, as had most other State Governors and Federal Governments. It is essentially a way of delivering budgetary advances to a ministry or department, to be returned later. Though theoretically in breach of regulations, it had never been punished and was common practice, nor was it classed as a crime of responsibility, without which there could be impeachment. No extra money was spent, there was no allegation of personal enrichment or corruption on Rousseff’s part, nor any evidence that she even gave the instructions to issue the supplementary credit. In a final cruel twist, the technique is legalised days after her final removal and continues to be used by Temer’s post-coup Government.
At one point, conceding in a behind the scenes meeting that they no longer had the vanguard on streets they once enjoyed, Hoffman and the rest of PT’s inner circle err complacency and strategic mistakes, looking to pin their strategy to a promise that if Rousseff is reinstated they’ll launch an immediate plebiscite for political reform, echoing what she offered the population in response to the June 2013 protests. That long forgotten proposal was ultimately brought down by her eventual usurper, Vice President and US informant Michel Temer, of “opposition in Government” PMDB, foreshadowing what was to come. Indeed there was worry at the time that this type of strategy for removing Dilma would be attempted in 2013, with the June protests used as justification.
With hindsight there is sometimes a naive innocence detectable in the PT’s thinking. Following his indictment they discuss Eduardo Cunha’s panic to protect his wife and daughter from any charges, and the resulting potential for him to inform on Temer and other members of the coup-government. At that point, what is striking is that Farias and the rest seem to still have some faith in the Lava Jato operation to deliver the impartial prosecutions that it was ostensibly set up to do, faith which certainly does not exist today. Ultimately Cunha struck a deal, his wife and daughter were spared by US-backed Lava Jato’s Prosecutor Judge Sérgio Moro, despite having been found culpable, and nothing of note came of Cunha’s expected “super testimony”. Temer refused to resign and the well-evidenced charges against him were shelved a year after he took office, along with that against a score of PSDB figures: rapporteur to Rousseff’s impeachment committee Antonio Anastasia, foreign minister Aloysio Nunes, his predecessor José Serra, 2018 Presidential Candidate Geraldo Alckmin, and alleged operator of PSDB bribery schemes Paulo Preto.
In contrast, 2003-2011 President Lula, Dilma’s predecessor, who features sporadically through the film, was sent to jail for 12 years in April 2018, while leading all polls for the October election. He had been denied habeas corpus by the Supreme Court over the allegation that he received an apartment and reforms on it as a bribe after he left office. The Supreme Court made its decision under the shadow of a threat from the military of potential repercussions should he be freed, a statement which was read deadpan on Globo’s Jornal Nacional in the hours before the vote. In Lula’s case, as farcical as Dilma’s, prosecutors were unable to produce any documents or physical evidence that proved he owned the apartment, or even that he had even been there. Lula’s prosecution was carried out through informal collaboration with the US Department of Justice, in clear violation of Brazilian law.
One thing the film really illuminates is the brazenness of aligned interests and close relationship between the key coup players. Even if they had been more self-aware, it would have been difficult to disguise when captured at close range in such a matter of fact documentary format.
It is telling that Temer himself does not once appear in the film, aside from in chants for his immediate removal.
The film draws to a close with protest and police repression outside Congress, juxtaposed with violence and chaos inside while Senate voted to repeal workers rights enjoyed by Brazilians since the 1940s. These scenes emphasise that, despite the process having the sheen of constitutionality – the main defence of its plotters and supporters – no coup that is backed by a mechanised Military force on the streets, violently crushing any resistance to it, can or should be described as “soft”.
It should be remembered that aside from conservatives and fascists, some in the center and on the left saw the impeachment and decapitation of PT as a political opportunity. It remains the only left of centre party ever to govern Brazil.
A text sequence at the close describes the coup itself, not in terms of the impeachment, but through what the coup government did immediately after taking office, the character of what had happened quickly becoming clear. Decimation of the public sector, education, workers rights, the pension system, science and technology – subjugation to foreign capital, to the strategic interests of the United States and allies, all in exchange for return to power and protection of privilege for Brazilian elites, entreguistas or comprador class, the post-colonial social strata whom Eduardo Galeano called the “commission agent bourgeoisie”.
This was the “coup against the Brazilian people” of which Rousseff had warned.
With some shouts of “Free Lula” echoing around the theatre, attendees filed out in a subdued shock, the sensation akin to a punch in the stomach.
O Processo/The Trial is a powerful document of a profound injustice which has sent a country backwards on a dangerous course, a film that will live forever as a self-contained record of Brazil’s 2016 Coup d’état.