“He woke up this ghost that we didn’t even know was there.” Director Petra Costa on ‘The Edge of Democracy’

Brazilian director Petra Costa, whose third full length feature, ‘The Edge of Democracy’ has been nominated in the best documentary category at the 2020 Oscars, was interviewed on the Michael Brooks Show on Friday 30th January 2020, just over one week before the ceremony, at which the film is tipped to win Brazil’s first ever Academy Award. Read our June 2019 review of the documentary here.

Michael Brooks: Your story is woven in with this. We’ve covered Brazil a lot on this show, I just interviewed President Lula, so we’re going to have some familiarity but we want to hear your story, but also we want to connect it to the global currents.

Petra Costa: So I was born believing that democracy was my birthright, achieved through a lifetime of my parents’ struggle, my parents fought against the military dictatorship in Brazil, and for the establishment of democracy, and I was born right after democracy arrived, and in early 2016 I went to film these protests that were happening on the streets of Rio, asking for Dilma’s impeachment, and there I saw people asking for the return of that regime that had killed and tortured hundreds and thousands of people in Brazil, and I was shocked, I saw a seed of fascism there and really wanted to understand where that was coming from and where it would lead us. And that’s what the film is about.

MB: Where do you think it is coming from?

Petra Costa: I think it’s coming from a deep class struggle as your colleague was saying and as Warren Buffet says, who I quote in the film, he says “yes there’s class warfare, but it’s our class, the rich class who are making war and winning.”

In Brazil precisely that started in 2014 with the election of Dilma vs Aécio Neves which is from the centre right party, and Aécio reacted in the way that Trump threatened to react had Hillary won, he basically didn’t recognise Dilma’s election and started a movement to impeach her, and started looking for a crime that would justify that impeachment and they found a crime – fiscal makeup – hiding the deficit, that most presidents had done before Dilma and had never been considered an impeachable crime and does not rise to the level of a high crime and misdemeanour. And if as most political scientists say when you don’t accept the result of an election, that’s kind of the foundation of a democracy, if Obama had not recognised Trump’s election, the US would be in a much deeper crisis than you are now. And that was the crisis that we were in.

MB: And if Trump doesn’t recognise that he loses.

Petra Costa: Exactly. And that’s the mess that Brazil got into, a continuous disrespect of the rule of law, by some who wanted to get back to power no matter what. And that happened first with Dilma’s impeachment and then with the imprisonment of Lula which then culminated with the election of far-right candidate Bolsonaro.

MB: I want to talk about these three personalities because you spent time with all of them including Bolsonaro. We’ve talked a lot about Lula on this show so maybe we will get to him last, but before that, how did you get such access to the Workers Party specifically.

Petra Costa: My mother had been an activist in the party in the early days. I had gone to rallies, and things like that, but I didn’t know him well at all and so as soon as the process began and he was taken in – under an enforced coercion they call it – I asked to interview him, I sent him a letter, a very long letter, and also sent Dilma a letter, Aécio, Moro, the other main characters of the film, and no one responded, they never read those letters, so I went to the Brazilian congress with our crew, and started to get access to the congressmen, Bolsonaro gave me access immediately, and every congressperson I would meet I would ask if they would help me get access to these other people, and it was impossible, they were all going through the most historical moment in any of their lives. So months on end we were in Brasilia having no access to any of them. I finally managed to infiltrate myself into this busload of historians who were going to visit Dilma in the Presidential Palace, and this is how I got to meet her for the first time. I handed her a DVD of my first film and asked for an interview which she granted. And from there we established a relationship where I would get more trust from her. And with Lula, months later, I already had a trailer of the film which we had edited, and I managed to get a meeting with him in his office, I showed him that trailer and explained that the film was kind of more verité style, that I wanted to accompany him. And he said ok if you hang around my office until night maybe if my wife allows you can tag along in the car, and she did, and after 8 hours she arrived, and she allowed him and I filmed with him.

