The film, which does little to hide its sympathies for the left and disdain for Bolsonaro, the current president, has grated the right since it was released last year in English on Netflix. Critics say Costa, granddaughter of a construction baron and daughter of leftist activists, elided inconvenient facts and was too compromised by family ties to give an objective rendering of the story.
But the dispute ballooned into a full-blown political controversy when the Oscars nominated the film for best documentary of 2019 and Costa sat down last week for an interview on PBS.
“I was born at a time of democracy, and democracy was my birthright,” Costa, 36, said on Amanpour & Co. “The film was about that shock of finding the seed of fascism.”
She said there was no evidence to support the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, convicted in 2017 in the Lava Jato probe of money laundering and corruption. She said it was unjust to remove his successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached for allegedly mishandling the Brazilian budget. Costa said Bolsonaro has incentivized the destruction of the Amazon. And she described rising police shootings in Rio de Janeiro state as a “genocide of black Brazilians.”
The criticisms, delivered on an international stage, poured gasoline on Brazil’s ever-smoldering culture wars. Soon, #PetraCostaLiar was trending on Brazilian Twitter, and the most powerful politicians on the right were denouncing her in personal terms and threatening her.
“I don’t usually waste time disproving bad-faith actors like Mrs. Petra Costa, but the level of absurdity of this individual is reaching the level of criminality,” tweeted congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the president. He said “this militant communist” was heiress to her grandfather’s construction conglomerate, “a company up to its neck” in the corruption scandals that have roiled the country. “I want to see her distort that,” he said.
On Monday evening, Jair Bolsonaro’s communications office released a video describing Costa as an “anti-Brazil activist” and a peddler of fake news.
“Without the slightest sense of respect for her homeland and for the Brazilian people, Petra said in an unreasonable script that the Amazon will become a savanna soon and that President Bolsonaro orders the murdering of both African Americans and homosexuals,” the office said in a statement. “It is unbelievable that a filmmaker can create a narrative full of lies and absurd forecasts in order to denigrate a nation just because she does not accept the result of elections.”
Bolsonaro himself called the film a “fiction.”
Costa told The Washington Post she was frightened by the government’s reaction. She called it an attempt to silence her.
“When they call me ‘an anti-Brazil militant,’ as they do to many who don’t agree with them, they are trying to censor criticism and divergent thinking, which is guaranteed by our fundamental right to freedom of expression,” she wrote in an email.
Supporters took to Twitter to back Costa. “Petra Costa is a brilliant filmmaker and her documentary is a frank portrayal of Brazil,” tweeted Maria do Rosário, a leftist politician. “The truth hurts and it’s because of that they attack her. Her Oscar nomination is more than deserved and denounces the coup in Brazil.”
The back-and-forth underscores Brazil’s inability to overcome the traumas of its recent political tumult, while showing its sensitivity to how it’s portrayed before an international audience that probably doesn’t know what led to the sudden rise of Bolsonaro.
In Brazil, nearly every fact — down to semantics — involving recent political events is contested and debated. Was Rousseff impeached, or was it a coup? Was Lula a corrupt politician, embroiled in the Lava Jato scandal like many others in his Workers Party, or were the investigators corrupt?
“The thing with Petra’s film that I think disturbs most people here is that it’s the version that people will be watching outside of Brazil, and most people will only have access to that version,” said Pedro Doria, a prominent Brazilian journalist and former executive editor of the newspaper O Globo. “Only one side of the facts is getting out.”
“She’s a documentarian and can say whatever she wants,” he said. “But if this was journalism, no respectable editor would have allowed this film to be released.”
Press freedom advocates said Bolsonaro’s condemnation of the film and the accusations against Costa of criminal conduct were unconstitutional.
“It is a typical action of an authoritarian government: classify people with positions different from the current president as enemies of the country,” said Marina Iemini Atoji, executive manager of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism.
Alongside climate change, Costa told The Post, the advance of authoritarianism and retreat of democracy are the fundamental forces shaping world events. The goal of her film, she said, is to understand that dynamic at work in her home country.
“The rise of populist leaders and a growing global polarization has led to a greater vitriol in political debate, in the press, in person and online,” she said. “It’s so interesting that the film and I are being pulled into its wake.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the interviewer to whom Petra Costa spoke on PBS. It was Hari Sreenivasan for the program Amanpour & Co.
Ana Paula Blower contributed to this report.