“The Edge of Democracy” and “Knock Down The House” are political documentaries that played Saturday at the Wisconsin Film Festival. But they couldn’t be more different. One depicts a political nightmare in agonizing slow motion, while the other is an energizing film about unlikely political dreams, and the hard work of making them come true.
Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy” is the nightmare, a chilling look at how far-right populism ascended in her native Brazil. After starting the decade with the left-wing Workers’ Party in power, in 2019 the president is Jair Bolsonaro, a blustery nationalist whose incendiary rhetoric may remind American viewers of politics here at home.
How did this happen? The story is a complicated one, involving a sinking economy, a massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash, and some conniving politicians who were able to weaponize the unrest in the country toward their own ends. Costa tells the story of Brazil’s turmoil in exhaustive detail, and she does so with amazing access inside the corridors of power.
Around this political thriller of a tale, Costa weaves in the story of her own family’s politics. Her parents were left-wing activists who went into hiding from the country’s military dictatorship decades ago, but her grandparents were part of the moneyed elite who supported that dictatorship. It’s frightening to see ordinary citizens waxing nostalgic for the dictatorship: “Military involvement is the medicine that this country needs,” one man tells the camera.
“Democracies can die slowly,” Costa says at one point in the film, and “The Edge of Democracy” is as much an act of mourning as an act of journalism. With far-right populism on the rise around the world, the film is essential viewing for those who want to understand what’s happening and why.
The sorrow in her voice as she witnesses her country coming apart at the seams is palpable. As much as she blames right-wing politicians for their manipulations, her criticism is even harsher for the Workers’ Party and its willingness to align itself with corporate interests once it got into power.
In that, “The Edge of Democracy” has something in common with Rachel Lears’ documentary “Knock Down The House.” Lears’ film follows four women, all new to politics, who embark on long-shot primary campaigns against well-connected Democratic representatives who they believe no longer represent their communities’ interests.
One of the women is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.
The other candidates in the film are Nancy Joe Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter taking on Sen. Joe Manchin for his ties to the coal industry that she believes is poisoning her community; Amy Vilela, a Nevada woman whose crusade for Medicare for All is propelled by personal tragedy; and Cori Bush, a Missouri woman fighting to represent the district that includes Ferguson.
Their stories are all compelling, but the film inevitably keeps coming back to Ocasio-Cortez, getting up-close-and-personal access for every step of the 28-year-old waitress’ unlikely campaign to unseat the powerful U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley. That Lears happened to pick Ocasio-Cortez may be one of the luckiest breaks in filmmaking, and her cheerful, dogged determination to win over the district, one voter at a time, is infectious. Crowley makes for the perfect foil, a condescending glad-hander who doesn’t realize he has a fight on his hands (he hadn’t faced a primary in 14 years) until it’s too late.
It may seem inevitable in retrospect, but Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t expected to win, and “Knock Down The House” shows how almost insurmountable it can be to challenge the establishment, even (and especially) when it’s ostensibly on your side. As Ocasio-Cortez consoles one of the other female candidates in the film, “For one of us to get through, 100 of us have to try.”
Netflix has picked up “Knock Down The House” for distribution, and it will likely play on a loop in progressive campaign offices until November 2020. Although "The Edge of Democracy" may be just as motivational, in a much darker way.