MB: Tell us more about Dilma, she isn’t necessarily as historical a figure as Lula, but she was the target of this impeachment and I’ll put my bias on it, one thing that struck me when I was watching the film, is that a lot of things people say about Hillary Clinton, who I’m not a fan of, would accurately apply to her. Like people would say she has troubles as a politician but she actually has an enormous amount of personal courage right? Things that I do not buy as ascribed to Hillary Clinton, but seem to be an exact match, like this is an extraordinary person, with a huge amount of resiliency and then got caught in this fascistic moment, I would suspect a US-backed moment, and also with a huge amount of gender dynamics and misogyny that actually got spilled over on Lula too. So could you talk more about her and the dynamic of who she was and what she was going through.

Petra Costa: So Dilma had been a guerilla fighter during the dictatorship. She was imprisoned for two years, brutally tortured, and then in the south of Brazil got into a career where she was secretary of mining and energy. Lula perceived her and met with her and was impressed by her competence, and invited her to join his Government, first as minister of energy and natural resources, then as chief of staff. And he would call her the “mother” of his government, which can be misogynistic, but I think he did it in a loving way.

MB: I have to say he compared himself to a mother in my interview with him, so it’s interesting how he uses that, he said that being President is like being a mother. That was his analogy. You would never hear that historically in the United States.

Petra Costa: So they were very close during those years and he attributes the success of his government a lot to her. But many ministers that had to deal with her complained that she was always extremely rough, that they didn’t feel listened to by her, and Lula told me that “Yes, they complained to me and I would console them.”

MB: You get beat up on by Dilma and you go to Papa Lula for a pat on the shoulder.

Petra Costa: And I thought when she became President it would be different but she got even more hard I think. And many people complained that they did not have a good communication with her.

She starts her Presidency in early 2011, and for the first three years she has the highest approval of any President in Brazil’s history, if i’m not wrong. Until in 2013 these protests begin against this rise in the bus fare, and in one month her popularity drops from 70 to 30 percent. It was the most incomprehensible event in Brazilian history. Until today people are still trying to understand what happened, these protests of June which really shaped this far-right movement that started to take over the country because these protests started progressive, but over time and I believe through a lot of influence of social media, this far-right discourse started to hijack them, with people by the end asking for the return of the military, something we had never heard in Brazilian history since the dictatorship finished.

And Dilma’s popularity was then deeply hurt by that, however she manages to get re-elected the next year, even though the entire Brazilian establishment had supported the other candidate. Because, I think, for a few reasons: Lula had always done, at least after he was elected – because it was so hard for him to get elected – he only got elected when he told the elite “I will not threaten any of your interests” so he did not threaten throughout his two mandates, any interests of the elites, but Dilma did. Not only did she lower the interest rate of the banks for a little moment, also in the communication, she would not receive wall the owner of a construction company or the owner of a huge bank, and so this malaise, this uncomfortable situation began to exist between the Brazilian establishment and Dilma, and there was even a movement of people asking for Lula to come back in that election in 2014, but he decided not to, he thought it was Dilma’s choice and she chose to be re-elected. However the entire establishment went with Aécio, who didn’t win, and everyone went for her impeachment immediately after.

MB: This is something that was going to happen regardless?

Petra Costa: Yes.

MB: So then we get the cause that second. It’s funny, all the things that Trump claims have happened to him, have actually happened to Lula and Dilma. There was this fake investigation, an illegitimate impeachment, all of this stuff actually happened in Brazil.

Petra Costa: But here it’s quite different no?

MB: It’s quite different. His claiming that he’s innocent and the investigations against him are illegitimate is ludicrous, and everyone universally understands him as some kind of criminal, including people who like him, and I think that’s part of his popularity in certain quarters. I think the thing that’s maybe more subtle and some people go overboard with, is how do you actually beat him, and do you want it to be simply a bureaucratic process that probably won’t be particularly effective, and a standard left wing critique here is why the Democratic party is so obsessed with Russia or Ukraine versus very clear and demonstrable corruption. I mean why not an impeachment built around the fact that he trades his hotel being booked out for foreign policy as a normal practice. And this may be analogous to Brazil also, that if you get into that realm, Trump does what everyone else does in a much more naked and transparent way. There’s quid pro quo across the entire system. But mostly it’s ridiculous and very funny to watch, as whenever Trump says “It’s a rigged investigation, it’s totally unfair” I’m always thinking of Lula and Dilma – you think this is happening to you but it is not. It’s a funny analogy.

