The Theater of Politics: Petra Costa Talks with Rachel Boynton

To mark the release of Costa's doc The Edge of Democracy, she talks with the director of Our Brand is Crisis and Big Men.

In June 2019, Talkhouse Film contributor David Barker wrote me about Petra Costa’s new documentary, The Edge of Democracy, which he had edited and was about to debut on Netflix. The third feature by Brazilian director Petra Costa, whose work blends fiction and documentary, is an intimate, personal portrait of recent political history in Brazil, focusing on beloved former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, the corruption scandal that brought them both down, and the country’s dangerous shift toward populism. Barker suggested that Rachel Boynton, the director of the acclaimed documentaries Big Men and Our Brand is Crisis (itself an up-close examination of South American politics), would be a perfect person to talk with Costa about her new film. Boynton and Costa had previously had some contact via email, but met for the first time when Costa was in New York City doing press for The Edge of Democracy. The following is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and concision. – N.D.

Rachel Boynton: The Edge of Democracy felt like a real departure from your previous work. Did it feel like that when you were making it?

Petra Costa: Yes, I initially came into documentary filmmaking wanting to make films about social justice and political films, but felt somewhat entrapped in the dilemma of politics over presentation. My first attempt to make a doc was about the gentrification of Harlem when I was studying anthropology here in New York. In the midst of doing it, I started to question, who was I as a white woman – Latino but from Brazil – to represent black Americans? After diverting and trying to work with vulnerable communities, I decided to make a very personal film about my grandparents. I felt very comfortable, finally, because I didn’t feel like I was invading the other person’s life. It was something they wanted to share, especially with me.

Boynton: Do think of film as an invasion?

Costa: Films can be quite invasive, yes. They can expose people in ways that can be very uncomfortable for the subject.

Boynton: Does that make you uncomfortable?

Costa: With this film, I didn’t feel that way. It’s a film about politicians that are in public life, so it didn’t feel invasive, but it’s always a delicate thing to represent the other, so it was a long journey for me to come back to political filmmaking in a way that felt natural. And it did because I felt Brazilian democracy, as well as democracy all over the world in many places, was at risk. It was an urgent desire to portray what happens to an individual when he feels his birthright, which is democracy, begins to be in danger.

Boynton: Is that person in your film Lula, or is it every Brazilian, or is it you?

Costa: I try for it to be me, and hopefully through me, as many Brazilians and citizens in the world as possible that could possibly identify with that.

Boynton: One of the things I find interesting in your work is you’re very drawn to fiction and theater and to the overlap between fiction and reality. With this subject matter, you’ve chosen a whole world that is basically theatrical; you are dealing with people who are always presenting, and there are layers of truth. There is the truth that someone is handing you when you do an interview in a car or a hallway. There’s the truth that maybe they’ll tell you when they have had a couple glasses of wine. Then there’s the truth they won’t tell you, because they are too ashamed of it or they feel like they think they can’t get away in public with saying it out loud.

Costa: There were moments I had to hold myself back not to ask them to present even more. It’s lovely to hear that and make connections that I did not make necessarily, but yes, it was extremely theatrical and the congress is a circus. A politician above all has to be a good actor. With Lula, it was always very easy to be with him and he would deliver exactly and even more than you could ever have imagined.

Lula with then-newly elected Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in 2011, as seen in The Edge of Democracy.

With Dilma, it was so complex to get access to truth. She would just deliver coldly and wouldn’t have an effect on the audience and that is why Brazilian society got alienated from her twice. So it took a year and several techniques to be able to get her to open up and many people that see the film in Brazil say, “My God, I’ve never seen Dilma as open as this! I felt like I finally got to know her.” That was a great challenge to be able to overcome. Now it’s getting even crazier, this politics of presentation with the selfies because politicians don’t even care to speak on the podium anymore; they’re doing live videos on their cell phones and it’s quite interesting to explore the acting part of it now even more.

Can I say one more thing about the acting?

Boynton: Sure.

Costa: What was fascinating was the question of the face. If you think about The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a moment in the film where I say, “This night, the face of Brazil changed for me.” That night, I understood something that had intrigued me for many years of my childhood whenever I was watching a political campaign. In Brazil before elections, you have three electoral campaigns, so you will see politicians for a month on TV, doing their thing and trying to get you to vote for them. I was always intrigued how they couldn’t smile. About 90 percent of the politicians had a very hard time smiling, so you would have these fake smiles at the end of their little blurb. That night, I understood, because at the end of that 36-hour shoot that day, I remember I looked in the mirror and my face had changed. I could no longer smile the same way I did before. It was as if I had lost the purity.

Boynton: What do you mean by that?

Costa: Because I think I grew up believing in the goodness of people. Somehow that went away.

Boynton: Over the course of making this film?

Costa: Yes. To see hordes of white men in such ecstasy of weakling power and insulting a woman with such aggressiveness, even exalting the torturer that tortured her while she was in prison, and doing that with the sound of fireworks. It was so barbaric that after that I think my vision of humanity and of myself for being a human just changed.

