Prior to the UK premiere of The Trial, Stephanie Dennison Professor of Brazilian Studies at University of Leeds offers some introductory context to Brazilian politics.
Kafka in Brazil: Maria Ramos’s The Trial
Maria Augusta Ramos is for me one of Brazil’s most important and interesting contemporary documentary filmmakers.
Ramos’s films are renowned for their ability to demistify certain Brazilian spaces and processes, through which audiences can nuance their understanding of, for example, the judicial system and how its unweilding nature impacts on the lives of those that pass through it, as in the case of Justiça or Justice (2004), the penal system and how its design means it could never successfully serve as either a form of deterrant or a method of individual reform, in the case of Juízo or Behave (2007), the recent and ultimately failed attempt to “pacify” Rio de Janeiro’s notorious slums in Morro dos Prazeres or Hill of Pleasures (2013), or the impact of what can feel like quite impersonal mass demonstrations on the individual lives of Brazilians from different walks of life, as in Futuro Junho or Future June (2015).
Encouraged by friends and colleagues, and clearly driven by an admirable sense of civic duty and deep frustration at the impeachment process, Ramos spent months in 2016 in her home city of Brasilia filming behind the scenes with Dilma’s impeachment defence team. The name of her latest film, O processo, or The Trial, is self-explanatory for anyone who followed, in 2016, the Kafkaeque process of replacing, with the most wafer-thin veneer of legitimacy imaginable, President Rousseff and her Worker’s Party with her Vice-President of the right-wing PMDB party, Michel Temer. The film won third place in the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival 2018 and has gone on to become one of the most watched and most talked about documentaries on theatrical release in Brazil.
The notional grounds for impeaching President Rousseff were as a result of perceived crimes of fiscal responsibility, and specifically “fiscal pedalling” in her administration. The Rousseff Administration's budgeting allegedly used this so-called pedalling to improve its fiscal outcomes and make the surplus for the years 2012 to 2014 appear larger. Regardless of what one might think in relation to both her culpability and the need to call for impeachment and thus overthrow a government over the relatively common issue, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that unlike a huge number of her fellow politicians, no claim has ever been made in relation to Dilma Rousseff, a militant in her youth who was imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship, that she used her political position to generate personal wealth.
What becomes clear in the footage of her trail is that her culpability or otherwise is of little importance. What we witness is a kangaroo court in action, but one for which the defence team is still expected to spend a large amount of time and resources in the ultimately pointless preparation of countering claims of illegality. No wonder many supporters of Dilma and the PT or Workers Party have found the film so painful to watch.
Few objective observers nowadays deny that the ousting of Dilma in 2016 was tantamount to a parliamentary coup, and watching this documentary certainly leaves very little room for doubt. Where the nation remains divided is over whether her removal was in fact the right thing to do for the long-term good of the country. Some claim that the use of lawfare was justifiable in order to rid the nation of what had become a very unpopular leader, given the deep economic recession into which Brazil had been plunged after years of riding the high of a commodities boom. Others argue that Dilma’s removal mid-term was part of an ongoing process on the part of Brazil’s elites to both halt the progress made in Brazil in terms of socal justice, and to scupper the chances of the Workers Party being reelected in 2018.
As critic Luciana Veras has stated, The Trial is about “the year that never ends”. And here we aren’t just talking about the impact of Dilma’s removal from power in terms of the austerity measures quickly put in place by her successor, the deeply unpopular Michel Temer, including a 20-year spending freeze. The measures constitute “the mother of all austerity plans”, according to The Washington Post and they have been described by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, as the most socially regressive austerity package in the world.
2016 is also the year that never ends in the sense that we are somewhat in limbo as we await elections in October. And Dilma’s party, the Workers Party, appears to continue to battle against odds that are unscrupulously stacked against it in that its candidate, the still very popular two-time Brazilian president Lula, has been convicted of corruption on what look to many Brazilian and international observers as shaky grounds, begging the question to what extent his imprisonment is part of the same process of lawfare that ousted Dilma.
Returning to the documentary, one might think that the lack of voiceover and intertitles with explanations and names and roles of participants means that the film makes no concessions to those who haven’t been following Brazilian politics closely over the past few years. But in truth The Trail is shot and edited with such skill that the political persuasion and importance of each individual portrayed is made self-evident.
Nevertheless it is perhaps worth singling out a couple of characters that appear in the film. One of the first figures to appear in the documentary, for example, is Eduardo Cunha, then the leader of Congress and for many Dilma Rousseff’s nemesis as the mastermind of impeachment. Cunha, within months of Dilma’s impeachment, was imprisoned on grounds of corruption and money-laundering, having been implicated and found guilty in the national grafting scandal involving the state petroleum company Petrobras. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence.
Then we have Janaína Pascoal, the high-profile evangelical Christian law professor and co-author of the impeachment submission who perhaps surprisingly granted the filmmaker access. While she might well come across as genuine, her undoutedly batty performance in front of the camera stands in contrast to Gleisi Hoffman, Workers Party president and remarkably calm, patient and self-assured under the circumstances.
So with the exception of one or two key male Workers Party senators, it is the women, both to the left and the right, and in front of and behind the cameras, that stand out in The Trial, in a political world otherwise occupied by unscrupulous, duplicitous and in many cases misogynistic men. I think this is more than coincidence: for many, what happened to Dilma Rousseff, regardless of what one might think of her political ability, was an assault on all women in positions of power and influence. The Trial is an incredibly powerful piece of filmmaking and an indispensable document of turbulent political times. The courage demonstrated by filmmakers such as Maria Ramos gives me hope and a real sense of purpose in what for me, and many of my fellow Brazilianists, otherwise feels like pretty dark days.
University of Leeds