Petra Costa: I think Bannon and Trump have been very effective in hijacking the progressive discourse in a very efficient way.

MB: Talk about that, that’s interesting.

Petra Costa: Bannon in American Dharma the film by Errol Morris, he says that we have to do the revolution before they do it: There was clearly after Occupy Wall Street a desire to reclaim power by the people, “and we are going to offer them that, because otherwise they’re going to do it themselves”, and then they’ve been very efficient at creating a narrative that seems to be for the people.

MB: They have been, and they have the perfect opponents in most members of the Democratic party because if Joe Biden is the nominee then what do we do. I mean yes it’s different, and it’s ridiculous that Trump could accuse anyone else of corruption but he doesn’t care, he’ll do it regardless, and then we’ll sit and have a several month argument about whose kids are more corrupt, and whose deals are more unsavoury, and whose going to win? It’s not a foregone conclusion but that kind of argument where yes, you can flip both sides of it, you can either do pretend fake populism, or you can even say “sure i’m a little corrupt, but at least I’m kind of telling you that” and there’s a certain entertainment in how I present my corruption. I haven’t followed it that closely, but the evolving reactions to this Ukraine phone call. Basically “I made the call and it was great!”

Petra Costa: It was a perfect call!

MB: The best call ever done. And i’m exposing corruption!

MB: I think the problem here and I’m actually curious both what you think of this and also if there’s a similar dynamic with Bolsonaro, that he takes enough generalised disgust that people do have, because I think people have some understand that yes calls are made and favours are traded and oh my god this thing is so disgusting, what was Joe Biden’s son doing to begin with, so he can like play around with it, and I think in Brazil – if President Obama did to this country what Lula did for Brazil we would say he was the best President in history hands down – so they had to wage a much more relentless war against the Workers Party than they would against the Democrats here, but you can see parallels. You can tale a generalised dissatisfaction with the system, and corruption discourse, and make that fascistic, because there’s no class understanding, there’s no analysis. Firstly do you agree with that and does Bolsonaro have a similar thing he’s able to do in Brazil, for example taking things that are emerging every day about him and his family?

Petra Costa: That’s how the far-right in Germany called communists and socialists, by using the adjective corrupt. And it’s interesting as well, even in Greece when there was the Macedonian invasion of Greece, which finished with democracy and they established that only those with a huge portion of land would be able to vote, the tyrant that made that invasion said no, by this we are re-establishing democracy. So we have consistently had in the history of humanity coups on democracy that are done in the guise of “saving democracy”. It’s curious that it is always about tax, about the rich not wanting to pay taxes, and wanting to have people grateful that they do acts of philanthropy. Consistently we’re having the same thing. With Dilma the week the impeachment started it was quite symbolic that one of the groups that were asking or her impeachment were also protesting against a law to tax great fortunes.

MB: And the Atlas Network which is a Koch Brothers network was involved in this.

Petra Costa: Yes.

MB: I guess also I’ll just put it bluntly, do you see, certainly Lula and Dilma herself are quite overt now about them thinking there’s a US role in this. It makes sense to me. Do you see that aspect of the story as well?

Petra Costa: Well, in ’64 when there was the military coup in Brazil it would take ages for it be proven that the US was backing that coup. So I think it will take a while for this proof to come if it happened but what exists right now now is indications that there were corporations that were instructing and manipulating the events, as for example the Koch Brothers that you mentioned which financed MBL this Movement Brasil Livre, that was one of the far-right movements that was behind the impeachment, doing facebook advertisements and garnering support for Dilma’s impeachment right after she was elected.

MB: What about Bolsonaro, you met with him, what was that like. Did you see him coming, and has he been able to pull of a Trump kind of dynamic?