Boynton: I want to talk about your family, the question of privilege and the worlds you seem to straddle, especially given the background of your family and the dichotomous reality of the background of your family. How does your family background influence your relationship to this question of democracy, especially given the fact that Brazil is, as you say in the film, a “republic of families”? Do you feel yourself being drawn in two different directions? Did your family background influence the questions you were asking in this movie?

Costa: Interesting. It’s a complex question. I think almost all democracies have turned into oligarchies, that it’s republics of families all over the world. It’s not something unique to Brazil. Maybe in Brazil there are less families and they have been there longer than in other places. I see myself almost as two people when making this film. Part of me was an engaged citizen who felt that things were being taken care of and that democracy was working well, instead of in shock, and realized I urgently needed to document that crisis. Another part was realizing, Oh my God, my family is part of this story and I hadn’t even thought about it when I started filming it. It’s part of this story in the sense that they are the faction that are on the right side of the law, trying to preserve the status quo, which at that moment means supporting the impeachment and wanting to oust the government. I felt that division inside of myself in a huge way. I also feel a sense of responsibility for what my grandparents did, for being a family that not only supported this impeachment, but was also part of industries involved in the corruption scandal in the midst of the political crisis. It was important for me to open that up and take responsibility for it, in the sense of being honest and saying that I hope that things can change in a consistent structural way [where we] take out the dangerous influence of money in democracy.

Boynton: Do you think that’s possible?

Costa: It’s almost impossible, but it can definitely be controlled. In Brazil, the Supreme Court passed a law in the midst of the crisis that forbid corporations from donating to campaigns. That was a huge step. Now, different from the last 60 or 70 years of Brazilian democracy, construction companies finally are not able to donate to political parties and to campaigns. Then that was subverted in the last election by companies that independently started paying for fake news to destroy the other political parties. Money will always try to find subterranean ways of asserting itself and controlling political decisions. We have to continuously try to stop that, because ultimately that is what is destroying democracy worldwide.

Boynton: Money and a desire for power?

Costa: Yeah, it’s both.

Boynton: One other thing that I really love about your work, you have such a confident voice. I don’t mean your narration, which is very confident, but I mean in terms as an artist, as a filmmaker. You assert yourself in your work in a way that I really appreciate. Is that something you are conscious of doing?

Costa: I am a very insecure person, so I don’t see that confidence.

Boynton: I appreciate that. Perhaps it’s because you can’t really help who you are, but your work is just a reflection of you. It reads as extremely confident and unabashed in its insecurities. You are grappling with big questions and you allow the grappling part to be obvious. I find that very complementary.

Costa: Thank you.

Boynton: I find your work very philosophical. I feel like you are often reaching for something deep and big. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about what you do. At the same time, this film is unusual for you. For example, the amount of shots you have from the air looking down.

Costa: Yes, I’ve never done that before.

Boynton: It’s counter to the direct intimacy that I feel that you are often searching for. Did you feel like that was one of the challenges, to make something so grand feel intimate and human?

Costa: Yes, definitely. How to cross the barrier of what was mere representation for presentation, the fakeness and the noise. I think the drone shots were a moment where I felt we could reach a philosophical distance and look from afar into the space of the political drama. Brasília was a perfect place to do that. It’s one of the most cinematic cities I have ever been to.

A shot taken after Lula’s last speech, as seen in The Edge of Democracy.

It’s designed as a futuristic science-fiction scenario. It reminds me of Solaris by Tarkovsky. It embodies so many contradictions. For people who don’t know, it was designed in the ’50s to be this new capital of Brazil that would have the perfect balance of power. It’s designed in the shape of an airplane: you have the presidential palace on one side, the congress on the other, the supreme court on the other. Everything beautifully planned, with curves and marble, and organized so that pharmacies are on one side, hotels on the other and commercial sector on the other. But they forgot, as I say in the film, an integral part of the democracy, which is the people; they didn’t calculate where the workers would be, which is so symbolic of the disconnect of the state of Brazilian politics today, too. It’s a tragic city because the politicians are there in a city that is very distant from public life. For normal Brazilians living in the main centers to go protest, they have to travel 1,000 kilometers. The drone shots were a way of both showing the contradictions of that city as well as finding a breathing space in the midst of so much noise.

Boynton: You have that wonderful line in your film that totally resonates, which is about turning the power of the institutions on and off.

Costa: According to their own interests?

Boynton: Boy, does that resonate in this country right now. The notion that the threat to democracy is when the politicians feel like they can just turn the power of the institutions on and off according to what serves their needs. It’s a frightening parallel.

Costa: Yes.

Boynton: I think one of the things that will be interesting to see is how people perceive it in this country, because of course there is the impeachment parallel.

Costa: Yeah, it’s a universal parallel.

Boynton: Let’s go back to you. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time and I’m glad to meet you.

Costa: Me too. I’ve heard about you a lot, too.

Boynton: Tell me something about you. What do you do for fun? Do you have fun or do you just work all the time?

