01.31.2020

Oscar Nominee Petra Costa on Threats to Democracy in Brazil

Petra Costa’s latest film “The Edge of Democracy” is nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars. It’s an intimate look at the rise and fall of former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The current president, Jair Bolsonaro, is also featured, and he has already called the film “a work of fiction.” Costa joins Hari to discuss the dangers to democracy in Brazil.

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AMANPOUR:
And now we turn to another vital issue of our time that’s in the spotlight. Petra Costa’s film. The edge of democracy is nominated for best documentary at the Oscars. It is an intimate look at the rise and fall of former Brazilian president, Luis Inacio, Lula de silver, and Dilma Rousseff. The current president, Julia Ball Sinero, who’s also featured, has called Costa’s hard-hitting doc, a work of fiction. Petro Costa joined our Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the danger to democracy in her home country right now.

SREENIVASAN:
So for people who might’ve only heard the title in the context of an Oscar nomination, congratulations, by the way, what’s “The Edge of Democracy” about?

PETRA COSTA:
The edge of democracy is about my search to understand the seat of fascism that I saw growing in the streets of Brazil one day went to film a protest believing that it was just a protest asking for Domos impeachment. But I saw people asking for the return of the military dictatorship, a dictatorship that my parents had spent their lifetime fighting against and that had tortured and killed hundreds and thousands of people. And I believe that I was born at a time of democracy and that democracy was my birthright. So the film was about that shock of finding the seat of fascism and, but I then go and document the entire impeachment process of Dilma the imprisonment of Lula, the most popular president in Brazil’s history and the election of far right. President Bolsonaro. In this film, you’re also highlighting, you know, in your own family, there’s a gap wider in the Amazon river here on how you guys have gotten to be where you are, what you believe. Uh, tell us about that. My grandfather founded a construction company in Brazil that grew, uh, during the military dictatorship. Uh, the military dictatorship came to power through a coup or crew that he supported and thought was positive because of a fear at the time of the cold war and the threat of communism. While my parents became, uh, progressive in the 60s, broke off from the family, went underground and started fighting against that same dictatorship. And so that created a huge division inside the family that was kind of forgotten during the time that, that dictatorship ended and democracy began. Brazil decided to forget all the crimes committed by the dictatorship, by the dictators and by the people who are resisting. And, and that forgetfulness, I think is at the root of what we’re seeing repeat right now.

SREENIVASAN:
A good chunk of your film is about, uh, Dilma Rousseff. Uh, let’s go ahead and introduce our audience to just a clip of that.

PETRA COSTA:
Here. Lula is presenting his anointed successor Juma, who said Juma was a former guerrilla fighters prison during the dictatorship. In this picture, she’s being questioned after 22 days of torture while her interrogators had their faces, she sits upon.

SREENIVASAN:
The connection between your family and her is what?

PETRA COSTA:
Well, my mother and Douma had never met. But when Dilma was elected, my mother made a list of 20 things they had in common. They were born in the same city. They went to the same schools, they were imprisoned in the same prison. And the list goes on. But when I met DOMA, I tried to an formal interview, the first interview we had to ask her about her time, eh, during the dictatorship and the fact that she was tortured her resistance. And I felt that I couldn’t access her. And, and so I had the idea of bringing my mother to meet her and seeing what would come from that meeting. And it was quite powerful. She sees someone that went through so many things that she went through. And at that moment she actually confesses that she’d never wanted to be a president yet.

SREENIVASAN:
What is the significance of her and her impeachment and what happened in the process that she went through?

PETRA COSTA:
Yes. Well, impeachment is a very complicated law, right. And invented in the UK than adopted in the U S and Brazil copied it from the U S and you have to reach a level of crime, which are the high crimes and misdemeanors too, for crap for that crime to be considered. Impeachable that did not, was not the case with Dilma as many people agree because her, she was impeached for a technicality that does not rise to that level while with Trump, what the crime that he is accused of hits the heart of why the impeachment law was created, which is to prevent this type of abuse of power interference of a foreign nation in the national election. However, the fact that she could be impeached and she was impeached and he might not be impeached, shows the fragility of this law and how it can be used for political interests. And what I take out of this is the idea that it’s not the constitution that protects our democracy because the constitution can be so easily abused and misused, but to unwritten norms, which are self control and mutual respect that we’re losing more and more, uh, in democracies worldwide.