Petra Costa: Yes, I think they’re very similar in many ways. I met with him in 2016 in congress on the day of the voting of Dilma’s impeachment when he became world famous for dedicating his vote to the General responsible for her torture. He was not punished for that speech, which is really shocking. And he already had a following then, and he told me in the quarters that he was wanting to run for President in two years, and he had 11% in voter intentions.

No one believed that would ever happen.

I spoke to every political scientist, every politician, every journalist and until two months before his election everyone would laugh at the possibility that he would win. Because he had 30 seconds of television space which is how usually an election is decided in Brazil. But he was very smart like Salvini in Italy in creating this huge social media following and tapping into this like sleeping fascism that hadn’t been touched upon and massaged since the 60s, or even before, when the Integralist movement happened in the 40s and 30s.

He woke up this ghost that we didn’t even know was there.

But it was clearly there because Brazil didn’t know how to deal with its past in a way that really transformed society. And he grew a lot because of Lula’s imprisonment as well, as the Intercept showed the possibility of collusion between Moro and his prosecutors and then Moro becomes his justice minister, of Bolsonaro.

MB: Pretty obvious.

Petra Costa: And now the prosecutor’s office in Brazil tries to incriminate Glenn Greenwald, for revealing what the government should be investigating – the possible crimes of Moro – but no, instead they will kill the messenger.

And the government has been very fast in destroying all the agencies that build Brazilian civil society and are essential for Brazilian democracy, be it the agencies that control that deforestation wont happen in the Amazon, by incentivising the Police to kill in Rio de Janeiro which already has the highest homicide rate from police killings – more people are killed by Police in the state of Rio de Janeiro than the entire United States. And he’s asking the Police to kill more. And that rate has increased by 20% since he took office.

Censorship in the arts has been shocking. During the dictatorship they had to do another coup, the institutional act number 5, which actually established censorship but now they have managed to establish censorship in the guise of a democracy, there were works of art that were censored last year, there have been huge cuts in the financing of cinema and the arts, no more LGBTQ+ content, there was a book that was censored in an art fair just because it had two men kissing, and even my film was attacked for being what the President and and his secretary of culture at the time called “fiction and fantasy”. And then that same secretary of culture then four days later makes a speech plagiarising Goebbels.

MB: I was there for that, that was exciting! That was wild to be actually sitting there at this kind of lunch place you would have in Brooklyn, where you would eat Quinoa. And the people I was with are like “Yeah, so our Culture Minister is quoting Goebbels”. Another parallel, you talk about this idea of waking up a ghost because Brazil had not dealt with its history, and I think that is certainly prevalent in the United States, but it seems to me this is a common symptom of right wing politics and fascism is the psychological emotional need for a historical fantasy, both because you can’t have a material understanding of what is happening now, or you want to protect vestiges of hierarchy or privilege. These messages can get really broadly sent out because we live in societies which don’t have any sense of the context that they’re existing in, and you see this in the United States in like every single category. There’s just a basic lack of any kind of – forget even left wing – even just basic information about the trajectory of this country, and that was something that I also caught from your film. Like if the world started in 1989, and all you’ve got is a bunch of weird propaganda about the Workers Party, and Brazil also has a big YouTube right wing phenomenon just like the United States and you don’t even have a concept of what was this thing you’re imagining, and in a bizarre way, not in any way to defend him, but Bolsonaro to me seems seems like such a fanatic, and such a fool, in my words, it almost seems like it was almost made up for him as well, like somehow he was in it, and he was junior, but it was ending, and he’s got this imagined world he wants to be part of.

Petra Costa: What is tragic is that I think he is not the bad guy, I mean he is a complex character, but he is a result of repeated attacks to the rule of law that were done with a consensus of so much of the Brazilian establishment, that thought it was ok to play with democracy, that thought it was ok to destroy the results of an election, to put the institutions into continuous conflict so long as Dilma would be ousted from power, and Lula would be imprisoned, and then they thought that the PSDB, which is the centre right party, would win and we would have a kind of clean centre right party and everything would be fine. That party was destroyed, by its own hands.