Costa: No, I have fun. I love dancing.

Boynton: Do you like doing the tango with a partner or do you go to a discotheque?

Costa: Salsa, what we call in Brazil “forró” – fun contemporary dance.

Boynton: Do you have somebody you like to dance with or do you go to parties and just dance with whoever is there?

Costa: I like dancing alone. I like dancing with partners. I really want to learn tango. I haven’t yet.

There are moments that I would love to be taken and just forget about the steps, but it can be really pleasurable to dance alone, too. I like dancing alone with someone, even from a distance. I miss theater. I come from theater and I think it helps me think through my body. Making films can overload my brain a lot and also the production side of it can be so overwhelming. In this film particularly, writing was the most pleasurable part, besides running after politicians. That was quite fun too.

Boynton: Do you have a vision of where you would like to be, or what you would like to do?

Costa: I’m working on another documentary about the question of land and the legacy of slavery in Brazil, through this story of a man. That has been quite interesting, for many reasons; one is that I feel all of my films have been very much centered around women and this film is trying to understand how a man deals with pain and with memory and also continuing an investigation into the structural inequality of Brazil, but through a personal story.

Boynton: That is a theme in your work, dealing with pain. It’s in all of your films.

Costa: Yes, I actually did my master’s in trauma. When I found that concept, it was like finding a key into what I wanted to understand in the world. How do people deal with trauma? I think that’s one of the greatest challenges we have as human beings: dealing with own traumas. It can be personal traumas or social traumas, political traumas.

Boynton: I’m working on a film right now that deals a lot with the history of slavery in America and our relationship to that history. There is an interesting thing that has been said, not by me but by others, which is that in order to have real equality, white people have to give something up.

Costa: That is a great sentence.

Boynton: Real equality requires sacrifice.

Costa: That’s what I’m trying to say when I say at the end of the film, “A Greek writer once said, ‘Democracy is only working when the rich feel threatened.’”

Boynton: I think this is a question of equality, which hasn’t necessarily been the goal for many democracies. You can talk about equality, but equality for whom?

Costa: This same Greek writer, [Stathis N.] Kalyvas, shifted my notion of democracy in many ways. He said, “Democracy is the rule of the people.” But if the governing forces are not actually governing for the people, it is not really democracy.

Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada in Rachel Boynton’s Our Brand is Crisis.

Boynton: But it’s the question of who we define as the people. Who gets included in that? In a republic of families, that’s not democracy for the families. “Democracy” is the wrong term. It’s representative of the families, but I do think there is something to this question of what do you have to give up. Also, coming from an elite background, it’s a real question for you and for your family and for people who have some status, the question of giving something up. That’s not something people want to entertain or talk about.

Costa: I think people are talking more and more about something that for me makes the most sense, which is taxing the rich. Be it in France with the Dijon protests, be it here with Bernie Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, I think the idea that the rich need to be taxed, and heavily taxed, has been more than ever in the public sphere.

Boynton: I grew up thinking of America as a unified country. I no longer see it quite the way I did when I was younger. I think before you can have a nation, people need to agree on a vision of what the country needs, a seeing of yourself in the other, a coming together of people, an agreement that we form a union and that we are together in the boat.

Costa: Yes.

Boynton: Until you have that, oftentimes agreement comes out of crisis, like a great economic crisis or a great war. People can come together with a vision of shared trauma or shared hope for what the future can be. Unless you have a shared coalition, a coalition of interests, of seeing yourself in others, I’m not sure taxing the rich will be a solution, because there has to be a large agreement that we are all in it together for that to work.

Costa: Yes, especially because I think the American nation has never been as polarized as it is now.

Boynton: Has Lula seen the film?

Costa: No, he will see it on the day of the release.

Boynton: Has Dilma seen the film?

Costa: Yes.

Boynton: What does she think?

Costa: She liked it.

Boynton: Was it hard to show it to her?

Costa: I was a bit nervous, but happy that she appreciated how I put the personal story into the film, which was surprising for me.

Boynton: What makes you most nervous about the release?

Costa: I just hope that people, regardless of their political side, will see the film for itself because I think people are so involved in their own passions that they won’t even hear the words I’m saying because they might not like the politician that is being portrayed. I hope the film will inspire people in Brazil and in the United States to no longer take democracy for granted. I hope that they can leave their political passions a little bit aside and go for the journey.

Boynton: People tend to see what they are inclined to see. I think you make the film and then you let it go and see what it does.

Costa: Exactly.

Boynton: I wish you luck with that.

Costa: Thank you so much.

Rachel Boynton is an award-winning producer and director, known for getting access to places no one has filmed before. Her latest feature, Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are), launches in select theaters on September 17. Her previous films, Our Brand is Crisis and Big Men, have won the IDA’s Best Feature Documentary Award, and have been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and multiple News and Documentary Emmys, including Best Documentary. Boynton’s work has screened at numerous festivals worldwide and aired on the BBC, ARTE, DR, VPRO, CPB, and PBS, among many others. (Photo by Justine Cooper.)