SREENIVASAN:
One of the other central characters is Lula, uh, as you said, one of the most popular politicians ever in Brazil. He was now in prison for a year and a half. Right. Uh, you spoke to him after he got out. What’s he like now? What’s he learned?

PETRA COSTA:
He said that his main regret is not to have reformed the institutions, to not have understood that Brazilian democracy was so fragile and believed that the institutions were healthy enough and realized that they weren’t, especially the judiciary.

SREENIVASAN:
There were multiple kinds of scandals that happened throughout the time you were filming this. And one of the ones that at least Americans have kind of superficially heard of is called carwash. What is that about? What happened?

PETRA COSTA:
So carwash was the greatest corruption investigation in Brazil’s history that uncovered, uh, uh, systemic corruption that had been happening for decades between companies, construction companies, and, and the national oil company and political parties. So they were paying, they were bribing political parties and people, they were financing their campaigns, their electro camp illegally financing because lobbying is illegal in Brazil. Electoral campaigns in exchange for contracts.

SREENIVASAN:
Were you supportive of Delmont and Lula when you were making this film?

PETRA COSTA:
I was critical and at, at parts supportive both. It was a, I mean, I, I think DOMA and Lula made so many concessions. Lula could have taken advantage at the top of the time that he had 87% approval rate to do the really necessary reforms that Brazilian political system needs to become functional again or to punish the crimes committed by the dictatorship and things of that such, but they did not, um, do that. And instead of gaining more and more, uh, power in the sense of engaging more and more of people’s dreams was the contrary. It was more and more concession. So in the end you were supporting not to have someone worse, but it wasn’t engaging into our imaginary, in our ideals of what we wanted, uh, a political party to represent us, you know. So

SREENIVASAN:
How much of their crimes are legitimate and how much were political constructs against them?

PETRA COSTA:
Well, the imprisonment of ruler I find I’ve had a very hard time finding any evidence that makes it the case for him to be in prison or for him to have been in prison. It’s based on the accusation of an apartment where he never went. I mean, he went there once, he never stepped in it, slept in, it, didn’t have the keep to it. And from there to accuse him of being the master general of carwash, which is what the accusation is, seems very unfounded. And international jurors say the same. Um, with Dilma also the crime that was the accusation that led to her impeachment was a, uh, technical, uh, budget maneuvering to hide deficit, which is not, which is a practice that many presidents did before. She did it to a higher degree, but still does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. So independent of one’s interpretations. The rule of law, uh, in both cases seems to have been abused. And I think it’s at the heart of the huge erosion that happened in the, in Brazilian democracy.

SREENIVASAN:
And here we are now in a post Dilma post world. Where are your bolts and aro has one. What did he tap into? What did he understand about the Brazilian public and what they were feeling?

PETRA COSTA:
Well, the fact that he had not run for an executive, uh, space or office, he was not involved in the carwash scandal because, uh, if he had run for mayor, it was an outsider, wasn’t, yeah. And so people saw in him someone outside, uh, the scandal that had contaminated, uh, Brazilian, uh, the visiting political system. And also he tapped into the, like there’s been a heighten homicide rate in Brazil and he promised that he would, um, kill, uh, criminals and also a huge evangelical wave that has been against, uh, gay rights, feminism, uh, people of color. So all these kind of far right ideals that have been growing in Brazilian society as well. And he carries that flag. I mean, he says and does the right, yes. Since he was elected, the rate of homicides that the police has carried out in Rio has gone up by 20% and Rio has more people killed by the police that in the entire United States, usually people of color, the city of Rio has more people in the state of Rio. The state of Rio has more deaths by police than all in the United States. Yes. Which is really shocking. It’s a genocide of black Brazilians that is happening in Rio every year and also has incentivized farmers and loggers to invade indigenous reserves burn and deforest the Amazon, which is already at a tipping point where it can become a Savannah at any moment. And that would be tragic for the entire world as well as attacked. Uh, the arts censoring works of art that have LGBTQ plus content that talk about the dictatorship as a dictatorship and things of that site.

