An examination of Brazil’s architecture of power

Netflix’s documentary ‘The Edge of Democracy’ uses Brazil’s purpose-built capital, Brasília, as a symbol of and allegory for the cyclical failures of Brazilian democracy.

Brasília was inaugurated as the new capital city of Brazil on 21 April 1960. It was intended to be a new city epitomising the Brazilian motto of order and progress, for a new Brazil reborn from the violence and poverty of its past.

Petra Costa’s new documentary, The Edge of Democracy, released on Netflix in June, includes scenes of the construction of Brasília. Filmed by her grandmother, part of a family of construction entrepreneurs, they reveal modernist skyscrapers rising from a landscape of red sand, and beyond that a sea of uninhabited green.

Costa was born in 1983. She comes from a family of elite construction oligarchs, who benefitted from the dictatorship, but her parents went into hiding and joined the struggle against the dictatorship, taking real risks and enduring the imprisonment and death of friends and comrades. The documentary weaves the personal story of Costa and her family into a wider narrative of Brazil’s recent history. 

The documentary reflects on Brasília as a space where “the perfect architecture forget[s] a main ingredient of democracy: the people who were evermore isolated from power”. The city becomes an allegory for the recurrent failures of Brazilian democracy, and a precursor to the tumult of recent years.

The Edge of Democracy is an intimate portrayal of the present crisis of Brazilian democracy. It is a compelling but ominous portrait of the inner sanctums of Brazilian power and patronage, and their continuing distance from the Brazilian people. 

On 1 April 1964, only four years after the inauguration of the new capital city, democratically elected president João Goulart was overthrown by the military after announcing plans for radical social redistribution. The military dictatorship would continue till 1985. It was characterised by state-sanctioned torture, murder and repression.

“Brazilian democracy and I are almost the same age,” reflects Costa. “I thought that in our thirties we would both be stepping on solid ground.” Narrated by Costa, the documentary is at once a personal narrative of diminishing hope, and a persuasive critique of the paradoxes of Brazilian democracy.

Rise and decline of the Workers’ Party

In 2002 the power of the white oligarchy that has governed Brazil since its formation as a state was challenged by the election of the Workers’ Party to power. The documentary charts the rise of the Workers’ Party and the presidencies of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (in Brazil referred to respectively only as Lula and Dilma), the first a charismatic union leader, the second a former left-wing guerrilla, who had both fought the dictatorship.  

The Workers’ Party ruled from 2002 to 2016, raising 20 million Brazilians out of poverty and enabling many black Brazilians to access opportunities that had previously been denied to them. But the Workers’ Party was also plagued by corruption scandals and an elite backlash. In order to rule, the government was dependent on alliances with opposition forces and had to cosy up to their previous enemies: bankers and businesspeople.

Dilma, like Lula, would win two elections. However, in 2016 she was impeached and removed from power by her deputy Michel Temer, from an alliance party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). 

The formal reason given for impeachment was that Dilma authorised a delay of a transfer to public banks to bolster government budgets. However, as the documentary suggests, this was a ruse by legislators in Congress and Senate who misused an economic crisis to displace a political enemy and protect themselves from corruption investigations. Many considered her impeachment a coup.

Related article:

The Edge of Democracy reveals scenes of startling and surreal vitriol during the voting for Dilma’s impeachment.

Jair Bolsonaro, then a legislator, dedicated his impeachment vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who oversaw much of the torture programme under the dictatorship. Dilma had been tortured while in prison; thus there is an extraordinary personal viciousness at play.

On a large field outside parliament, right-wing and left-wing demonstrators watch the proceedings on television, separated by an artificial divide, as the votes appear on a screen as though it were a sports game. 

Crude patriarchy oozes through interviews with the legislators, who go so far as to suggest that her demise was hastened by her being ‘too cold’ and ‘not giving enough hugs’.