And not only was it destroyed, but it destroyed democracy with it. And I think there’s a book called ‘How democracies die’, that has been helpful for me, because it says precisely….because every person I would interview during this process would say Lula’s imprisonment is constitutional, Dilma’s impeachment is constitutional, what’s the problem? And this book says the problem is that what protects democracy is not the constitution it is two unwritten norms: mutual respect and self-control. Which means you have through the constitutions all the instruments you need to destroy your opponent. By not allowing them to appoint judges in the Supreme Court like the Republicans did with Obama, by calling all they say “fake news”, by calling them “a terrorist group” which is what they started doing in Brazil in 2014, even the centre right started to call the Workers Party a terrorist party, a party associated with dictatorships, and things like that, by discrediting the legitimacy of a political party, and one of the most rooted political parties in Brazil – the Workers Party is essential for Brazilian democracy as well as the PSDB was, and by putting them into this war they destroyed the Brazilian political system and gave rise to this Frankenstein.

MB: Do you think that the more corporate orientated interests were – I mean this is what you can get from the Intercept leaks right? I am sure that a couple of years ago these people that were targeting Lula and the Workers Party would prefer the centre right party emerge, but at the end of the day, if it HAS to be Bolsonaro, it’s Bolsonaro.

Petra Costa: Yeah.

MB: I mean look at DAVOS. There was a great report from Kate Aronoff in the New Republic, saying DAVOS still likes to appear concerned about inequality and global warming and enlightened oligarchy – and Trump and Mnuchin are having a great DAVOS. And last year Bolsonaro had a great DAVOS. Because at the end of the day, Capital will break Fascists because it will protect Capital.

Petra Costa: There’s a great quote by Umberto Eco in his book Ur Fascism. Where he says that in the 30s, European Liberals decided that Fascism was the “best” revolution to protect them from the communist threat. And that is what is fascinating and shocking about the moment we are living in history now, that you would think that capitalism was dysfunctional, and that capitalists were driven by greed, but not that they would accept fascists ruling their countries, and even try to help that happen, right?

MB: And especially when the alternative is not even communist revolution, it’s basic Social Democracy.

Petra Costa: Yes.

MB: Well i’m a Marxist so it doesn’t surprise me that much.

Petra Costa: Yes like what Benjamin said, doesn’t he say in the essay to history, that history is made of continuous fascism?

MB: I want to actually go back to Trump for a minute. Because I have this skepticism about impeachment – because great, impeach him, awesome, anything that even just wastes their time is good – but we know it is a political exercise, and if we know its a foregone conclusion that he will be acquitted then we have to start measuring it through the lens of we have to spend our time as effectively as possible politically to destroy and defeat him. But that is not a very institutional view, so I’m curious when you look at how these institutions break down in a way that does discredit democracy, do you have a different feeling about it, do you think that process of registering something against him, even just institutionally, is important, in thwarting this process or no?

Petra Costa: I’m not familiar enough with the situation in the United States, but from what I’ve been reading he is accused of committing a crime that hits the heart of why the impeachment law exists, which is to prevent abuse of power, and interfering in an election with the help of a foreign country, and bribing this country to do so.

MB: In this case I wouldn’t even say help, he’s threatening them.

Petra Costa: Yes threatening a foreign country to interfere in a national election. So I think it is really essential to give the message that is an infringement and an attack on the rule of law, because otherwise where do you put the limit, and I think a healthy democracy is about constantly having reminders of where those limits are because otherwise these abuses – it’s already happened – the way he uses twitter, the way he deploys the term fake news, the way he attacks the press, I mean how will be the next President whether Democrat or Republican, how far will Trump have pushed the limits of what is acceptable? And make people forget what is unacceptable.