SREENIVASAN:
You know, in a, a recent op-ed in the New York times, you also mentioned, uh, really the rise of disinformation is part of his success. You said over 98% of his electorate was exposed to one or more fake news headlines during the campaign. And nearly 90% of his supporters believed they were true. When you were watching this as a Brazilian, this election, the run up to the election and how the most popular stories that people were reading were just outright fake. What was going through your mind?

PETRA COSTA:
It was so strange because this had never happened before and I mean to this extent, and it happened two to three days before the election and no one knew there was a wave in both, another grew exponentially and suddenly, uh, the workers party started to receive like messages of is this true? And, and the, the questions were, is it true that our dodgy the worker’s party candidate, is it true that his vice president is doing satanic rituals? Is it true that she has a baby from devil? Like things that are of that level of surrealism, that many resilience, we’re believing and we’re changing their votes in the last minute because of these fake news. And what was surprising and which was revealed the right after bill Sonata’s election was that these fake news, uh, were being, were being sent through WhatsApp messages that were paid from several private companies in Brazil that were interested in both Bernardo’s victory.

SREENIVASAN:
So it really gets back to that corporate top corporate Foxy that you are talking about. Right. So essentially that even though one of his claims was, I’m not part of this corruption, his campaign benefited from the influence that these corporations still had in the process.

PETRA COSTA:
Yes. Even though, uh, this had been forbidden just before this election and, and so it was the first election that we would have that was, would be rid of corporate interests, but they managed to find this loophole and, and influence dramatically in the result of the election.

SREENIVASAN:
Parts of this film are also, um, will be pretty familiar to people here in the U S uh, we’ve got, uh, another clip of kind of how sentiments shift on the streets.

PETRA COSTA:
These were the first images I film by deafness or blinds. It was my first contact with this unrest. It left me asking so that a boy and a girl have to be removed from a protest just because they’re wearing the color red from this point on the country divided into two irreconcilable parts. [inaudible]

SREENIVASAN:
How deep are these divisions in Brazilian society? If you wear the wrong color, so to speak, and are supporting the other party?

PETRA COSTA:
It was not like this until 2013 in Brazil, it was almost taboo to identify yourself as right-wing because of the trauma of the dictatorship. But in 2013, as I shown the film, there were protest that started for progressive reasons, uh, against the rise in the bus fare. But very rapidly through influence of social media started to become a far right and ended up culminating in the election of Bolsa now two years later. So a lot of what happened had a lot of influence from social media these far right groups that started to appear that were getting promotions and being paid. Um, one of them has even been funded a little bit by the Koch brothers and promoting, uh, thoughts like that, that like things such as the return of supporting the return of the military dictatorship and asking for Domos impeachment. Even before there was right after she was elected, even before there was an idea of what crime they were going to accuse her of.

SREENIVASAN:
Do you feel any danger being a film maker behind this living in a country that’s being run by mr Bolson aro now?

PETRA COSTA:
Well, I just hope that we will return to better times.

SREENIVASAN:
All right. The film is called “The Edge of Democracy.” Petra Costa. Thanks so much.

PETRA COSTA:
Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Legendary journalist David Dimbleby sits down with Christiane to discuss what the next chapter will look like for the U.K. and the EU following Brexit. Kitty Green, writer and director of “The Assistant,” explains how toxic workplace culture enables predatory behavior. Oscar-nominated director of “The Edge of Democracy” Petra Costa discusses dangers to democracy in Brazil.

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