Operation Car Wash

Throughout the documentary, Costa’s own material is interspersed with archival footage and material recorded by Lula’s personal photographer Ricardo Stuckert, which provide extraordinary glimpses into the final days of the Workers’ Party rule. 

Central to the narrative is the creation of an anti-corruption investigation called Operation Car Wash. It was initiated by Dilma in 2014, in response to increasing political protests. These began in 2013 in response to rising bus ticket prices and expanded rapidly into mass protests around misgovernance and state corruption. 

Judge Sérgio Moro was tasked both with overseeing Car Wash – approving wire-taps and warrants – and with judging those accused. The investigation uncovered a vast network of patronage around the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, related to construction tenders. Politicians from across the spectrum were convicted and imprisoned, and the investigation was heralded locally and internationally. Moro, the strong-jawed judge, would become a heroic figure, particularly in right-wing media.

Eventually Lula would be charged and convicted for allegedly accepting an apartment as a bribe to support construction tenders. There was no evidence that he had ever accepted the apartment, taken ownership of it, or acted on the bribes. His conviction relied on plea-bargain testimonies from construction officials already implicated in the scandal. 

Related article:

In the documentary, Costa’s mother Li An is recorded reflecting on Car Wash. She was first hopeful that the investigation would hold corporate leaders to account, but observes that it became “highly partisan … like a strategy of the elite to eliminate the threat of the left … even at the cost of sacrificing part of the elite, the contractors. So cut off that arm, and preserve the rest”.

Her sentiments were confirmed by recent revelations by the Intercept Brazil, coinciding with the release of new documents not included in the documentary. An archive of personal messages between Moro and Car Wash prosecutors reveals that Moro was actively interfering with and directing the prosecution’s strategy, including its media strategy. The prosecutors even tried to ensure that Lula could not give an interview from prison, in order to sabotage the Workers’ Party campaign. The revelations confirm that Lula could not have received a fair trial.

With less than a month before the election, Fernando Haddad was nominated as the Workers’ Party candidate, but with hardly any time left to campaign. Bolsonaro, a former military captain, a gun-toting homophobe hostile to gay, black and indigenous rights, and a supporter of further agribusiness deforestation of the Amazon, was elected president of Brazil on 28 October 2018. Moro became his Minister of Justice.

“Today I fear our democracy was nothing but a short-lived dream,” Costa reflects.

Portrait of Brazilian power

The documentary is a powerful and personal portrait of Brazilian power. It offers a clear, if necessarily reductive, narrative of Brazilian politics over the past several years. The lens is, however, limited by an urban portrait of Brazilian politics. It does not represent the views of the social movements nor the rural domains beyond the cities. The documentary glosses over how Bolsonaro was elected, in particular how he managed to garner support in the country’s impoverished favelas by mobilising misleading social media campaigns and evangelical support – in Brazil large evangelical churches wield enormous financial, media and political power and around 70% of evangelical Christians supported Bolsonaro.

To engage these issues, however, would likely require a series and not a single documentary. Costa and her crew, through long periods of waiting and persistence, have achieved something remarkable in the degree of access they have had to the inner worlds of power.

The constant allure of the documentary relies on the aesthetic juxtaposition of her own family scenes and intimate footage of those in power – conversations with Lula and Dilma and with other legislators, including Bolsonaro – with the filmic examination of the architecture of control, notably the drone-filmed views of Brasília from above.

Among the most affecting scenes are the uncanny sequences of the empty Alvorada presidential palace in Brasília. Alvorada was designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, a life-long communist who was to become one of the world’s most influential architects. Niemeyer felt the promise of rebirth etched in Brasilia was betrayed by its seizure by military and corporate power.

Alvorada with its elegant concrete and glass edifices, its facade guarded by net-shaped pillars and pools of water, its interiors adorned with modernist sculptures, becomes in Costa’s film an eerie vision of an exiled hope.

The houses of power are no longer occupied by those who may give voice to Brazil’s most precarious populations – its workers, black, indigenous, and queer movements – nor to their struggle for democracy.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.