MB: This is another question that is tricky. Part of why we’ve got where we are, certainly in the United States, is that these institutions have become so rapidly self-discrediting, and I think this is shared with Brazil and elsewhere. We have the class warfare from the top, like Warren Buffet says, but we also have, I mean just the New York Times, sitting down with Bernie Sanders and saying “Well you have crowds, so aren’t you like Trump?” – this type of thing, I mean regardless of what you think about Bernie Sanders, it is such an absurd and offensive analogy to say someone who stirs up racism and xenophobia in crowds and someone who stirs up crowds to fight for having healthcare, are the same thing. And so what I wonder and want your thoughts on, is that yes, people like Trump and Bolsonaro of course they are pushing the bounds, and they’re anti-democratic forces, that is clear. But the institutions that they’re getting so much mileage out of discrediting – no one has done more to discredit those institutions than those institutions themselves. So are at this do we devolve out of democracy moment, or do we develop something that is democratic but is restored and healthy. I don’t know if we can retrieve these things that have discredited themselves. So even if the next President is not Trump, they will be operating in a completely different landscape, even if they’re not a demagogue, where people don’t trust the media, people don’t trust the judiciary, and rightfully so, right?

Petra Costa: It’s such a challenge. Everything has become deeply dysfunctional. I have the impression that 2008 could have been a shifting point where the dysfunctionality of capitalism that had intensified through the 70s, 80s, with Thatcher, Reagan, could have been corrected. Even not in a radical way necessarily. If one is faithful to what Adam Smith would recommend, Adam Smith himself said if corporations were not regulated, were not controlled by the state a little bit, that fascism would come out. And Franklin Roosevelt as well said that if the United States did not continuously reinvent its democracy to serve its people, it would become a fascist state. So these reforms need to happen, it has gone way too far, we are like 30-40 years in delay of a very needed reform for democracy to be functional again.

MB: You said in a recent piece for the Guardian that Lula, regardless of what you think of his case, I mean obviously we think he’s innocent, he’s a political prisoner and so on – he is a stand in for this assault, if I understood you correctly. That his imprisonment, persecution is important for everybody concerned about about democracy, internationally.

Petra Costa: Definitely. Lula is one of the most important political figures in the world. Bannon himself said after Obama left politics that Lula was the most important leader of the “globalist movement”, and the biggest threat to his far-right project. So there are very big international interests on his imprisonment, on silencing Lula, and anyone interested in the rule of law SHOULD HAVE, four years ago, said something about how the Brazilian judiciary was continually abusing their own power to put Lula in prison – OK they didn’t say it, but now they can still say it, because I’ve no doubt that everything will be done to imprison Lula again.

MB: We need to fight very strongly against that. Everybody.

Petra Costa: Yes. There needs to be more international generosity and empathy about what has been happening in Brazil.

MB: You’re documenting something that is such a tragedy for your country and obviously affects you a lot, and is also an amazing great personal accomplishment. That’s an interesting paradox right? I mean you’re nominated for Academy Award. The paradox of such an upsetting topic, incredible work and deserved recognition.

Petra Costa: It was sad but throughout this process I would continually get vertigo, depression, nausea, but I would think that “the worse it gets, the better the film”. So that was the only thought that would give me a little bit of strength, but it was this bittersweet strength, because of course I didn’t want any of this to happen. And I tried sometimes to look at it as a fiction film, and that’s how I managed to get a little bit of…… and then every time another event happens and I’m like “oh my god, no, it’s real”. But it seems like it was scripted like this hallucinogenic, far-right, horror movie.

MB: That’s exactly how it feels. And honestly, down to there are people on the street in this film, and its so tricky because of course there are global patterns and there are parallels, and you have to balance that with everywhere being very different. But there are people at these Bolsonaro rallies that I have never, anywhere, including in the United Kingdom, which is usually supposed to be the closest to the US – I have never seen right-wing on the street talk that sounds as exact as what you would hear in the United States about Trump. It’s extraordinary.

Petra Costa: It feels like there were people going there and giving workshops. It really feels like that.

MB: There was an NRA sticker in Bolsonaro’s office right? Maybe even literally a ‘Stand your ground’ sticker.

Petra Costa: And I would interview these Congressmen and they would give me words in English every now and again. “We don’t need need to get the power now…” – he would say this part in Portuguese – and then say this part in English: “We’ll do it step by step”. It’s like they’d gone through an MBA.

MB: An MBA in fascism.

Petra Costa: Or at least in far-right thought.

MB: In destabilisation.


Main Photo: Diego Bresani