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'Insurrection Of The Elite': Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker On Rise Of Brazil's Far-Right


The documentary film "The Edge Of Democracy" recounts the recent political upheaval in Brazil, the protests that roiled the country, a mega-corruption scandal, the rise of the populist right and the impeachment of one leftist president and the jailing of another. Nearly every part of this history is still hotly contested. And now the film itself has been caught up in the political drama. The film is up for an Oscar tonight for best documentary. And the filmmaker Petra Costa joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, and congratulations on the nomination.

PETRA COSTA: Thank you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This film was extremely personal for you. Your parents were left-wing activists who fought against the dictatorship, which ended in 1985. And this film looks at the fall of the left in Brazil recently under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Let's listen to a bit of your documentary.


COSTA: We are a republic of families. Some control the media. Others control the banks. They own the sand, the rock, the iron. And all so often, it happens that they get tired of democracy, of its rule of law.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you saying here about the past seven years in Brazil?

COSTA: I'm saying that there was an insurrection of the elite, in many ways, in Brazil that did not accept the result of the election in 2014, where...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When Dilma Rousseff was elected - re-elected into office.

COSTA: Exactly. And the opponent to Dilma - him and his party started looking for a reason to impeach her the day after her victory. And I feel quite sorry for you Americans to have to go through the same impeachment process but in a reverse here where you have an...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say what you're discussing is very resonant to Americans.

You have come under attack from the current government in Brazil, specifically after the film was nominated for an Oscar. I'm going to quote a statement coming from the president's office which accuses you of being an "anti-Brazil activist peddling a narrative that is full of lies." Did that come as a surprise to you that they would take this tact?

COSTA: I mean, you expect it. But then when it comes, it is kind of a surprise and a shock. But it's very resonant of what happened during the dictatorship. During the dictatorship, anyone that would criticize the dictatorship was considered anti-Brazil, anti-nationalist. And I think - I thought that one of the things that we had achieved - the end of the dictatorships in Latin America - was an agreement that it's a citizen's right to question the government. When that is no longer a right, it's hard to say that we're still living in democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This film has a definite point of view, which is fine, obviously, when it's a documentary and it's art. Do you understand criticism that says you are stating things in this documentary as if they're facts that are still up for debate?

COSTA: And I think I'm very clear in the film that it's my point of view. I decided to narrate this film in the first person precisely to make that evident. I speak about my relationship to democracy, the fact that we're almost the same age. And I thought that in our 30s, we would be standing on solid ground. I speak about how I voted for Lula with the faith that he would reform the political system in Brazil and how I was deceived that he didn't. I talk about my deceptions with Dilma and her mistakes in the economy. So I expose the fragility of the rule of law in Brazil in the past few years and conclude that the attack in that rule of law to serve certain political interests has led us to the current rise of the far right in Brazil and - which is resonant with the rise of the far right in most countries today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must ask you. I was the correspondent in Brazil for NPR for four years. And you have incredible access to Dilma Rousseff and Lula, as he's known. How did that happen?

COSTA: When this started, I wanted to interview them. So I sent letters to Dilma, to Lula. None of them obviously responded to those letters, but I kept insisting. So I went to Congress. And every single congressperson I would meet - I would ask if they could help me - introduce me to them. They were like, you're crazy. They're in the most tense moment of their lives. Months passed. And I finally managed to sneak into a bus full of historians that were visiting Dilma in the presidential palace. And there, I managed to meet with her and gave her a DVD of my first film and asked if I could interview her. That interview happened a few days later. It was very formal. But from there, we established a relationship. And once she was no longer in the spotlight, through tiring her, she started to give me access.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I know. It's extraordinary - sort of intimate moments that you show. Your film is called "The Edge Of Democracy," not the end of democracy. Does that mean you think it can still be saved in Brazil?

COSTA: Yes, I think it can. It depends on people really taking the responsibility for their own future and not believing, as I believed, that democracy - consistent voting every four years. I think it's because we believed in that for so long that we have allowed for democracy to be hijacked in so many ways. And now we must hold these powers accountable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Petra Costa. Her documentary "The Edge Of Democracy" is one of the nominees for best documentary at tonight's Academy Awards. Thank you very much.

COSTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.