2019 Oscar-nominated “The Edge of Democracy” filmmaker Petra Costa and Switzerland’s Visions du Réel Film Festival weren’t going to let a global pandemic stop them from hosting a highly anticipated masterclass on Thursday.
For nearly three hours the filmmaker fielded questions from moderators Delphine Jeanneret of the Geneva University of Art and Design, Giona Nazzaro, member of the selection committee for Visions du Réel, and an eager audience of streamers around the world.
Below, five takeaways from the day’s talk.
“The Edge of Democracy”:
While the class covered years of Costa’s career, from time spent in the theater to studying anthropology in the U.S. and her earlier films, most of the day’s talk was focused on 2019’s Oscar-nominated documentary “The Edge of Democracy.”
Examining the impeachment trials of Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and election of Jair Bolsonaro juxtaposed against Costa’s own familial history. As Brazil’s left-right fragmentation took physical form in the country’s capital, praise and criticism for the film were equally split along ideological lines.
“The film could only be polarizing because what happened was so polarizing,” explained Costa. “They built a wall in front of congress. Any film about what happened in Brazil the last five years would be polarizing.”
During the building of that wall to separate Brazil’s right and left, pro and against impeachment camps, “Edge of Democracy’s” narrative took form.
“When I saw that wall being built, the voiceover immediately came to my head. It came to me because it deals with something I was already investigating, the division inside my own family and how much the contradiction in Brazil I could find there,” she recalled.
Originally meant to document only the Rousseff impeachment, the film grew legs with each dramatic revelation in the political landscape. At first “I went into congress ready to be convinced that Dilma should be impeached and Lula in prison, even though that wasn’t my own instinct,” she explained.
“Every time we got it under control something new would happen and we would have to go back to Brasilia and film more and make sense of that again,” Costa said, describing how weeks of shooting turned into months. “Then Dilma was impeached, and Lula was imprisoned. We figured we had a film there and then Bolsonaro was elected, so reality forced the film to constantly reimagine itself.”
Coming up Next:
Asked about “Edge of Democracy 2,” Costa answered, “It’s a question haunting me too. I don’t have an answer for it yet.”
However, announced via her twitter on April 21, she is now working on a project titled “Dystopia,” intended to document how the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing to the surface society’s deepest structural problems and the inequality that defines us.
“We are collecting people’s narratives and perspectives of their quarantines,” she explained during her masterclass. “I invite anyone who wants to share their images and we will pay for any we use in the film. We would love to compose a mosaic through as many points of view as possible.”
Images can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think the pandemic exposes a lot of what was maybe not obvious to everyone, which is that this fascist rhetoric was hidden behind rhetoric of hatred for the other, the left, workers party, artists, gays, women. What the coronavirus shows is that it’s hatred of humankind. A desire for death,” she elaborated.
Costa never studied film officially, but instead majored in liberal arts with a concentration on anthropology and only later found film to be a medium which let her combine those academic endeavors and her history in the theater as a means of expression.
“I still have a desire to go to film school!” she laughed, looking back at her academic career. “I didn’t decide not to, I just never allowed myself.”
When asked to assess her greatest weakness as a filmmaker, she didn’t have to think long. “My insecurity. I’m constantly in self-doubt,” she admitted.
Costa’s films are often largely autobiographical, and she explained that for her, best practice is “when you approach the personal looking for what is most uncomfortable about it, what is most shameful, traumatic or painful. What you least want to share with others is what is most interesting to share, where most of the potential is.”
Brazilian Cinema’s Pre-Covid Crisis:
While from the outside 2019 and early 2020 seemed the beginning of a banner era for Brazilian cinema, production in the country has been standing still for 18 months.
“It’s a very hard time for Brazilian cinema,” Costa said. “There are more than 400 projects waiting (for funding). Their money is frozen, and it’s crazy because the cinema industry in Brazil mobilizes as much money as the pharmaceutical industry. This war (against cinema) is detrimental artistically, but also for the economy.”
In looking for alternatives, she explained the only current solution is to cast a wider net, “Brazilian filmmakers will depend more than ever on outside support. Funding from private companies or money outside Brazil.”
Race and Brazilian Cinema:
With the masterclass running long, there was little time for Costa to lead the conversation, but she didn’t hesitate in proposing a topic which she felt most needed addressing.
“One thing that has been alive in the public debate in Brazil is how a country where more than half its population is black has only 1% of its films directed by black people,” she questioned.
“It’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed, funded and changed. There is an active black community filmmaking in Brazil that has been vocal about these norms, and I hope that changes quickly. There are so many stories that need to be told, and that’s one of the main challenges I see for Brazilian filmmaking in the next years, to address this abyss, this complete misrepresentation that exists in our film landscape.”